Friday, September 7, 2012

Theory of Sentences: Sound and Sense



A birch handled puukko. Creative Commons, image from Wikipedia.
The first week of Clarion West, while Mary Rosenblum was showing us how to find the emotional core—both in our writing and in ourselves—we each got a folded 3X5 card with a single word on it. 

My word was anticipation.
This is what I wrote:

My mouth is spitless. I suck my teeth hard and wet puddles on my tongue. I can make it work. Kiss the whet stone close by my chin bone; don’t waste a dribble of it. Start circling, smooth circles, blade slid flat. Steel sings, rings, whispers while my spit goes black. Haft fits hand. Blade is finger.  There’s no difference between song and singer. When the moment comes, and the moment will, we will both be sharp and shiny to kill.

Couple of things about "Anticipation": 1) It is short; 2) I think my Clarion family decided to love me despite my evident murderous inclinations**; 3) I worried over the words, and, in this way, it is very representative of the way I write.

I won’t even discuss why spitlessness is my idea of anticipation.

What mattered, in terms of process, is that I got distracted by the sound of the words. I wanted the words to "sound like" something. At the macro level, I wanted to evoke the sound of a blade on a whet stone. I wanted the words to feel like the action, get some mirror neurons interested. On the micro level, I wanted words to sound like each other. 

This whole "wanting words to sound like" can be a terrible distraction. Do I know who this person is? Not yet? Do I know when the sharpened knife will come into play? Not yet? But I do think this person has a voice, and if I listened long enough, I'd figure out the whole story. Meanwhile, I'm just sitting in the dark, waiting for Grendel, whatever Grendel might be.

(Note: I'm indebted to Helen Marshall, who made this comment on an earlier post: "...what is the difference between poetry and prose? In poetry, you don't need a theory of sentences. You need something else.")


* I always say that is the one, incontrovertible virtue of my writing—it's short. 
** Actually, they are, many of them just as murderous***, but more loving than murderous. I credit Mary for shaping us into an engine of happiness.  
***And Huw brought a lot more knives. 

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