In the 1980s, PBS aired yet another dramatization of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” and although it was pretty faithful to Stoker’s original, there was one scene not in the book. The great vampire hunter Dr. Abraham Van Helsing suddenly finds himself face-to-face with Dracula in a small room. Quickly brandishing his ever-handy crucifix (drawn apparently from a shoulder holster), Van Helsing shouts at Dracula in good Church Latin: “Vade retro me satana!” (get thee behind me, Satan).
Dracula, played by the ultra-urbane Louis Jourdan — with a French accent no less — grins sardonically at Van Helsing and retorts: “That’s right, Doctor: It always sounds more convincing in the Latin.”
To be fair to Van Helsing, he’s simply using the language of his two professions. He’s a scientist and a clergyman, and in the late 19th century Latin was still the common language of science and the Church. So he’s using the technical language he thinks will serve him best in this situation.
But he neglects the prime directive of all communication: Know your audience. Dracula is neither a scientist nor a very good Christian, and he’s not going to put up with this Latin nonsense.
But maybe Van Helsing isn’t trying to communicate at all. This is Dracula; he doesn’t want to have a chat. And Van Helsing isn’t starting a discussion; the learned doctor uses Latin to invoke the two powers, God and Nature, that give him authority over nasty things like vampires. In this confrontation with Evil, he’s using language as a weapon.
In contrast to this little meet-and-greet between Dracula and Van Helsing, here in Juneau last year a friend of mine confronted a stranger trying to break into his house. He was able to confront the stranger outside the house where, despite the tense situation, he talked to the man calmly and engaged him in conversation until the police arrived. He didn’t threaten the man with “vade retro me satana!” or some equally threatening imperative, but asked him a simple, rational question: “why are you trying to break into my house?”
My friend had the presence of mind — I call it “grace ”— to assess the situation and decide that conversation was possible. Unlike Van Helsing, he used language not as a weapon, as most of us would have done in that situation. Instead, he used words as words for that to which words are best suited: conversation.
Maybe a lot of our problems in writing come because we’re not trying to actually communicate. We can’t see our audience face-to-face the way we do when we’re sitting with a friend at Coppa and chatting over coffee and a muffin. Facing only that demonic blank computer screen, we come to see writing not as a conversation but as a battle — or worse, as some kind of meaningless bureaucratic exercise.
(Maybe this is why we act like such Yahoos online and can be so much more belligerent in online comments than we’d ever be in person: we’re throwing words at a ghoulishly pale computer screen instead of offering them up in good will, one human being to another.)
Reader, you will have noticed that I define communication narrowly. Throwing words at each other or at a computer screen doesn’t count. Communication is literally the act of joining us together as a community. Writing is a kind of communion, a breaking of the bread, the sharing of a meal.
Even when the occasions of writing demand more formality than a chat with friends, we can make it a conversation without abandoning the necessary formalities, and whatever the forum, the gains we make in clarity, in sheer readability, are never inappropriate. If they are, there’s a problem with the forum.
Communication demands that we know our audience not just as some abstract label (“the general public”); we have to think analytically about who they are and what they need from us; to visualize them, see their faces, and talk to them like they’re sitting across from us.
Unless, of course, your audience is Dracula. In that case, take it from Van Helsing: you can’t talk to vampires. You can’t even yell at them in Latin without them getting all snarky.
• Jim Hale can be reached through his website at www.jimhalewriting.com.