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.


  1. I like this format for posts. The passage is great, and I had sensed some of the movement and 'ebb and flow' themes you mentioned. What I wonder is, could this sort of written language structuring be translated to spoken language? I don't write as prolifically as the folks you cite but I probably talk a whole lot more. The ever present challenge in meetings, seminars, and long winded work related lectures is making sure that you don't go overboard with words, and at the same time that you pick the right words, pauses, gestures, etc., to keep the audience both engaged and immersed in what is it you're trying to convey.

    And I doubt that rhythm comes naturally to everyone - - is it possible to learn through practice? Hmm.

    Good post.

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