June 1, 2013 § 4 Comments
Even when things are random, we search for pattern, imposing order where there is none.
The idea that “things happen for a reason” is so much more reassuring than “things happen.”
As a writer of fiction I take this one step farther. I construct the pattern in which “things happen” so that everything “happens for a reason.” And as the God of that small world I supply those reasons.
A writer, like a runner, has to build the necessary muscles for the task, so I’ve filled notebooks with writing exercises. For one that I do regularly I grab a dictionary. Yes, the old-fashioned kind that feels heavy in your lap.
I open it and take a random stab at a word. Archaic, bland, or esoteric, I’m stuck with it. I continue to play the literary equivalent of pin the tail on the donkey until I have a noun, a verb, and an adjective (if I get a second of any one of them I throw it back).
I almost always get three words that have, at best, a nodding acquaintance with each other. Some, I’m sure, have never met. They keep different hours, hang with different crowds, at a mixer they would not dance with each other. All they have in common is that they are the symbolic representation of something important enough to humans to have acquired a label, a label that has enshrined them in the strictly-human good book, the dictionary.
The exercise is to bring them together for a collective effort at creating order out of chaos.
Here are some examples:
Noun: fez Verb: fibrillate Adjective: sandy (this explains the photo of the fez–bet you thought it was random)
Said the swarthy little man in the red felt fez, “Let us be stepping out my sandy beauty! You make my heart fibrillate and my palms to stand out in a cold sweat.” The tassel on his fez swung toward the dance floor and they stepped out, his fibrillating heart pressed to her belly button and the top of his fez, jutting, like an empty saucer, out from under her ribs.
Noun: dirt Verb: pretend Adjective: pyrrhic (for this one I had to read the definition: won at too great a cost)
When the judge finally awarded Norman the “family estate” it was a pyrrhic victory. He’d won a patch of dirt and a dry-rotted frame house set, like a stack of tinder, in the middle of it. No sense pretending he’d inherited Tara.
Noun: dotage Verb: plait Adjective: incoherent
In her dotage Martha kept to her chair on the porch, warming like a rock in the sun as the traffic of the household eddied around her. The incoherent babble of family conversations plaited into a single murmur. Although meaningless, the sound reassured Martha like the voice of a familiar river singing to itself.
Noun: moulding, verb: position, adjective: risqué
He positioned himself in the vestibule, ankles casually crossed to display his two-tone shoes. His lacquered nails drummed the strip of oggi moulding that ran along the top of the wainscoting, but stopped when he heard the click of Lola’s heels in the upstairs hall. He was encouraged as she began to descend the boarding house stairs, by the glimmer of spike heels, the first bit of the girl to drop into sight; heartened by the net stockings on a pair of unabbreviated legs that, at the last possible moment, disappeared behind a swish of fringe attached to a bit of black dress; and he was positively falling-down grateful when he saw the risqué neckline excused by the little gold cross warming itself in Lola’s cleavage.
Noun: pitcher, Verb: shimmer, Adjective: genetic
From the pitcher of genetic possibility, poured the narrow stream of early life. As it spread upon the earth, it mantled the planet. And oh, how it shimmered in the light.
Noun: byway Verb: chase Adjective: churchless
Churchless in a time when all were affiliated and standing shoulder to shoulder, Isaac kept quietly to the byways in his search for belief. And when he glimpsed God, he gave chase, and being more fleet for traveling alone he pinned God one day: God with his immense back against the wall of the barn behind Isaac’s house, God entrapped like a jarred butterfly, God embarrassed. Isaac showed mercy and turned away, but caught a shirttail glimpse of God gamboling over the hill and away. A scent like summer rain lingered for a long time.
Noun: Milky Way Verb: resume Adjective: sporadic
We lie on our backs with the Milky Way, milt of the universe, a cloudy band overhead. It is, tonight, the height of the Perseids, and unfastened stars fall in sporadic showers. I hear your breathing gradually resume it’s even rhythm; moments ago you were a falling star at its brightest. A meteorite now, you lie, cooling beside me in the grass.
Noun: cancer Verb: assay Adjective: assiduous
Even staring into the face of his own progressing cancer, Nathan remained first and always an assiduous scientist, assaying his own blood for signs of metastasis as if that blood were stolen from some impersonal and unknown vein.
Noun: cologne Verb: swing Adjective: damp
The leaves on the ligustrum hung tired in the breathless summer evening; just cut paper silhouettes against the screen now that the sun had given up the fight. Etta lifted her damp hair and patted cologne on the back of her neck, providing a little cool and the sweet, flowery scent that always made her think of Nathan.
In a little while he’d come off shift and she’d feed him his supper. Something cold on a bed of lettuce. Then, while she ran a little water over his empty plate he’d grab her waist, swing her around and press the small of her back into the edge of the sink. “Honey,” he’d say. “Honey.” Then he’d twist her hair gently in his calloused hand and the first cool night breeze would caress the back of her neck.
Note for writers: The beauty of this exercise is that it shakes you out of the ruts you have created as you develop your voice, the stakes are low (it is an exercise after all), and sometimes you surprise yourself with a combination of words so unexpected it takes your breath away.