Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Grass Harp: Writing That Takes Your Breath Away

Some writing just takes your breath away. My writing friend and critique partner recently recommended THE GRASS HARP, by Truman Capote. It is a novella, a form that seems these days to elicit both love and disgust. It is beautiful. Breathtaking. And I'm only on Chapter One. Here's an example:

We reached a field of Indian grass at the same moment as the sun. Dolly's veil flared in the morning breeze, and a pair of pheasants, nesting in our path, swept before us, their metal wings swiping the cockscomb-scarlet grass. The China tree was a September bowl of green and greenish gold: Gonna fall, gonna bust our heads, Catherine said, as all around us the leaves shook down their dew.
Such a short passage, with so much going on! You have to stop and take it in. You have to slow down, to notice. The words make the world magical, without ever introducing any magic. It takes your breath away.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Be Specific!

Be specific. Make the mundane memorable.
I've been on a binge of nonfiction reading this summer, which is odd since fiction is usually my go-to summer read. But the heart wants what the heart wants, and this summer, my heart wants nonfiction. I am reading it first for the content, but it's hard not to read with one eye on the writing style, which has ranged from the highly academic, loaded down with the kinds of words and sentences found in an Ivy League senior thesis, to warm, simple and intimate, elucidated through anecdote.

The latest nonfiction on my bed table is AN ALTAR IN THE WORLD, by Barbara Brown Taylor, whose personal and connected style really speaks to me. She does occasionally get lost in a wilderness of metaphor, but her ability to ground spiritual things in the real world is powerful and engaging. I realized today that part of her magic comes from being specific.  Here's the sentence that pointed me in that direction:
While I was a cocktail waitress I once spilled a whole Singapore Sling down the back of an Australian woman's red fox coat.
 I read this sentence several times. It seemed so exotic and interesting to me. Then I stepped back. This was no adventure on the high seas. What was she really saying? "One time when I was a waitress I spilled a drink on a customer." BORING!  But make it specific and it's almost like a travel brochure. We visit Singapore and Australia and go fox hunting in England all in one sentence, and suddenly this mundane bit of narrative is rich and textured.

For most of us, specificity belongs to the realm of revision, until we're practiced enough for it to become second-nature. On a first draft, you're capturing ideas and broad strokes. It's not the time to linger over every word and wonder "Is this specific enough?" But when you revise, look for those places where you have chosen the overly general word. Then take it further. Not just a waitress, a cocktail waitress. Not just a drink, a Singapore Sling. Not just a customer, a woman. What kind of woman? An Australian woman. Where was the drink spilled? Down her back. What was she wearing? A coat. What kind of coat? A red fox coat. Bam. Be specific and the mundane becomes the memorable. A rose by any another name may smell just as sweet, but it will affect your reader differently.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Secret Word Duck - Use and Misuse of Million-Dollar Words

I've been reading a book called Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture, by Jon Savage. I have never had to look so many words up in the dictionary as I read. It's positively giving me a complex. I've begun to wonder if I've lost more braincells than I thought in my middle-aged years. I'm all for expanding my vocabulary, but this book tosses around the million dollar words right and left without context clues, and often with no real justification for using the fancy word when a simpler one would do.

This makes me wonder about that small but potent animal, word choice. In my classroom, I talk about "juicy words." Juicy words are words you can sink your teeth into and savor, words that make the writing jump and sing, words that are saturated with voice. Sometimes, they are words that stand out.

Now, standing out isn't always a bad thing. When you're a diva singing a solo, standing out is your job. On the other hand, when you're singing harmony in a quartet, or you're part of a choral group, standing out is a problem. It's the same with juicy words. Sometimes, they should stand out and make the reader stop, ponder, take notice. In my opinion, this is especially true for poetry, descriptive passages, and certain moments in prose - moments that need to breathe or shock or freeze.

Juicy words aren't always the same as what my younger self would call "big words." Now, I LOVE to learn new big words. I love them best when they capture an idea that eludes my existing lexicon, when they lend brevity to a thought and make it clearer. I love them least when the distance they create between me and my reader, or, if I am the reader, then me and the text, is so great that it becomes the focus of attention, at the expense of meaning or narrative or the thread of thought.

In my opinion, Mr. Savage fell into the latter category in a few places. I have forgotten more of his million dollar words than I remember, and, frankly, I wasn't impressed with them enough to put them in my own toolbox. However, I shall credit him with adding  prelapsarian and ambit to my vocabulary.

"Prelapsarian" describes a state similar to the state of Adam and Eve before the fall. It is built of word parts that fit its meaning, and that I recognize ("pre" - before, and "lapse", as in a lapse of memory - a slip or fall). In one word, it captures a complex and resonant idea that carries with it a collection of cultural images and baggage. I like that about "prelapsarian."

"Ambit" refers to a sphere of influence. It carries the notion of how far something or someone's reach may extend. Best of all, and what I love about it, is that it is the root word of "ambition." This is interesting to me because I am, clearly, a word derivation geek. Plus, I love the idea that this root word is so simple in its structure that an early or struggling reader in my classroom could decode the basic consonant-vowel-consonant pattern of its two parts, and yet it is so underused and uncommon. Simple yet rare. Like an exotic orchid. Or a perfect kiss. Thinking about the relationship between this simple creature and its three-syllable, muscle-bound, popular offspring "ambition" creates a fascinating harmony of contemplation in my brain.

Juicy words. They come in all shapes and sizes. Use sparingly and wisely, with empathy and compassion for your reader and awareness of the impact on pacing and distance.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Tending to the Neglected Zones

Call it end-of-the-school-year syndrome. My life as a teacher occasionally dwarfs everything else. That's what happened a few months ago. So I hit the pause button on revising and drafting and submitting and blogging and almost everything related to my ongoing pursuit of being a writer. Everything except receiving rejection letters. They're always in-season.

Now, summer vacation is here. I get to dramatically and emphatically shift gears and give my attention to neglected zones such as my garden and my writing (not listed in order of importance). The one serves as a pretty good metaphor for the other.

Neither has died of neglect. My garden is over-run and out of control. There are weeds everywhere, and blooms that have faded and need trimming, and empty spots that need filling, and furniture that needs refurbishing and rearranging, and yard art that needs sprucing, and debris that needs to be cleared away. And my writing? About the same. Nearly everything I submitted during the year has been rejected and there are almost no pieces out in the world. So, it's time to resubmit my finished stuff, and write query letters. Then, there's that project I'm working on for someone else that has been languishing in the recesses of my mind and now has a ticking clock. There's a thousand little ideas that have sprouted in the gaps and are clamoring for attention. Both my blogs are starved for posts. And there's the novel. It's the one thing I didn't drop, the one thing I kept giving time to as I let everything go, and even it suffered from a week or so without me. It's going to take time and work to get back on track, to find my rhythm and my purpose, to move past that overwhelming vision of all the work to be done, roll up my sleeves and get to it.

Time to reboot.

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