Which words do you overuse?
In the Guardian weekend colour supplement each Saturday, there’s a question and answer session with a well-known person/celebrity. The questions range from When were you happiest? to What is the trait you most deplore in yourself? to How would you like to be remembered? Sometimes the page is fascinating, other times surprisingly revealing or thought-provoking or funny and occasionally dull.
But it struck me that they are a useful set of questions for a writer to ask characters they are trying to develop and make real. For example, a question such as What is your favourite smell? could reveal some link or association with a character’s past. A person who has died or perhaps is now lost to the character for some other reason, but the memory of their smell can make them seem vivid and real. Or a question such as What has been your biggest disappointment? might suggest a psychological trauma or worry that the character has buried in their sub-conscious.
However, as well as being a useful tool for character development, some of the Guardian questions also make me wonder how I would answer them.
For example, one of them is usually: Which word do you most overuse? And I know immediately what my answer to that would be:
What is stuff? Unspecified material, household/personal items, worthless objects – often with negative connotations and associated with clutter. Stuff with which we surround ourselves and which often clutters our homes. our brains, our writing. Stuff gets in the way.
But I find I use it in a much broader sense as well, often to convey something important. I might use the word to describe things as varied as my notes for a novel; the books and paper on my shelves; the ‘stuff’ I want to want to take on holiday; creative writing techniques – as in I might say to students ‘You need to think about a character’s family background and stuff’ or ‘by the time you get half way through your novel, the amount of stuff in your head … ‘
We talk about ‘the stuff of dreams’ – something perfect that will make our lives complete. Prospero in ‘The Tempest’ says’ We are such stuff/As dreams are made on’ suggesting perhaps we have within us the means, the material to create visions of perfection.
No wonder stuff is ubiquitous. It’s a wonderful little word. It’s clutter, muddle, disorder. But it’s also the material of dreams, the very things that will make our wildest visions come true.
And to finish here are some thoughts on stuff from the American comedian George Carlin.
Tags: clutter, stuff