I found this post buried in my drafts file, and it made me happy to remember a time (just a few months ago!) when I was writing more and learning how to write better. So I thought I’d share a few of the writing exercises I did last spring when I still had brain cells.
Dona Hickey’s book, Developing a Written Voice, is not for the faint of heart. She’s a college writing teacher, and her book is technical/academic in tone and was written (I assume) for fellow writing professors. I’m geeky when it comes to stuff like that, so I found her discussion of voice fascinating. Although she’s primarily dealing with writing essays, I think the exercises are helpful for any prose writer, regardless of their preferred genre.
Her first exercise has these constraints:
–no sentence longer than 10 words
–all words must be one syllable
I thought, Ew. That is going to be one boring piece of writing, like a Dick and Jane book, only worse.
I was wrong.
Here’s what I wrote:
The bride and groom stand on the sand. They both wear white. She, a long gown sewn with small beads. He, a tux.
The sun shines in my face. I shield my eyes and watch, Doug at my side.
The bride’s friends wear black gowns. The groom’s wear black suits. They are hot in this sun. Sweat drips down jaws, chests, arms, legs.
I am glad I don’t have to wear black. Glad I don’t have to stand in the glare. Glad I can sit in this chair on the sand.
The waves roll to shore. The sun sets.
They give their rings. They say their vows. They kiss, long and slow. We clap. Still they kiss. Some of us look at the sea, the sand. We squirm in our seats. We sweat. A man on the groom’s side of the aisle hoots.
They turn, the bride and groom, and face us. Their smiles are wide.
They clasp hands and walk up the rose-strewn aisle.
Their friends in black walk up the rose-strewn aisle. Their moms and dads walk up the rose-strewn aisle.
It is our turn. I do not step to the aisle. I look at the waves. They still crash to the shore. The sun’s pink rays shoot through clouds as it sinks.
Doug takes my hand. I look at him. He winks. I smile. He leads me up the rose-strewn aisle.
The sea at our backs rolls to shore. The waves crash.
Given that I thought these constraints would lead to Dick-and-Jane style prose, simplistic and condescending, I was surprised at the level of sophistication I was able to achieve within the exercise’s limits.
Here are a few thoughts about the process of doing the exercise, in response to Hickey’s reflection questions:
What was difficult?
For me the most difficult part was reigning in my habitual verbosity, especially in a piece like this, where I would have normally used much longer sentences to create flowing prose. I love compound sentences with lots of clauses; none of that would fit in the word count limit, so I had to break several sentences into shorter ones (usually I’m doing the reverse, combining short sentences to make longer ones).
Also, the word-count limit and syllable limit meant I could use almost no adverbs, few adjectives, and no gerunds (-ing words) or participles (words like “given,” “chosen,” etc.).
What was possible?
A lot more than I expected! I thought the short words and short sentences would make the prose choppy and boring.
But I found that the necessarily short sentences meant I could attain a level of meter/repetition that I wouldn’t normally think to use. (I think you almost need that meter to make the piece feel poetic rather than flat and monosyllabic.)
Also, nouns and verbs have to be strong and precise, since you don’t have the luxury of modifiers.
What was impossible?
Lots of clauses, flowery language, flowing sentences. The word count limit forced me to choose precise words (or their nearest monosyllabic synonym) and keep sentences short, almost clipped. Flowing prose with lots of clauses, gerunds, and participles, which is how I would normally have written this piece, is precluded.
What choices did you have to make regarding subject, audience, and occasion?
I envisioned posting this on my blog, so I knew the occasion—informal and (possibly) educational—as well as the audience—friends, fellow writers.
I knew I wanted to write about a specific event—nothing vague or general—so I began a list of possible events; “Mexico Wedding” was the second thing I wrote down, and as soon as I wrote it, I thought, “Bride, groom, white, sun, hot, sand—all one syllable,” so I went with it.
Having done this once, with a poetic voice as the outcome, I wonder if I could do the exercise again and come up with a totally different voice. Could I write about the Mexico wedding and have a snarky voice? A cynical one? Or would I have to have a different subject to be able to achieve a different voice?
I’m not going to pursue the answer right now and, let’s be honest, perhaps not ever. Still, it’s an interesting thought.