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.