Before you read one more word, please click on this link and read this essay, an excerpt from the novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery. Do it now. I’ll wait. I’ll even wait while you order the book. The rest is as fabulous as the excerpt. Clicking on the title or picture of the book above will whisk you to Amazon via my affiliate link. Just don’t get shopping and forget to return!
Now that you have Paloma’s marvelous take on grammar as “a way to attain beauty,” I’d like to add my own comments to the mix. I could barely sit still when I first read this essay, as I am a grammar maven. I’ve always thought that was a strange-sounding word, maven. It means “expert or connoisseur.” I’m by no means an expert, but I’m certainly a connoisseur.
Though perhaps not as classically beautiful as Fibonacci’s golden spiral in a rose or nautilus, each of grammar’s innate structures is attractive in its own way. Below are a few of my faves…
What do you think of interjections? You know, words like Ha! Yeah! Aw… Huh? In formal writing, these are scorned as third step-cousins, twice removed. But in spoken conversation, they are the grease that lubricates the wheels of language. Wow! Can you imagine getting through a day without them? Nope. Now that much of our communication involves email and texting, vehicles that simulate spoken language patterns, we employ interjections there, too.
At the beginning of each semester, a fair number of my student writers relied on “The Sloppy Seven” sentence starters. In any given paragraph, most of their sentences began with The, I, He, She, They, We, As, or It. Each student had his or her favorites. Dave (name changed) started three out of five sentences in one essay with The. Ellie (name changed) started four out of six with I. So the students could see, at a glance, how frequently they used them, I highlighted the words they repeated.
For example: My niece is passionate about horses. She loves to brush them and braid their manes and tails. She doesn’t even complain about mucking out the stalls. She takes lessons twice a week and goes to competitions. My sister pays the bills, so she hopes my niece outgrows this hobby. I bet someday she’ll be buying a horse.
How often do you listen to other writers speak? I don’t mean reading what they’ve written, but listening to them talk out loud—hearing the words drip from their lips. When authors share prepared remarks or better, speak off the cuff, you get a whole different insight into their writing—and your own.
I was hunting interesting websites to share with my Creative Power Writing Facebook friends last night, and as things happen, one idea snowballed into another. Weird Al Yankovic’s Word Crimes video popped up and I bookmarked it as a future post; then I thought, Hey, maybe I should look for more videos!
So I typed “writing” into the box on YouTube. The usual writing instruction and tips videos popped up, but also videos of authors giving speeches and doing interviews and 3-5-minute inspirational clips. A half-hour video of Stephen King answering audience questions at The University of Massachusetts Lowell revealed how King balances story and poetic language, how he develops characters, and why he loves kids as protagonists. He may be scary, but King is a funny guy, too! At one point, he started gushing a little too much about kids and had to stop himself: “I’m starting to sound like Michael Jackson, so I’d better shut up.”
I’m taking the holiday weekend off and not writing a blog post today. Instead, I’d like to point you to a great resource.Poets & Writers online is packed full of information for creative writers. The page I’m referring you to, Tools for Writers, links you to the following:
Literary Journals and Magazines
Conferences and Residencies
Writing Prompts and Exercises
Book Review Outlets
Poets & Writers Guides (handbooks)
Top Topics for Writers (articles)
Grants & Awards
Jobs for Writers
Oh, and you can also access the magazine… 🙂
Is this a treasure trove, or what?
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I hope you’ve also noticed–and clicked!–the link to my new Creative Power Writing Facebook page in the left-hand column. Through it, I’ll be regularly connecting you with great sites like Poets & Writers, inspirational quotations, writing prompts, invaluable tips and articles, contests, best writing books, and more!
See you next week. In the meantime, get something published.
Writers don’t spend a lot of time debating this. As a teacher and writing coach, however, I’ve found that venue can be critical to a writer’s success.
Writing is portable, so you can choose where you are most able to concentrate, where you are most comfortable, and where you gain the most inspiration. Sometimes we plop ourselves down in an office, on the bed, or at the kitchen table based on the first or second of these reasons, never giving ample thought to the third.
Imagine if you chose where to write based on how it might supercharge your writing?
What makes a piece of writing outstanding? For fiction, there’s an engaging plot, layered characters, a theme that touches our hearts, scintillating dialogue. Nonfiction needs a novel premise and intriguing points backed up with well-researched information. Many authors can accomplish these. But what lifts an author from being merely a popular writer to a place among the all-time greats?
It’s the quality of the writing. What marks them as master wordsmiths is the way they manipulate words and use rhetorical techniques to expert effect. This may seem difficult to quantify, but we can identify some of the strokes that make the rest of us sigh, “I wish I’d written that!”
Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible
Let’s analyze a powerful excerpt from one of my favorite authors, Barbara Kingsolver. In The Poisonwood Bible, Leah’s missionary father has moved his family to the Congo. They have endured all manner of hardships, including fire ants, a flood, hunger, and little Ruth May contracting malaria after hiding her quinine pills. Now a green mamba has killed Ruth May. Leah narrates:
A honeycreeper sang from the bushes outside the window. It seemed impossible that an ordinary, bright day should be proceeding outside our house. Mother spread a small, soft hand onto hers and washed the fingers one at a time. She cradled and lifted the head to rinse it, taking care not to get the soapy water in Ruth May’s eyes. As she dried the limp blond hair with a towel, she leaned in close, inhaling the scent of my sister’s scalp. I felt invisible. By the force of my mother’s desire to conduct this ritual in private, she had caused me to disappear. Still, I couldn’t leave the room. After she dried and wrapped her baby in a towel she hummed quietly while combing out the tangles and plaiting the damp hair. Then she began to cut our mosquito netting into long sheets and stitch the layers together. At last we understood. She was making a shroud.