Saturday, September 19, 2009

Potters and Clay

Earlier this week I got Assignment #3 back from my instructor. She called it a "resounding success." And I agree, not so much for the piece itself--although it's my best so far-- as for the lessons I learned from it. The assignment was to use all of the senses to describe a scene remembered from childhood in a way that would interest a child--without going "over the top." (I wrote an earlier post about this assignment, "A Suitcase & a Change of Clothes," here.)

For those of you struggling, as I am, to deal with the huge and numerous demands a story makes on you, this exercise should teach you lots. Not merely that focusing on sensory detail will create a proto-plot, but also that paper-doll characters come to life in the midst of realistic detail. That's just short of miraculous!

In my completed assignment, six characters walk on the beach, including a child as the point-of-view character, her father, stepmother, and three siblings. None are named or physically described, and the only dialogue is a brother yelling, "Sand crab!"

Nevertheless, the people in this vignette seem real by virtue of being plunked down in a real, sensory setting, where the moonlight scribbles its reflection over the water, sparks fly off a cigarette, and the smells of burnt paper and menthol are in the wind.

Your nouns must be specific and carefully chosen, and your verbs active and specific. (Example: not the general noun, "road," but the specific, "Alabama highway 159;" not the general verb, "walked," but the specific, "slogged.") If you get the nouns and verbs right, you won't need many adjectives and adverbs. That is, you won't go "over the top."

I'm really amazed: (1) that anyone (even I) who can conjure up the sensory details of a remembered scene can actually create and evoke an alternate universe by making specific, black marks on a white page; (2) that anyone who can read (that is, decode the specific, black marks on a white page) can enter that reality; and (3) what remarkable creatures we are--"clay that can throw its own pots!"

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