To start. . .ahem. . .with a sentence I never in my wildest dreams could have imagined writing: Miley Cyrus has something to teach us about writing. Intrigued? Read on. Shaking your head in disbelief? Wondering about my sanity? Stick with me. This post is all about the outlandish. It’s about encouraging outrageous personae as a way of opening up aspects of our material that otherwise might remain closed. It’s about using exaggeration to give some jazz to lifeless prose. It’s about the art of the twerk.

Let’s start by admitting that we all have a number of different aspects to our personalities. We may be the sober, studious bookworm, but given the right circumstances we may also be the fun-loving imp who loves to play practical jokes, or the smooth-talking conman (or woman) who will say whatever needs to be said to get what he or she wants. We may be Arnold Friend from Joyce Carol Oates’s story, “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?” (“Gonna get you, baby.”), or Dill Harris from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (“I’ve been up since four. I always get up at four. My daddy was a railroad man.”), or Daisy Buchanan from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (“It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such–such beautiful shirts before.”). Sometimes we forget that these aspects of our personalities come into play when we’re writing, whether we’re writing poetry or prose. Sometimes, when our words on the page lack a certain something (energy, urgency, tone, etc.), we need to call up one or more of our personas to make the writing vibrant and resonant.

So here’s an exercise designed for injecting life into wooden language:

1. Write down a few of your personas, the more conflicting the better.

2. Take a few lines from something you’re working on that feel wooden to you, or a section that hasn’t quite announced its reason for being included in what you’re writing. Or write a few lines of ugly prose. What makes it ugly? Maybe passive voice constructions, vague or trite language, mixed metaphors, a neutral tone. Maybe it ends up something like this:

“A boat was on the water. It wasn’t moving with the current. It was pushed back. It kept ending up where it started.”

You probably recognize this as an uglified form of the haunting final line of The Great Gatsby. You can work with that if you wish, or you can take a favorite passage from poetry or prose and ugly it up. Take the life and beauty and emotion right out of it.

3. Choose two of your personas that seem to be incompatible and rewrite your passage twice, each time exaggerating some aspect of your personality to see what you might discover.

Sometimes we need to greatly exaggerate something in order to shock the language. Once the language has a life, it starts to reveal. What it reveals may surprise us. We may find ourselves more closely connected to the words we’re putting on the page. We may discover an urgency that we lacked. We may feel a door open to somewhere we didn’t know we needed to go. We may sense a meaning and a purpose we didn’t previously know. All sorts of things can happen if the language is alive. One way to make it so is to really exaggerate some aspect of the self. Sometimes to make our writing work, we have to make it twerk.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7 Comments

  1. Gail Weiland on August 2, 2014 at 5:23 pm

    Good advice, Lee. In addition to the places that approach can lead, I also think it’s better to push a character or situation too far and have to dial it back in editing, than never fully develop it. I read so many books that start with a promising premise, but leave me wanting.

  2. Lee Martin on August 4, 2014 at 2:59 pm

    Hi, Gail! You’re so right about it being preferable to push things to the extreme, knowing that you can always dial them back if need be. That pushing over the edge sometimes leads us to very rich places. I hope your summer has been lovely.

  3. Naomi Kooker on August 5, 2014 at 9:55 pm

    Hello Lee! I love your prompts. Thanks for sharing those ideas. Love the intro ‘the Miley Cyrus way’. That’s indeed a conflicting concept when you stop and think the subtly and seemingly organic style of great writing. Shock. Awe. Recoil. Try again.

    I hope you’re having a great summer. Take care.

    • Lee Martin on August 7, 2014 at 1:26 pm

      Hi, Naomi! Hope you’re having–have had–a good summer!

      • Naomi on August 7, 2014 at 9:25 pm

        Thanks, Lee! I am. Having. Please. Still having 😉 ha! Thank you.

  4. Melissa Cronin on August 10, 2014 at 1:40 pm

    Thanks for offering up this exercise, Lee. I find that when a piece of writing is crafted with spicy language/vivid details, the story lingers with me. I’m currently reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tart – a perfect example of energetic prose.

    • Lee Martin on August 10, 2014 at 1:56 pm

      Melissa, I’ve yet to get to The Goldfinch, but I’m happy to have your recommendation.

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