“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
Mark Twain

author: Nicole J. LeBoeuf

actually writing blog

back in high school and it's ok
Thu 2014-02-06 23:41:28 (in context)

This week an errant internet discussion reminded me that I have Ursula K. LeGuin's Steering the Craft on my bookshelf and have not yet read it nor worked through it. This struck me as unfortunate, an oversight to be corrected straightaway.

When I got to the first exercise, I remembered why I bounced off of it previously. LeGuin takes writers through the basic building blocks of the craft; accordingly, the exercises are themselves fairly basic. Here's the very first exercise:

Being Gorgeous: Write a paragraph to a page (150-300 words) of narrative that's meant to be read aloud. Use onomatopoeia, alliteration, repetition, rhythmic effects, made-up words or names, dialect--any kind of sound-effect you like--but NOT rhyme or meter.

I think my past reaction to this sort of thing was, "Please. I'm not in high school anymore."

Which I admit sounds pretty darn arrogant of me. In my defense, I suspect a non-trivial portion of that response was my old adversary, Resistance-To-Writing, in disguise and looking for any excuse to keep me and the blank page apart.

To whatever extent arrogance and resistance played a part, and in which proportion each had a hand, this week I'm making amends. Tuesday I darn well sat down with "Being Gorgeous" and my 25-minute timer and I wrote the beginnings of a really silly ghost story. Wednesday, I fed the next exercise to my freewriting session--a paragraph of 150-350 words without any punctuation--and the results were a sort of eerie musing on the breakneck pace of the unrequited striving that is the human condition.

Now, 150-350 words isn't going to take 25 minutes to write, not even if I think hard about each sentence. So after I'd done the exercise, I considered the questions and thoughts LeGuin follows up the exercises with and babbled about them on the page. And--what do you know?--by doing this faithfully, by genuinely engaging in the exercise, by not deciding ahead of time that I was way beyond this stuff--I came to some unexpected understandings of my process and my relationship to the elements I was obliged to use.

The punctuation-free exercise brought me to these observations:

  • Take away my syntactical pauses, and my tendency will be to try to write as fast as I can! I had to dial that back a bit so I could think about what I was creating.
  • Next my tendency was to try to express my having run out of ideas by means of a stop or a pause. To break out of that, I had to think up some words that lent themselves to forward motion rather than to pausing, and to pushing the idea to its next possible permutation.
  • "Words that lend themselves to forward motion" in practice meant choosing words that complete or continue a clause begun by the previous couple words, such that rather than having a string of clauses clumsily glued together by conjunctions, I was trying for a series of overlapping clauses.
  • The piece began in first person plural ("Then we started..."), but the moment an imperative snuck in ("quick quick jump up higher and higher and reach a bit more just a bit"), I naturally slipped into second person singular ("and you know you'll never get there but you're incapable of ceasing...."). It's a good thing I seem to be able to get away with second person narratives, because it seems to be one of my default storytelling modes.

So these are the thoughts I start having when I give myself permission to just go back to high school already, what are you afraid of, scared you might learn something? Jeez.

PS. In Scrivener, these Daily Idea files got the label "Exercise," because that's what they were and that's how this works.