Swell adjectives, and books that fiercely burn

I won't try to hide it: the fifth exercise-- which deals with the sparing and effective use (or avoidance) of adjectives and adverbs-- is killing me.

Write a paragraph to a page (200-350 words) of descriptive narrative prose without adjectives or adverbs. No dialogue.

The point is to give a vivid description of a scene or action, using only verbs, nouns, pronouns, and articles. Adverbs of time (then, next, later, etc.) may be necessary, but be sparing. Be chaste.

If you're using this book in a group, I recommend that you do this exercise at home, because it may take a while.

If you're currently working on a longer piece, you might want to try writing the next paragraph or page of it as this exercise.

The first time you do the exercise, write something new. After that you might want to try "chastening" a passage you've already written. It can be interesting. (Le Guin, 62-3)***

This is what I've got so far--raw, unadulterated text straight from my little black college-ruled notebook from Staples.* It continues the narrative in Part Two of yesterday's exercise.

That was five years ago; now Ruth was seventeen. She never found out whose voice it had been, or whether it ever existed outside her head. She likes the idea of it, that trembling lilt almost like a little boy singing, the cracking break of it as though the man (for it had been a man's voice, of that much Ruth felt certain) were uneasy with the things he heard himself saying, even though they had to be said. Sometimes to her ear it seemed as though he hated words, hated the sound of his own voice saying them. Ruth loved it. It was a brave sort of voice, she thought, for all the weakness in it; it had authority, deep down, though the speaker himself might never know. It came as a disappointment to her that the face she painted in her mind to go with the voice always ended up with a receding chin, and glasses-- perched high on the bridge of his nose, so that his eyes (an unremarkable shade somewhere between yellow and brown) seemed to bulge and water more than they already did. He wasn't much to look at. Ruth was certainly no longer a child, but she was still young enough to believe with some firmness that a hero ought to be handsome-- that his eyes ought to glow with a fierce, outraged light, not weep endlessly with some chronic allergy. She supposed it might be ragweed, or cats.

That's not too bad, I guess. For some reason-- because it's Friday, because I haven't had enough coffee, because my cat leapt on the bed at 4:00 am and went brrt in my ear, so that I woke and stayed awake-- it's been a struggle to get down all the same. The patent leather boots don't seem quite so full, today, as they did a day ago.

I've begun reading Brenda Ueland's If You Want to Write: A Book About Art, Independence, and Spirit.** It's an older edition, borrowed from the library, and filled with underlinings and margin notes made by another reader, at some point in the past. It's curiously heartbreaking to read that reader's comments (Yes! and Exactly! feature heavily), and to note which passages have been underlined-- passages which reinforce the idea that the reader is uniquely talented and special. For a reader who has felt, up to the point of picking up Ueland's book, that his or her endeavours to write are unimportant and unremarkable, I don't doubt that Ueland's thesis must seem near-holy; there is almost an evangelism about Ueland's determination to persuade the reader to pick up her pen and Be, and Do, and Shine.

I mentioned before the idea of the right book coming along at the right time to the right person, and in my case this is not that book; despite the truths to be found in Ueland's assertions, I tend to rankle when confronted by texts that aim determinedly to convince me of my unique specialness, and the spiritual importance of my calling (For it is a calling of divine import! Ueland stresses), and the good it will do my soul to do it. This is not to say that I think it a bad book by any stretch, nor would I contest Ueland's primary argument. Rather, I sense that it's not a book aimed at all writers; it is a certain group of writers whose spirits Ueland wishes to buoy.

If I'm to name the thing which makes me slightly uncomfortable with the text, it's that idea of setting one group against another: The Tenderhearted, Creative Soul in search of Beauty and Truth versus The Rest of the Cold, Cruel, Critical World. I feel such a view oversimplifies the artist's position, not to mention the position of people who don't pursue art-- and it puts the tentative beginning writer in the dangerous position of believing that it's all right to see themselves, and what they do, exclusively in that light. I wonder about that reader who made such copious notes: did she ever stop underlining and go to it? Did she write something of her own? Or did she go off, instead, in search of another book filled with equally encouraging passages? Did that feeling of affront ever subside enough to allow her to be the writer she surely was capable of being-- or is there a danger that such a book may inevitably fan the young writer's flames of affront to her detriment?

I wouldn't try to suggest that there's something wrong with encouraging the budding writer in such fashion as Ueland employs, or for the budding writer to actively seek that encouragement. It's simply that the book raised a troubling question for me-- that question won't necessarily matter to every reader of that book.


*Well. Okay. Not really-- I added a bit. And polished. And fiddled. And tinkered. It wasn't to be helped. I was forced. At gunpoint. By giant pigeons. In hats. Yes: that's exactly how it went down.

**I note that the publisher is Graywolf Press, which publishes all sorts of interesting things. Their list is worth a shufty.

***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. 62-3.


The Goldfish said...

It is so great to see this stuff pouring out of you - I shall have to see if I can track down this LeGuin book over here. I have found very few books about writing helpful. I tend to find them either like the Ueland book or else extremely prescriptive about method and style - basically where the author attempts to coach you to write just like them.

I remember a line in Old Harry's Game (a radio sitcom set in hell - right up your street I should imagine), where Satan has written a best-selling self-help book entitled "You're very very special and everyone else is a git." ;-)

Jess said...

Hurrah, it's the Goldfish! :) I hope the Holiday's treating you well. I love that line! If I had a description line in my header, I'd be tempted to use that. :D

I don't want to give the impression that Ueland's book is one of those "Release the Inner You!" things by any stretch-- it's a very intelligent argument in favor of art and its pursuit. She's also got some interesting ideas about the nature of creativity and where it comes from, and some good things to say about how to nurture it which are very worth reading. It's that sense of "Misunderstood-Us-Versus-Them" about it which I find bothersome-- and really I prefer a book which gives me some specific task to work at, rather than a general sort of pat-on-the-back-then-off-you-go.

It feels good to have all this stuff pouring out of me. Been a while, hasn't it?

spacedlaw said...

Great exercise! I so have to try this!
But isn't the use of verbs ending in "ing" (not sure what the term is for those) as adjective something of a cheat?

Jess said...

Well, sort of, depending how you go about it. Le Guin says this about it:

If the quality of the adverb indicates can be put in the verb itself (they ran quickly = they raced) or the quality of the adjective indicates can be put in the noun itself (a growling voice = a growl) the prose will be cleaner, more intense, more vivid.

...but in the case of my paragraph I actually assigned participle verbs (Is that it? Participle verbs? I think so) to nouns which perhaps didn't need them, so, yes, I cheated. :D Constructions like "trembling lilt" and "cracking break" are probably redundant. I think that was one of those times where I was thinking more about the rhythm of the language than construction-- I'm really not as careful as I ought to be with things like that.

spacedlaw said...

I just had to try this but cheated as well (also because I actually ENJOY cheating thus).

She stares into the glass and under her scrutiny the liquids clouds over. Not that her staring has anything to do with the process: her companion has been dripping water over a lump of sugar hung above her glass by a sieve-like spoon, thus transforming the emerald into an opal in a feat of magic belonging to some other century.
She sighs.
While she knew that drinking absinthe did involve some amount of ceremonial, all of these theatricals do seem like an overkill. Smoke in the eyes of the drinker. Why could not she have had pastis instead?
But she had been told that she NEEDED the experience and, being such a fool, she had gone along with the farce. She would only be allowed to sample the drink after some convolution. A rather finger-tapping experience.
The sip however brings in a world of sensations in its wake. The amount of sugar has been limited by the passing of water over the lump and she is able to discover the bitterness she had been warned about, the essence of wormwood biting into her taste buds. Later her mouth becomes more acquainted with the alien and starts noticing other flavours – herbs, roots, smoke. Various essences of sap, even – but the magic of initiation has left its mark on her brow.
She is now declared a fully educated woman.

You'd better keep this blog going, by the way because I have added it to my blog roll. (pressure? sure.)

spacedlaw said...

Crumbs. and I have just noted some Jedi typos...
How annoying.

Jess said...

Woohoo! \o/ That's excellent stuff, Nathalie! Very lively narration and wonderfully precise detail.

Noted: no deletion tantrums. :D

spacedlaw said...

Of course I could not really manage the full deletion of adjectives or adverbs but compared to the usual flurry I go through, this isn't too bad.
I was told that "over" from clouding over is an adjective. This feels strange. Could you confirm?

Jess said...

I don't think it is (though I haven't actually got Strunk and Wite handy). "Over" is a qualifier-- it assigns a condition to the verb "clouding"-- but I wouldn't say that makes it an adjective, because it isn't necessarily a word which describes "clouding".

Anyone else out there have any idea?

Jess said...

That's Strunk and WHITE. Argh.

spacedlaw said...

Well Martha thought it might act as adverb...

Jess said...

I think she's right (and I should have said that it's a modifier in the phrase "clouding over" rather than a qualifier, by the way)-- it's expressing the manner of clouding, so it'd be an adverb. (Can I say that-- "manner of clouding"? Too late. I just did. Gah, it's too early for this... ;P ) "Over" can be used as as adjective, but it most commonly appears as a preposition or an adverb. Many different examples of usage here.

Blarghl. Mnnngh. Need more wake-up juice. Duuuhrr.

Have I met Martha?

spacedlaw said...

On my LJ or Blogger.
Meet Martha

Jess said...

Oh, that's right! That's Saare-Snowqueen, isn't it? The writer-and-chef living in Estonia? I always thought she had a fascinating background-- there's a book in it. :)

spacedlaw said...


Jess said...

Yepyepyepyepyep. Uh-huh. Uh-huh.

spacedlaw said...


Jess said...

That's a piece of my childhood, right there, delivered straight to your brain through the Magic of Internets! \o/

Rubius said...

eeee hee... I have a Strunk and White too (but I don't refer to it very often)

that link to sesame street may well have just broken my brain.

Jess said...

Everybody has Strunk & White! And none of us read it. :D I like it, though-- it's lighter and more friendly than a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style.

Ha ha! You ain't seen nothin' yet.

Jennifer said...

I actually don't have Strunk & White. I almost picked it up the other day at Borders, but I had too many other items to justify it. I do, however, have about four editions of the Chicago Manual of Style. Required reading for editorial assistants, I'm afraid. :(

"Rather, I sense that it's not a book aimed at all writers; . . . "

I agree. That's probably true for all the writing manuals I've read thus far. Even the ones written by people who try to make general points that "all" writers can benefit from seem skewed, in the end, toward one type of writer--usually the kind of writer the book's author prefers, or IS (as the goldfish said in her comment).

Ueland does have a Romantic view of the artist, and that sets the tone for the entire book. That's where her "Us" VS "Them" attitude comes from: that cliched "Bohemian artist" idea that people still buy into. Nearly every artist Ueland references is Romantic in their sensibilities.

If a reader is already susceptible to that kind of thinking, she might get swept away by Ueland's very obvious passion. I didn't, though I was charmed by it, I have to admit. She's so Blake-ian (Blake-ish? Blake-like?) I loves me some Blake, but he's like the fats and sugars part of the food pyramid. ;)

Ueland came along at a time in my life when I seriously considered giving up writing altogether, and, despite her near-religious fervor, she inspired me. Her concept of creative idleness has changed everything about the way I approach creative work, and I got a lot of really positive feedback to that when I shared it during that creativity workshop.

The other thing that struck me was the quality of writing she was able to call forth from people who wanted to write, but either weren't producing at all or were producing stale or hackneyed stuff. That inspired me to think about teaching in similar non-academic settings--someday.

I'd definitely classify it more as a book about writing and creativity and less of a manual. Probably best read in conjunction with other books.