The Creative Cave Man

How did it come to be a foregone conclusion that cave men spent their days clubbing one another and dragging women around by the hair? As GK Chesterton remarked, "I have never happened to come upon the evidence for this idea; and I do not know on what primitive diaries or prehistoric divorce-reports it is founded." 

In truth, cave men and women left precious little documentary evidence to show what they were doing in their caves. The documentary evidence they did leave, however, reveals that, whatever else early people might have been, they were definitely artists.

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Actors and Actions, Subjects and Verbs

My wife informs me that last week's grammarama was a little much, and she's usually right about these (and many other) things, so I shall try to rein in my exuberance even as I return to a grammatical topic this week.

A recurring theme in my teaching is the importance of aligning the grammar of a sentence with the action that the sentence depicts. I am forever trying to get writers to stay in the habit of expressing action in the form of a verb, with the actor as the subject of that verb. Your reader burns to know the answer to the question "Who did what?" and her eyes and her brain are wired to seek first the subject position (who) and the verb position (did what) in every sentence she reads.

If this idea of expressing actions as verbs and actors as subjects seems self-evident, it's not. Language is exceedingly flexible, and it provides a multitude of ways to express action in ways other than a good old-fashioned Subject-Verb-Object main clause. The following list is just the tip of the iceberg:

  • The passive voice places somebody besides the actor in the subject slot: I took the bull by the horns becomes The bull was taken by the horns by me.
  • Nominalization turns the verb into a noun: I failed completely becomes My failure was complete.
  • A gerund also converts a verb into a noun: I swim constantly because I love it becomes Constant swimming is my passion or I love swimming.
  • Once you have turned the verb into a noun, you can make it the object of a preposition, so turning it into a modifier: My love of swimming keeps me in the water constantly (In this example, note that both actions I swim and I love get turned into nouns). The completeness of my failure became obvious to all.
  • A participle also turns a verb into a modifier: I went upstairs and sulkedbecomes Having gone upstairs, I sulked.
  • A subordinate clause pulls action out of the main through-line of a sentence and makes it a modifier: I went upstairs and sulked becomes I went upstairs, where I sulked.

The astute reader will notice that in some of these examples, the sentence actually works better when you move the action out of the subject-verb nexus. "I love swimming" turns the subject-verb I swim into a gerund, but it's at least as good a sentence as "I swim because I love it."

As I often say, every "problematic" construction in the English language exists because there are situations in which it's not problematic but exactly what you need.

Nevertheless, it is exceedingly important that your default mode be action=verb, actor=subject. Feel free to depart from that pattern as often as you feel it's necessary, but do so consciously, not accidentally. (If you were to analyze my sentences in this letter, you would see that plenty of them move the action out of the subject-verb nexus).

A Case Study
I want to show you a couple of not-bad sentences from a student's story and show what happens when you start thinking in terms of subjects and verbs. In this story, the narrator and a girl named Kendall are picking holly berries, and then things go south:

Out of nowhere Kendall started accusing me of stealing some of her berries, which I denied, and then, without warning, she slapped me hard across the cheek with her open hand. 

In this sentence there are three actions:

  1. Kendall accuses narrator of stealing berries.
  2. Narrator denies the accusation.
  3. Kendall slaps the narrator across the cheek.

Action 1 is expressed as an independent clause--Out of nowhere Kendall started accusing me of stealing some of her berries.
Action 2 is expressed as a subordinate clause--which I denied.
Acion 3 is expressed as an independent clause--then, without warning, she slapped me hard across the cheek with her open hand.

This sentence contains no grammar errors, and it conveys all the necessary information, in the correct order: there is an accusation, a denial, a slap. (See what I did there? When I'm reducing the action to "mere information" I turn the verbs into abstract nouns. I'm a sly one.)

But when you write a sentence--especially when you're narrating, as our writer here is doing--you aren't just conveying information; you are conveying an experience. That adjective phrase "which I denied" abstracts the action out of the scene and turns it into data.

Your default setting should be to give each important action its own independent clause. You can always combine independent clauses into compound sentences, but in this case, let's turn our three actions into three sentences.

Out of nowhere Kendall started accusing me of stealing some of her berries. I denied it. Then, without warning, Kendall slapped me hard across the cheek with her open hand. 

Three actions, three independent clauses. The narrator's act of denial, rather than being tucked away in a dependent clause, gets promoted to a more prominent position.

By giving the denial its own independent clause, we have brought it into the time and place of the scene. Which I denied has a merely logical relationship to the accusation and the slap, but I denied it, besides having a logical relationship, occurs on the same timeline with the accusation and the slap.

Now, here is where some writing magic happens. Because that "promotion" of the denial from information to action also makes it easier to see that I denied itis a little flat. It's on the timeline, and that's a good thing, but compared to the vividness of Kendall's two actions, there's not much in the way of felt experience. So now the writer starts to think about what it actually felt like to be that little girl in that moment. And now that action can come to life:

Out of nowhere Kendall started accusing me of stealing some of her berries. I turned from the holly tree to look at Kendall, not sure if she was joking. When I saw she wasn't, I felt something rise up from my belly--was it righteous anger, or wounded pride? I couldn't say; I hadn't had enough experience with either.

"That's a lie," I said. You know that isn't true."

Then, without warning, Kendall slapped me hard across the cheek with her open hand. 

Grammar isn't just grammar. Good, direct grammar is a way of loving your reader because it makes things clear to the reader. But it also makes things clear to you, the writer. It shows you where you're being skimpy or evasive or under-informed or unnecessarily dull. Good grammar holds you accountable.

Do I sound dogmatic when I say your default should be to move the action of your sentences toward the subject-verb nexus? So be it. As Flannery O'Connor said, "Dogma is the guardian of mystery." Try following this rule, and you may be surprised at what you begin to see in your writing as the mysteries assert themselves.

In Which I Analyze Two Lovely Sentences to Within an Inch of their Lives

My friend April Pickle encouraged me to write an issue of The Habit in which I pick a couple of sentences I like and tell what I like about them. This shall be that issue. And the sentences I shall write about come from Christian Wiman's memoir, My Bright Abyss:

They do not happen now, the sandstorms of my childhood, when the western distance ochred and the square emptied, and long before the big wind hit, you could taste the dust on your tongue, could feel the earth under you--and even something in you--seem to loosen slightly. Soon tumbleweeds began to skip and nimble by, a dust devil flickered firelessly in the vacant lot across the street from our house, and birds began rocketing past with their wings shut as if they'd been flung.

I have never experienced a sandstorm. Dust devils never flicker firelessly in my leafy neighborhood here in Nashville, Tennessee. So, to use a phrase I used a couple of weeks ago, these evocative sentences do something for me that I can't do for myself. They invite me into a scene that I don't otherwise have access to.

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On Receiving (and Ignoring) Criticism

Every time I start a new online class, I send my students an introductory email that includes the following "Word About Feedback": 

I am working on the assumption that you signed up for this course because you genuinely want to improve as a writer. And if you really want to improve as a writer, you need criticism. You need encouragement too, but you need criticism a lot more. I used to put a lot of time and energy into softening my criticism so that my writing students wouldn't get discouraged. I have decided that this not a good use of my time and not a service to my students. My critique of your writing will be direct and blunt--and, I'm quite confident, on-target. I should also say that if you're farther along the path as a writer, you can expect my critique to be even more direct and more blunt. I criticize because I care. I'm not joking. I trust that you care enough to take my critique in the spirit in which it's given. If that's not what you want from this course, please let me know.

I realize that it can be hard to receive criticism. Offering up a piece of writing feels a lot like offering up a piece of yourself, so "There are a few things wrong with this piece" can sound like "There are a few things wrong with you." 

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On Not Being the Smartest Person in the Room

In a recent interview with Terri Gross, the writer David Sedaris remarked, "I'm rarely the smartest person in the room. I have other qualities, but searing intelligence is not one of them." 

David Sedaris is a hilarious writer and an excellent prose stylist, so it is tempting to chalk this up to false humility. But I've been pondering his remarks in my heart, and I think there's a lot of wisdom in separating excellent writing from "searing intelligence." 

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Narrowing and Expanding: Essential and Non-Essential Elements

This week one of my online students wrote, "My friend, Monique, became a certified naturalist last year." This sentence put me in a bit of a quandary. I try to care about the whole person (as you will find if you register for my upcoming Writing with Flannery O'Connor class), and I didn't know whether this writer needed punctuation advice or relationship advice. The commas around Monique suggest that Monique is the writer's only friend. If, however, the writer has other friends besides Monique, those commas are extraneous and misleading. I hope, for my student's sake, that this is merely faulty punctuation, which is easy to fix. There are worse things than punctuation errors, and being nearly friendless is one of them.

Today I am talking about punctuating essential and non-essential elements. One of the eight or ten uses of the comma is to set off so-called "non-essential" words, phrases, and clauses in a sentence. I'm not crazy about that terminology "essential" and "non-essential." It makes one think "important" and "less important" or, perhaps, "adding meaning" and "not adding meaning." If you add any word, phrase, or clause to a sentence, hopefully it is important and has meaning. If not, my advice to you is to leave it out of the sentence entirely, not to set it off with commas. 

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Flipping the Switch

"If you want to be a writer, be a reader." This may be the most commonly-offered writing advice of all. And it's good advice as far as it goes. But encouraging writers to read has always felt to me like encouraging teenage boys to eat three meals a day and maybe a couple of snacks. People who want to write tend to be people who are already reading. I think. Right?

So if you want to write and you don't already read voraciously, you should probably start. But for me--and, I suspect, for many of you--the big question isn't How do a read more? The bigger question is How do I stop reading and start writing? Or, to put it another way, How do I flip the switch from consuming to producing?

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Begin without the End in Mind

Begin with the end in mind. That's Habit 2 of Stephen Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. In most human endeavors, this is excellent advice. In large matters and small, beginning with the end in mind helps ensure that the steps you take move you in the right direction. I heartily commend this advice to all areas of your life besides writing.

This letter is Part 2 of a series about getting started on a new story or essay. Today's advice is this: Be willing to begin without the end in mind. And if you do have the end in mind when you begin, hold it very loosely.

Of the four novels I've written, only one ended the way I originally thought it was going to end. You can't be sure how a story ends until you get into it. As I said last week, you have to trust that once you get the pen moving and the neurons firing, good things are going to happen.

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Make Friends with the Inner Critic

I’ve gotten a few questions lately about how to start writing a book or story or essay. For many writers, the blank page or blank screen is a terror and a seemingly insurmountable barrier. So how do you get started?

There are a million substitutes for starting. You can outline, you can puzzle out plot problems, you can research. For years I’ve been wrestling around with a particularly sticky point-of-view problem for a novel that I “want” to write. I put “want” in quotation marks because if I really wanted to write it, I would be writing it instead of wrestling around with point-of-view problems. 

So, again, how do you get started? You start wherever you can start. What captured your imagination in the first place? What image or idea made you want to write a particular story or essay? Start writing there, and see what happens.

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There's Always More Where That Came From

I worked for a while at an advertising agency, writing ad copy and brochures and lots of direct mail (an art form that the unwashed masses sometimes call junk mail).

One day on my way home from the office I drove past a man checking his mail. It happened to be trash day, and he had wheeled his trash can out to the curb, right by the mailbox, so there he stood pulling junk mail out of his mailbox and depositing it directly into his trash can. I couldn't help imagining my own carefully crafted prose meeting a similar fate in trash cans throughout this great country.

In short, writing brochures and junk mail wasn't what I had in mind when I first thought about getting into the writing racket (though I should point out that if you're hoping to get paid for your writing, you might want to skip juvenile swamp fiction altogether and go straight to junk mail).

But I digress. I bring up my stint at the ad agency because during that time I learned a lesson that has shaped my work ever since.

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