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

The Path You Might Have Taken

Favim.com

Favim.com

As the last iPhone holdout on the planet and blind without virtual powers, I could only guess that the 91 straight ahead was going to stop up in five miles as usual. Do I move left and hit Fastrak or make my way over to the right for Toll? Which will get me to Orange County faster? At 60 miles an hour, there came a point where I was committed. And to stay in the lane was to decide.

We play out this moment more dramatically many times in our lives, often at the crossroads to wildly differing futures. While we can inhabit only one place at one time, language enables us to travel many roads at once in our wondering over what might’ve been. On the TED stage, Classicist Phuc Tran takes a look at this versatility afforded by the subjunctive mood. Remember that the indicative expresses factual action (I am blogging) and the subjunctive, nonfactual with its nuances of possibility and potentiality. (I wish I could blog more. If only I could blog more! I might’ve blogged today if only…)

A brush with tragedy often sends us on the subjunctive ride. Some have marveled that they were sent to a different office the day the Twin Towers fell, others that they had missed their plane. Under the rubble of mishap or suffering, we also often retrace that path. What if I hadn’t taken that dive? What if I hadn’t bumped into her? What if I’d married him? Tran shares, “The night that my family was fleeing Saigon, my entire family, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, were all scheduled to board a bus. And as that bus was loading passengers, I began crying, shrieking uncontrollably, so much so that my entire family decided to wait for the next bus. And as that bus pulled away from us, it was struck by artillery fire. It exploded and everyone on board was killed. As a kid, I thought a lot about our good fortune in escaping and about what would have happened if we hadn’t.”

He goes on to muse that his native Vietnamese tongue uses no subjunctive. His father never dwelt on what could’ve been, for better or worse. He never pined that he should have held security and status as a lawyer and aspiring politician back in Saigon. He did what he had to do in the indicative strength of his mother language, driving a cement mixer to support his family in America. But borrowing from the resources of the English language, his son grew up to explore the possibilities for his own future, crafting joyful work as a Classics instructor as well as a tattoo artist. While saving simplicity can protect us from the bitterness of regret, it can also keep us from life-giving promise. After all, the question of what could have been springs from the same emotional impetus that asks what could be. Isn’t what if the stuff of dreamers and visionaries? It’s what gets people out of North Korea, impels us to look for a better job, start a blog. We don’t just declare our present reality and sit back with a bag over our head. This is my life. This is my body. We devise a better way and move toward it.

Tran cites the 2011 Gallup International that surveyed feelings of optimism among various nations. Which country do you think came out on top? The one “whose language doesn’t allow its speakers to obsess over the idea of what could have been“. The most pessimistic? France – whose language has “two subjunctives and existentialism.” (The audience laughed.) Let me throw in that South Korea reigns as Drama Queen in Asia with her notorious tear-jerker melodrama series that remains in demand across the seas. Korean happens to weigh in as a language fraught with the subjunctive, its history full of pathos and saturated in longing. Just fascinating, how language forges the paths we might take in the mind and heart. And then look what we do with that language.

Something in us not only calls up the prospects we missed but finds so intriguing the ones ahead, that we have come to devote a whole genre called fiction to exploring the unreal – what might have been – and make it real in the indicative. The most powerful novels that stay with me long after I close them sound the echo of steps not taken by characters who had a choice. Because that is life. Able to choose only one moment in time, we forgo competing realities, sometimes let go the dreams that chased us. “The subjunctive is the most powerful mood, it’s like a time-space dream machine that can conjure alternate realities with just the idea of could have or should have. But within this idea of should have is a Pandora’s box of hope and regret,” says Tran.

As for me this year, I am to take neither Fastrak nor Toll in the homeschooling and all the TO DOs but to stay the course, on foot. Grounded. I am working on keeping more grounded, attuned to my needs. All 90 pounds of me have felt as though I could blow away with the wind. I was surprised to find the other day that the inviting rebounder didn’t feel as good as the treadmill I am usually not dying to hop on. My feet sought firmness. It feels good to be cooking again, chopping my beets, the juice of the earth on my hands. I am seeing that it’s not either-or, where I thought life had me in the teeth between the dictates of my indicative circumstances and muzzled hopes. This path of nurture will slowly give way to possibilities.

Burial

It was a summer sun and autumn wind. He felt both uncomfortable and snug in the sweater as the heat bore through and the air blew in tidal breaths about him. He couldn’t help look up as he made his way down the gully using his spade for a walking stick. The sky, a wash of azure, held out a gorgeous cleanness – a tableau vivant of redemption after the fierce rain.

Reminding himself to breathe with the wind softening above, he followed the redolent trail of conifer to a line of trees tall against the strike of sun. Right there, by the rock. That’s where he’d dig. The clods eventually gave way because they had to. All those years: longing and defeat marked a hundred thousand steps that made a life, and he hadn’t lived. The dirt crumbled under the work of sure hands. When he made his way back out to the deepening sunlight and noise, will people know that his heart had stopped, that in death he had prevailed over beguiling hope? No. They will just believe his depthless smile. The hollow was now big enough. Calloused palms smoothed the bottom and bending, like a father over the cradle, he buried his dreams.

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, nodding 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.

Comments closed.

HW, in cahoots with the Mafia

Young Writers in Their Dreaming

I got to do the fun stuff with my students when I taught the Gifted and Talented in the 90s. The elementary school kids in the program left their classroom and came to me bright-eyed, bushy-taled. Grounded in the basics, they were ready for a session of poetry or creative writing. Here are some activities the second graders got a kick out of one year. They were reading fairy tales in class so we played with a number of enrichment exercises around the subject of gnomes. We brainstormed the things these creatures might eat and need. See what the kids came up with:

Gnome4
Gnome Foods by Anna

1. Chocolate Mushroom cake
2. Chocolate-covered leaf
3. Jellyfish tuna sandwich
4. Buttercup cake
5. Smashed Grass and Fish Salad
6. Nectar shake

Tap the list on the right to zoom. The word that’s hard to read in no. 5 is cockroach.

Ad for Gnome Furniture

for the Gnome News by Jackie

New. Acorn fillings sofa bed with cotton flower pillow. The pedals help you fall asleep and in the morning they help you wake up rested. And in the night you have no bad dreams. Yours, for only 10 pinecones. Pillows free.

Oh, where are those pinecones?

Gnome Illnesses by Julian

1. Nox Shadis Feveris (Nightshade Fever)
Carrot infusion and agave minted green
Drink 1/2 cup every morning.

2. Lox Gnomigus (Lou Gnomig’s Disease)
Black tea with Meridian grapes
Take 1/4 cup a day after lunch.

3. Gnomhizerus (Gnomheizer’s Disease)
Cyprus fruit with citrus.
Take 1/2 cup five times a day.

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Several years later a private student of mine came up with a Narnian menu Mr. Tumnus the Faun presented Lucy in his cave.  Daniel was in third grade.

Tumnus Café

 Dessert

Cookies n Cream Reindeer Pie with boba nose and cinnamon antlers
Rocky Road Unicone with roasted pink marshmallow shreds
Wildberry Cheesecake topped with sliced acorn and nutmeg
McCherry Sundae with toasted TumFlower seeds
Rainberry muffins with vanilla icing
Strawberry Upside-Down Cake (for birthdays. Please call in advance.)

 Iced Beverages

Snowberry lemonade
Rainbow punch with banana-flavored straws
Snowplum smoothie
Morning dew shake topped with moon peach slices

 Hot Drinks

Green apple cider with star sugar
Fire Diamond milk
Dawn Wind mango boba with dessert dream sprinkles
===========================

Hear the poetry in some of these lines? Young writers at work, frolicking in a field of ideas. What a delicious world they created. Where imagination took these children is the runway of the Shel Silversteins, J.K. Rowlings, Alice Walkers. An old friend reminded me yesterday that English was my second language. I wonder where I’d be now if in the formative years I’d been given the permission and direction away from the glory of grades to dream, just dream.

The Writing Process II, Part 5: The Gift of Time in Revision

If this one isn’t short and sweet, hopefully it’ll be short and sensible. I didn’t touch on this point in the first series for its plain truth, but it’s a common experience of writers that might be nice to talk about. Before publishing anything, take the good that time offers and – where at all possible – step away from your work.

Stephen King says, “With six weeks’ worth of recuperation time, you’ll be able to see any glaring holes in the plot or character development…Your mind and imagination…have to recycle themselves.” (On Writing) But he doesn’t get into why the brain welcomes this respite in the first place.

PocketWatch2Without it, we’re too deeply IN IT. It’s the reason we’re convinced we’re in the right, glued to our own voice in an argument. No objectivity.

Mario has said, “Even though I wrote it, it is too close sometimes, OK all the time. And readers’ response tells me how I am coming across.” Kevin told the Grammar Mafia, “I do edit most of my posts. For grammar. For spelling. And then, I’ll reread the post months later and wonder how could I have said “that” so poorly. Run-ons and convoluted phrasing mostly, but not exclusively.”

That’s all of us. The distance of time, even an hour, can lend legibility to the written thought as it renews the reader and quiets the talker in us.

The Holistic Editor offers a word on healthful writing: we require balance in all areas. Writaholics of all people benefit from activity that redistributes blood and energy from the brain to the rest of our anatomy. We are physically more than the thoughts we hear and devote desk hours to, and need to nourish all the organs with the balance of movement. Enjoy some fresh air, tackle the dishes, pump those limbs, sing, dance, sleep. And return with a fresh eye to the words you were eager to print. They’ll be even better. Clearer.

The Writing Process II, Part 4: Why We Read

books-on-a-shelf4With every post here, I turn my nose up at her who’s bold enough to take minutes of your life. I make her answer, “Who cares?”

Your response has not only motivated me to do justice to your time, but made me contemplate the reading process. In all the talk about how to write, I began thinking about why we even try, backtracking to why we read. According to Stephen King, “The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing.” (On Writing) What I want to understand, though, is not the intellectual benefits of reading, but why we take such pleasure in it. We are preoccupied with Self. Like we’re so interested in the preoccupant who yaps without giving us a word edgewise. But we love a good story, romance or gore.

Among the highest compliments you can earn is that your work made me laugh or cry. A physical response. I watch the guys in the octagon at the gym. Their blows land with impact. To think – words can do just that.  Some time back, a post I stumbled on cut open a deep, quiet wound. Good writing. A chemical reaction between me and the words. If we were able to maintain our distance, remind ourselves it’s just a poem or piece of fiction, we wouldn’t respond with our body, sensibilities, memory. King says, “The object of fiction is…to make the reader welcome and then tell a story…to make him forget, whenever possible, that he is reading a story at all.” That your writing drew someone in is high praise. As a teenager, I sought out this transformed reality in the proverbial escape into books away from my unhappiness. We like to lose this world, our very self, in a good book. But reading isn’t just anesthesia or a verbal trip to the theme park. We’re not only running from something, in many cases, but running to.

RECOGNITION
King says, “If you want to be a successful writer, you must be able to describe it, and in a way that will cause your reader to prickle with recognition.” Effective writing often taps our autobiography. It sights the strands in the reader’s own story – of love, sacrifice, heartache, mystery – and yes, we feel the tug. I recently finished Notes from the Underwire, former child actress Quinn Cummings’ account of her adventures from the early years into motherland. You’re hard-pressed to flip a page without laughing but in the chapter on the dog I would otherwise care little for, I couldn’t help tearing up. Through the fun description of the mutt she adopted and trained, she took me through the pain of losing him. Cummings made me care, speaking into my experience of the regret of mistakes, of loss, of coming up short. This response from one who will let her son get a tattoo before he does a pet. It was one of the most poignant chapters in the book.

When we’re happily settled in even the cheap paperback fling, it’s not only because we daydream the thrill of courtship but because it answers our inmost longing to be romanced by life. The horror genre? Apart from how interesting he is to read of, the boogeyman is someone we all know. We’ve all been afraid. Whether of a person who haunts you or the voice in the dark that murmurs you’re not good enough. King says he writes so the reader can lift the truth from the web of his fiction. We love suspense for the unpredictability it mirrors of our life, the questions we live daily. Why is the battle between good and evil a classic theme and not a cliché? We don’t tire of it because justice is the assent of the spirit, redemption its cry.

But we want more than the reflection of our own tale, especially when there is so much of the painful in it. Compelling writing also echoes the story under our story. It is the yearning for the distant country C.S. Lewis saw, the hopeful suspicion that the five mortal senses are not the arbiter of reality. And just behind the familiarity, we discover possibility.

POSSIBILITY
Suffering and beauty lift us out of self-absorption to something greater than ourself. Even humor, a touch of beauty for its dip into joy, helps us get over our bad self for the moment. There is lightness. Life isn’t all about shuffling along under a load. We can set it down. Trust that Someone or something’s got our back – God or friend or peace with self. When we hope or even fear as we ought from the lessons of literature and poetry, we realize a fresh reverence. Privy to the vast range of possibilities ancient and modern tales disclose, we learn new ways of responding to challenges and can exchange the load for a dream.

AND SO, THIS THING CALLED WRITING
Why show, not tell? Why go to lengths to paint it in a poem or novel when you can simply say She was beautiful. It was horrific. The universe takes my breath away? Not only do these declarations fall flat, they are inadequate. It is the ironic insufficiency of the human word that has seen writers and sages from the first incarnate Whisper scrambling to describe the fullness of experience so those on the other side of the story can see, hear, feel for themselves. If you take this illustration for egoism, I’ll risk it: I was taken aback yesterday by a comment that my poem — know? was “satisfying.” It resonated with me as a commendation every writer would embrace, while inviting survey. Webster’s top three definitions of satisfy:

1. to fulfill the desires, expectations, needs, or demands of; give full contentment to
2. to put an end to (a desire, want, need, etc.) by sufficient or ample provision
3. to give assurance to; convince: to satisfy oneself by investigation

God knows I never imagined the poem fulfilled anyone’s needs. I considered it decent enough to share when it sufficiently confided my mystified reverence for the Mystery that makes itself plain but remains inscrutable. But my thoughtful reader Monica found the pulse of the human heart. We hope from – even demand of – our reading that it deliver us from the tyranny of the mundane. There is more to life than these four walls. And the soul sings – in reader and writer – to envision something larger behind that corner up ahead. It is the Narnia adults follow kids into.

Writing with you has been magical.