It seems ridiculous I am only discovering now, closing in on 50 years of age, that my thoughts—how I am thinking/feeling, what I am thinking/feeling, speculating why I might think/feel this or that way—are not entirely well-defined, even to me, before I render them in words and sentences on the page. What results are sentences that are unclear, and worse, the sentiments propping up the words are completely elusive for a reader.
Let’s move from the abstract to the concrete…a place I am wholly uncomfortable in, it seems, given the frequency I dwell and wallow in the abstract.
Here’s a short paragraph I wrote recently in response to a writing prompt:
The promise of bread. All the flour and nuts and seeds were dumped in while the cries and thuds of my siblings wrestling for the swing floated from the back yard. The honeyed water splashed my chin. And then we added time. That most crucial ingredient for growth.
When I wrote these sentences, I let my mind wander freely and captured the thoughts that bubbled up and, loyally, doggedly, transcribed them to the page, moving swiftly from one sentence to the next.
And I think this is a good way to generate material. But it’s not enough.
There are too many ideas or emotions crammed into the same space, tangled into the same sentence, instead of a deliberate, focused rendering of singular ideas or emotions, one after the other to guide myself and a reader along a path of discovery through my mind.
My mistake with that paragraph, well, mistakes, there are a few:
- that I thought the paragraph was finished
- that I imagined the paragraph communicated my thoughts, when really, my words simply list the images and actions, presenting them as some dreamlike sequence without attaching my thoughts and feelings
- that I didn’t question what I mean by “time being the most crucial ingredient for growth”…that sounds really interesting but I just kind of plop it there on the page as if I’m tossing scraps over my should to a begging dog. What do I really mean when I write that? Am I so condescending/inconsiderate of my readers that I just leave that hanging there, a completely ambiguous, no, amorphous phrase? Ugh abstraction again. What I mean is, am I treating readers like a begging dog with these half-assed declarations, expecting them to “get it” and hang on my every word?
- I haven’t worked through this paragraph to even know what it is I mean, what there is “to get”, let alone communicate that “idea/sentiment/feeling” clearly and effectively to readers
- Too often I believe beauty is sufficient in creative writing and understanding only secondary …except, shit, that’s not what I believe at all. Understanding, a shared understanding between writer and reader is paramount, it’s the whole point.
This is where revision starts. Re vision. Writing a first draft, I’ve cast out into the ocean of my subconscious, and I’ve hooked something, these sentences, these words, but I can’t land them as they are. They must be studied, queried, and then, once I have a sense of what it is I am trying to say, I need to craft a sentence that is true and clear, in addition to beautiful, to communicate that thought to a reader.
I’ve been studying sentences. Not so much the grammatical construction of sentences, though syntax is definitely part of it, but more the conceptual constructions, how thoughts are layered, one after the other, using the form of a sentence, to communicate ideas or emotions to a reader.
Take the first part of that second sentence above:
All the flour and nuts and seeds were dumped in…
Some questions and additions for clarification:
All the flour? All the flour for the bread or all the flour in the house, and does it matter? It does, depending on the effect I want to create. In this writing piece I don’t want to imply it was the last of the flour in the house, this is not a story about want…well, maybe it is, but it is not about hunger in that sense. Be specific:
My mother fisted whole wheat flour into a yellow plastic bowl big enough to bathe a new baby in. She added a small handful of white flour—to make sure the loaves would rise above the status of a brick in the oven—walnut, sunflower and poppy seeds were dumped in…
Taking the time to add these clarifying details, I’m both delighted and horrified to discover more subconscious imagery bubbling to the surface. Where did that new baby come from? And what about that riff, obviously related, that riff on “a bun in the oven” with the addition of brick in the oven (a word that won’t make the final cut but has surfaced to provide more here, in the discovery and writing process). And what the hell is the word “status” doing there?
And that was the easy part of one sentence in that paragraph.
What do I mean when I state, The promise of bread? How do bread and promises come together? Or, why have I put them together here? Do I mean that baking always holds a promise? I like how the sentence (or is it a fragment?) sounds, but what the hell do I mean?
This blog post is too long already, but I hope you get the idea of how I’m working to make my writing…well, my thinking (my sloppy thinking!!!) better. And my writing too.
Here are some images of my completed sculpture right before the form was destroyed, the clay pulled from the support and returned to the plastic bag to be used to make something entirely different another day. It was a good lesson and a lot of fun. Thank you and credit to my good friend and colleague, JB, for the photographs.