I always thought that if you wanted to help readers see what you are thinking and feeling, adjectives are what you need, the more the better. But in a recent New York Times Sunday magazine, Sam Anderson, in his column “New Sentences,” shows us how verbs can be even more descriptive.
“The past sleds behind him,” is a sentence Anderson uses as an example. It is taken from Christine Schutt’s “Pore Hollywood: and Other stories.” (Grove Press, 2018, Page 96). Schutt is the author of two previous collections and three novels, including the National Book Award finalist “Florida.” Here is what Anderson says about this sentence:
“What an excellent verb: “sleds.” What a weirdly specific way to visualize time. In just five quick words, this sentence converts the entire history of everything – the whole past – from its usual state of formless abstraction (an energy field, a tidal wave, a void) into something fabulously active and small: a kid on a toboggan, scraping and sliding behind you, bumping over little hills, cheeks red from the cold, pompom bouncing yarnily on top of a winter hat The past becomes perky and alive and attentive, always on your heels, even as you trek perpetually forward.
“As a livelong mope, I tend to imagine the past very differently – as fundamentally huge and sad. It is a kind of ocean, always running backward toward low tide, receding, draining away from me, and I stand stuck on the edge of its shore, knowing that it contains everything I have ever known – my father and mother, the old maple tree, a black dog and an orange cat, my grandmother’s terrifying clock – but all of that is under the surface now, suspended in the water that rushes away from me, and I will never be able to enter it, will never recover what has sunk, and it causes me real pain. All of the water that happens to be inside of me, the cellular plasma, keens for all of that other water leaving, because it knows there will be no high tide.
“But language is a powerful thing. Change an image, and so much changes with it. The past can be a broom closet stuffed with receipts. The past can be a heron hunting the frog of the now. The past can be Bigfoot – a legendary thing, blurry, possibly real and possibly not, swinging its arms through precisely the forest you are not currently in. Or the past can be a sled. Just turn around and look.”
Makes me want to play more in the verb playground! JB
Author: Paula Fox
Reviewer: Sharon Quiroz
Genre: Literary Fiction
Reviewers keep calling it “Chekhovian.” It is a family novel, but what a family! They have gathered for a bon voyage party: Laura and Desmond are off to Europe, and she has invited her daughter, Clara, and Carlos, Laura’s brother, and Peter, a family friend, to dinner. Most of the story takes place in their hotel room before they go to the restaurant for dinner. And there, Fox brilliantly develops the characters in her riveting, terrifying, style. For any writer a look at how Fox develops characters is a must. There’s a great deal of not saying and not listening in this story: Laura knows that her mother, “the widow” has died that morning. Apparently, just because she is jealous of the relationship between her daughter and the widow, who raised the child, Laura withholds the information that the widow died this morning. But it seems to account at least in part for her more than usually outrageous behavior. This is a fascinating study of a family, and an even more fascinating example of Fox’s beautiful writing. SQ
Spatchcock: my new favorite word. I loved the sound of it before I knew what it meant. Although I did know it was something you do to a turkey, and wondered whether it was obscene. Anyway, it means: to split open a bird for grilling. I still think it is a wonderful word, like “apple dumpling,” or “stipple.”
Once when I was painting the kitchen I fell in love with “stipple” and “spackle.” So I wrote a poem:
Oh, stipple and spackle the soffit
And let the linoleum lie (notice all the sonorous m’s and n’s, and the liquid l’s, in contrast to all those sputtering sounds linguists call “plosives.”)
You can spatter it, speckle it, spot it
‘Cause tomorrow a new one we’ll buy. (I can’t figure out how to make a final sentence that is both meaningful and beautiful).
Now “linoleum” is an interesting word: it has wonderful sounds. But it refers to something we don’t usually think of as beautiful. I’m reminded that a linguist once pointed out that while we all think this sentence sounds beautiful:
The murmuring of innumerable bees
if we change the sound ever so slightly, and the reference isn’t so beautiful, we don’t hear it as a beautiful sentence at all:
The murdering of innumerable beeves.
I know I should read my fiction aloud to hear how it sounds. But I never write less than 100k words. I could at least read the opening paragraphs aloud. Or try writing some more profound poetry. - SQ
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