I’m reading one of those stark books (like Kite Runner) where the author writes pretty darned nekkid. What I mean by that is spare, harsh, in-your-face prose, the kind that evokes emotion and curiosity. The book? A recommendation by Mark Bertrand called The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. Hear some of his prose:”For the most part they carried themselves with poise, a kind of dignity. Now and then, however, there were times of panic, when they squealed or wanted to squeal but couldn’t, when they twitched and made moaning sounds and covered their heads and said Dear Jesus and flopped around on the earth and fired their weapons blindly and cringed and sobbed and begged for the noise to stop and went wild and make stupid promises to themselves and to God and to their mothers and fathers, hoping not to die.” (p. 19).
Beautiful, ain’t it?
When I first started writing, I resembled young Anne of Green Gables (which my young daughter mispronounced and called Anne with Green Bagels). Full of pomp and circumstance, my writing flowered its way through sentences and paragraphs. Adjectives and adverbs were my trusted friends. But worse than that was a weird pompousness that came through, like I was touting my English major, thank you very much. It reminded me of that poetry you read and go “huh?” afterward. Great, effusive words strung together that had very little meaning.
I balked at editorial correction too, thinking myself high and mighty, a wielder of words.
But, as the years wore on, I realized great writing isn’t the stuff of prettification. It’s not full of bright lipstick and rouge. It’s natural, stark, raw. I started concocting sentences that evoked emotion, that kept rich in its description of place, but spare in its contrivance of human emotion.
Ew. Now I just read that last paragraph and it sounds a bit hoity toity. Maybe I’ll always have Anne and her green New York rolls lurking inside.
Even so, I want to write nekkid. To grab my reader and thrust her into the lives of my characters. I want my prose to serve the story, not detract from it. I think it’s working. To prove it, I’ll paste two snippets, one from my first novel (not published) and another from a newer novel (not published). See if you can tell the difference:
When Augusta finished washing the last jelly jar, the sun burst through the mist, and the lake water danced as it did every time the fog dissipated. To call its lifting a miracle might be an exaggeration, but she called it that anyway. Sometimes the house stayed shrouded until suppertime, other days it evaporated all at once. Sometimes it dissipated in tendrils, wild and inconsistent, leaving the valley resembling Grandma Ellsworth’s silvered hair. Today the retreating curtain of fog revealed the fields beyond the lake, their softness in stark contrast to the lake’s prismatic dance.
“We can go up,” he said. “Let’s take the stairs.”
“Why not the elevator?”
“Don’t you remember?”
“Refresh my memory.”
“We kissed there once . . . in our pajamas.”
My memories hung on a broken charm bracelet. Some charms suffered from inefficient clasps, dropping along the streets of life, never to be returned. Some broke apart, like the tiny hind leg of a horse that’d never trot again. Some blackened thanks to time’s tarnish. Yet others remained pristine, happy silver clasped securely to the chain. This memory was like none of those. This was a forgotten charm, one so crammed in between broken and happy charms that I’d forgotten it. Rediscovered, its brilliance startled me.
How about you? Can you see transformation in your writing? Are you moving from flowery to nekkid? Or the other way? As you’ve matured, how has your prose altered? Are your stories simpler or more complex? I’m curious.
Mary DeMuth is a writer and speaker who is writing this in the third person because she likes to think of herself that way. At this very moment, she is writing next to her smelly dog Pippin who is wet and sleeping. You can find Mary here, here and here.