Monday, August 23, 2010

Writing Is Like a Box of Chocolates

       My favorite book is Charlotte's Web.  I loved it as a third grader, and I love it today. I cannot think of another book that makes laugh, cry and think . . .  sometimes in one paragraph.   Any book that can do all that for me, over a period of . . . well, a lot of years . . . is my definition of a masterpiece.
       E.B. White's seamless writing is a delight to read . . . and hard to pull apart for examination.  One thing that struck me as a child, was his use of lists as description.  He does it in several places, particularly in describing the contents of Wilbur's slops.  My favorite "list"is this one, after Charlotte's first web message.

           The Zukerman's driveway was full of  cars and trucks from morning till night--Fords and Chevvies and Buick roadmasters and GMC pickups and Plymouths and Studebakers and Packards and DeSotos with gyromatic transmissions and Oldsmobiles with rocket engines and Jeep station wagons and Pontiacs. ---pg. 83-84.

      White could have ended the sentence at the word "night", and still had a perfectly serviceable sentence. But, no, he wanted to show the reader how many different kinds of people, through their various vehicles, came to see the wonder of the web.
      I am sure E.B. White never gave a thought as to whether he was writing a "timeless" story to be read sixty years later in a world without Studebakers, Packards and DeSotos. Even reading it for the first time in the early 1960's. those cars were as dead as the dodo for me. That small detail never bothered me. What struck me was White specificity in using those brand names.  Without knowing what it was called, I was introduced to the concept of specific writing.          
       While revising, I spend hours and hours picking over my word selection. Rather like Forrest Gump and his box of chocolates, ("you never know what you'll get") I never know how a specific noun, verb, adjective and occasionally, an adverb is going to feel in a sentence. I insert the word, and read the sentence out loud.  Often, a word that sounded just fine in my head, tastes like a lemon cream center when spoken.
         I hate lemon cream chocolates.
         Unlike, Forrest, who was perfectly content to let life surprise him, I punch holes in my words, looking for the one with the maple fudge center.
         I love maple fudge chocolates.
         The perfect word, that specific detail, will melt slowly and sweetly on my tongue, like my favorite candy. Looking for that one word--the one that can describe that moment, that emotion, that person--is the reason I write so slowly. I can select, "chew" and reject words for hours on end. As Mark Twain said "The difference between the right words and the wrong word, is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug."
        When I have bitten into my nineteenth lemon cream, sometimes I use the listing method, writing down all the possibilities I can think of. Sometimes, I end up using the entire list, as White did.  More often, listing frees my mind to produce that one word.  For instance, in my picture book, Surprise Soup, I stalled out in the scene in which Kevie actually makes soup. I don't cook. Period. I couldn't list cooking techniques or tools. I could, however, list the sounds of cooking, since that is as close as I get to a kitchen.  Listing sounds -- splishety splash, chippety chop, scrubbety scrub-- got me back on track.
        In writing, finding that maple fudge chocolate is everything.

Writing Workout

       In her book Paper Lightning, Darcy Pattison uses the phrase "billions-and-billons to one-and-only-one" to explain specific writing to students. For example, "I caught a fish" is a dull sentence because there are billions-and-billions of fish. Pick a specific fish, maybe sharks. Still, there are lots and lots of species of shark (360, to be specific!). OK, how about a bull shark?  Having narrowed it down to a specific kind of shark, what is different about this particular shark? Maybe he had an evil look in his eye.So our new sentence would be "I caught a bull shark with an evil look in his eye."
      To get to that specificity, you can do a "list drill". Pick non-specific nouns that are common to your student's writing such as bike, dance, video game. Pick one, and give the students one minute to quickly write down all the possible specific types of bikes, dances or video games. (I always tell my students not to "think too hard....just write!") After each one minute drill, I encourage (never demand) that students share their descriptors. This can be done with nouns, verbs and adjectives (adverbs are a whole other topic!).  This trains the student to quickly think of alternatives in the revision process.

P.S. I apologize for the lateness of this post---today is the first day of school here in Atlanta. Utter mayhem!

---posted by Mary Ann Rodman


Carmela Martino said...

Every time I read CHARLOTTE'S WEB, I learn something new about the craft of writing. I guess I'm due to read it again, because when I read the end of your second paragraph: "after Charlotte's first web message," my first thought was, "When did Charlotte use the Internet?" :-)

Angie said...

Great post. I am going to have to pick up Charlotte's Web again. I love the idea of making lists like that. I'm going to try it.

Andrea Mack said...

As I'm revising my latest ms, I've become more aware than ever of how important individual words are in getting the details right. I also make lists of words or descriptions as I revise, it's a great strategy!

Pam said...

I like the list idea. There are several spots in my story where I could incorporate it. But first I'm going to the store because for some reason I'm craving chocolate. There goes my diet. Pam Matar