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.

Bleh vs. What If?

Bleh, bleh, bleh, bleh,
bleh,
bleh,
bleh.

Bleh and bleh,
worry and fear,
sad and mad,
shame and guilt
and regret.

And yet—

What if?
I have the power
to rewrite my story.

What if?
My words and thoughts
have creative power
to transform.

What if?
I think on noble things:
health, wealth, and love,
faith and gratitude,
peace and hope
and joy.

What if I believe?
Life is good and generous,
and miracles are in motion
beyond my wildest dreams.

What if I say?
Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Free Writing Conference

I’m not a naturally gifted writer. I like words. I’m an English teacher, so my grammar is decent. But artistry? Can that be taught?

The year was 2013. I landed an opportunity to launch Creative Writing as an elective at my high school. I adopted a philosophy. Writers must be readers. And. Writers must write. Every. Day. I felt like a hypocrite. So, I practiced. I read more. I wrote more. I studied good writing. I learned some tricks. I attended the occasional writing workshop and conference. I learned more tricks.

Speaking of writing conferences, the year was 2019. I opened an e-mail at school for a local writing conference at Houston Baptist University, just down the street from my house. They were offering continuing education credits for teachers on my favorite topic—writing. So, I signed up. There I learned about a new Creative Writing MFA program. Intrigued, I applied. In the year 2020, I found myself back in school. This time as a student.

Flash forward, post-graduation to the year 2022. I opened a text message from one of my professors. “Would you want to do a talk at this year’s writing conference? On Zoom?”

Would I?

That’s how I landed an opportunity to teach at the 2022 HBU Virtual Writers Conference. My session centers on “Modeling the Masters” subtitled “Finding Your Voice.” The conference is free and seriously not too good to be true. April 30. And, besides me, the lineup of guest speakers is impressive. For more information, click here. May I suggest a session with Bret Lott, author of Oprah’s Book Club pick Jewel? I’ve taken classes with him, and the guy can teach writing.

I would love to see you there.

Persiflage?

It was mid-January. I lay in bed on a Saturday morning, phone scrolling, when a piece of art caught my eye. The irony. I lay in bed contemplating the Spitzweg painting of The Poor Poet, who was also in bed contemplating.

The Poor Poet, by Carl Spitzweg, 1839

My friend from Berlin wrote, “Who Is Carl Spitzweg?” (Click the link if you’re curious.) She proceeded to tell me and juxtaposed Spitzweg’s poet with a contemporary painting of a bear. How great are these two when compared? Zoom in on the painting behind the headboard below.

Picture by Papafox on Pixabay

My friend wanted to know, “At the end of the day, art and kitsch are in the eye of the beholder. What I truly can call kitsch is artwork like this with the bear. Now wait, or is it persiflage?”

Persiflage? I had to look up the word. Light and slightly contemptuous mockery or banter.

I continued reading. “Please ladies and gentlemen help me out! Is this art or kitsch?”

Kitsch? Another word I’ve learned. Art, objects, or design considered to be in poor taste because of excessive garishness or sentimentality, but sometimes appreciated in an ironic or knowing way.

I responded.

Hmm. Favorite word? “I like juxtapose, rhymes with morose,” I said, scoffing at my bad joke, the eye rhyme, not an ear rhyme.

My Berlin friend and I went back and forth for a couple of days. I don’t think I truly have a favorite word. I reserve the right to change my mind each day. The next day I liked “gaga.”

She liked “mushroomed.”

We decided to collaborate.

A good-words post.

Five words each?

I fear I’ve commandeered the idea. (Commandeered, a nice word, right?)

On my laptop, I found a list started years ago. In a file called Creative Writing, from a class I once taught, is a document called “I Love Words,” untouched since January 2016. I started an ABC list of words I like while watching Wes Anderson’s quirky (good word #1) directorial-debut Bottle Rocket. It’s about three “amigos” (good word #2) planning to pull off a 75-year plan of “helter skelter” (#3) heists. The movie bombed at the box office, not everybody’s “cuppa,” (#4) but, oh, the banter. Now wait, or was it “persiflage” (#5)? Writing is just words, hopefully the best words, in the best order. I’ve added a few to my list along the way.

As for my Berlin friend, German’s have some of the best words. The funniest words. Do you know any Germans? Or their words? If not, click here.

And here she is—my friend who writes at Be Kitschig. From here she takes over this post. Her choice of art and words. Enjoy.

Oh, Wes Anderson has a cornucopia (Be Kitschig lovely word #1) of ideas. Thinking about it, I am not sure if I used that word 100% correct in the past. It’s always a bit awkward (good word #2) when people use words wrong. Like, not every thought you ever had is an epiphany, dude, but I digress (#3). One word I always liked was flabbergasted (#4). Since there are so many amazing words in the English language, five might just not be enough. So, for today, let’s finish the banter.

Cool?

Peachy (#5)!

And you know what would be uber cool and peachy? Add your favorite words in the comments. Better yet, link your own post below.