Consider the following sentence:
The green grass was full of doctors, all dressed in their dazzlingly white surgical coats.
Now consider Sylvia Plath’s version:
The Lawn was white with doctors. (from The Bell Jar)
I don’t think you’ll even have to think about it when I ask: Which is the better sentence? But what about when I ask: Why?
I attended British author Scarlett Thomas’s workshop “One True Sentence” at the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival today. First, we were invited to introduce ourselves by giving our name and just one of our favourite words.
Now, if there’s one thing I hate, it’s when you’re in a workshop and the facilitator says: “Let’s go around the room! Please tell us a bit about yourself and why you’re here”, or “Turn to the person next to you and tell them why you’re here today”, or “Would anyone like to share what they’ve written?” Honestly, I shrivel up like a man’s bits in the Arctic. Those of you who know me personally may find this surprising, because I can in fact talk the hind leg off a donkey. But I hate being put on the spot and I feel desperately self-conscious in forums like this. I prefer to keep my own counsel.
(Ah, but there’s always one, isn’t there? As soon as people are invited to share they’re up out of their seat quicker than a stone from a catapult. Perhaps they think they’ll be catapulted to literary stardom. Judging by what usually comes out of their mouth, I doubt it.)
But I digress. Anyway, the sharing of names and favourite words began. I just knew that someone would say “discombobulate”. Sure enough. When it was my turn I said my daughter’s name, because it truly is one of my favourite words.
Then we had to write a very long sentence – just one sentence – containing that word. And then Scarlett started to teach us how to write better sentences.
She introduced us to the Bank of Words. Imagine you have a budget for your writing. Every time you use a word, you have to pay for it. Some words are cheap and some expensive. The trick is to write as cheaply as possible – to be economical, and to make each word work. Expensive words are adverbs (for these purposes, anything ending in -ly), many unnecessary adjectives, modifiers (really, very, quite) and of course clichés. It’s not necessarily about cutting words, but about using the best words.
If only I had been introduced to this bank a few years ago, I could have avoided many cringe-inducing paragraphs.
Scarlett also talked to us about writing true sentences – ones straight from the heart, authentic and honest. I have written before about the importance of finding your own, unique voice. She put it this way: Don’t use words that aren’t your own. Look at a sentence once you have written it, and ask: Are these my words? Would I say this? Is it the most honest thing I could write?
To finish, we were asked to go back and rewrite our sentences until we had just One True Sentence. All I can say is, I wrote from the heart, and this is what I ended up with. (I have changed my daughter’s name.)
I was asked once how many children I had, and although I longed to say six – because that is how many times I have been pregnant – I said one, and Anna’s beloved face was suddenly the sun, the beams of my five lost babies spilling from its centre, and one became enough.
Postscript: After last night’s Gala Opening, I’m going to have to add two more categories to my Festival-Goer Field Guide (see my last post): the Groping Couple and the Spoiler. I won’t go into the gory details, but I’ll make two points. One: I do not need to see naked foot caressing right next to me. Two: If you want to give breathless previews of what you think the author on the stage is going to say next, then do it far away from me.