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Shakespeare and "Rorschach Word Pool"

Academics claim that William Shakespeare must have had an amazingly large vocabulary: some 20,000 words compared to the 5,000 of the average person. Maybe they imagine that in the process of writing his plays, he was able to draw from this expansive vocabulary to choose the most appropriate words for what he wanted to express in each sentence or stanza. In the course of experimenting with different writing techniques, I have arrived at an alternate hypothesis: he made a conscious effort to use as many different words as possible.

Since 1983, I have been using an experimental writing technique that I call the Rorschach Word Pool. The name "Rorschach Word Pool" is derived from the old Rorschach Ink Blot test used in psychoanalysis. In that test the patient observes a series of cards smudged and splattered with random smears of ink. The patient's perception of the inkblots (whether he sees flowers, guns, demons or whatever) gives the psychoanalyst clues about a prevailing underlying state of mind. In the "Word Pool" version, I prepare a random sample (or "pool") of words. Next, I reorder and morph each word so that the resulting text has meaning. In many of my earliest experiments with this technique, there was something about the style of the resulting text which seemed very familiar. At some point I realized that the text output of the word pool process shares something in common with the writing of William Shakespeare.

You may well conclude that this particular type of Rorschach testing has merely revealed my own underlying pathology (DELUSIONS OF GRANDEUR?). But I'm not trying to assert that the output of this writing technique is on par with Shakespeare: It may however, share a similar foundation.

Check out an example of the word pool texts:

Spirits whisper spectral music, their voices evading time
Engaging children's imaginations to watch, question and believe
Embrace these genius lives - this unspoiled world resource
Before decay wears soft their motivations and poignant thought's disposed
A Siege of Deceptions will purge all honor
'til freedom's transformed by Master Extortionists,
extracting morsels of "Significant Interest" for experimental hypothesis
and documented for later discussion

There are a few lines from this excerpt which seem to me to be particularly Shakespearean. In one phrase, I was trying to include the word "software", but couldn't find a way to make it work until I came up with "decay wears soft their motivations". Also, "poignant thought's disposed" is not a phrase I would typically come up with, but was forced into due to the constraints of the writing exercise. Compare this to a short excerpt randomly selected from Macbeth:

Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts,unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full Of direst cruelty!
make thick my blood; Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature Shake my fell purpose,
nor keep peace between The effect and it!

It often seems Shakespeare takes the most inefficient, meandering route to express a simple concept. He is going for maximum verbiage as if paid by the word. (Maybe he was - I'm not a Shakespeare historian). There must be a more direct way of saying: "compunctious visitings of nature" or "stop up the access and passage to remorse". The point is that if he did replace the preceding phrases with simpler, more economical alternatives the result would be less poetic, less distinctively Shakespearen.

How to be Shakespeare: Random Word Fill

Here is a simple formula for transchanneling the spirit of Shakespeare to add colour and flourish to your own writing: Force yourself to use a lot of extra words.
  1. Start with a random pool of words. On the Cut 'n' Mix button bar, click the button with a picture of the salt shaker on it: each click will fill the text area with a different set of random words.
  2. Next, click the "cut-up board" output effect button. The random pool of words will be presented as easily draggable squares (like fridge magnet poetry). If you have an idea of what you want to write about, try to express it by reordering the randomly selected words. If you don't know what you are going to write about, try to imagine that the random words already contain some message or meaning which has become obscured because the words got scrambled.
  3. Next, save the reordered text to the clipboard by clicking the thumbtack icon.
  4. Paste the clipboard contents back into Cut 'n' Mix or a word processing application
  5. Fine tune: Add connective or supportive words like "the", "is", "I","at" between the reordered words so that the sentences make more sense. (Allow yourself to use these "connector" words liberally.) Tenses can be changed and words restructured from the root meaning, but try not to add too much additional "meaningful" words. The idea is to stretch the meanings of the words provided from the random pool, in much the same way that Shakespeare was apt to do in his writing.
The optimal conclusion to this exercise sees all words from the random pool used in a new text which makes sense.

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