The more I write, the more I am taken with it, the magic of the word. Turn the wrist, 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, an act that calls for devotion, affection, discipline, even bloody sacrifice. 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 a lack of clear purpose or 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 I hope are crisp and 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. And when I want more, I go with the least possible number of modifiers unless I am inflecting other elements of communication. So in rationing my words as I would a meal in wartime, 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 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
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