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the right words

Posted by Lois Lowry
Lois Lowry
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on Monday, 15 January 2007 in Uncategorized

I want to recommend a book, READING LIKE A WRITER by the aptly-named Francine Prose. She divides it into chapters titled Words, Sentences, Paragraphs, and so on. It describes beautifully why some writers, and some books, stand apart from and above others. It makes you want to re-read many of the classics that you read in college, appreciating them more, aware more of the careful construction of them.

The chapter on "words"made me think of something I have remembered ever since my graduate school days. The writer/critic H.G. Wells, speaking of Henry James, said (I'm misquoting here, but not the important words) that James, in writing a novel, created an elaborate altar, and then placed upon it "a dead kitten, an eggshell, and a piece of string." What he meant, of course, and said in that perfect metaphor, was that the construct was intricate and perhaps beautiful but the content was minor.

The reason it has stayed with me is because of the words he chose: a dead kitten, an eggshell, a piece of string. They are just right. Not only in the images they provide, but also in their cadence. If you read them aloud, they fall into the right rhythm.

I thought of it this morning when, in my mind, I recounted the things I had caught my puppy chewing between 7 and 9 AM: a hairbrush, a whisk broom, a slipper, and a teabag. If I were to list those things in an essay, I would have to change them. The content is fine—it demonstrates the infinite variety of his appetite and mischief—but the cadence is wrong. I would know that, if I were writing, because I would say it aloud. First of all, I would delete one thing; four is too many. Make it: a hairbrush, a slipper, and a teabag. No. Sounds wrong. A hairbrush, a slipper, and a cup of tea sounds right but it is inaccurate..he didn't, couldn't chew a cup of tea. Also, I'd like to retain the whisk broom because of the "whisk"...such a wonderful modifier....and because "hairbrush" and "slipper" are too much the same, somehow: both of them bedroom/bathroom types of things. So: A teabag, a whisk broom, and a...I have to make something up here, some three-syllable thing. Well, he has often chewed on my knitting, so I will make it a strand of yarn. Nol Wait. I'll make it a broken comb. Or how about: a plastic comb.

This morning, between 7 and 9 AM, I caught my puppy chewing on a whisk broom, a teabag, and a plastic comb.

OKay, that would be a start.

And all of that is a demonstration of how a writer selects the right words.

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