Swearing V. Telling: Scenes from Writing and Life

Remember when I posted about Charlie’s first swear word? And remember how he was holding the dust pan while saying, “Shit, shit”? Well, it turns out that what he means to be saying was, “Swish, swish,” which–according to Grandma–is the sound a broom makes. (I knew it was Grandma’s fault!)

Meanwhile, outside my house there is some large-scale chipper turning great hunks of tree trunk into tiny flecks of wood. There are trees going down all around my house–old, far-leaning or dead pines and view-blocking non-native eucalyptus. We’re not responsible for any of it, but our view has been partially restored and it’s marvelous to stare out through the hurricane-shaped break in the trees to see University Avenue running down to the bay, and then the islands and inlets and finally the mountains across in Marin.

Last night, Angie said, “Go turn out the lights and look at the view.” It took a while before I remembered–I was emptying the tub and answering email and worrying and fussing about things–but then, as I was shutting down the house, I went into her office and turned out the lights. The fog filled the crevices of bay and city, lit up from below–a magical sweep of mystery. And, as an added bonus, with the lights out, I could not see the boxes of crap and unfolded laundry.

There are always cross-currents: the magical view and the piles of laundry. The swishing and the swearing. I think that cross-currents are at the heart of what makes a story. You take this piece over here and this seemingly unrelated piece over there, and put them together. It’s something like playing a chord on the piano. The individual notes create a new sound when you play them together. Harmonies and the like . . . As ever, my metaphor is slipping my grasp; I know more about writing than I do about playing the piano. The point is that a coincidence of sound–or of stories–produces a third thing, a something-else that I believe is at the core of fiction. Resonance is another good word here.

So I am getting ready to write a novel this month. Have an 18-month-old and a 14-month-old feels very different than having a 2-month-old and a 6-month-old. Those were quiet days, days given over to nursing and sleeping and songs. These days we spend in parks or running up and down the plywood board that is out in the yard or careening through the living room on the bulldozer. Right now it is nap time, and if I had nothing else to do, I might be able to write 2,000 words during nap time each day. You know, maybe just for the next 30 – 45 days, that’s what I’ll do. Though G*d forbid the nap gets cut short as it sometimes does.

Meanwhile, my students have mapped out their amazing books. They have taken up every challenge I’ve thrown at them–pitches and problem/ solution lists and character arcs and interviews and Aristotle’s incline. They know about their books just about everything I wish I knew about mine before jumping into the dark, warm waters of the writing itself. Me? I’m a little behind, I’m afraid. I have part of a pitch and part of a problem-solution list . . .

My focus for my students, though, and myself, for the next six weeks (since we are going to carry on past NaNoWriMo’s 30 days to get a real book-length manuscript), is now scene. Sensate detail. Keeping it real, so to speak: a physical world not dominated by the stutterings of internal monologue run amok. It’s the difference between swish and shit: the first an actual sound produced by an actual gesture, the second a commentary, an opinion, if you will, an internal monologue.

This is what I say to myself and to my student writers: stay with “swish”; let the reader get to “shit” through the action. It’s stronger to create the feeling in the reader via the concrete world than to tell the reader about the feeling.

Check out the following options:

A) I felt enormous pain.

B) The pain ground like glass across my eyeballs.

C) The knife slipped, and the serrated edge cut into the meat of my thumb, a sharp gash.  A blue vein severed, and blood leaked, red and bright, across my palm.

A) is just a statement. Nothing wrong with that. We know something in our heads from reading it: someone felt pain. B) is what certain people consider vivid writing. But do not be fooled. It is still abstraction, burdened with metaphor. It is a more complicated statement, but it is not an experience. C) is a description. If you are like me, C) makes you grab your hand and grimace.

None of this is great writing, but C) at least gives your reader somewhere to go.

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