SPECKLED MILK

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by Bill Yarrow 

THOUGHTS ON WRITING

The first rule of writing is to not add descriptors to things inherently described. A ball need never be described as round because a ball, inherently, is round. Grass need never be described as green because grass naturally is green. Milk need never be described as white because milk normally is white. Adjectives are required only when the object to be described deviates from its inherent self. Thus a lozenge-shaped ball, blue or yellow grass, pink or speckled milk.

No need to say he watched with his eyes or she touched with her hands because we use our eyes to see and we use our hands to touch. If she touched his shoe with her toe, however, that’s a different story.

No one would write, “He sneezed with his nose,” “She danced with her feet,” or “He breathed with his lungs,” but people do write, “She pinched him with her fingers” (or worse, “with her thumb and index finger”) and “He kissed her with his lips.” Why? Let kiss be kiss and pinch be pinch. Over-scrupulous specificity is not a good.

Let the normal be normal and never over explain. He opened the window is sufficient. “He placed two hands on the window pull and lifted upward” or “he grabbed the door handle and pulled it outward” belabors the action and obscures the obvious. If you have something to say, say it directly. He kissed her. He parked the car. He cleaned the toilet. Add a detail only if it is an unexpected detail. He kissed her on the chin. He parked the car on the lawn. He cleaned the toilet in his suit.

Chekhov writes to Gorky: “You understand it at once when I say, ‘The man sat on the grass;’ you understand it because it is clear and makes no demands on the attention. On the other hand, it is not easily understood, and it is difficult for the mind, if I write, ‘A tall, narrow-chested, middle-sized man, with a red beard, sat on the green grass, already trampled by pedestrians, sat silently, shyly, and timidly looked about him.’ That is not immediately grasped by the mind, whereas good writing should be grasped at once—in a second.”

Description should be eloquent and precise, not fevered, not desperate, not consumed by the greed to be foolishly exhaustive and insanely comprehensive.

Consider these lines, both of which come from the William Carlos Williams poem that begins “By the road to the contagious hospital”

 “the reddish / purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy / stuff of bushes and small trees / with dead, brown leaves under them”—that description is unfocused, desperate, inept.

 “the stiff curl of wild carrot leaf”—now, that description is eloquent, precise, thrillingly good!

Do not double up on words. Use “separated,” not “separated out.” Use “divided, not “divided up.” Use “together,” not “both together.” Use “sat,” not “sat down.” Use “fell,” not “fell down” (unless “down” is used as a preposition and requires an object, e.g. “down the stairs”). Use “lifted,” not “lifted up.”

Never exaggerate. Let words speak for themselves. “Hot,” not “scalding hot.” “Cold,” not “freezing cold.” “Handsome,” not “dashingly handsome.” “I sweated,” not “I sweated bullets.” “I jumped,” not “I jumped out of my skin.” “Red, not “beet red.” Or “blood red.” Or “firehouse red.” (An exaggeration is never far from a cliché.)

Do not add an adverb which does the same work as the verb. No need to say “moaned softly” when “moaned” will do. A moan, by its nature, is soft. No need to say “missed terribly” when “missed” will do. Adding “terribly” dilutes the force of “missed.”

Do not use “so” as an intensifier without using the word “that” to complete the comparison. Not “I was so embarrassed,” but “I was so embarrassed that I could not speak.” If you complete a comparison, make sure you are adding to the original idea rather than merely reiterating the idea. “I was so embarrassed that I turned red” is a reiterative sentence because people who are embarrassed do turn red. Better to say simply, “I was embarrassed” or “I turned red.” One or the other.

If you are going to sin, sin on the side of clarity. Add more words than fewer words. Repeat words if the repetition will help clarify the action or the idea. Consider the shortened form of the sentence from the preceding paragraph: “If you complete a comparison, make sure you are adding to rather than merely reiterating.” Add words for clarity.

Good writing is rhythmic. Prose rhythm may be established in a number of ways. [Note” not “a number of different ways.”] Thus, there are no hard and fast rules regarding word choice, particularly the number of words used. “I showered” and “I took a shower” are both fine ways to express the same idea. Two words are not universally preferable to four words. Choosing always the smallest possible number of words may make writing more difficult to decipher—like reading a telegram. Writing needs to breathe. Repetition is OK. The use of parenthetical elements is OK. The use of parallel phrases is to be encouraged. Triplets are to be admired. Good writing owes allegiance to precision, not constriction.

 Use “sprinted” rather than “ran quickly,” not because “sprinted” is one word rather than two but because it may be the precise word you are looking for.

 Use “reclined” rather than “leaned back,” not because “reclined” is one word rather than two but because it may be the precise word you are looking for.

 Use “contemplated” rather than “thought carefully,” not because “contemplated” is one word rather than two but because it is the precise word you are looking for.

 Use “labored” rather than “worked hard,” not because “labored” is one word rather than two but because it may be the precise word you are looking for.

 Use “glanced” rather than “looked quickly,” not because “glanced” is one word rather than two but because it may be the precise word you are looking for.

 Use “shouted” rather than “called loudly,” not because “shouted” is one word rather than two but because it may be the precise word you are looking for.

But “sprinted,” “reclined,” “contemplated,” “labored,” “glanced,” and “shouted” may not be the precise words you are looking for, so, in that case, don’t use them. Use whatever words you need whenever you need them.

Those people who see style as affectation see everything as affectation.

WE MUST NOT SAY SO
(with apologies to John Berryman)

Milk, friends, is white.
We must not say so.
Swans, friends, are white.
We must not say so.
Grass, friends, is green.
We must not say so.
Birds have two wings.
We must not say so.
River water is wet.
We must not say so.
We clap with our hands.
We must not say so.
The sky above is blue.
We must not say so.

but trucks sputter (or brake)
butter softens (or burns)
the factory closes (or hires)
the soil erodes (or dries up)
lips blister (or tighten)
leaves scatter (or shimmer)
paper cuts sting (or heal)
radiators knock (and hiss)

 


 

This essay appeared in Blue Fifth Review: Blue Five Notebook Series (Winter 2016 / 16.1) as “We must Not Say So.”        https://bluefifthreview.wordpress.com/


 

SEE MORE FROM BILL YARROW ON  HELIOShttps://heliosliterature.com/2014/11/26/processes/

Bill Yarrow is the author of THE LICE OF CHRIST (MadHat Press 2014), INCOMPETENT TRANSLATIONS AND INEPT HAIKU (Cervena Barva Press 2013), POINTED SENTENCES (BlazeVOX 2012), FOURTEEN (Naked Mannekin, 2011), and WRENCH (erbacce-press 2009).

 

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