Writing 101: Sacred and Simple

The more I write, the more I am taken with it, the magic of the word. Turn the wrist and your word is a clear brook. Flick, and you have a blade, or a balm. To be able to put out one, two, three words for a title and draw people in; convince them to pause in their hurried steps and step inside, there is a power in that. They pull up a seat, and some linger and chat. Some cry a little; other times they walk out still laughing because it was the room of your childhood they had entered and they remembered. The window to your marriage you’d opened and they know. It was your messy soul they inhabited briefly, experienced from the inside out and they blushed a little. It was their one-minute confessional before they drew the door back out to the light.

There is something religious about writing for me. It calls for devotion, affection, discipline, even bloody sacrifice. And it’s redemptive, every word sacred. If you pile on the descriptors, especially those adjectives and adverbs you are so fond of, you reveal a lack of faith in the rest of your words, either in the potency of language or your own ability to cherry-pick its offerings. Your line must not be vivid enough, else why do you need four modifiers in a breath? Could you find one or two that do the job? I am full of faith. Let’s try this together.

The mountains were draped by black curtains of ominous storm clouds, portentous of trouble over marshy waters.

Sorry this is not sexy. But I am so grateful for the mercy of the missing adverb I want to cry.

For starters, we have the imagery of darkness replaying itself in the draped, black, curtains. Then the picture of something brewing duplicated in ominous, storm, portentous, trouble. As if the two ideas weren’t redundant enough, they are so similar as to feed each other (black and storm, for instance, serving both the gloom and imminence).

Let me illustrate how I see the writing process with a metaphor that is a religion all its own for many. In basketball, the three-pointer is one of the most impressive shots of course, made farthest from the basket. The ball, which we can liken to the word, spurns distance, flying with grace, muscle, surety. This is writing, the art of nailing it. The three-pointer holds an interesting success rate of about 35% in the NBA. The best players in America make it only a third of the time.

So an autopsy of our overclouded sentence reveals the problem wasn’t so much a superfluity of adjectives or even of ideas. That was merely the symptom of either an impotence toward a clear purpose or even a deeper mistrust in the authority of the word. I say it was a spiritual death. I usually build from the bone of meaning, combining nouns and verbs that I hope are crisp, to relatable metaphors, rather than slather on the fat and spice from the start. If I can use a noun that’s picturesque or compelling enough, I hold back the adjective (justΒ redemption, which I’d considered embellishing above). And when I want more, I go with the least possible number of modifiers unless I am inflecting other elements of communication. So in measuring my words like a child in wartime rationing her meal, it isn’t just economy I’m after but also meaning, style, tone, and depth. Conveying all these elements as efficiently as one can is simplicity. I am not saying you can’t describe the morning in three adjectives. Sharon Olds with her many trippy, hypothermic descriptives has had me in knots barely able to get through her pain-saturated poems. But let’s respect this thing we call language. That is the sacred.

Obviously I am talking to people who want to raise the bar on their writing. We have a huge pet aisle here on WordPress and if you mean only to keep up the anecdotes about your dog, you don’t have to hamstring yourself. But if you want to be writing better, be sharper on the page than you were four years ago, don’t give yourself cheap praise. Question your choices and their motives. Whether you’re writing a travel journal, history, fiction, or poetry, ask yourself if every word is necessary because each one is doing its own thing, contributing something fresh to your picture. Fancy dribbling isn’t what scores your game.

If you have a better way – and the shelves are lined with authors who do – by all means have at it. But first, ask any man. A hint of perfume and he leans in. Assault me with it in the elevator, and uh, excuse me. I think I’ll take the stairs. The sin of gluttony abounds in all the arts. There is such a thing as too much salt in your sauce, too much red on the canvas, too much bling with that outfit, too much fills on the drums. Black clouds sat over the mountain.

Oh, but what’s that? You don’t believe me. You think I’m a blogging Grinch who’s out to steal your Christmas or keep you from your ebook sell-out. You think I didn’t catch that adverb in your clutch. Fine. I’ll leave you to your opinion of fine writing. But if you think me a pious know-it-all, at least close the curtains and on your way out, please remember the shoes you should’ve removed. Yes, thank you. In all fairness, no one made you enter my sacred ground.

[Poetry] is for me Eucharistic. You take somebody else’s suffering, their passion into your body and…you’re transformed by it, you’re made more tender, or more human. You’re more alive to your fellow human beings. I could literally read a poem and lift my head from the page and look out and my heart would just be softer. I think it kept me alive for a long time.

~ Mary Karr, 2011 Writers’ Symposium by the Sea

116 thoughts on “Writing 101: Sacred and Simple

  1. Yes it is sacred. Clemenceau, a French politician who also owned a newspaper (whe he he was in opposition) used to tell new journalists the following: “When you write in my paper, I want complete sentences. Subject, verb, complement. As few adjectives as possible. And if you are thinking of writing an adverb, call me!”
    πŸ˜‰

  2. This is a beautiful message that strongly resonates with me Diana. I don’t know if they’re your words or Mary Karr’s, but I try to live and write with simplicity. Sometimes I think I focus too much on simplicity in my writing, as with my haikus. A few more descriptors and adjectives would be nice, but are they necessary? This post is beautifully descriptive and informative, a nice balance of simplicity and words that add flavor. πŸ™‚

    • You know efficiency has long been my banner, B (ok, more like battle cry). But this was the first time I explained how it goes beyond a quantifiable technique (x number of adjectives). As for Karr, it was funny bc I’d written much of the post, with the opening on the religious devotion I feel for the art, when I stumbled on her quote. I’m glad you took to this, B. Yes, it is always a question: Did I say too much? Too little? It helps to let the piece sit a bit before publishing for the clearer eye time gives us.

  3. Loved this! You made me laugh out loud (again) but bring out an excellent point. All of us should be moving forward in our writing, especially those of us hanging out on WP for years now. One of the best things I’ve done was make my posts shorter. I would have thought that blasphemy years ago but live and learn. Still a work in progress but I’m trying. Thanks for today’s lesson! πŸ™‚

  4. Wow …I could live in so many of those lines and words above …such amazing distillation of a writer’s process. I am in complete agreement of the sacredness of each word and emotion conveyed …
    “ask yourself if every word is necessary because each one is doing its own thing, contributing something fresh to your picture” – very well said.
    I am not sure where I stand with regards to my writing. Your post instigates and inspires me to come as close to the richness of the style, as the post itself.

    • That is great that you were made to think. =) Consciousness of oneself and the things that drive us at the deeper level (as in fear of insufficiency of our language) is so important. Hope you keep me posted on any changes in perspective you become aware of and of the writing you might make.

      Xxxx
      D.

  5. Really loved this, every single word. So true fancy dribbling does not win the game, boring old points do, one shot at a time. Of course those three pointers are just divine when we hit them though, right? And in writing you really do recognize it when it happens. Funny though that doesn’t always correspond to how much response you get which is fine.

    • Mmm, interesting point, T. Yes, there is nothing like it when you feel the ball flying in, but as for the response, well there is a number of factors in the mix. One could be the topic, or even the title that didn’t compel folks to tear open the envelope. In any case, I enjoy your words.

      • Oh I agree there are many factors that in to whether a post strikes a cord with readers and sometimes you just never know why.

        I know when I’ve written well and when I’ve turned in crap as a former teacher of mine liked to say. Even if a good one doesn’t go over well with my readers I do feel much more satisfied than if a bad one does.

        And thank you by the way, I enjoy your words too. πŸ˜€

  6. I’m constantly on the look out for words I can eliminate so I understand where you’re coming from. My brain clouds over reading a long serious of adverbial phrases. But I think of myself as a story teller who needs to hone my writing skills and not as a polished writer needing a plot. For that reason I never give writing advice. I think this essay says more about how you think – elegantly and deliberately.

    • That’s so good to know you are so conscious with your writing, Jan. Your posts are always clear. And while these thoughts on the things that drive technique apply whether one has plot or not, I think those with it are still storytelling. Thx for having stepped in. =)

  7. “autopsy of our cloudy sentence.” I had to think about that. That would almost suggest the passage had no life in it?” Not so with your writing. You never fail to challenge us with your wit and wisdom.

    • I used ‘autopsy’ to show I pretty much gave that one up for lost, at least wanted to. Black clouds presage a storm, for one thing. It’s just a mess of trying too hard. Thank you for the sweet word, Ian.

  8. The sin of gluttony abounds in all the arts. There is such a thing as too much salt in your sauce, too much red on the canvas, too much bling with that outfit, too much fills on the drums.Β  – This.

    What power and passion, D. I hope more writers see exactly the way you see it. Learned so much here.

  9. Fantastic. I will try hard to be brief, yet poignant. Does that make sense. I hope you’ve read a few of mine and find them palatable. One of them, anyway.

  10. Beautifully written post Diana, words that cut to the core for any writer. I’ve written more than my share of perfume-soaked prose, often due to laziness. Just wanting to write and therefore lacking the devotion and discipline to keep things “sacred and simple” for the reader who is taking their valuable time to read your words, and then the two I find most important: affection and sacrifice. “Every word sacred” yes indeed, there is nothing more nourishing for the mind than a great read. This was a great read. πŸ™‚

    • Hard to call you lazy, Randy, the way you put together your essays. Your affection for your art testifies itself. I felt it was an important reminder that good writing is more than sounding poetic. I appreciate the depth in yours. Thanks much.

      • I was disappointed by it, esp for all the press. And she’s not the first author to come so well touted who’s let me down. I chked out a sample of Cherry online and the same thing, didn’t like her diction. The Art was a bumpy read, erudite language married to the colloquial she made it a point to be writing in. But we are of the same emotional cloth and temperament, and I appreciate her humility in regards to her journey and success. Oh, that felt good to get off my chest!

  11. Well, Diana, I don’t think you were speaking to me or the likes of me, in this post. I’m not a writer and as far as I know or remember, I’ve never claimed to be one. I disseminate information. I don’t know the aspects of how to write a perfect sentence. But I would like to write better but it seems that now I’ve no time to study the fine art of proper writing. So, I’ll just continue to be informative and hope that someday I can get the nerve to begin writing again about pet diseases and pet stories.

    You have a marvelous following which is a testament to your ability to hold sway over your readers. Someone above in their comment gave you sage advice, “don’t back track more than three times.”

    • Yvonne, you know you really don’t need to take the time to comment when you don’t feel a post applies to you. You are so sweet. But no, while I did not have you in mind, hopefully anyone who wishes to keep writing and even “just” share information will want to communicate engagingly. As for the advice, I am way too compulsive not to turn the blade on myself., =) Hope you are taking care of yourself.

      • Dear Diana, I was wrong to comment on your post and as you say no need to write if it does not apply to the commenter. Of course I knew that you did not have me in mind. However, there are no rules that I know of but in the future I shall be more diligent and thoughtful about when to and when not to- comment. πŸ™‚

        Do take care and don’t ram the blade to hard on yourself.

      • Of course you weren’t wrong to, Y! And of course there are no rules for commenting. I only wanted to save you precious time and energy. I am always grateful for every word. You’re awesome.

  12. “And it’s redemptive, every word sacred. If you pile on the descriptors, especially those adjectives and adverbs, you reveal a lack of faith in the rest of your words…” That is a groundbreaking illustration!

  13. You post is fodder for my ever evolving writer’s palate. I also eschew the adverb, using it only when absolutely (!) nothing else will do, but for all my strict use of action verbs, I wonder if my writing hasn’t become a caricature of itself, both in style and cadence, old rhythms, tried and true, used again and again. Sometimes I read what I’ve written and feel a bit out of breath. I’m not judging, but assessing (well, yes, judging). Am I in a rut ad if so, how does one break the habit?

    • It is good to judge thyself. Do it fully before others do.

      I enjoy your crisp write, but if you feel the conviction to spread your wings – and that is always a noble humility – a timeless suggestion: read more.

      • Thanks, Diana. I read like crazy. 😜 Well, as much as my schedule allows with a full time J.O.B., kids, husband, dog, cats, and a new novel in the works. Not enough time! I average about two books a month but wish it could be four. Someday. Reading is like oxygen for me. Wish even one of my kids felt that way.😩

      • “Wish even one of my kids felt that way” Tell me about it! Gee, you’re running on all four cylinders. I appreciate your question (that you ask it of yourself) bc I hear the same chord progression, the same line, like a sentence, running through different songs in the same artist. Madonna, even Michael Buble. That’s a real bummer for me. I think hey, you did that already.

      • Right, and so I say to myself, is this stylistic or derivative (of my precious work). I want to be fresh, but isn’t everything in the planet at least partially derivative?

      • A very good question. Everything, I believe, under the sun that is not organically divine is derivative. =) I’m rummaging in this hat and have no answer, but it’s a great ongoing conversation to have with oneself (and fellow artists at the cafe). We want a distinctive voice but don’t want to pattern ourself out across our work so that we sound the same whatever we write. I don’t know. Probably helps (me) to have multiple personalities. LOL. Like did George Eliot sound the same in all her books? I didn’t read them all. Even in one where she may have stretched herself, she didn’t sound like Stephen King, I’m sure (genre difference notwithstanding). I hAve read novelists who try their hand at very different kinds of novels (that call for a different voice each time for the setting alone) and then go for nonfiction like a memoir. The works are not all great evenly, but I think the reach is commendable.

      • I like the multiple personalities thing and actually, that’s what worked for me when I wrote “Oil and Water.” I would physically imagine myself as each different character (during rewrites, not when I was trying to get the story out as it’s time consuming) in order to get the dialogue right. It’s fun and helps you see the other guys side in life, not just in writing.😘

  14. Your words are like a shot in the arm, a good shot. If you write for the pure joy of writing and the love of words then you’re a writer, embrace it and pass it forward, someone will catch it and repay the favor. Words are like echo’s waiting to be heard.

  15. Love the perfume idea D. Always smells better a mile away.

    But what got me good was the too many reds……… yet if one if Japanese……ha! the paintwork and layer after layer of varied reds, can be a good thing/bad thing, but you make a good point.

    The sports analogy and your autopsy were too sweet.

    Me though? I’m all about the colorstorm. lol

  16. Thanks for describing your writing and feelings about it. I like to write Haiku because the seventeen syllables require me to choose the best words in a word-field to express what I mean to say.

  17. Diana, If there is one lesson I have learned from you (starting from when we first “met”), it is to wisely use my words or rather the wise use of “lack of words.” I am a better writer because I took your advice to examine each word and let the reader fill in some of the embellishments from their imagination, experiences, and expectations. For me, writing is a process. Before I hit the “publish” button in WordPress, I let my writing sit for a while. When I come back, a day, a week, or a month later, I can look at it with fresh eyes and do more cutting and clarification. I am forever grateful that you have challenged me to up my game and go for the 3-pointers!

    • What a gift you’ve left me.

      rather the wise use of β€œlack of words.”

      I love that.

      ” I am a better writer because I took your advice to examine each word ”
      I feel my life has be worthwhile. *laugh*

      Your writing certainly is clear, Debbie. And I love your aspiration in this when yours isn’t a writing blog per se but a space for encouraging faith and truth. I don’t know where else the pursuit of excellence is more important and serves the message. Thank you for letting me know!!

      Xxxxx
      Diana

  18. Such a beautiful description on writing! I know I couldn’t write without my faith. I ask God to take over my pen, and He certainly does! And now as I write my first book, I’m trying to learn and grow.

    • I think it is by nothing random that Christ was the Word, the living Word, Emily. And that by this Word all things were created. May you draw light and wisdom into your words. Thanks so much for the follow.

      Diana

  19. ‘bloody sacrifice.’ Bloody right about that. So much goes into writing, writing something that means to you. Agree with you about being on WP for a while – we can keep going as we’ve always done, or challenge ourselves by putting out diferrent kinds of posts out there. Unlike Lilka in the comments, my blog posts over the years have not become shorter. In fact they’ve become longer and it’s not something I ever saw coming but oh well, here I am… πŸ™‚ As usual, another inspirational witty piece from you.

    • I love how we each evolve, Mabel, and love as much hearing about it. Nothing wrong with the lengthening. It rocks me to see some of my longest posts unapologetically continue to score good views. That says something very important about writing and readers, that they are willing to pay, while our currency is time.

      Keep it up. =)

      • ‘while our currency is time.’ Cannot agree with you more. When we do get the time, we put our heart and soul into our writing. Heh, you keep it up too. Write and write and keep writing πŸ™‚

  20. How you must cringe reading my posts, I can’t remember the rules and English grammar drills were just too much for my dyslexic unorganised brain. Thank goodness for music so that I could enjoy the written word in small chunks.

  21. Great advice and I like the last paragraph about poetry being Eucharistic.
    “The mountains were draped by black curtains of ominous storm clouds, portentous of trouble over marshy waters.” Wherever you dug out this sentence, it made me chuckle πŸ™‚

  22. Ooh! You have really made me think now. I’m going to have to watch myself more carefully in future. I am sure I am guilty of a few of these, and I really would like to become a better writer. Thank you for the inspiration πŸ™‚

  23. Thank you for this. I am new. So new. Striving to call myself a writer without feeling like an imposter. Your writing is lovely – and FUNNY! I learned from this – and enjoyed it very much. Thanks, again.

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