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 hold out a balm. Flick, and you have a blade. 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, on 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 (just 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, cut sharper on the page than you did 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. Is each one doing its thing, contributing something fresh to the 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. 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

I Would Gather All The Words

If I could I would gather all the words
from the wild, pick them like berries
    and press them into these pages to
    bleed them, beautiful, into my notebook

I would chase syllable streams that
refresh dry banks and stop. at the quarry
where I will cut confused hands on stone,
    going through the   ruins of my  
    dreams and I will bottle my cries to
    pour over the altar of my art

If I could I would answer the laughter
in the wind, unravel the rhetoric of the rain,
    and walking dirt and gravel transcribe
    the vernacular of city streets

I would record every note of joy from children
and undo the silence of grandmothers,
    ask them   about dogged hope

I would keep on west of my despair,
right through the dying sun and spell
    the sunrise as it lights land and sea
    in the genius of resurrection.

field of words

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this epicurean sea of wildflowers and opus
white blossoms stirs beneath a rising day

she spills seminal secrets as the bees and
winds drive pollen grains and promise past
the velvet parting into stigma and style

with the marksmanship of knowing.

this field, voluminous womb, awash with prose
drinks the sun that climaxes overhead. a rain
of white sapphire upon silken spires that
indemnifies last night’s shower,

and the dandelion memories too much
for me in the wind perish in a panoply of filaments

but here i lie on my earthen bed pregnant
with poetry, the story under stories of the grass,
translating the anatomy of nature’s mystery and
indulge myself upon this, my field of words.

I Enjoy Stripping

cake2I don’t like having more than one of anything. Feels wasteful. I mean, one hairbrush will do. My wedding dress and cake had no decorations, no ribbon or flower. Nothing. In my day-to-day, I map out the most efficient route for errands. Lose time and you’ve lost what’s irretrievable. I like to keep on the spare side of things.

It hit me that the way I relate to money and time is how I write. I try to work each word full tilt. I love having guest writers see they can toss two, three hundred words to find the heart of their story. Of the 42 who have come through these doors, virtually all have sworn they have “cut to the bone” and just can’t reach the word limit I set. I plunge my knife, head straight for the marrow, send them the bloody remains. Yes, laughing like Cruella De Vil. My toughest critic, I stripped a short February post of a dozen words last night – and nodded in approval. Cleaner, tighter. I do my best to preserve the unique voice of every contributor, which is why we have had 42 different voices in the repertoire. No one has to or should sound like me. Goodness, not with the literary greats to emulate. But I believe we can apply principles of efficiency no matter what our style. Because we writers and poets love our words so much, we tend to err on the side of overstating and in our earnestness, try too hard. We all know less is more but my guests still scrounge for the anesthesia when they see the knife. Which reminds me. I need to wipe that blade.

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HW, in cahoots with the Mafia

The Writing Process II, Part 3: From the Grammar Mafia

Godfather2Those who might have thought the Wayfarer congenial up until now must know The Godmother from New York has taken over this leg of the trip (see Uncle?) and California Girl’s backseat, engrossed in a book.

Last I checked, blogosphere was a beautiful democracy. If you are offended by what follows, remember you are free as the wind to check out or unfollow this blog. My point today is simple: learn the basics. Please.

I am not speaking of the innocent blue-moon typo. This proof of human fallibility is why we’re thankful for the saving grace of the edit. I’m not speaking to those whose native tongue is a language other than English. I’m talking to people who publish anything blissfully careless in the basics. You who faithfully streak your blog with words missing apostrophes or a whole letter as in your vs you’re, unabashed at the moments you regress to the achievements of a second grader. Before we get to the grammar, I’m talking about the mechanics that school drilled into you every darn year, third grade to middle. Do you know how to turn on the headlights so you’re visible to oncoming traffic? How’s the rear view? It’s the preliminary stuff the driving instructor wants to see you know before you pull away.

What have you to say of your intellectual laziness? Why would you give yourself license to be sloppy, to reduce your art, vandalize your presentation? If you were to take offense that I came over and markered your work, it would be curious irony given that’s what you do yourself. You owe it to yourself not to look less intelligent than you are. You owe it to your readers to be clean on paper and screen. Pave their way, shovel off the stones and debris so it’s that much easier for them. Why do you not show up to the office in slippers and the shirt you slept in – even if everyday were the Casual Friday it is in the Sunny State? An inkling of social protocol, respect for the boss. A hassle to learn once for all, you say? Honestly, it is doable. If fourth graders can get it, so can you. The mechanics are just a hairsbreadth up a notch from the alphabet. I’m not talking about complex constructions, style, voice.

Many of you have published. Tell me, would Doubleday or Bantam put out your final copy with the strings of indifferent technical blotches in your story? Okay then, would you self-publish that way? Then why in — name do you blog as you do? So you never claimed to be a writer. You’re here to share your hobbies and talk about your cat. Or showcase your art. If you’re going to put out more than two sentences and want anyone besides Nana and your best friend to see them, retain a measure of self-respect and file and sand, please. Ah, but you mean only to encourage others in their faith. Well, Scripture enjoins us to pursue excellence in all we do, and rewards the endeavor. “Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will stand before kings.” Proverbs 22.29. God-fearing Mafia, you must know. You’re not wired for the screws and ratchet of language; you’re a genius Right-Brain who’s busy being creative. It’s the (professing) artist who believes there is no harm in exchanging blue for purple. What musician would shrug a B for C? They might be only a note apart but a single note changes the chord, Bach lives on to say through his arpeggios of precision. Please don’t insult me. Would you be as satisfied as the construction engineer who wasn’t so worried about the details to the foundation of your house? But he was preoccupied with the layout and paint. The rigorous Left Brains get this. You might be easy about donating a penny to the Ronald McDonald House but see how happy you’ll stay with the accountant who doesn’t believe numbers must be accurate. Don’t gyp your readers.

The blitzkrieg of analogies is to bring home the simple reminder that the fundamentals remain nonnegotiable in every area of life. If you’re going to take up the dignified name of writer or poet and need some work with the simple Dos and Don’ts, do retrain yourself – once for all. I begin with the epidemic glitches which happen to be the most elementary and move up to high school for those who care:

THE APOSTROPHE
1) Before you throw it in there, make sure it’s a possession (Sarah’s bag) or contraction (it’s = it is) you want to express. That apostrophe stands for something.

You’re book
Your book

2) On this one matter of words ending in s, I dare to disagree with the Writers’ Bible The Elements of Style by Strunk Jr. and White: The authors favor the possessive with the additional ‘s (Charles’s friend) and go on to differentiate the times you tack on the apostrophe by itself (Moses’ staff), but the distinctions are just too much. Stick to the smokers’ room. The book has been out fifty years. Language favors elision over time, likes the path of least resistance. If it can drop something, it will.

3) The pronouns its, yours, hers, theirs take on no apostrophe because they already indicate possession.

its own ethic
song of yours
they took hers
that lodge of theirs

OBJECT PRONOUN
The preposition between takes objects, not subjects.

between he and I
between him and I
between her and I

between him and me
between her and me

ALL RIGHT
The law of elision, i.e. the law of human laziness, will eventually canonize alright. But all right stand as two words.

A LOT
alot
Also two words.

REFLEXIVE PRONOUN
Use the simple subject pronoun.

Cary and myself arrived at the lake.
Cary and I arrived at the lake.

The reflexive pronouns like myself, himself, yourself need a noun or pronoun in the sentence to reflect back to.

I congratulated me.
There’s the I, the referent.

I congratulated myself.

I’m fine.  And yourself?
There is no you the yourself can hearken back to.

I’m fine.  And you?

Tanya hurt herself.
Tanya hurt her. (She hurt someone else.)

SUBJECT-VERB AGREEMENT
The numbers must match.
1) Each, either, everyone, everybody, neither, nobody, someone call for a singular verb.

Everybody thinks they are cool. (Here, they refer to the subject everybody.)
Everybody thinks he is cool.

2) When none means not one or no one, it takes a singular verb.

None of them are going.
None of them is going.

3) Either and neither take a singular verb.

Neither of you are coming.
Neither of you is coming.
Do you know if either of these is used?

4) It’s one number:

A number of cases have revealed that
A number of cases has revealed that
[One number of cases]

MISPLACED MODIFIER
You can only think when writing.
You can think only when writing.

In the first instance, the only thing you’re doing is thinking because the only modifies whatever act follows. What you meant was to qualify the circumstance that allows you to write.

SUBJECT OF A PREPOSITIONAL PHRASE
the point of what us writers are about

The underlined phrase modifies of and behaves as one noun. Try “the point of the story.” When uncertain between the object and subject form of a pronoun, cover the distraction and you’ll hear it:

what us [writers] are about —> what us are about

Now you know the phrase needs the subject: what we are about

the point of what we writers are about

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If you’re still here, feeling positive that I wrote this just for you, I assure you it is not personal. How I would love the luxury of time to be able to keep track of who violated which writing law when. Maybe if I drew up a hit list of bloggers…

If you’re gun-shy at this point, you may breathe: I’m giving it back over to the Wayfarer. Decided on the hate mail? Send it to me. She’s a sweetie. I wish she were tougher. The girl refuses to police grammar in readers’ comments. Oh, homeschooling calls: Holistic Godmother goes off to teach her boy the ways of the Grammar Mafia.

Until next time.