Word Styling

I have many friends who are visual artists, and I’ve long admired how they can take an image from their heads and reproduce it on canvas–or whatever surface they use. When I try to do that, my visual art looks like a toddler tried to paint the Mona Lisa.

What I can do, however, is paint a picture with words. Feedback I’ve received on my writing has been something like, “It was like a movie in my head.” Exactly what I hope to do.

Here’s something I recently read: “Writers are artists with words as their medium.” I totally agree.

Which author, then, someone asked, is your favorite word stylist?

You know me. I can never settle for one.

Stephen King

I know King’s genre isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and as I’ve grown older and more anxious, horror isn’t my thing anymore. When King first started publishing, I devoured every word he wrote. Those early books are still on my shelf, and I pull them out on occasion to revel over how he uses language. And to remind myself there’s scary shit in that guy’s head.

King will use the simplest, most commonplace words to describe the truly horrific. When that doesn’t work, he’ll drop a polysyllabic offering and make you look at its context a different way. And if he still can’t find a word to convey his meaning, he’ll jam two together or make one up.

The man was an English teacher, and his command of the language often surprises the literary types who clutch their pearls when you mention his name.

Margaret Atwood

Atwood brings a literary style to speculative fiction. Probably no one does it better other than Ursula K. LeGuin, may she rest in peace. The key to speculative fiction is to make the reader believe the dystopia portrayed is only a breath away, that tomorrow you’ll wake up wearing a red robe and saying, “Blessed be the fruit.”

Atwood does that so easily it’s a beauty to read but frustrating for a writer who knows you’ll never be able to accomplish that. Her writing is so fluid and easy, you get completely lost in her worlds, which is the point. And she can seamlessly move from dystopia to a simple short story about revenge.

Her writing is a beautiful thing to behold, and you’ll never feel quite the same again after you read her.

Harlan Ellison

In my teens, Ellison was the author I most tried to emulate. When you finish reading a story by him, you feel as if you’ve been through a wringer. He not only challenged your vocabulary but he also challenged the staid, bourgeois life you led.

Ellison took you to planets in spaceships full of horror; he took you underground to a utopia with a dark side; and you’ll never look at a boy and his dog the same way again. He had some of the most incredible titles you’ve ever seen: “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” “The Beast Who Shouted Love at the Heart of the World,” “The City on the Edge of Forever” are just a few.

Ellison’s words are like punches to the gut, but they feel so good you go back for more and more.

Octavia Butler

Butler liked to toy with your head. You’d read a perfectly innocuous sentence, but once you thought about it, you realized she’d brought down the patriarchy, white supremacy, and sexism all at once. Again, she could portray dystopia as everyday life, and you knew you were one step away from walled communities and desolation.

The language she used to describe her characters made them so relatable, so much so a white farm girl from the east could walk in the shoes of a child of color from a fractured west and grow in understanding.

Butler’s style was easy-going, deceptively simple. She didn’t overwhelm you with words, but the words she used overwhelmed you. And somehow you knew she didn’t agonize over her word selection; they flowed on their own from a mind so brilliant it could blind you.

Who Else?

Two of these voices have been silenced, Butler far too soon and Ellison not long ago. Their words remain, though, forever prodding us, seeping into our brains when we sleep, infecting us with language and a taste for the bizarre. King and Atwood are still with us and will be, I hope, for a long time.

That’s the one thing about being a writer; words make you immortal.

How about you? Who are your favorite word stylists and why? Let me know in a comment.