If you’re interested, here’s a glimpse of me editing myself. *Ruthless*
If you’re interested, here’s a glimpse of me editing myself. *Ruthless*
If this one isn’t short and sweet, hopefully it’ll be short and sensible. 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.
The distance of time, even an hour, can lend legibility to the written thought as it renews the writer and quiets the talker in us.
The Holistic Editor offers a word on healthful writing: we require balance in all areas. Wordaholics of all people benefit from activity that redistributes blood and energy from the brain to the rest of our anatomy. As we are physically more than the thoughts we hear and devote desk hours to, we need to nourish our 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.
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.
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.
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.
The Process is as rich as there are writers.
I now see that in my earliest years of writing I was mixing and matching, trying on words for size, putting out what I thought sounded good. Of course sounds are what give birth to words, and it is the thrilling privilege of writers to show communication is not only functional but beautiful. But now I am ruthless with Self: tightening, trimming, questioning, challenging, making her say more with less. I still experiment, and sound out my work for the music of language. But I no longer sacrifice style for truth.
In her prolific journaling and letter-writing to those back home a hundred years ago, Irish missionary to India Amy Carmichael asked herself: “Is this true?” Twenty years after I glossed over these three words in her biography they have resurfaced these past few months. In the writing, I ask myself if it’s true. My purpose in the process isn’t to incite a response or rouse an audience. If a word doesn’t quite sit well with me, is not true to myself, I rework it until it imparts intention. I wasn’t looking to be funny or hyperbolic in the posts that earned laughs. They told what I simply felt or saw. I am not out to impress as I am to express. And in the expressing, I am also not the girl emptying angry questions out of an abraded heart anymore. Not because my life is perfect. But because, as many will disagree, if I write primarily for the therapy that it wonderfully can be, it will feel like emotional emesis and not true art. I don’t want to take up your time with personal rehab.
There are sites devoted to the loving memory of a dear one or blogs defined by a persisting pain. Writing is healing, which is in part why I have journaled so extensively over the years. With loving hopes for the people behind such blog, I have connected with them. I didn’t write bereft to broadcast one of the most impossible sorrows I have known. I in fact did not want to be explicit. The journaling already had helped me process the grief. But as I freed the poem to the life it took on, it rehearsed how the world had looked at the time from inside my pain. I had to keep it real. As for creative writing or fiction, I asked myself through every line in Rain Story, “Is this what I see in my head with my spirit?” And so I realize it’s a finer line between journalism and creative writing than appears. I feel very much like a journalist reporting live from what’s inside.
The nascent writer churned out her share of cryptic poetry. Now, I wouldn’t waste anyone’s time purposely being unclear when you’ve come to see what I have to say. I employ metaphors for the 1000 words they save me with their pictures. I’m no longer the high schooler with words welling over in the dark. The journey may start out as an exploration. But at some point before I share it with another sojourner I’ve figured out where North is and have walked the line – without needless acrobatics.
Put a touch of magic in your ending.
The last impression you leave of your writing rests on your closing thoughts, which will ring more loudly than the opening sentence that well may have gone forgotten halfway into your narrative. In my school years, I struggled not to copy my first paragraph in the last. With practice, I saw one way to dress the ending was to add a personal layer from my experiences. What is good writing? Fiction or not, it lives beyond its page. Relatable perspectives or stories will stay with the reader. And while an interesting plot or message serves as the architecture, paint it in dull, uniform colors and it won’t sell. So vivid pictures through to the end are another way to keep the words alive. The use of verbs I examined in The Writing Process, Part 3 becomes less an issue in the final sentence, a literal place that does not call for momentum. There, you want to bring your ideas to rest. Nouns and adjectives, then, can make the difference away from an insipid finish. How do you vivify nouns when they are often simply things, people, places? This is where metaphors and similes can shine.
Before we look at a model piece of writing by Abraham Lincoln, I’d like to share its cultural context. In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman describes how political debates ran longer than the advent of television began to allow. Americans stood through hours of each of the seven famous Lincoln-Douglas Debates. I believe Lincoln’s oratory skills sharpened him in the written word in a culture that Postman shows was more literate and less visual than ours. Public speaking remains an invaluable asset to the practice of writing for the challenge it presents in sustaining an audience. When you remove even the image of text from your audience so that your words are no longer read but only heard, you pull any vestige of distraction. Your words must stand on the merit of their content and the ability to engage listeners’ senses. I realize why the great orators from the conflagrant days of slavery in the U.S. wrote so brilliantly. An excellent speech is the hardest paper to write. The enunciated conclusion is the last snapshot of the speech the audience remembers.
Back to the deliberate use of grammar in the stylistic craft of an ending to an essay, narrative, piece of fiction, poem, or post. Lincoln’s letter of condolences to a mother who lost five sons in the Civil War demonstrates the full art of the parts of speech used well. Though Lincoln’s aim in the body of the missive was not the effects of verbs I’ve discussed, he did carry emotion and pictures in those verbs that propelled each sentence to the next. I feel how fruitless…to beguile you from the grief…But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation…Now look out for the nouns in his concluding sentence: I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish…and leave you only…the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.
In the final sentence of the letter, the lackluster verb to be that attributes the solemn pride to the woman is colored over by the descriptive nouns anguish and sacrifice, and the metaphor altar. Altar is where you give all. You see fire, death, blood, ashes.
So often all you need is a word or two in that final sentence to provide a picture or feeling that continues to resonate in the spirit of the reader. A poem gives you a lot of room for a resounding note of provocation or beauty. In prose, you can also spin a unique, witty, funny, touching perspective. Employ a surprise or a pun. The blogger I quoted doubled back to his introductory assertion, “Ah, like life, water is a wonderful metaphor for writing” when he signed off by saying he needed to get in hot water as he pushes himself as a writer. The well-chosen noun or metaphor will not disappoint. In fact, subtle often beats anything amplified. One thing you don’t want to do in writing is overdo. Tacky. To return to our coloring analogy, a gentle stroke can bring your words to blush.
In extension of The Writing Process: Sensory Details, Part 4, I share a handful of poems a few private students produced years back. The wording fell into place once the ideas came to life in the brainstorm of senses (explained in Part 4). Tip of the day: quotes wake up poems with the element of reality they provide. I quieted the protest of the artist in me and convinced her to allow the first two works in excerpt. Yes, a poem should be read in its entirety. But I’d like to keep to my objective efficiently – to provide samples of sensory descriptions at work:
Red is spicy.
Red is ketchup: “Oops! My favorite shirt!”
In a sunset, red pulls the moon.
Red gives us energy.
Red means it.
By Joseph, 1st grade homeschooler
The shades that wrap a rain forest,
The feeling you have after a good night’s rest.
Outstretch of a palm tree,
Grudge of envy.
The life that awakens from a long winter snow,
Green is the fourth color of the promise rainbow.
By Kelsey, 4th grade
Leaves sticky patch on little faces
By the merry-go-round
“Mommy, Mommy, Can I please…?”
Little girls and boys wave their
cotton candy stick triumphantly
Melts to their tongue
More fluffy bites
Leave sandy sweetness in their trail
By Kristen Chang, days before turning 13. Now all grown:
Kristin and I were studying imagery – literary and poetic jargon for mental picture.
I was about 23, teaching 5th grade in a diverse Philadelphia public school. Hailstones and Halibut Bones, the beautiful book of color poetry that inspires kids out of mediocre writing, sparked lovely poems in my own students. (It is the most recent edition that offers vibrant pictures). The contagious delight the kids took playing with words that detailed everyday sensory experiences prompted a color poem out of their teacher too. It was a special experience for us to write together.
Once the brainstorm page filled up, the poems wrote themselves. We divided a sheet of paper into six rows, each representing a physical sense with the addition of one for emotions (Sight, Hearing, Touch, Taste, Smell, Feeling). Then simply named observations and experiences in their category. White: cotton candy for taste, blank coloring page for touch, chocolate for taste. Writers young and old will hear “show, not tell” or “paint a picture,” but may not quite know how to go about it. Sensory details paint clear verbal pictures, not unlike a 3-D presentation that appears to move toward the reader. They serve as a powerful writing tool for the grade school student as well as the blogger and the author on his fourth novel.
Here is the poem I wrote alongside my students that I’d completely forgotten about. I tried to keep it on the simple side so it’d be relatable for them. Feeling sheepish. I’d love to revise but share it to offer a glimpse of something born in happy league with little writers. Note the progression of a lifetime within the poem:
from the “Candy!” shouter,
eager page of a coloring book,
a glob of frosting some finger took,
little league socks,
the vanilla taste,
background of polka dots,
a special chocolate to crave,
ivory pearls that swim cream waves,
a careful prom dress,
marble sheet on a winter lake,
the bride in grace,
a queenly wedding cake.
A piano key, white
plays a note of simplicity.
White is romance heaven-blessed.
It is the color of promise
A dependable soul,
behind every color hides
a white shadow.
White hair is
humanity’s confession –
in age less the color of a question –
“Strength is gossamer,
time but a loan,”
white is the color
I awoke today to over 200 subscribers on my Stats report. Still doing Cyberland on foot without the airlift of tweets or Facebook (somebody, get me a GPS for FB).
I thank my faithful readers for entering the story. Sharing the journey has been more enriching than I knew to expect as a new kid (or Mom) on the block. I’ve interfaced with lives on the common ground of writing, faith, motherhood, hardship. I feel honored for the follow of writers and the feedback they have been interested to hear from me on their work. People have engaged me in their worldview, have allowed me to offer another perspective. I came close to dropping the Holistic Journey in the early days to conserve time and energy for the other blog I was eager to build – only to write helplessly on. Not familiar with the world of blogging, I had no inkling I would meet such talented, creative, open-hearted people as I have. And no idea I’d end up wishing for the pleasure of talking further in person with some.
My purpose here crystallized with time. The reason I wasn’t choosing to focus on the homeschool activities was A Holistic Journey is a writer’s blog. Of course all bloggers write something, and I’m only the millionth to recheck her work before clicking publish. But every post is more than just that to me. Not because I’m taking myself so seriously (which I learn to do less well every year) but because each post is a patchwork of the hands that run over and over the words in love.
I’m not very forgiving of sloppy writing. If you give me your time, I should give you even more of mine to make it worth your while. I’ve asked the best of myself in every offering of thought. Not only for my readers, but for the delight and reward of conceiving something that breathes.
A fellow bookaholic I follow nominated me just now for the Shine On Award. I accept with appreciation.
I’m not asking Hamlet’s existential question. To be or not to be? To live or kill myself? It’s literal grammar.
To eat –> She eats.
To dance –> She dances.
To be –> She
be. She is.
The verb TO BE conjugates, or breaks down, into the form is when referring to a singular third party he, she, or it.
She be sweet. She is sweet. TO BE morphs into are in the plural. They be sweet. They are sweet.
In all its conjugations, the verb TO BE serves as a referential foundation in the English language. TO BE enables us to assign description and value to people, things, ideas.
The trees are lovely in the wind.
Trees = Lovely
TO BE would be impossible not to use in speech and writing.
But artful writing shouldn’t depend on this verb. You want to minimize its appearance. As a verbal equal sign, TO BE makes assertions that fall flat. Good writing carries momentum. Because verbs are action words, they propel the message and description forward.
Rather than take up a whole sentence just to say the trees are lovely (apart from poetic circumstances that ask for this declaration), you could say
The lovely trees sway and bow in the wind.
Now the verbs sway and bow paint a picture the are doesn’t.
Here’s a clip from the post The Invisible Woman:
So-nyo, an elderly mother of four grown children, vanishes in the Seoul subways.
I could have written
So-nyo is an elderly mother of four grown children who vanishes in the Seoul subways.
The line I settled on runs on only one verb vanishes. I didn’t want to waste time and words stating what So-nyo is when I could show it while saying something more interesting or informative. My point is that she disappeared, not that she was an elderly mom of four.
I dug up two written samples from my high school days just now. *Wrinkle nose*
The mathematical straight line whose end arrows stretch on to eternity is the prime example. The line will always be at least a billionth of a millimeter off…
Twenty-five years later, I would say
The…line…serves as the prime example. It will remain at least….
Serves, stands, remains, runs are picturesque alternatives to is.
James’ simple act of giving milk for the sick children is profound and laudable in its contrast to the headmaster’s pretentious and futile plans for the village.
James’ simple, profound act of providing milk for the sick stands in glaring contrast to the….
The whole first sentence rests on the verb is. If you blip it, you are forced to retrieve a more interesting verb which in turn carries the writing forward rather than keep it static.
Circling back to our starting question, then:
when writing, it is better not to be.
I’ve taught writing in both public schools and private settings. Years after their last lesson with me, I asked two very bright sisters (with diametric learning styles) what they remembered from their long season with me. Both answered, “Save spit.” Turned out, the pithy injunction had velcroed itself on their brain and conducted the papers they went on to write in college and high school.
Save spit is one of my top writing protocols. I shave as many words as I can and go back and cut some more. Brevity isn’t so much my goal as conciseness. You’re allowed to spin 2000 words on a subject when it begs amplification or because you need to reach every milepost of reasoning for a crisp presentation. Smooshing those thoughts into 1000 cloudy words is not what I mean. What I do mean is simply word economy
in as much as it is possible.
My private students hated
being made to trim the verbiage. My private students hated trimming the verbiage. “The teacher wants 500 words in this essay. How’m I gonna reach that?!” Of course it was the clear thesis, rich elaboration, cogent arguments that would satisfy the length requirement. And when you’re not writing to satisfy a quota is when you’re really writing, isn’t it?
It is not only hard but pretty impossible, actually, to isolate a writing principle. Like anything that breathes, the writing process is an organic movement much like a dance – of the technical and the artistic. So there are plenty of moments when you’ll favor one guiding principle over another. Paint a picture, for instance, is another mantra I write by. Sometimes I choose an extra few words to this end.
I started writing again. vs.
I blew the dust off the pen in my head and picked up my beloved writing again.
Both work. The first sentence not only boasts efficiency but encourages curiosity for what is to come. The second, while blatantly injuring my sacrosanct dictum of word economy, paints a picture and evokes a feeling entirely absent in the other sentence. So writing principles are not commandments. Saving words does not mean being dry. You want flowers, meaning beauty, in your writing – without being flowery.
There was a part in the first installment of my 20 Things I Consider Sacred series I wasn’t crazy about. A reference to marriage:
Boundaries meld to your oneness, while husband and wife remain distinct. It is a mystery.
Ewwwhh! *Finger in throat* Augh! God bless the gracious readers who put up the like on that one. Each time I look back, the more vigorously I shudder at the melding.
It is now:
Boundaries in oneness, a mystery.
I return to old posts with a fresh eye and a pair of shears, and clip what I possibly can. I don’t want clutter in the path of my readers. I try to keep it tight, so that the words hug the intended meaning.
Stephen King in “On Writing” shares a rewrite formula he learned from an editor which transformed his writing: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. “Before the Formula, if I produced a story that was four thousand words or so in first draft, it was apt to be five thousand in second…After the Formula, that changed. Even today I will aim for a second-draft length of thirty-six hundred words if the first draft of a story ran four thousand…If you can’t get out ten percent of it while retaining the basic story and flavor, you’re not trying very hard. The effect of judicious cutting is immediate and often amazing.”