Kindle your creativity
All these years later, I’m still grateful for the Kindle app on my iPad.
I thought the thing I’d love most about reading on my devices would be the extra mini-fridge-sized space it leaves in my luggage for necessities like thick Marimekko sweaters and airport-sized Fazer chocolate bars that I collect on my trips. But the truth is, my favorite feature is “My clippings,” a tool that transforms my highlights and notes into text that I can transfer to my laptop.
After a couple of months of reading on a reader, I decided to review my clippings. What I found will help me — and, I hope, you — model the masters, or steal techniques from some of the year’s best writers to make your own writing more creative and compelling.
One problem with modifiers — thin, lean, straight — is that they don’t paint pictures in your readers’ heads. Instead of simply describing your subject with adjectives and adverbs, engage your readers’ senses with analogy.
That’s what Lorrie Moore did in this passage from A Gate at the Stairs:
“She wore glasses, and behind them I could see her eyebrows were shaved into a thin line—the stubble showing both above and below. The thin line was lengthened at the end with an eyebrow pencil, which looked about as natural as if she had just taped the pencils themselves over her eyes.”
Meg Gardiner used the same technique to describe a charismatic religious leader in her Edgar Award-winning mystery, China Lake:
“Peter Wyoming didn’t shake hands with people; he hit them with his presence like a rock fired from a sling-shot. He was a human nail, lean and straight with brush-cut hair, and when I first saw him he was carrying a picket sign and enough rage to scorch the ground.”
But Colum McCann may be the master of this approach. His National Book Award-winning novel, Let the Great World Spin, includes passage after passage of description through analogy:
“On weekend mornings we strolled with our mother, ankle-deep in the low tide, and looked back to see the row of houses, the tower, and the little scarves of smoke coming up from the chimneys.”
“Corrigan drove me through the South Bronx under the flamed-up sky. The sunset was the color of muscle, pink and striated gray. Arson. The owners of the buildings, he said, were running insurance scams. Whole streets of tenements and warehouses abandoned to smolder.”
“The cabin was an hour and a half from New York City. It was set back in a grove of trees on the edge of a second, smaller lake. A pond, really. Lily pads and river plants. The cabin had been built fifty years before, in the 1920s, out of red cedar. No electricity. Water from a spring well. A woodstove, a rickety outhouse, a gravity-fed shower, a hut we used for a garage. Raspberry bushes grew up and around the back windows. You could lift the sashes to birdsong. The wind made the reeds gossip.”
“Little else to distract attention from the evening, just a clock, in a time not too distant from the present time, yet a time not too distant from the past, the unaccountable unfolding of consequence into tomorrow’s time, the simple things, the grain of bedwood alive in light, the slight argument of dark still left in the old woman’s hair, the ray of moisture on the plastic lifebag, the curl of the braided flower petal, the chipped edge of a photo frame, the rim of a mug, the mark of a stray tea line along its edge, a crossword puzzle sitting unfinished, the yellow of a pencil dangling over the edge of the table, one end sharpened, the eraser in midair.”
(And how do you like that for a 121-word sentence that works?)
Find yourself writing an adjective or adverb?
Model the masters
Regardless of your reading technology, modeling the masters is one of the best ways to improve your writing every day. When you find a passage or phrase or word you wish you’d written, clip it, study and master the technique yourself.
The better your reading, the better your writing.
What’s in your clippings?