Posts Tagged ‘On Writing’

Great Writing Isn’t Alchemy, It’s Hard Work: Alfred Kazin’s Trip to the Beach

December 17, 2014

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It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written, but I know it’s true. If I had a nickel for every person who ever told me he/she wanted to become a writer but “didn’t have time to read,” I could buy myself a pretty good steak dinner.

Steven King (On Writing 147)

As Stephen King notes, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot” (145).

But many people don’t realize that writing is a craft to be mastered. They think it’s some sort of alchemy that mysteriously springs out of one’s experiences. That’s why some people who know very little about writing think they could produce a great memoir or an enticing novel. They love their fabulous lives so much. They are so glamorous, so amusing, and they know so many unique people—the book would practically write itself.

With the application of talent and much work, a great writer can reveal the beauty and complexity of a common experience. In his memoir A Walker in the City, Alfred Kazin relives the train ride to and from Coney Island on a hot summer day:

It was from the El on its way to Coney Island that I caught my first full breath of the city in the open air. Groaning its way past a thousand old Brooklyn red fronts and tranquil awnings, that old train could never go slowly enough for me as I stood on the open platform between the cars, holding on to the gate. In the dead calm of noon, heat mists drifted around the rusty green spires of unknown churches; below, people seemed to kick their heels in the air just a moment before being swept from my sight. With each homey crásh-crásh crásh-crásh of the wheels against the rails, there would steal up at me along the bounding slopes of the awnings the nearness of all those streets in middle Brooklyn named after generals of the Revolutionary War. I tasted the sweetness of summer on every opening in my face. As we came back at night along the El again, the great reward of the long parched day, far better than any massed and arid beach, was the chance to stand up there between the cars, looking down on the quiet streets unrolling below me as we passed. The rusty iron cars ground against each other, protesting they might fall apart at each sharp turn. But in the steady crásh-crásh crásh-crásh there was a comforting homeward sound as the black cars rocked on the rails and more and more men and boys in open shirts came out on the top platform fiercely breathing the wind-changed damp air. In the summer night the city had an easy unstitched look—people sat on the corner watching the flies buzz around the street lamps, or at bedroom windows openly yawning as they stared past us (137-138).

First, notice the extreme paucity of adverbs.

I tell my students that nouns and verbs should do the heavy lifting. When you choose the right nouns and verbs, fewer adjective and adverbs are required.

For example, I could say “My landlord is a mean, ugly, tyrannical, bossy, gruesome, overbearing man.” Or I could simply say “My landlord is an ogre.” The appropriate noun eliminates the need for several adjectives.

And speaking of adjectives, notice how Kazin utilizes several noncordinate adjectives. Coordinate adjectives are parallel, modifying their nouns independently. That’s why we separate them with commas (big, bad John; new, green car). The effect of coordinate adjectives is cumulative; however, noncoordinate adjectives, when properly employed, multiply meaning into something new and beautiful: “first full breath” “rusty green spires” “long parched day” “rusty iron cars” “comforting homeward sound“ “wind-changed damp air” “easy unstitched look.” (Alfred Kazin’s beloved mother was a seamstress.)

I’ve affirmed the elegance simple sentences. I will repeat myself: I wouldn’t want to live in a world without them. And simple sentences are even more beautiful when they are rare. Like a great jeweler, Kazin positions a gem in the middle of his creation: I tasted the sweetness of summer on every opening in my face.

Notice the strongest character in this paragraph, the anthropomorphized train: “protesting they might fall apart at each sharp turn” “Groaning its way past a thousand old Brooklyn red fronts and tranquil awnings.”

Finally, notice how Kazin plays upon the illusion that world itself is in motion: “people seemed to kick their heels in the air just a moment before being swept from my sight” “streets unrolling below me as we passed.”

by Richard W. Bray

A Lesson Plan on Strong Verbs

September 15, 2012

Which statement is more likely to infuriate Dad?

Sorry Dad, but I wrecked your car.

or

Sorry Dad, but I demolished your car.

Which declaration evinces greater passion?

I enjoy fish tacos.

or

I crave fish tacos.

Which complaint expresses stronger indignation?

That slimy salesman confused me.

or

That slimy salesman bamboozled me.

In each of the above the examples, of course, the second sentence contains the stronger verb. But why?

Like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous observation about pornography, I don’t have a concise definition for what constitutes a strong verb, but I know one when I see it. Strong verbs can contain one or more syllable. Strong verbs can be Latin, Greek, Germanic, French, etc. in origin. There is no particular phonology for strong verbs—they can sound rugged or mellifluous.

An imprecise working definition of strong verbs is words that arouse a vivid image and/or a visceral emotional response.

A note on word choice

Effective writing is largely a matter of choosing cogent nouns and verbs. It is important to remember that adjectives and adverbs are weak instruments, not suitable for heavy lifting. Or, to switch metaphors, think of adjectives and adverbs respectively as spice and garnish added to improve flavor and presentation rather than to provide essential nourishment.

When you select ideal nouns, you can sprinkle on adjectives as necessary. (This rule does not apply to William Faulkner.)

Adverbs should be allocated even less frequently than adjectives. Strong verbs obviate the extensive utilization of adverbs. Stephen King admonishes: “The adverb is not your friend” because adverbs “seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind” (On Writing 124).

An exercise for recognizing strong verbs

1. Present the three examples of sentences with strong and weak verbs from this blog post to students.
2. Discuss the importance of strong verbs and the distinction between strong and weak verbs with the entire class.
3. Group students in threes.
4. Provide each group with a different nonfiction article between 500 and 750 words long.
5. Instruct each group to:
a) List all the verbs from the essay. (There should be at least one in     every sentence.)
b) Select by consensus the ten strongest verbs from the essay.
6. Each group shares their list of ten strong verbs with the whole class.

by Richard W. Bray

Writers on Writing

February 24, 2010

Adrienne Rich

Robert Pinsky

Javier Marias

Lajos Egri

Writers on Writing

(Editor’s Note: This post is the result of a conversation I had in the comments section of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blog. Until quite recently I would have scoffed at the very notion that such a thing as an online community could possibly exist)

W. H. Auden The Dyer’s Hand

Attacking bad books is not only a waste of time but also bad for the character. If I find a book really bad, the only interest I can derive from writing about it has to come from myself, from such a display of intelligence, wit and malice as I can contrive. One cannot review a bad book without showing off. (11)

Richard Wilbur Responses, Prose Pieces

Emily Dickinson elected the economy of desire, and called her privation good, rendering it positive by renunciation. And so she came to live in a huge world of delectable distances….And not only are the objects of her desire distant; they are also very often moving away, their sweetness increasing in proportion to their remoteness. “To disappear enhances,” one of the poems begins, and another closes with these lines:

The Mountain–at a given distance–
In Amber–lies–
Approached–the Amber flits–a little–
And That’s–the Skies

(11-12)

Adrienne Rich On Secrets, Lies and Silence

I have a notion that genius knows itself; that Dickinson chose her seclusion, knowing she was exceptional and knowing what she needed. It was, moreover, no hermetic retreat…But she carefully selected her society and controlled the disposal of her time. (160)

The Theater Essays of Arthur Miller

So long as modern man conceives of himself as valuable only because he fits into some niche in the machine-tending pattern, he will never know anything more than a pathetic doom. (60)

Ira Gershwin Lyrics on Several Occasions

When I was on jury service in New York many years ago there was a case found for the defendant. Afterwards, in the corridor, I saw the lawyer for the plaintiff approaching and thought I was going to be lectured. But no. Greetings over, all he wanted to know was whether the words or the music came first. (41)

Theodore Roethke On Poetry & Craft

The writer who maintains that he works without regard for the opinion of others is either a jackass or a pathological liar. (48)

Norman Mailer The Spooky Art

Kurt Vonnegut and I are friendly with one another but wary. There was a period when we used to go out together fairly often because our wives liked each other, and Kurt and I would sit there like bookends. We would be terribly careful with one another; we both knew the huge cost of a literary feud, so we certainly didn’t want to argue. On the other hand, neither of us would be caught dead saying to the other, “Gee, I liked your last book,” and then be met with silence because the party of the second part could not reciprocate. (288)

Robert Pinsky The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide

There are no rules.
However, principles may be discerned in actual practice: for example, in the way people actually speak, or in the lines poets have written. If a good line contradicts a principle one has formulated, then the principle, by which I mean a kind of working idea, should be discarded or amended.
(7)

Javier Marias Written Lives (on Rainer Maria Rilke)

The fact that such a sensitive person, so much given to communing, should have turned out to be the greatest poet of the twentieth century (of this there is little doubt) has had disastrous consequences for most of the lyrical poets who have come after, those who continue communicating indiscriminately with whatever comes their way, with, however, far less remarkable results and, it has to be said, to the serious detriment of their personalities. (83-84)

Gore Vidal United States

Sex is. There is nothing more to be done about it. Sex builds no roads, writes no novels, and sex certainly gives no meaning in life to anything but itself. I have often thought that much of D. H. Lawrence’s self-lacerating hysteria toward the end of his life must have come out of some “blood knowledge” that the cruel priapic god was mad, bad and dangerous to know, and, finally, not even a palliative to the universal strangeness. (37)

George H.W. Rylands Words and Poetry

When a generation labels everything as “superb” or “divine,” when a man says “damn” or “hell,” the actual meaning of the word is secondary to its emotional value; the word becomes a symbol of pleasure or disgust. The use of language in poetry is extraordinarily similar.” (72)

Stephen Fry The Ode Less Travelled

I HAVE A DARK AND DREADFUL SECRET. I write poetry. This is an embarrassing confession for an adult to make. In their idle hours Winston Churchill and Noel Coward painted. For fun and relaxation Albert Einstein played the violin. Hemingway hunted, Agatha Christie gardened, James Joyce sang arias and Nabokov chased butterflies. But Poety? (xi)

Percy Lubbock The Craft of Fiction

…when we think of the storyteller as opposed to the dramatist, it is obvious that in the full sense of the word there is no such thing as drama in a novel. The novelist may give the very words that were spoken by his characters, the dialogue, but of course he must interpose on his own account to let us know how the people appeared and where they were, and what they were doing. (111)

Stephen King On Writing

The dictum in writing class used to be “write what you know.” Which sounds good, but what if you want to write about starships exploring other planets or a man who murders his wife and then tries to dispose of her body with a wood-chipper? (158)

Lajos Egri The Art of Dramatic Writing

It is imperative that your story starts in the middle, and not under any circumstances, at the beginning. (200)

by Richard W. Bray