Finding the Right Word

The Yellow Silk Dress

The Yellow Silk Dress

I am busy engaging in the old must-sharpen-pencils-before-I-can-write strategy. Procrastination, as it is commonly known. But as I write on a laptop, I don’t need the pencils. Perhaps I could check my email – there might be something interesting or urgent waiting for me. Or I could look slightly to the left and stare out the window. Or I could look up the meaning of ‘procrastinate’. May as well know the exact meaning of my current state of mind.

I am, according to the site, deferring action, and delaying until an opportunity is lost. My 1911 copy of the Oxford English dictionary goes one step further and accuses me of being dilatory. I dilated even further when I dug up my trusty 1952 copy of Roget’s Thesaurus, and I discovered that to engage in procrastination could also be described as engaging in Fabian Tactics.

Fabian Tactics? This could lead to some excellent procrastination.

I nipped over to Wikipedia, despite having an ancient set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. To get out of my chair and walk into the living room, pull down the index and find the entry on the Fabian Society, replace the index and find the relevant volume is just too much like hard work, and possibly against the spirit of Fabian Tactics.

The Fabian Society, according to Wikipedia is ‘a British intellectual socialist movement whose purpose is to advance the principles of Social Democracy via gradualist and reformist, rather than revolutionary means’.

So where does the procrastination come in? To be reformist is not deferring action. I was missing something. On reading further I discovered the Fabians to be named after the Roman general Quintus Fabius Maximus, nicknamed, (beware transposing those letters…) ‘Cunctator,’ meaning The Delayer, whose battle strategy consisted of the guerrilla tactics of harassment rather than direct confrontation on the battle field.

It is true that I am not approaching my writing task in a confrontational way, but nor am I conducting guerrilla warfare with it. The term Fabian Tactics proved not be the definition I was after and I returned to Thesaurus where I discovered I was, by procrastinating, indulging in ‘masterly inactivity’, ‘fribbling’ or – thank you Quintus Fabius, ‘cunctating.’

The opportunity to procrastinate is one to savour. But I went one step further back to the old word ‘leisure,’ yesterday and went to bed for the afternoon with Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Be not alarmed, jaded reader, I speak of the newly released Penguin edition in the recognisable orange black and white cover. The covers hark back, (clever Penguin marketing people), to a slower time, a time when choosing a book was not an act decided by a visceral attraction to the cover image.

To pry myself away from the screen and re educate myself in reading has become a compelling obsession for me lately. The screen brings anxiety, brings demands, brings urgency. The book allows me to escape.

I am also about to re engage in an old technology – writing a letter with pen and paper. A novel and charming idea. Imagine the freedom, to squiggle and draw, to scrawl when I want and to do perfect modified cursive if I want. To sketch a little picture next to my words and to not have to master thirty computer programs in order to do so. One drawback. Once written, it can’t be changed. No going back and editing, no cut and paste, no second chances. Get it right first time or not at all.

My father spent the second half of his working life in a position that required him to write long, detailed legal decisions. Despite his assistants and staff all using computers, he would write his decisions in longhand. When asked by me, completely bemused by how he did it without Word, he replied, that he thought about each sentence before he wrote it.

I raised my eyebrows and nodded slowly. Simple question, simple answer.

To write and get it right first time is a challenging concept. My father used an A4 notepad and ballpoint pen and worked on a desk free of clutter. He never used correcting fluid and prided himself on the evenness of his handwriting. (You can imagine what our family dinners were like.)

My handwriting lurches from hastily scrawled printing to illegible and all variations in between. And it deteriorates the more I use a keyboard. When I write handwritten notes my hand grips the pen in an unsteady way, like an accident victim learning to walk again.

I have read, where I don’t know, that writers working on computers tend to become more ‘wordy.’ One would expect from that observation that handwriting a book favoured an economy of style, and yet to read a nineteenth century novel is to experience ‘wordy’ sometimes to exasperating excess.

Did Anthony Trollope cunctate when faced with writing Barchester Towers at 200,372* words? To produce a manuscript of 85, 000 words I have written perhaps 200,000. I whittle away, replace, add a bit, cut, cut more, cut another chunk, until I am satisfied, and it is a long process despite the ease computers lend to writing. Whereas Trollope might have had to get it right first time – by gaslight with pen, nib and notebook. And yet I, with all my modern tools, am still dilating and cunctating. But Trollope’s readers had the leisure for his lengthy books, and my readers, like me, can only steal fragments of leisure in between answering phones, emails, social networking messages, twittering, exhaustion and those gorgeous moments where they allow themselves to cunctate.

Women Reading, E.F. Aman-Jean

Women Reading, E.F. Aman-Jean

*The Victorian Literary Studies Archive: Concordances website

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4 thoughts on “Finding the Right Word

  1. Sian

    To cunctate.

    Could that be what I’m doing right now? Finding your lovely site and reading through the blog? Posting this utterly pointless reply? Sadly, the answer has to be yes.

    On the other hand:

    What is this life if, full of care,
    We have no time to stand and stare.

    No time to stand beneath the boughs
    And stare as long as sheep or cows.

    No time to see, when woods we pass,
    Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

    No time to see, in broad daylight,
    Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

    No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
    And watch her feet, how they can dance.

    No time to wait till her mouth can
    Enrich that smile her eyes began.

    A poor life this is if, full of care,
    We have no time to stand and stare.

    William Henry Davies

    Thanks for the lovely new word Phillipa.

  2. Narelle (Johnson)

    This was a great read, Phillipa. Fribbling and cunctating certainly sound very naughty, but I suppose it was the intellectual company that had the powers of review boiling over. Ancient Romans , good old D H and an afternoon nap – it’s a potent mix and probably proscribed on page one of the beginner’s guide to censorship.

  3. Phillipa

    Ah, Narella, if only it were a novice censor bristling with zeal and pimples. But alas, it’s only a proxy server transposing letters or somesuch. No quickening breath and sweaty hands…just the cold click of a machine.

  4. Lance

    Well I did go back and read your “Finding the Right Word” which I enjoyed. I definitely agree with your father’s approach to writing – I learnt from philosphy at SydU not to start a sentence if you didn’t know how it was going to finish. I’m still perplexed by some of the stuff on your page. Don’t get me wrong – it’s your page – put up what you … Read Morelike – it looks great – but I don’t understand what ‘Tags’ are or what use they are. And I read a great deal of stuff I thought was written by you but now I think some of it was written by someone called Daniel – but I didn’t understand why he would be writing stuff on your page – did you like it and just include it. Sorry I’m so out of date – I still expect hyperlinks to be blue – I guess I have other priorities than keeping up with the latest trends in web page semiotics.

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