Like it or not, Words are a Writer’s Best Friend — J. Conrad Guest

If I had a dollar for every time someone told me, “that’s not what I meant,” I’d be rich. Wars may be politically motivated, but they’re started the result of a misunderstanding of words.

J. Conrad Guest (photo courtesy of Sommerville Photographie)

J. Conrad Guest
(photo courtesy of Sommerville Photographie)

My father always told me that the burden of communication lies with the communicator. On the other hand, if someone wants to misunderstand something you say or write, they will. No power on earth will stop them.

I once read a narrative that described curtains as “sad,” a reference to their color being blue. Curtains can no longer be sad than a cup of coffee or any other inanimate object. Still, with so many shades of blue from which to choose, as a writer, I would probably indulge myself, and be criticized for being too verbose, as follows:

The curtains were blue — not in the tone or shade of a John Lee Hooker tune, nor in the term one might use in describing their disposition to their physician when seeking medication for depression, which is really no color at all but a mood. Not a navy or a midnight; not a Miles Davis Kind of Blue. Not the blue that accompanies the maize in the University of Michigan school colors; not the blue eyes of a Siberian husky nor a sky blue; but a sapphire blue — not annoyingly cheerful, nor that draws attention to itself and away from the other furnishings in the room — pleasant, soothing. The color blue that compliments both a morning cup of coffee or tea — although, as Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, the morning cup of coffee has an exhilaration about it that the cheering influence of the afternoon or evening cup of tea cannot be expected to reproduce — as well as an evening glass of scotch. The color blue that invites one nearer, if only to draw the curtains wider to let more Sunday morning light into the room, or to admire the panoramic view on the other side of the glass.

J. Conrad Guest, author of: Backstop: A Baseball Love Story In Nine InningsOne Hot JanuaryJanuary’s ThawA Retrospect In Death

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Filed under musings, writing

21 responses to “Like it or not, Words are a Writer’s Best Friend — J. Conrad Guest

  1. Many times I have finished a book and thought of it like a great dinner…delicious and never wanting it to end.

  2. This made me crave a cigarette, and I quit 18 years ago.

    • That’s a good thing though, right, Sheila? Any text is only as good as what its words make happen inside a reader’s head. It seems we’re moving away from that in contemporary fiction. Maybe it’s because movies and television have, little by little. dulled our imagination.

  3. Janet Lickey Fletcher

    It’s just a fact in this life that there are people who have the mind set to look for insult or injury in whatever is said, Still, I crave the need to use words to communicate. Most people respond to what I mean rather than to a tiresome need to find an underlying dark intent.

    • Janet: We all use words to communicate. But as writers, I think there is a fine line between being too exact and allowing the reader to connect with a text in their own fashion.

      I find it gratifying when a reader tells me they pulled something from a passage of mine that I didn’t intend. That’s not necessarily poor communication, but rather communication at some sub-level.

  4. LOVED your article on the colour blue! Laughed at some of your descriptions, but could see the ‘tone’ of the colour, as described. Enjoyed the read!
    I have to say it, Mr Conrad Guest, you have the cheekiest of faces!

    • Why thank you, Donni, for adding your comment. I’m so glad you found humor in my description. It certainly was fun to write.

      “Cheekiest of faces?” Well, I’ve been called impudent, sassy, even curmudgeonly. But no one has ever called my face “cheeky.” It must come with my advancing age. Assuming you intended that as a compliment, I thank you for that, too!

      • Hello again!
        I am British, (married and living in Chicago) so when we say ‘cheeky’ it is with affection! Cheeky faces are also, ‘cute’ faces, so it was a compliment!

        D, x

        • I thought that might be the case, Donni. Not that you were married and living in Chicago, but that you intended “cheeky” as a compliment. I tend to be literal, and it’s been many years since I played Detective Sergeant Trotter in Agatha Christie’s “The Mouse Trap,” so I’m far from being up on British-isms. I was going on Webster’s definition of “cheeky.”

          Thanks again,


        • So you were around Theatre-Land, in the West End, London! I saw the Mouse Trap a few times, I wonder if you were in it then?

          What did you think of London? I miss it very much, but like everything else good it has changed. Sigh!

          I miss fish & chips too. Did you ever try them from out of the paper? I have assumed that you do not live in England, but were there quite a while ago.

          I hope to be reading more of your blogs, so, see you soon! Donni x

  5. Sorry, Donni, I didn’t mean to leave you with the impression that I did my theatre in London. It was here in Michigan. Agatha is known here, too, you know. Noël Coward, too (I was in Blithe Spirit). I’ve yet to travel to the other side of the pond. My time is running out, so if I’m going to make that trip to the Guinness brewery in Ireland, I suppose I should start making plans. Problem is, I’m deathly afraid to fly. Haven’t been aboard a plane since before the turn of the century. It’s a control thing.

    I blog once a month for Second Wind, always on the 18th. Glad to have another follower!


    • Conrad, it was my fault for jumping to conclusions. I forgot these shows go on around the world, and not only in the London’s West End! It is too late to visit London and see it as magnificently as it once was. Too many changes, too many people, too little time. Rush, rush, rush and everyone in each other’s way. English is not the main language there now and on my last visit, around 10 years ago, found it hard to communicate with anyone.

      Cornwall is a terrific place still, with authors, artists and musicians, and the sea is clear and wonderful. I liked Perranporth the best. As for going to see the Guinness Brewery in Ireland, you will love that! An ex of mine, visited and they gave him a tiny imitation bottle. It was lovely!

      As for the plane trip, I would never chance taking a plane again. Going through check-in is been turned into a nightmare, and as if it were not bad enough before, there is more to fear! They can not employ enough people to properly maintain the engines, nor to replace bits with quality parts, and there will always be the worry of a drunk pilot!
      For now,

      • Donni: As if I needed more reasons not to fly! I worked for the airline industry 35 years ago and it was bad enough then, maintenance seemingly done only when something needed doing; very little “preventative maintenance.” Of course they tell the pilot he has final say on whether to land in that thunderstorm, but time is money, must stay on schedule … flight crews taking sleep aids at the end of their day to sleep and taking uppers in the morning to take that six a.m. plane up … Guess it hasn’t improved much at all. I’d take a ship across the Atlantic to Ireland, but I recently changed jobs and don’t have enough vacation time. Well, maybe after I retire. If I can afford to retire.

        Thanks for keeping the conversation going!

        • JC, you would be bored if you retired! You would still be writing, that is something you can’t stop, nor will you ever want to. So, you might as well make books, and sell the odd one of two (or hundred) and continue to give readers pleasure reading your thought transmissions! For as long as you can keep the brain cells working that is.

          With pilots taking these upper and downers, they would test positive for drugs wouldn’t they? Or alcohol? Does it mean they are not tested? Or maybe, they have it planned to swap wee-wee specimens? I have been watching television programs of air-flight disasters. SO SCARY! I have imagined (dreamed of this many times too) being in that position of KNOWING the plane is going down and hearing the sound as it screeches towards doom. I look at the other frightened passengers and wonder which limb-bone I would choose to use, that would be broken or smashed, in using it to brace myself on the crash landing.

          What of those who got sucked out of the plane into the sky when the top of the plane came off?? Yikes! What the hell goes through their mind in the middle of that adrenaline rush? If this ‘sky-trip’ they did not volunteer for, is within the human limits to breathe, it would not be a quick death would it? They would live until hitting the ground, surely? If only we could record their thoughts at that time!

          This reminds me of the man in the Twin Towers catastrophe, who threw himself out of a window when the fire was becoming too hot near him..He kept doing somersaults, ALL the way down (witnesses said). He must have had a strong personality! What a terrific, brave person he was.

          As for flying, even for a million, or much more, I would NOT fly again. In this aspect, I am truly un-buyable! I don’t think you should fly anymore either. You have good memories, that is enough surely? Stay alive JC! You have great works to do!

  6. This is a great explanation for new-ish writers of the difference between telling and showing, which I will gratefully share.

  7. Donni-Jay: Thanks for your belief in my “great works to do.” However, Raymond Chandler, one of my favorite writers and one of the great stylists of the 20th century even if he did have a drinking problem—anyone who writes, “From thirty feet away she looked like a lot of class. From ten feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from thirty feet away” and “Alcohol is like love. The first kiss is magic, the second is intimate, the third is routine. After that you take the girl’s clothes off” is okay with me—said that “Everything a writer learns about the art or craft of fiction takes just a little away from his need or desire to write at all. In the end he knows all the tricks and has nothing to say.” So, will I be writing in ten or fifteen years? I can’t say. I truly hope so because I can’t imagine running out of something to say. The key may be whether or not I still have an original way of saying those somethings, or whether or not my audience cares about what I have to say. In other countries the aged are revered for their wisdom; in America we tend to brush them under a rug.

    I’m told that people falling from a great height, like a parachutist whose chute fails to deploy, often die of fright, or from a heart attack, before they hit the ground, which may be more humane. A friend of mine once told me a story about it being mind over matter: a paratrooper’s chute failed to deploy and other paratroopers at the drop site claimed that, after hitting the ground, he jumped up and was heard to say, over and over again, “I’ll be fine.” Of course his body eventually told him: “No, you’re not fine. You’re dead,” and then he fell over dead. I’ve never been able to substantiate this story, and imagine it is simply urban legend.

    I’ve always been afraid of heights, which I suspect is the basis for my fear of flying: it’s done at a very great height. But I think I have control issues, too. I don’t like riding in a car that someone else is driving either. So it’s about trust.

    I’ve known many people who’ve flown all their lives. Consultants who fly all over the country twice a week—once to a client site and again at the end of the week to get home—and they’ve never so much as experienced a flight sliding off a snow-covered runway, an engine going out. But I’m told the guy who wins the lotto isn’t the guy who spends half his paycheck on tickets, who has a system on selecting numbers. It’s the guy who buys a ticket on a whim, maybe because he forgot to buy something for his wife on their anniversary, never thinking that she’ll divorce him should she win. So I figure the next time I board a flight, I’ll win the lotto and that sucker is going to go down. Whether it’s because the pilot forgot to extend the flaps at takeoff or the result of a terrorist smuggling a bomb aboard … what does it matter? Either way I’m dead.

    Figures never lie; but liars always figure. They insist that flying is the safest way to travel, that more people die in traffic accidents than in plane crashes. Well, doh! More people drive than fly on a daily basis. Also, the vast majority of traffic fatalities occur within twenty miles of home—to and from work, to the grocery store, to pick up the kids from school, to the Post Office … all places to which you don’t fly anyway. Sure I’m at risk for a longer period of time during a four-hour drive between Detroit and Chicago than I would be during a 45-minute flight; but when a plane goes down, there’s no such thing as a fuselage bender. It’s always catastrophic, and it’s always going to make the evening news.

    I once took a train to San Francisco from Chicago, and that trip was more memorable than my flight to Los Angeles about twenty years ago. Traveling by train is so cool. So, yes, I have memories of places I’ve visited; but I’ve never been overseas. I suspect that trip to the Guinness brewery in Ireland will have to be by plane. I can only hope it won’t be my last trip, and that if the plane goes down it will be on the return leg. What good will the memory do me then?

  8. @JC……Sorry for coming in late, but time is whizzing by far too quickly!
    I too appreciate Raymond Chandler and that style of writing. Mickey Spillane was great too! Or did Chandler create Mickey Spillane?

    I also agree with you that learning to write, can take away from the writer. It might cramp his style, just as those who train for years in music, sometimes, cannot even play by ear, and their style of playing can be recognised by others trained by the same music teacher.
    It is a shame that an older age, and experience that comes with it, is not revered anymore and is almost a stigma. In Britain they are even more ageist than here in the States. Such a lack of respect, but it seems many of the young tend not to have much of that.

    I, like you, detest heights. When in school, at our concerts, I dreaded being up in the balconies, as much as hearing the violins. Even though seated, I could feel the tug as gravity kept trying to pull me forward. It was a physical effort to stay in my seat and not gently slide over the rail in front of me. It was terrifying! I don’t understand people when they keep saying it is safer to fly than to drive a car or be in one. At least on the road, if a driver is astute and has quick reactions, there probably will be a way to avoid a collision. Perhaps not on black ice, but the speeds should be at a sensible level so as not to cause too much damage.

    I can see all your points regarding air travel too. In the air, we cannot stop and check why an awful noise has started up, or find out where the smoke is coming from. If we run out of petrol or our engine has a problem we can stop safely, even if in an emergency. Oh, I know accidents happen, some being impossible to escape as in head on collisions, or as in my case, a car crashing into my drivers door side at high speed. But, we need our wits about us, if there is to be a chance of escaping the inevitable. Much more can go wrong in a plane, and our driver is not picked by us, nor is the airspace controller. Lately, both of these have added to the problem, of sub-standard parts being used on planes, and not enough money to use for maintenance.

    It seems we both declare it is not safer to travel by air. It might be if we were all given parachutes! In an emergency, even I would use one of those things! Did you hear of that plane in Japan which smashed into the side of a mountain at 400 miles an hour? It took people over 3 hours to get to them, and three were alive! Not even smashed up. I watched a programme where they showed simulations of plane crashes. Air controllers to blame some of the time! Love all the points you make as to why we are in more danger with our more frequent and long or short car trips, than on planes.

    I have always preferred to visit other countries through watching films or television. I can always sleep that night in my own bed, safe from possible bedbugs! I don’t think you should go on that trip to Ireland! Stay safe, stay home!

    • Hi, Donni-Jay. Raymond Chandler created Philip Marlowe, played by Humphrey Bogart in the film, The Big Sleep. Mickey Spillane was the creator of Mike Hammer.

      I’ve never taken a creative writing course, for the reason you cite: I’m afraid I’ll learn I’ve been doing it wrong all these years. Too many creative writing courses, in my opinion, take the “creative” out of novel writing. They make it a formula, which is a better way to publication since many agents and publishers (the Big Six at least) seek duplication of previous success.

      Thelonious Monk is one of my favorite composers-pianists from the Bebop era of jazz. Self-taught, played a lot of split notes, strange chord changes. Was once featured on the cover of Time magazine. People either loved him, calling him Theonliest, or despised him as the genre’s village idiot. But he heard music that nobody heard, probably the result of mental illness. I wonder what might’ve happened to him had he been schooled in music and proper piano playing technique.

      I can identify with your story about being in the balcony. I experience the same thing when I get too close to the edge of a precipice: vertigo. I just want to plunge headfirst into the abyss. Not a pleasant feeling. I do recall hearing about that plane crash in Japan.

      I don’t think we’re in more danger on long road trips, say a four-hour drive between Detroit and Chicago; I simply think we’re in danger for a longer period of time than we would be on a forty-five minute flight. But the overall danger of a flight is greater than in a car, especially at takeoff and landing.

      Ireland: You may be right about staying home. Plenty of Irish whiskies I can get here in the States, and plenty of authentic pubs, too! Still, whenever I see The Quiet Man, with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara and that beautiful countryside, I think it would be great to see it in person. Of course, I’m sure it’s changed considerably in the sixty years since the movie was made.

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