chalky clouds and purple prose

Journal THAT

a guide to writing

Cynthia Gregory

There are good adjectives and bad adjectives. There are the regular, hard-working-show-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night-but-go-unnoticed adjectives and then there are what I call the 25 cent adjectives. You know the kind, all flashy and shiny and bright, the kind you notice more than the noun that they’re describing. They’re like fast food; they temporarily distract you from the fact that there is nothing of substance behind them, they are the literary equivalent of a plate of whipped cream.

I know a lot about these razzle-dazzle kinds of describers, these peacocks of poetry. I used to scatter them around liberally, clever as I was. But what happened when I really got rolling, is that the point I was trying to make got totally buried under my ponderous prose. My meaning sagged under the weight of all that reckless description. My language got so pearly and polished that everything I wrote began to sound like a steaming, verdant jungle, packed with all the lush pomegranates, mangoes and papayas of meaning I could wedge in. I mean seriously, an old pair of scruffed sneakers with one broken lace is a perfectly respectable sort of description. But when I got done with it, those Keds sounded like Ritz Carlton glass slippers.

What happened when I began to excavate the core of my message, the humble meaning of my narrative began to emerge as I sliced away one fabulous phrase after another. Everyone knows by now the famous story of what Michaelango said when someone asked how he knew how to carve the statue of David – he said, “oh, I just got rid of what didn’t belong.” You need to do the same with your descriptive language. Pare it down, pare it the hell down. Make it lean and mean and dense. Never use a twenty-five cent word when a nickel will do.

Many people mistakenly think that a short story is easier to write than a novel, because it’s more compact. They think that a poem is even easier, because there are fewer words yet. But the exact opposite is true. Did you know that? The shorter the piece, the harder it is to write. This is  because with fewer words, every one has to count. There is no room for extra padding, no place to hide. There are no long stretches of narrative, expeditions into expostulation. You have to say exactly what you mean. Every word, every verb, has to carry the weight of the sentence on its meager back, so it must be strong, and it must be absolutely true. The shorter the writing, the denser it becomes. Not dese heavy, just dense: full of meaning; ripe as a summer peach, juicy and succulent.

It’s easy to see why people fall in love with a flush of flabby, fatuous descriptions; because they mean nothing. We’re a TV culture after all, we’re used to that. Flamboyant descriptors are like a magician’s trick, a sleight of hand. Honest writing, writing from the heart, strips you naked. It’s much easier to hide your fragile heart behind a veil of words. But that takes no courage. If you want to journal, you must be brave. You must go into the room you’re afraid to enter and stay there until you have emptied yourself out. And the next day, you must go in there again. You can never completely empty yourself through journaling. There is always something more, something deeper, something rich and rare and precious because it comes from within you. It comes from a place beyond the glittery surface. It comes slick and dark and wet and you must love it. You must stay with it until your heart stops quaking in your chest and you must put it on the page, make it authentic. This is real courage. This is what true love is made of: entering into that place that terrifies you and staying there, listening, writing, watching, recording it all, until the quiet enters and the writing is complete.

Sometimes you will flow with a million thoughts, like droplets of water over Niagara Falls, and there is nothing wrong with that. I would like to suggest however, that there is a balance. If you can practice both ends of this particular writing scale, you will become a better writer. When you sit down to write, think simply. Don’t think you have to impress anyone, to show off. You have an audience of one, and its you.

Here is an exercise that will illustrate what I’m getting at. Sit with your journal and an orange, in a quiet place. Write for fifteen minutes describing the dimpled orb of fruit without using the word orange more than once. Go into that room and stay there. You can riff on the orange if you want, start with the fruit, talk about the blossom or the orchard, or the hands that harvested the one you hold in your hand, but Don’t use the word orange more than once in your description. You can use another fruit if you wish, but the same rules apply. So chose a plum, but don’t use purple. Or choose an apple, but don’t use red or green. You get the point. Hold yourself apart from using the descriptor that is most obvious, and what you get in return is a whole new way to relate to description in general.

Be objective, be a journalist. Pick up the newspaper and read an article about an event. Journalists use the fewest adjectives than just about any writer, and most of those are worth a nickel. They don’t say  “it was a stunningly sunny day with chalky clouds dotting the horizon.”  No, they say, “the day was warm, with scattered clouds.” Period. There is an elegance in that kind of simplicity. Practice being a journal-ist. Practice simplicity with your journal. And be patient with yourself. This stuff takes practice.

murky water with low visibility


Pam Lazos

Chapter Forty-Three

Hart descended into the murky realms of the Delaware River, enjoying the cocoon-like warmth of his wet suit. He had opted for it over the dry suit even though the water was on its way to below freezing. The dry suit would keep him dry, but not warm enough, not in these arctic-like conditions. Ah, but the wet suit, that was a suit of a different color. It sported an insulated neoprene hose which tied onto the outside of the umbilical, ran down the side of his body and attached at the spider, a three-way valve at the waist of his suit. The hose was fed by a hot water machine that had an oil-fired burner and a digital thermostat to control the temperature. Under usual circumstances, water to feed the hose would be drawn from the water body the diver found himself in, but given the petrol load the Delaware was carrying, Hart directed the hot water machine be fed with water from a local fire hydrant and transported via garden hose. The hose was threaded around the interior of Hart’s wet suit and one hundred degree water escaped through the little holes poked in it, entering in myriad locations and keeping his whole body warm. The hose could even blow warm water through the cuff and into Hart’s smaller gloves making the large, bulky, but warmer three-finger gloves unnecessary. Hart closed his eyes, allowing himself to bask for a few moments in the warmth before proceeding down the ladder into the water.

The Delaware river, a murky water with low visibility on a good day, was even worse today because of the impending storm. Hart reached a level that he assumed would be the bottom of the ship’s hull, but without touching it he couldn’t distinguish metal from water. He dropped another few feet, holding fast to the traveling line, but the scenery didn’t change.

“Great. Now what?”

“What’s up, Boss?” Smith’s voice crackled through Hart’s umbilical flooding the inner chamber of his helmet with sound.

“I can’t see a damn thing. What are they puttin’ in this water anyway?”

“Lots of industry around here. Ships going up and down the channel churnin’ up the bottom. The Army Corps always dredging it to keep the depth right. Then there’s the farming,” Smith mused. “I’d say you got some sediment, some debris…”

“It was a rhetorical question, Smithy.”

“…and, I’d leave it at that. You don’t want to be thinking too hard about what you’re swimming in unless you want to puke in your helmet.” Smith cracked up at that, and Hart joined him, his body quivering with silent laughter.

“Smithy. Help me here. I can’t see the ship. It’s no where in sight, far as I can tell.” Hart flicked his headlamp on and off, looking to bounce the light off of something. He wrapped the tow rope around his leg before reaching his hands out in front of him, groping vainly in the darkness. “I got nothin’.”

“The traveling rope should be about three feet in front of the Ryujin . So if you’re facing in the right direction, you could jump…”

Before Smith could finish his sentence Hart jumped, using the traveling rope for leverage, and after a forward propulsion in slow motion, his helmet came to rest against the hull of the Ryujin with a resounding thump.

“What was that?” Smith asked.

“My brains getting rattled.” Hart moved his hands along, feeling for the bilge keel, the fin-like projections from either side of the hull that helped stabilize a ship in rough seas. He cast his light directly on the hull and found he could see somewhat better. Hart’s thin gloves allowed for greater movement, but also meant he’d be more prone to cuts and scraps against jagged metal. He proceeded with caution moving down and around the bottom of the hull, alert for sharp metallic pieces of the ship’s frame.

After several dim minutes, Hart’s glove snagged on a sharp object. He trained the light in its direction and found a hole, about fifteen inches wide and half as long. He reached his hand in, feeling the emptiness of the space where the oil used to be and shuddered. The boulder, or whatever it was, had ripped a hole right on a seam of the hull, a faulty one at that. Hart’s eye followed the rip in the hull until it dissolved into blackness. He pulled out an underwater tape measure and after ascertaining the width, proceeded down the length of the hull looking for the end of the rainbow. Eight and a half feet later, the gaping stopped. Now it made sense. Hart had been wondering how in the hell so much oil had come out of what he was thinking probably looked like a small gash in the bottom, given both the pilot and captain’s descriptions of impact. With a small hole and entrainment, most of the oil would have stayed put while the ship was moving. But this was no small hole. The impact had given way to a split seam on the hull. With a hole this size, no matter how fast the ship had been going, the oil was coming out. Zenone was right: time to retire the single-hulled vessels. The expense to the company was nothing compared to what it was doing to this river. He’d talk to Bicky about it as soon as he got back. Bicky would have other ideas, but he’d never been on Site for a major oil spill either….

“Hey, Boss.” Smith’s voice interrupted his thoughts. “Time to come home. Coast Guard just issued a squall warning. They want all ships and other non-necessary personnel out of the water, pronto.”

“I can’t see a damn thing anyway, got so much oil on my face-plate,” Hart said. “I’m on my way up.”

to be continued. . .

click here to see what led to this state of affairs

copyright 2012

the coming storm


Pam Lazos

Chapter Forty-Two

Zenone stood outside the command post, watching the river and contemplating the next move. He nodded at the clean up crew’s progress, somewhat satisfied with the speed at which the raking and shoveling at the shoreline was making a difference. He could actually see the beach in some spots whereas hours ago, there was nothing to see but brown crude. As clean up crews went, this was a savvy bunch. They got to work immediately after receiving the basic safety instructions and didn’t appear inclined to loaf. Perhaps there was hope for recovery of this shoreline. Zenone had been with the Coast Guard for twenty-two years, fourteen of which he’d been specializing in oil spill removal. In his experience, it would take years for a spill of this magnitude to lose its effect on the ecosystem and likely decades before all the oil was gone from the shorelines, if ever. But right here it wasn’t so bad. On a sensitivity scale of one to ten, the mixed sand and gravel beaches were about a five. This beach, and likely most of the beaches along the Delaware from Marcus Hook to just north of Slaughter Beach, Delaware – roughly eighty-five miles of shoreline – would recover with time using the cleanup strategies he was employing. What may not recover, however, was Tinicum Marsh.

Zenone pushed the thought back into his grey matter and coughed. He sucked in the persistent post-nasal drip that the foul smell of too much oil in the ambient air caused him and spit on the ground. He cleared his throat and swallowed. His saliva felt viscous and unnatural. He coughed and spat again.

His cell phone rang and he grabbed it off the belt at his hip, still coughing.

“Zenone.” He looked in the direction of the vacuum boat idling on the water, a small barge about twenty-five feet long that could carry four to five people. It was powered by a single-diesel engine, had a storage tank below deck and an oil skimmer above and was capable of removing thirty tons of heavy oil per hour if it could catch it. Zenone could see the Captain of the tug standing at the stern, cell phone to his ear, waiting for the signal. “Go ahead,” Zenone said into the phone, snapped it shut and replaced it on his hip.

The Captain flashed a thumbs up and the vacuum boat circumvented a thick mass of the slick, trailing a boom. The plan was to circle out and encapsulate as much of the oil as possible in the boom, like outstretched arms slowly pulling together, then swing back in, leaving the boom on the water in a V-formation. The booms were made of tough, non-corrosive plastic, rectangularly-shaped with a bulbous center mounted to a rubber skirt that rose above and below the boom and which entrained the oil, working as a dam to stop it from rushing over or under the barrier. This worked effectively enough in calm waters, but when the winds got rough and the waves picked up, increasing the water’s velocity, there was not a boom made that could stop the oil. When the boom was in place, the vacuum boat turned around and set the skimmers on the oil, munching, crunching and sucking it up using two hydraulic-driven pumps. The pressurized system funneled the oil through a tube and then to a gravity separator. Once decanted, the remaining water was pumped off and dumped back into the river. The oil was disposed of in a two thousand gallon holding tank to be dealt with later either by pumping it off back on shore, or to a small portable hundred foot barge that would intercept it and take it to shore so the vacuum boat could keep skimming.

Zenone checked his watch and then the sky, hoping the weather would hold. He had another ten vacuum boats working the entire stretch of the river, some provided by the Coast Guard, some by EPA, and some by Akanabi Oil. If he could get another ten …

His attention was drawn by the grunting and puffing of two muckers trying to stuff an oil-laden absorbent boom into a disposal bag. The third man grabbed a fresh boom off one of the trucks and headed toward the water. Zenone decided to take back what he said about them being savvy – absorbent booms weren’t to be used until the final stages of the cleanup since other methods, like vacuum extractions, worked better on large quantities of oil – until he looked at the flatbed. The hard, non-corrosive plastic booms were suspiciously absent, and in their place were the sorbent ones. Damn Akanabi Oil. More like Psycho Oil . He barked at the nearest mucker.

“Where the hell are the large plastic booms?” Zenone barked.

“I don’t know. This is all they sent us,” the man replied, then scampered off to join his comrades, leaving Zenone staring after him.

“Hey, Jim. Bring more diapers,” called a young, college-age woman, to her colleague walking toward the supply truck. The man nodded and grabbed another bale. She got down on her hands and knees and pressed absorbent pads – cloth diapers on steroids – into the sand. The pads soaked up small bits of oil, a time consuming process. She reminded Zenone of his own daughter and smiled at her fastidiousness: her little section of the beach was virtually spotless.

Zenone cast an appraising glance upward. The clouds looked more threatening than they had at daybreak, and so thick as to appear seamless. He knew a storm was coming, barely hours away. He felt it in the right wrist, the one he’d broken as a kid. It was the best weather detector he’d encountered to date. He flipped his cell phone open and dialed the number for NOAA anyway. After two rings, someone answered the phone.

“Yeah, who’s this?” Zenone asked. “Hey. It’s Zenone. I need a weather report for the whole tri-state area. Call me back the minute you got it, alright?” He flipped the phone shut.

A horn beeped and Zenone turned to see Lapsley pull up to the command post with a passenger. Zenone met them halfway.

“Hey, Chief. This is David Hartos,” Lapsley said. “Akanabi’s head engineer. He’s your contact.”

“Good to meet you,” Hart said. “Whatever Akanabi can do, please let me know.”

Hart reached out a hand and Zenone gave him a death grip that made him flinch. Zenone smiled, but covered it with a hand to his mouth and a little fake cough. He liked to put them in their place right off, so there wouldn’t be any difficulties with chain-of-command later.

“How about you check on those booms. They sent absorbent instead of plastic. And maybe find some more vacuum boats. If we could get ‘em out before the storm comes we might get somewhere. But if you really want to help, you can tell them to retire all their Goddamn single-hulled ships. They’re a menace.” Zenone grimaced and turned to Lapsley. “Where’s my helicopter?”


“So’s spring.”

“Really, you’ll learn to love this guy,” Lapsley said, turning to Hart. “He’s got a tough exterior, but a heart like gold.” Lapsley turned back to Zenone, eyes glistening with humor. Zenone smiled mechanically, but his eyes reflected a hidden mirth.

“NOAA’s sending one,” Lapsley said. Everything the Coast Guard’s got was already deployed. Apparently there’s a big storm brewing down off the coast of North Carolina, heading this way, and bringing some high winds with it. Came up really fast. A few fishing boats needed to be rescued.” Zenone sighed and nodded his head absently.

“Did you notify all the local water intakes…”


“…cause you know, if they don’t shut ‘em down, they’re gonna be local oil intakes…”

“ Yes ,” Lapsley said again. “It was the first thing I did this morning. Now would you chill. You’re giving me the shakes.” Lapsley smiled and Hart snickered. Storm clouds hovered like doom on the horizon.

“Alright, let’s go in.” Zenone turned to Hart. “I want to show you something that perhaps you can explain to me.”

Hart nodded and followed Zenone into the command post.


Zenone poured a cup of coffee, a thick, viscous substance that looked itself like petroleum, handed it to Lapsley, then turned to Hart to see if he wanted a cup. Hart shook his head no. He’d had more than enough cups of bad coffee today.

“What? D’you pull this from the river?” Lapsley said, and took a sip anyway.

Zenone walked to the drafting table and handed Hart Akanabi’s SPCC Plan.

Hart scanned the cover and raised his eyebrows. “Is it deficient?”

“You bet it is.”

Hart opened it. Blank pages. He flipped through a couple pages at a time, but the blankness remained.

“Did you prepare that plan?” Zenone asked.

“No. And I’m not sure who did, or rather, who was supposed to,” Hart said. “Did you get this from the ship’s Captain?”

Zenone nodded. Hart rubbed his forehead.

“You know there’s a fine. Up to $32,500 for failure to have a spill plan. And another one for failure to implement it. Not to mention the fines for all the oil in the water. They accrue daily.”

“Yeah. I know.”

“Just so we’re straight.”

“We’re straight.” Hart stood and offered Zenone his hand.

Zenone took it, but this time Hart was ready for him. He squeezed back with equal force, forcing a smile out of Zenone.

“It’s been a pleasure, but I’ve got a dive to get ready for.”

Lapsley rose. “I’ll drive you back.”

“Inspection?” Zenone asked.

“The Ryujin, ” Hart replied. I’ll let you know what I find. And for what it matters, I wholeheartedly agree with you about the single hulls.” This time Zenone smiled for real.

 to be continued. . .

to read the back story, jump here