Words & Meaning

  Sis. McCaffrey  By Janice McCaffrey   

I recently read Mothering Sunday: A Romance by Graham Swift and found thoughts, for the novice writer that I am, to ponder. The narration on page one hundred twenty-eight says: “She would become a writer, and because she was a writer, . . . be constantly beset by the inconstancy of words.”

To me words are the magic that transforms symbols (letters) into meaningful visuals (the movie that plays in my head). I’ve always found comfort, maybe even safety, in knowing the meaning of words; and believing them fixed. Words have always anchored me to truth and reality. Can there really be inconstancy in words?

Synonyms for inconstancy include moody, capricious, vacillating, wavering; undependable, unstable, unsettled, uncertain; mutable, volatile and fickle. All point to frequent changes which of course gives every word mercurial meanings. So, I wondered, how do writers choose words that will correctly convey their intended meaning?

According to I.A. Richards, a semantics theorist, meaning is personal. He said “Words don’t mean things; people do.” His theory says that life experiences give words their meanings more than dictionaries. And he saw emotive language as the chief source of linguistic confusion. In other words, before two people can know for sure what a word used between them means they have to have the same life experiences around the word. This, as we know, is pretty much impossible.

Em Griffin uses the word “love” to illustrate Richards’ concept. In Chapter 5 of A First Look at Communication Theory Griffin explains that everything a person feels and visualizes when they hear the word love defines it for them. So if cuddling in front of a cozy fire is one person’s idea of love and their partner’s idea is having a rough and tumble snowball fight, there’s going to be linguistic confusion. And the familiar refrain, “If you loved me, you’d (fill in the blank). Based on Richards’ Meaning of Meaning, the simple word “love” has as many meanings as there are people. And the partners’ feelings and ideas associated with the word may be polar opposites depending on their life experiences.

Based on my personal experience with “linguistic confusion while using emotive language” I believe Richards’ view. But that leaves me in my quandary about finding words that express common meanings to the masses. Thinking this over, led me to recall book club discussions where members have discovered that they actually enjoyed a book more after listening to others’ perceptions of it. Because we’ve lived through similar, but not exact situations we’ve set up different connotations for the same words. And therefore, give them different meanings, feelings, pictures, and understandings; that’s why listening to understand is so important. But that’s a topic for another day.

So is there no way to be sure our writing is understood?  I guess not. Maybe all we can do, as Mr. Griffin suggests, is string four or five common words together “instead of relying on a single esoteric term that could easily be misinterpreted.”

Back to Graham Swift and his protagonist, Jane Fairchild, successful novelist. During an interview she says, “Well, you have to understand that words are only words, just bits of air . . .”

But are they?


 Mothering Sunday: A Romance, Graham, Swift, Alfred A. Knopf, 2016

 The Meaning of Meaning of I.A. Richards. A First Look at Communication Theory, Chapter 5, by Em Griffin, 3rd Edition, McGraw-Hill, 1998. afirstlook.com

When Titles Reverberate

by Karen Wills

“Nothing I force myself to write about ever turns out well, and so I’ve learned to wait for the voice, the incident, the image that reverberates.” Louise Erdrich

Erdrich is writing about more than titles, but that’s what I jumped to when I read her words. Have you noticed that some titles just reach out, make you want to explore the book, set off a little reverberating bell? Titles are so important. They’re meant to let us know a little about what’s in the book. That can be a person or place name. But they also have to have what Hemingway called magic. For me that means the words have to connote something, make us associate a word with implications and associations, for example, ‘Easter’ with spring and rebirth.

I’ve read that Hemingway searched the poetic King James Bible when he sought the right title for what became The Sun also Rises.  Besides the Biblical source, the word ‘sun’ has strong connotations of light and warmth.

And, have you noticed that titles seem to have trends like fashion? That word ‘light’ has appeared in lots of titles lately. I think Anthony Doerr started with his wonderful, All the Light We cannot See. And ‘girl’. So many titles have that word. I think words float around and all at once catch us in our hearts, or intellects, or we associate them with other books. They work like magnets.

A friend who read a draft of my novel, Remarkable Silence, said the title was right there in the contents when a narrator commented that God remained “remarkably silent” on key matters.Remarkable Silence Karen Wills I wanted the word ‘river’ in the title of my novel, River with no Bridge that will be out this summer. river with no bridgeIt’s another word with connotations of nature and crossings. The sequel I’m working on will be Garden in the Sky. That was the name of a popular campfire during the time of construction of the Going-to-the-Sun or Transcontinental Highway in Glacier National Park. The road figures in the story. I also think ‘Garden’ and ‘Sky’ have strong connotations.

But I’m struggling for a title for a historical mystery I’ve just finished. Maybe I’ll just have to wait for something to reverberate. Luckily, Hemingway rejected both The World’s Room and They who get Shot before settling on the inspired, A Farewell to Arms. That must have resounded like a gong when the words finally appeared.

Critique Groups

I had a nice young woman approach me about guidelines for critique groups she is helping to organize for Authors of the Flathead. I told her I’d see what I could come up with. I wrote this list and then ran it by fellow critique partner and author. The following suggestions are what we like in our groups. Having another writers read your manuscripts is really the most basic way to learn. I have developed and honed what skills I have through two groups of very  dedicated writers. They  share in what success I have had.  This is one of my pages from “The Car Ride” after Ann worked on it. Good suggestions that I took to heart and my page is much better because of her.

My page after a critique.

Suggestions for critique groups.

  1. The reason for critique groups is to help other writers refine their craft in a kind way, suggesting changes in plot, character building, whether wording is clear. We are all here to learn from one another.
  2. When your section is being discussed, simply take each suggestion as that, only a suggestion. The story is yours and you do not need to defend it or argue your point.  At home use what suggestions you want to. Give each careful consideration. This is how to develop stronger writing skills.
  3. Limit the size of the group. I find no more than 6 to be ideal. More than that and you will spend more time critiquing others work than what you spend on your own writing.
  4. Limit the number of pages each writer submits for critique. 20 pages for a small group or 15 for a larger group
  5. The meetings should be a couple of hours. Not too long as minds grow tired and become bored.
  6. Keep your critiques of others short and to the point. Be prepared to explain your suggestion and why. Do not try to rewrite another’s story.  Simply give input and let it go. Never argue a point.
  7. I prefer to meet every other week. Remember you need to allow time for your own writing.
  8. Never ever discuss politics or religion!
  9. In my group we do page by page with input from everyone who has a suggestion on a page and then go to the next. Less confusing that way. Be open to discussion.  That is how we learn from each other.
  10.     Sometimes folks new to critiquing are easily hurt when they hear their wonderful words don’t make sense or the plot is slow or characters are hard to visualize. Be kind to them with gentle words. And also newbies don’t take everything said to heart. The suggestions are for your growth in writing skills. Offer kind/objective suggestions to every member, especially newbies. We are all ‘married’ to our words, and harsh criticism only stifles creativity.
  11. If you can’t make a meeting let another member know so the others can start on time.
  12. Edit typos on your copy. Discussing these minor details wastes valuable time as a group.      


By Nan McKenzie


In 1946, I started to teach myself to type on Dad’s old black Underwood upright.  Took me a long time, but I began to get an idea of how things worked.

In 1953, when I was eleven, I decided that being a writer was the best thing that could happen in my life.  Problem was, I didn’t know how to write, hadn’t had any big adventures to report, and was lost as to what to do.

By that point in my life, I’d read probably two thousand or more books, but didn’t have the discerning talent to tell what was good and what was drivel.

I tried, really, but couldn’t make any of my stories come out and make sense, not to mention that my grammar skills were pretty shaky.

Fast forward about thirty-five years, to when I was attending FVCC, while it was still located in downtown Kalispell.  I wrote for class assignments, and for fun, but still wasn’t polished enough, or had enough knowledge to get myself published.  I had set out to have adventures, and boy howdy, I had Adventures!  Now I had something to write about, but still no way to publish.

After I quit going to classes and was living alone in Whitefish, a phone call came one day.  One of my advisors was calling from FVCC.  She asked if I would be willing to teach a writing class for the college, maybe to older people.  I started to cry and said, “I have taught real estate on a college level, but don’t think you folks could use me, since I don’t have a degree.”  I wanted to do this more than anything at that point in my life.

She assured me that I didn’t need a degree, that they weren’t giving credits for my classes.  I leaped at the chance because I’d always enjoyed teaching.  So was born “Writing Your Memories”, a class I taught in Kalispell and Bigfork for a couple years.  Through this class, I met wonderful, interesting older people who had amazing stories to tell.  A man named Pat had walked from Woods Bay south of Bigfork into Kalispell every day for work, rain or shine, 25 miles each way.  And, if lucky, made two dollars a day.  Can you imagine?

A woman named Fran had lived all over the world, following her husband who had worked for the National Cartographers, making maps of hidden pockets.  Her stories were fascinating, especially the ones about wild elephants in must.  My aunt Elizabeth, a former teacher, wrote of how she had started and taught two Montessori schools, still being taught today by my cousin in Oregon.

When people would arrive to see what my class was about, they’d tell me that they didn’t know how to spell, didn’t know how to structure a story.  I asked them if they could drive a car, and they all had said yes.  So I said, “You don’t have to know how to work on the engine to make the car go—I’m the word mechanic and will do the heavy lifting.  Just write your memories and together we’ll clean up the prose.”

I came to care for those folks, and I think they liked me, too.  Our twice-weekly meeting became a fun time, eagerly looked forward to by all, me especially.  My writing skills were honed in that class while I edited and suggested and encouraged my pupils.

When the time came to write Twin Peril, then Bigfoot, I was polished enough to make a go of it, and now the second book in that series, Bigfoot Returns, may be a bit better than the first.  I always learn by doing, and bless my computer that helps me with spelling, punctuation and making sense of the story.  It’s a far cry from whacking one key at a time on an old Underwood.

March 6, 2017

Books by Nan

Book Event Friday March 3rd


Please join us!



 Friday March 3rd from 5-8 p.m.

128 N. Main, Kalispell, MT

Enjoy a special event the first Friday of each month with

artists, artisans and authors.

Book-signings, drawings, treats and fun in an inviting atmosphere.

 Author Deborah Epperson

250,000 small

Breaking Twig


Author Betty Kuffel, MD



 Your Heart Book Cover- Final 1 modern-birth-control-kindle-cover               & Feather Art   twelve