8/6/08

Mothra beguiles

The above moth is a Pandorus Sphinx. I met him yesterday, nestling in the vines along a low wall which fronts a house couple of streets away from mine; I crouched to stare at him for a long time. I needed to keep as much of him as I could in my head, since the camera was at home.* I got the pictures in the end, of course, but the idea of the moth's been with me since-- how it felt to happen upon it, and how it felt to stand there watching, partly in fascination, partly with a strange, queasy dread. It crept into the exercise from Steering the Craft which I worked with this morning; it continues, in two parts, Le Guin's discussion of sentences and language rhythms. The point of the exercise is to get a feel for what short sentences can achieve versus long ones, and vice versa; it gives the writer an opportunity experiment with different ways of varying a paragraph's sentence structure.

Part One: Write a paragraph of narrative, 100-150 words, in sentences of seven or fewer words. No sentence fragments! Each must have a subject and a verb. (Le Guin, 47)

Part Two: Write a half-page to a page of narrative, up to 350 words, which is all one sentence.

Suggested Subjects: For Part One, some kind of tense, intense action-- like a thief entering a room where someone's sleeping...

For Part Two: A very long sentence is suited to powerful, gathering emotion, and to sweeping a lot of characters together. You might try some family memory, fictional or real, such as a key moment at a dinner table or at a hospital bed. (48)**
My paragraphs are below; I used the same narrative for each part. As always, please feel free to try it too, and share your results. I found the first bit more difficult than the second, but we all know by now what I'm like with semicolons. Sometimes-- I swear-- it's like having a king-sized pack of M&Ms in my pocket. Can't have just one.

Part One
Just imagine the thing, if you can. Its taloned forelegs grip the ivy branch. The moth climbs, stops, climbs, rests. It splays its wings: they're vivid green. And its body-- that fleshy, pointed thing. The hindparts curl up and in. They curl: up and down, up again. Hetty watches the thing; she crouches, stares. She's never seen anything like it before. She can't say whether it frightens her. If she's honest, it makes her sick. Sick with love, or maybe just sick. Hetty doesn't know for certain. After a moment she gets up, stretches. The thing doesn't move again. It looks like it's waiting for something. "Don't you dare," Hetty tells it.

Part Two
Imagine the thing, if you can-- taloned forelegs gripping at the ivy branch, reaching, climbing, stopping, climbing again, coming to rest with its wings splayed flat against its fleshy thumblike body-- imagine its pointed hindparts curling and uncurling, up and down; imagine that and notice all the while that Hetty hasn't moved, she crouches and stares at the thing as though she's never seen anything like it before (and she hasn't, never in her life, and if she's honest she isn't certain whether or not it frightens her; it makes her feel a little sick, sick with love, perhaps, or more likely just sick); after a moment she stands, stretches, then waits, hands on her hips; she doesn't move, and neither does the thing (it seems to be waiting for something, maybe to burst from the ivy and flutter into her hair, where it'll get tangled, and buzz, and maybe bite-- Do big moths like that bite? Hetty wonders-- she's certain to scream when it does, so she takes a deep, deep breath), and Hetty addresses it directly, loud enough for anyone happening along nearby to hear: "Don't you dare," she tells it, and then she thinks at it too, for good measure, fixing the moth with an angry beam of hot white thought-light-- don't dare even think about it.

Le Guin offers several options for playing with your paragraphs once they've been written-- switching from a formal narrative voice (say the sort you'll notice in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse), or an "authorial" narrative voice in part one to a more informal, colloquial one, perhaps one which mirrors the character's background. For part two she suggests perhaps tinkering further with syntax-- taking simple clauses joined by ands or semicolons and making them more complex, or conversely, breaking into a more intense, "torrential" style-- lots of dashes, ands, and run-on clauses. It's interesting to play around with something that way, and see how different choices can affect the tone of a paragraph.

I do think that this is the book for me, and the workshop; it's a very comfortable, approachable sort of book to work with. At the same time I've been working with the Le Guin text, I've also been looking through Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter's What If?; granted, the version I have is the first rather than the most recent, but I can't say I find it nearly as useful as I've found Le Guin. It's something of a disappointment: while absolutely jam-packed with all sorts of exercises for writers, the exercises themselves seem a bit generic, and the explanations which accompany them aren't especially helpful, reading more like a list of dos and don'ts than anything. But, as I say, the third edition of that book may be much improved compared with the first.

_____

*As it happened, Mothra felt content to wait for me to return with my camera and start snapping pictures like some crazed, down-on-her-luck fashion photographer who has somehow been granted, miraculously, one (only one) ten-minute, anything-goes shoot with Pamela Anderson. That's it! Work with me. Work those wings! That's right. That's beautiful. Little more to the left. Stretch out that foreleg a bit. There you go. Pout, baby, pout! Flick me a little proboscis. Oh yeah! Fantastic!

**
Le Guin, Ursula K. Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew. Portland: The Eighth Mountain Press, 1998. p. 47-8.

9 comments:

spacedlaw said...

Wonderful poem!

Rubius said...

Lovely poem; very evocative... and I really appreciated the exercise with the paragraphs.

Thank you very much for the link to Neil's 'A Writer's Prayer'. I hadn't heard it before and I enjoyed it.

What a beautiful name for a moth!

The entire endnote was hilarious.

Jess said...

Thank you both. Oh, thank God-- this means I've got more material for the reading next Thursday! I've got to fill twelve whole minutes. I think it might kill me. I am Afraid.

*dreads*

Hi, Rubius, and welcome! I'd known of "A Writer's Prayer" for a while, but hadn't actually heard Neil read it till I started poking around Lastfm. I think I may need to pick up some of the audiobooks-- he really does read beautifully. It's a whole other thing to hear an author read his or her own work-- you get a sense of how they hear their own writing rhythms. It's fascinating.

I think my Mothra was much nicer than the original. :)

Rubius said...

I agree, I love to hear Neil read. He has a beautiful voice. His voice is ear-candy... it gives me ear-gasms. (groan.. sorry, I couldn't help myself).

It is a beautiful photo too.

I love the old Mothra, it was my favourite Godzilla monster. I once fought a giant moth in a D&D game and we called it Mothra in homage (that was the best D&D game I ever participated in).

Jess said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jess said...

Whoops! Let's try that again.

Eargasms. Hee hee! :)

You know who else is great to listen to-- Stephen Fry. I've got his reading of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy on CD; you can hear what obvious pleasure he takes in the book as he reads. Neat stuff.

I have never played D&D, though my mom-- I don't know why, as she never played it either-- had a copy of the game; I used to spend hours poring over the monster list. :) I'm a big fan of Oblivion, though. I like that game a little too much. It is aptly named, and a very bad thing to have in the house. Right now I'm seriously considering firing it up and whackin' me some goblins for an hour, till my hubby gets home.

Rubius said...

I really enjoyed Stephen Fry's reading of Harry Potter.

I have listened to the radio play of Hitchhiker's Guide (one of my ABSOLUTE favourite series) and it is great but I don't think I have listened to the book. Thanks for the suggestion.

I have never heard of Oblivion.

Oh yes, the monster manuals are fabulous. D&D is all about socializing, I think. A way to play a game that is all about the character you make up and the situations you blunder into, with friends around you. As it is a 'live' game you don't have the restrictions that come with programmed responses. You can go on a REAL tangent in a D&D game because your own imagination is the only limit. But you have to have the right group. It just isn't as much fun with the wrong people.

Jennifer said...

That's a gorgeous poem. I especially love the last two stanzas. The next-to-last would make an awesome epigraph.

Another exercise to add to the list. Sounds like you really connected with this book--that's such an awesome thing.

Dragonsally said...

I'm loving reading back through your posts Jess, and the exercises have me wanting to buy LeGuin's book and have a go at them all.
Wonderful poem, and the moth, it makes me breathless with its beauty.