Writing: Onomatopoeia

The ticktickticktick staccato of sleet on my roof last night got me thinking about sounds in writing. Writing that appeals to all five senses has potential to reach readers better than single-sense writing in many cases. I’m not saying there isn’t a place for works that focus on one or two senses or three senses, but don’t miss out on the full array of senses just out of laziness.

Using multiple senses is not just for creative writing. Obviously journalism uses multiple senses, but it can also be useful in academic writing (when appropriate in your discipline).

So what is onomatopoeia? Other than a word I always have to look up the spelling for, an onomatopoeia is a word that represents a sound. There’s a large vocabulary of standard onomatopoeia that we share in our culture. Just pick up a children’s book, and you’ll see them–chirp chirp ruff ruff moo moo ribbit ribbit. Sometimes these are good enough. Since they are parts of a shared vocabulary, we can often overlook that they aren’t always accurate representations for sound and mentally produce the correct sound.

But sometimes the best course is to create your own onomatopoeia. It doesn’t have to be complicated. The one in the first sentence of this post isn’t. I just said that sleet makes a tick sound on my roof. It’s a quick, assertive, repeated sound, so I put a few ticks together and added that it had a staccato rhythm.

Though it isn’t necessarily complicated, it does help to practice. I like to sit somewhere with my eyes closed for a few minutes then write about all the sounds I heard.

The following is an excerpt from a poem I wrote called “Louis Armstrong on His Bicycle.” The poem describes a homeless man who is sitting on bicycle outside of an Italian restaurant and starts “singing” along with the live Jazz music that can be heard on the patio.

Live Jazz pours out of the Italian place
onto the patio
where he now leans his bike.
The smoky beat fills him.
He belts out
in that throatysmooth voice
Ba ba da de doo
Ba ba da de dum

Have fun exploring the use of sounds in your writing. And we’ll all practice spelling onomatopoeia, in case it shows up in a New York Times crossword puzzle.

Crosswords, an Addiction

Hi, I’m Randall, and I’m addicted to crossword puzzles.

I was sitting in a cafe earlier doing some work. A guy came in, purchased today’s Tulsa World, and asked if he could sit in the empty chair next to me. I welcomed him. We sat in silence as he read the paper and I searched online job ads (my job is to help other people find jobs). He eventually noticed a seat open up farther from the door and having grown tired of the cold draft, he moved. As he got up, he tossed a section of the newspaper on the table beside me. It was the “Scene” section, which contains the comics (the most insightful page of the paper) and two crossword puzzles. I don’t know why he chose to leave this section behind. Maybe he has no interest in local food and music scenes, or he noticed, via ESP or something, that I was looking for a fix for my addiction. Either way, I’m thankful.

This won’t fix me for long, though. The Tulsa World crosswords, provided by the NEA and King Publishing, aren’t very good. They have a difficulty level that is usually a couple steps shy of a Monday New York Times puzzle, and the clues are often poorly written. Also, they don’t progress in difficulty like the Times. It’s fun to start with the ease of Monday and work through to the more challenging puzzles of the week. Monday puzzles usually take me 10-20 minutes, and Friday and Saturday puzzles may take me hours. Then there is the grand Sunday puzzle, what a jewel!

Crosswords puzzles are an appropriate addiction for a writer, I think, and especially for a poet. They are great for all writers, or anyone who wants a better vocabulary, because the solver must find the perfect word for the meaning that is implied in the clue. Sometimes a clue has a relatively easy answer, but the first answer that comes to mind doesn’t fit. We must then search the thesaurus of our minds for the correct synonym.

I say they are especially good for poets due to the mathematical processes of crossing certain words. This mode of thinking helps me see the meter of my poems better. If I need to count iambs, syllables, or rhyme scheme to fit a poetic form, I need to think both mathematically and creatively. Even free verse has a certain rhythm rooted in mathematics. Pardon the pun.

So if I ever tell you I’ve been sober from crossword puzzles for any length of time, stop calling me a poet. I am no more than a sad man.