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.

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