Writing for Business and Pleasure
First published by Personal Journaling (April 2001)
Writing the details of the universe
by Stephen Wilbers
Whatever your reason for keeping a journal – to capture the texture of your day-to-day life, to record the thrill of an adventure, to help you think clearly during a time of crisis – you enjoy a certain freedom. You are free to choose any topic, to decide for yourself what to include and what to omit, and to write in any style, with or without paying attention to the rules of grammar or the conventions of language.
And the good news is the more you write, the better you get. Over time, simply producing text will make you more fluent, varied and nuanced in your expression. To some degree, quantity will lead to quality.
Having recognized the values of freedom and spontaneity, however, I want to put in a good word for discipline, technique and consciously crafted style. At the risk of sounding like a fussy old chaperone telling the kids at a party to behave, I want to argue that intentional effect has a place in journaling.
I’m not suggesting that you think of your journal as a place where you do nothing but hard work, or that you write so self-consciously that you lose spontaneity. But I recommend that, at least from time to time, you use your journal as an opportunity to practice certain principles of good writing, to play around with various stylistic effects, to try out certain techniques relating to word choice and sentence structure and to experiment with modes of writing that take you beyond your usual ways of thinking and working with words – all of which will help you develop and refine your own unique voice.
Observe the Moment
Let’s say, for the sake of discussion, that you’re sitting on a fallen tree in the woods with your journal in hand. You begin your entry, following your usual practice. You look around, take a few moments to settle in to your thoughts and begin by describing your surroundings, knowing that the present moment – the mood of the day, the smell of the breeze, the way the sunlight filters through the newly leafed trees – can take you anywhere.
The transcendentalist poet Walt Whitman knew that within the confines of a simple blade of grass one might discover a universe of experience. “I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journeywork of the stars,” he wrote. Later in the poem: “There is no object so soft but it makes a hub for the wheeled universe.” And in the last part: “I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, / If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.”
This place, this spot in the woods by the creek, is where you come when you want to be alone with your thoughts. You may think: Today there’s something about the sunlight and the trees leaning over the water that captures my mood. Winter is over, at last. The morning air is cool, damp. Now and then a warm breeze stirs. My mother keeps wondering if I’m ever going to get married, but I’m not sure I’m ready. I have a chance for a new job in a new city, but the job I have now isn’t so bad. I wouldn’t mind living somewhere else, but I’m afraid I would miss my old friends.
So here you are, feeling . . . what? Restless. Satisfied. Confused.
To go deeper, consider the details of your surroundings. What are the particulars of your present situation? What are the facts of your story?
Here you are, like Walt Whitman, rooted in a particular place at a particular time – though bound by neither – and your primary tools of transportation are the same as they are for all writers: verbs, nouns and modifiers.
Same old, same old. But today is different. Today your verbs will be more than everyday verbs. Your nouns will be more than everyday nouns. And your modifiers will be more than everyday modifiers.
Today you’re going to try something new.
You read the sentence you’ve just written, like “A gentle breeze caresses my cheeks.” Note the modifier “gentle” and the verb “caresses.” How do they distinguish your present experience from countless others? Offer something more specific, something less commonplace: “A warm breeze stirs, a promise that winter is over, at last, and a new season has arrived.”
Your next sentence reads, “Some girls who are out for a run go by.” Would that sentence have meaning for you if you read it a year from now?
Start with the verbs “are” and “go.” Both are weak and general. If you replace them with strong verbs linked to details, you will write more vividly and memorably. Rather than “Some girls who are out for a run go by,” write “Three girls running abreast jog by.” Now add some detail: “Their long brown ponytails bounce in rhythm as though dancing to the same beat.”
Check your verbs. Rather than “are” and “go,” you now have “jog,” “bounce” and “are dancing.” Whether or not your revised version is great writing, it captures something specific about the day, and it certainly is more memorable than the original.
There’s a second advantage to rendering a scene with detail. Not only does it produce a more vivid impression, but it also allows you to generalize. In other words, specificity creates a context that adds meaning to more general statements. (“There is no object so soft but it makes a hub for the wheeled universe.”) Compare, for example, “Some girls who are out for a run go by. I wonder where they’re going. I wonder where they’ve been” with “Three girls running abreast jog by. Their long brown ponytails bounce in rhythm as though dancing to the same beat. I wonder where they’re going. I wonder where they’ve been.”
And where are you going? Where do these sentences take you?
On your way home you notice other missed opportunities for detail. Two enormous cottonwood trees stand side by side, not six feet from one another, their massive dark trunks furrowed with age. How many times have you walked this way and never noticed these friendly giants? You look again. You are not walking in a woods of undefined trees with a creek running through it. You are passing by twin cottonwoods that have stood together, joined in magnificent symmetry, for more years than you have been alive, that will probably continue standing together, through good times and bad, for many years after you are gone.
As you come to the bridge that arches across the creek, you look up and notice for the first time that there are really two bridges – one made of stone, the other a concrete apron jutting out nearly ten feet on either side from the original. What was life like in the time of the first structure, when stone was more than a decorative element in architecture? Were people asking the same questions about their lives then that you are asking today?
Close observation and detail. The unexpected adjective. The vivid verb. The specific noun. Going beyond the commonplace and the general. Finding truth in the particular. There’s a whole world above you, around you and beneath your feet.
First published by Personal Journaling (June 2001)
by Stephen Wilbers
Why do you keep a journal? To help you think? To help you remember? To help you become a better writer? Your sentence structure – your method of grouping and arranging your thoughts – can help you accomplish all three goals.
What I have in mind is not so much what you do with your main clauses as what you do after them. How do you manage those trailing elements? How do you link them to your main clauses? Do you use trailing elements at all?
Imagine yourself, for example, making a journal entry, just jotting down your thoughts. You might be writing in fragments or complete sentences. Either way, you’re not worrying about sentence structure or technique. You’re concentrating on your content, as you should be.
That might be as far as you go with the majority of your entries. But occasionally you may want to go deeper. You may want to elaborate on those first thoughts, to explore, probe and capture the nuances of your feelings, to add rhythm and music to your prose. Your sentence structure can help you do that.
To illustrate, let’s say you have just written the previous paragraph. You have written it exactly as it appears, except for one significant difference: You used no trailing elements. In other words, rather than extending the third sentence (which begins, “You may want to elaborate on”), you ended the sentence after “those first thoughts.” Now your paragraph is made up entirely of main clauses.
Reread the paragraph without the two dependent clauses that begin with the words “to explore” and “to add.” Can you hear what is lost in rhythm, nuance and complexity?
As an exercise, take a paragraph from your journal and copy or type it over, sentence by sentence. As you do so, pause at the end of each sentence and ask yourself: Does this call for elaboration? Do I have more to say here? If so, replace the period with a comma or a dash and add a trailing element. Or two. Or three or more.
To write nothing but main clauses is to write in a monotone. To write with subordinate elements is to vary your rhythm, to pause to reflect, to add nuance and interest.
Take another example. Let’s say you are Mary McCarthy, author of the memoir Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, and you are recalling how it felt to be an orphan dependent on reluctant, uncaring relatives. You write, “Whenever we children came to stay at my grandmother’s house, we were put to sleep in the sewing room. It was a room seldom entered by the other members of the family.”
Now do the exercise. Elaborate by adding detail after each sentence.
Here’s the passage as it appears in the book:
“Whenever we children came to stay at my grandmother’s house, we were put to sleep in the sewing room, a bleak, shabby, utilitarian rectangle, more office than bedroom, more attic than office, that played to the hierarchy of chambers the role of a poor relation. It was a room seldom entered by the other members of the family, seldom swept by the maid, a room without pride; the old sewing machine, some cast-off chairs, a shadeless lamp, rolls of wrapping paper, piles of cardboard boxes that might someday come in handy, papers of pins, and remnants of materials united with the iron folding cots put out for our use and the bare floor boards to give an impression of intense and ruthless temporality.”
I don’t know the process McCarthy used to write that passage. Maybe she recalled those evocative details the first time through. Maybe she started with two simple declarative sentences, then elaborated during a rewrite. Either way, I suspect that listing the first details helped her think of the others and that working with the trailing elements spurred her on, stimulating both her memory and her imagination.
A sentence with this structure – main clause, then one or more elaborating elements – is called a loose sentence. If you reverse the order – one or more elaborating elements, then the main clause – you have a periodic sentence, as you would have, for instance, if McCarthy had written, “A bleak, shabby, utilitarian rectangle, more office than bedroom, more attic than office, the sewing room was where we were put to sleep.”
As you can see, the two types of sentences produce different effects. The periodic sentence builds suspense; the loose sentence invites reflection.
Consider the richness of the sentence structures in the following passage from A Romantic Education, a passage in which Patricia Hampl describes her childhood encounter with a rag man and his horse:
“A large wooden wagon stood in the street before me, a gray buckboard drawn by a huge sad horse. The wagon was filled with tin cans, some bicycle tires, heaps of old clothes. An old man, ancient and bearded like nothing I had seen on earth, held the reins, sitting on a flat board which was slightly raised to form the driver’s seat. His beard was long, yellowish, the grass of a life. I wanted to sit next to him up there. I wanted to hold the reins of the hardly moving horse. I wanted to go with him to the end of the block, the end of the earth.”
There are many methods of joining trailing elements to main clauses. Some work better than others. Compare, for example, the last sentence in Hampl’s passage with this one: “I wanted to go with him to the end of the block, which for me represented the end of the earth.” As you can see, using “which” as the connector does the job, but less artfully. In fact, an over-reliance on the relative pronouns “which” and “that” as connectors is usually the sign of an unrefined style.
Here are three good methods to connect trailing elements to main clauses:
1. Connect by repeating.
This technique works best when the repeated word is worthy of emphasis, like the word “end” in Hampl’s last sentence. Likewise, compare “I enjoy recalling details from my childhood that help me understand who I am today” with “I enjoy recalling details from my childhood, details that help me understand who I am today.” Repetition creates cadence, and cadence creates emphasis.
2. Connect by restating.
A second method of connecting trailing elements and main clauses is with a word that restates or sums up what has been said, a technique I am using in the sentence you are reading now. (The word “technique” alludes to a previously expressed thought.)
3. Connect by modifying.
The third method of connecting trailing elements is to use one of three types of modifiers: a present participle (the -ing form of verb), a past participle (usually – but not always – the same form as the past tense of the verb), or an adjective (a word that describes a noun or pronoun). In Keys to Great Writing, I illustrated this point with these examples:
Modifying with a present participle:
“As a boy Bix Beiderbecke cared little about schoolwork, preferring the piano to a book.”
Modifying with a past participle:
“Bix once sneaked abroad a riverboat, drawn by the seductive notes of the steam calliope.”
Modifying with an adjective:
“Bix was happiest when he was playing the cornet, oblivious to everything but his music.”
Whether you choose to connect by repeating, restating or modifying, to add a trailing element is to invite yourself to pause, to reflect, to consider, to think more deeply. And to invite your reader to do the same.