On Sisters, Words, and Writing

Last Friday, my big sister flew to see me. From the airport, we drove thirty-eight miles to the beach, checked into a historic hotel, exchanged our street clothes for swimsuits, dashed out to the pool, and lingered, cool beverages in hand. Freedom persisted. Our feet hit the sand. The tides rolled in with the ocean breeze. Seashells appeared to be found. Fish tacos beckoned, and we answered the call. It was a weekend of sisterhood, a salve for my soul, a respite by the sea, one last hoorah before the inevitable back-to-school.

As I unloaded my deepest, darkest secrets, I heard my speech sprinkled with words like—actually, honestly, literally, ironically, hopefully…. When had I picked up this nasty adverb habit? An overuse of basically unnecessary words? (I meant to do that). When I say honestly, does that mean I’m not being honest the rest of the time? And if something is literally happening, isn’t it happening either way? And who knows if whatever seemed to me ironic was actually ironic? Even my computer (as I typed the last sentence) says: More concise language would be clearer for your reader.

Even at the beach, Steven King’s words echoed across time and place:

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

Stephen King

By the way, King’s book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, is a worthwhile read. Apparently, it didn’t break me of my verbal adverb compulsion. But you know what they say—the first step is admitting you have a problem. Obviously, I have teaching on my mind.

A summer ago in my last Creative Writing class, my professor said words that resonate still. I wrote them down:

“Stories are made from words. Your story is only as good as you have command of the language.”

Dr. James Boyleston

I love words, and I love the beach. Where better place to study? These words I found online:

“When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are far apart.”

Mark Twain

“Poetry is all nouns and verbs.”

Marianne Moore

Now, I can’t read without seeing how the author uses adjectives. I hope my students will see the same. This year when we read poetry in class, we’ll test Marianne Moore’s theory about the nouns and verbs. Mark Twain, I see your adverb, and I think anything in moderation works fine.

These words I found in a book about writing called, Sin and Syntax:

“A dependence on is and its family screams ‘rough draft.'”

Constance Hale

The key word is dependence. My past students have counted be verbs “am, is, are, was, were, be, been being” in their writing and reduced the number through revisions. Constance Hale suggests an 8:1 ratio of action verbs to be verbs. I think I’ll have my students test this idea with the stories we read.

And these words I found in my all-time favorite book about writing, Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer:

With so much reading ahead of you, the temptation might be to speed up. But in fact it’s essential to slow down and read every word. Because one important thing that can be learned by reading slowly is the seemingly obvious but oddly underappreciated fact that language is the medium we use in much the same way a composer uses notes, the way a painter uses paint. I realize it may seem obvious, but it’s surprising how easily we lose sight of the fact that words are the raw material out of which literature is crafted.

Francine Prose

The word-studying English teacher in me notices a few adverbs above, but also the parallelism of the adverb/adjective pairs: “seemingly obvious” and “oddly underappreciated.” I also see a number of those “be” verbs, “is” and its family, and that’s okay. Sometimes an “is” makes our clearest points. Other times our writing advances with action.

And these words I found in a comment on my blog:

We wouldn’t teach piano without having the student listen to Chopin or teach painting without looking at great art. Too often, English teachers give assignments without enough models of the form first.

Evelyn Krieger

I’m betting Evelyn Krieger has read Francine Prose, but as I head back to school, I appreciate her reminder.

My big sister headed home Sunday. Goodbyes are hard. I can’t help thinking my mother conspired from on high to make the trip possible and see her girls together, beachside.

As the days of summer dwindle, part of me is grateful for a new school year beginning, and part of me is sad for the vacation ending. Such is life. For everything there is a season. The waves come and go, the moments come and go, the feelings come and go. Everything is temporary.

A World in a Grain of Sand

Photo by Dmitriy Zub on Pexels.com

This week I took a class, a class for English teachers to teach better, and I learned stuff—a lotta stuff, like the little writing trick I’m sharing today. Part grammar, part analysis, part creativity, the task at hand involved both the left and right sides of my brain along with the beginning of William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence.”

To see the world in a grain of sand
And heaven in a wild flower
Is to hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.

I read these four lines for the first time and said to myself, “Huh?” Believe it or not, understanding takes time, even for English teachers. Lucky for me, my teacher gave me a thesis:

In his poem “Auguries of Innocence,” Blake uses analogies to convey his concept of the relationship between the microcosm and the macrocosm, the material world and the spiritual world.  

Yeah, I had to think about that, too.

Then she gave me a handout that said, Write an introduction that follows one of the grammatical patterns below:

  1. Begin with a sentence containing three absolute phrases, then follow it with five short sentences, each beginning with a participial phrase. End with the thesis.” (My teacher provided an example).
  2. Begin with a short, blunt statement followed by an elaborate series of balanced sentences or sentences with parallel elements.  End the paragraph with a metaphor that leads into your thesis. (Another example followed).

Then I had time to do my homework, and did I ever need time! I chose number one. I didn’t even look at number two. Directions tend to be abstract, examples concrete. I’m not sure my ideas connected to the micro and macrocosm, but I circled back to the idea of spirituality. I’m quite sure I could tweak the thesis for my own purposes, and I have no doubt I could use these sentence structures in other types of writing for a little variety. Here goes my try:

Gratitude shaped through observation of the little things, a higher power revealed through the earth’s creation, the meaning of life discovered, human fulfillment lies in the noticing and the appreciation. Toiling about our busy days, we fail to savor the wonder of our world. Worrying about the future, we fail to welcome the moment. Dwelling on the past, we fail to move on to the here and now. Yet, by taking time to truly see, we improve the quality of our lives. In his poem “Auguries of Innocence,” Blake uses analogies to convey his concept of the relationship between the microcosm and the macrocosm, the material world and the spiritual world.  

Had I ever taught an absolute phrase before? No. But I quite like the effect. The phrase, “gratitude shaped through observation of the little things,” could be a sentence if I added an “is” between “gratitude” and “shaped” (gratitude is shaped through observation…) However, action verbs strengthen our writing, and besides, that sentence includes the passive voice vs. active voice. (Who or what is doing the shaping? Gratitude doesn’t shape itself. Active voice example: Our observations shape our gratitude). Anytime I can eliminate linking verbs (am, is, are, was, were, be, been, being), I do. As written, the absolute phrase functions as an adjective describing “human fulfillment.” In my opinion, the first sentence is a bit long, but the structure is malleable. I could lose two of the three phases in the first sentence if I so choose. All of this makes sense in my head, but the teacher-provided example clarifies the concept. We all need examples. We need teachers to explain. In 21 years of teaching, I have never had a concrete way of teaching the skill of writing an introduction. With this example, I have a brand new tool. I suppose I should go ahead and teach a few more years. This week’s teacher has taught for 36. How inspiring!

Next, came the sentences beginning with participial phrases. The assignment asked for five. I stopped at three. The participle looks like a verb but functions like an adjective. Past participles end in -ed. Present participles end in -ing. Add a prepositional phrase, and voila, you have a participial phrase: “Toiling about our busy days…Worrying about the future…Dwelling on the past.” These phrases describe us, or the “we” above. The parallelism lends a rhythm. A facility for language develops style.

I hope you give this grain of sand a try.