Wednesday, April 9, 2014

"Writing is like giving birth to a piano sideways. Anyone who perseveres is either talented or nuts. ~ Flannery O'Connor

I'm livid! I just read the dumbest thing... and I'm fighting back. After all, I spent my entire life, since I was 4 1/2 years old, studying to prove that drivel is just that - the babblings of an idiot! Oh, I forgot to tell you the stupid statement, didn't I...

"There are two things that can't be taught - painting and writing," announced a mediocre painter (at best) and a worse writer! Don't ask me who it was, because I might slip and TELL you!

No, I'm not going to quote Ernest Hemingway's famous line about writing, "All you do is sit down at the typewriter and open a vein..." ...or something close to that. There are the essentials to learn, the principles of art and those of writing. That's why people like me study and earn degrees in both of these arts! Then we study afterwards and then study some more... But we do something special every single day, whether we know we're doing it or not...

We LOOK! We take in all the things around us through all of our senses, and we do it all the time (period!). We have thoughts about those things we've seen and heard and sensed, too. And then, in that thoughtfully vegetative state, a magical thing happens. There comes a whispery, silent rush of an idea, something I never tire of... that I look forward to... and that I never worry I've lost! Much like coaxing a shy dog to take food from your hand, you must be patient, very patient. It WILL come, but not exactly when YOU say it must come. The magic is forming itself inside your head... don't scare it away. And then it comes to you, oftentimes even wagging its tail!

Just today, I was at the German meat market close to home, waiting for my number to be called. I watched the lady in front of me asking the butcher for a little bit of head cheese, some blood sausage, and slices of several other delicacies with complicated German names. Lastly, she said, "Oh, and a pair of frankfurters, please." I LOVE that! Shoes come in pairs, twins come in pairs, but that was the first time I'd heard that frankfurters can come that way, too! That word, used just that way, will find its way into my writing one of these days, I betcha!

I'm going to give you a short writing lesson here... so, if you're not interested, you might want to turn me off and turn on the TV, instead, now. But, if you''re still here, go get something to write WITH and something to write ON. (Got 'em? Good. Glad you're back with me.)

Now, I'd like you to write a descripton of the nicest person you know... in ONE sentence. That's right, just ONE sentence. Got it? Are you sure you've really described this person well? OK... now for this teacher's interference, or teaching, as we like to call it!

Delete every single adjective (the words that describe the noun)! Now delete every adverb (the words that describe your verb)! What kind of description do you have left? Is it an accurate description of that person now? Probably not... Does it show the uniqueness of that person you chose, her individuality, or is it now just a boring sentence describing most all the people you know?

Well, I can help you to improve this description... It's all in the VERB you chose, as opposed to the VERB that you could have chosen. The verb is the ACTION, the COLOR in your sentence. If you used the verb "is," what does that word "is" even mean? Just about nothing... "Is" just is!

If you had written that the person you chose "strode across the room," I would already know lots about her without your using any adjectives or adverbs. Anyone who "strode across a room" must be confident, determined, not at all lazy, maybe even angry. That one verb contains all those adjectives inside itself! Go ahead and use adjectives and adverbs, but use them scantily. Using too many is like giving your work to some 3rd rate assistants to finish your thoughts for you!

Writing calls for a large vocabulary! Did you know that the English language is the most complete language on the Earth, so far? When the scientists of the world met to decide what the best language would be to explain scientific thought, they decided on English. It was NOT because English is beautiful or perfect or even a finished thing like Latin. Not at all! 

It was because English is just like America! People from all over this world have emigrated to the United States from its beginnings, moving into this land that already contained so many different Native American languages. These immigrants added their words to the "English" that they found here, and so English grew and grew, and it's still growing, encompassing words from nearly every language on this earth! All the better to express a writer's exact thoughts.

Now for the last, and most important, thing for a writer to learn... Cut out every single word that doesn't shove the thinking forward... every single one! Say it right, say it quick, and say it gooooood! "Papa" Hemingway always edited his work by slashing it with a machete. He once said that it took more time for eliminating than it did for creating! 

Want proof? Read Hemingway's short story "Indian Camp." It's sparse, spare, and it only takes a few minutes to read, but it will stay with you a loooong time. And that's just one of the things we can learn about how to write... Imagine all that there is to learn about making art! 


  1. Thanks for this much needed guidance. It's especially useful since wordy thoughts seem to quickly leap onto the screen and, with nary an edit, are sent out to muddy the blogosphere.

  2. YOU, dear Linda, are becoming my favorite reader! :}