Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Words I've Never Quite Understood

Random Post.

Here is a list of words I have never quite understood precisely what they mean:

avatar (the pre-video game version)

Here is a list of words that I was never able to remember in the past, but have recently, after many encounters, got a handle on:

sartorial: having to do with tailoring or clothes
avuncular: uncle-like
peripatetic: itinerant, having to do with walking around

Now that I have them all written out, I notice that the second list of words are all more pedestrian than the ones that escape me. Which either says something about me and an inability to grasp abstract concepts, or about how the people using these terms haven't clearly nailed down the meanings or else use them in a very abstract way.

sidenote: Has anyone else seen a big rise in the use of "sartorial" lately? I think there's a trend happening.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Staying in the Moment

My favorite kind of writing to do is to stay in a moment, an iridescent, intensely imagistic moment, kind of like the ones Sari Fordham puts together (see my last post).

I haven't been writing much of my own stuff lately, and partly its because I'm busy at work, but I'm wondering if it's also because I haven't been experiencing many iridescent imagistic moments. I'm in New York, its hustly and exciting and hard to pause in; I'm racing around wearing out shoes and then shopping for replacements; there are so many friends to spend time with.

But I also deal with depression, and it's been pervasive lately, not enough to fell me or keep me from working at my job, but enough to put a thin film over everything. It takes away the intensity and momentousness of life, which, of course, affects the intensity of my moments.

If you're not sure what I mean, let's talk Twilight---the book series about teenagers and vampires. Twilight is so popular because brings back memories of those heady teenage days when hormones and looming adulthood and the newness of things made life tremendously intense; that time when if that boy would only touch my hand in the dark movie theater EVERYTHING WOULD BE PERFECT, and if he doesn't I'LL DIE, when everything mattered SO MUCH and NOTHING WOULD EVER BE THE SAME AGAIN.

I don't think I could handle feeling like that again(!), but I would like to inch towards it and feel some really good moments. And then I would like to capture them on paper. So here's to that happening very soon.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Sari Fordham: Ugandan Psalm

It's a bit more memoir than essay, but who's counting, eh? Here's a beautiful piece by Sari Fordham, another grad school colleague of mine, who can do with an image what Twyla Tharp does with a pair of legs.

You'll see how Sari pauses in a moment and makes it so rich and deep and vivid. She's patient in her story telling. Let's look at the opening paragraph of the piece for technique:

Mornings we sit on the veranda, the three of us; for my father has long vanished into the reaching branches and tangle that surround our house, despite violent spats of slashing at the underbrush. He will reappear in the evening, a stack of papers under a looping arm. This is our world, this hill. It’s early, and the air is still cool. A breeze shifts the top branches of the bougainvillea. My mother looks outward, toward her tomato garden. There is a sole survivor, a pinkish fruit she has been thinking about plucking. Today or tomorrow, she is not sure, but she has been watching it ripen all week.

One of the big problems many writers have is their reliance on adjectives. A cluster of adjectives loses its meaning, and often you can suggest much more vividly by paring down. Sari uses adjectives, "reaching branches," "violent spats," "looping arm," but if you look again you'll see that she is much more focused on movement, both literal and temporal. They are sitting, then her father disappears, he slashes things, he reappears, the breeze is blowing. Sari doesn't tell you everything about this scene, she doesnt go into every plant, and color, and smell; she gives you the general idea, and she does it largely through action.

Other points to notice:

* Languid rhythm. Longer words, lots of comma usage, which mimics ebbing and flowing rather than full stops. I'm not 100% sure what a glottal stop is, but I'm guessing there aren't many here.

* Sari is writing a memoir from childhood, and this always creates weird point of view issues. See how she gets in the head of her mother, even though she couldn't know what the mother thinks? And I think Sari is 6 or 7 here, but she doesnt talk like a little kid. I think both choices work fine because Sari is a careful writer otherwise.

Take home exercise

Next time you are describing something or telling a story, try to stay in the moment for a bit. Don't rely on adjectives, but pick interesting details---what was happening around you, what the weather was like, what you were thinking about, what you were wearing. Don't go overboard though---our brains will fill in what you leave out, the same way it can tell that "Helo m frnd" means "Hello my friend." Try also to incorporate movement (action). Try to mimic the mood with your rhythm.