A number of years ago someone gave me a leather-bound journal with a silver, Celtic-knot closure. The leather is deep green and tooled with the image of an oak tree — aged, arthritic, bare. It is exquisite.
I was immediately stricken with a notebook-specific case of writer’s block. What did I have to say — in my cramped longhand scrawl — that would be worthy of this journal?
It sat blank on my shelf for years. Every so often I would take it out and admire it. But write in it? No. I couldn’t. Not until earlier this year, when I encountered in Priscilla Long’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor the idea of a “lexicon practice.”
“What I call the Lexicon Practice,” Long says, “is the specific process by which you put actual time — regular time — into collecting words and phrases.” You collect “words that strike your fancy, words you want to own…the juicy words, the hot words.” Do not, she cautions, try to force them into your writing. “Just work on the Lexicon…as a form of play.” The words, Long says, will creep into your work of their own accord.
In the past, I have made word lists specific to particular books I was writing. In Ancient, Strange and Lovely, for example, I wanted to convey the sense that ancient mysteries undergird modern science and technology. I made two separate word lists: one leaning toward mystery and the past (i.e., bone, ghost, night, rune); the other technological and contemporary (i.e., morph, kluge, halogen, matrix). When I found myself reaching to express an emotion or idea that kept slipping between my fingers, I looked to my lists for clues.
For most writers, words are more than just tools; they are delicious. I love the idea of a lifetime, personal lexicon unattached to any particular project. Lexicon! My too-beautiful journal has found its calling at last.
Samples from my personal lexicon:
Moonglade: The bright reflection of the moon’s light on an expanse of water.
Lickspittle: A fawning underling; toady.
Crepuscular: 1. Of or like twilight; hazy, dim. 2. Becoming active at twilight or before sunrise, as certain birds and insects.
Afterwit: Information or wisdom that comes too late to be of use.
Syndactyl: Having two or more webbed digits.
— Susan Fletcher