Writing: You smell that?

Earlier this week, I posted an entry about using sound (particularly onomatopoeia) in your writing to help the reader more fully connect with your work. Now it’s time to talk about smell. I guess this means I’m writing a freakin’ series now, doesn’t it?

I previously talked about sound being neglected in writing, but I think smell is even more so. Considering that smell is the sense most strongly linked to memory, this is a huge missed opportunity for writers.

So how do we describe smell?

Don’t be too general. If something has an unpleasant odor, don’t tell me it “stinks.” Describe to me why it stinks. Use concrete adjectives and figurative language. By concrete adjectives, I mean words like sweet, sour, and so on. Ex: Cutting open the grapefruit immediately released a rush of sweet, tangy odors, and a citrusy tinge that made my eyes water. Figurative language often includes the use of simile and metaphor to describe how something smells. Many a restaurant trash dumpster, for instance, smells overwhelmingly like soured milk. (I’ve worked in my share of restaurants.)

Figurative language doesn’t have to describe the smell so literally, as I’ve done with my dumpster example. It is, after all, figurative language. Ex: Lemonade smells like the summer evenings of my youth, sitting on my grandfather’s porch and watching the sun disappear behind the distant cotton fields.

If you don’t have space to describe it further (i.e. you’re writing a poem in a particular form), at least use a stronger adjective. If it smells really bad, “reek” is often a better choice than “stinks.”

In my post about sound, I suggested sitting somewhere with your eyes closed for a few minutes then writing about the sounds you heard. A similar exercise may be beneficial with smell.

Well, I’ve got to get back to watching the kids, so smell ya later!

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.

Editing: Do it Backwards

Ever feel like even the most pleasurable activity falls into a rut? You’re still successful, perhaps. You still like what you’re doing; your audience still enjoys the end product, but you know it could be better. Maybe it’s time to change positions. I’m talking about the quality of your writing, of course. and about modifying your editing process.

Sometimes I get caught up in what I’ve written and find it impossible to edit sufficiently. I try as hard as I can to read it with a critical eye, red pen in hand, looking for those slight errors that separate good writing from great writing. But I get stuck. The problem is that my mind tricks me into reading what I thought I wrote, or intended to write, instead of what is actually on paper. One technique I’ve found effective at overcoming this issue is reading what I’ve written backwards.

I don’t mean read each sentence backwards. Backwards sentence each read mean don’t I. <— Worthless idea.

What I like to do is start editing at the last paragraph and work one paragraph at a time back to the beginning. This allows me to break myself away from the plot as a whole and look at each paragraph, each sentence, each word on its own.

It’s nice to write a great story or essay, but if you want it to be its best, you must pay attention to these details. Look at the paragraph to make sure it accomplishes its task. A well-written paragraph should have a certain level of independence. Likewise a well-written sentence has a job to complete within the paragraph. I think you see where this is going. Every word is important.

Reading your work backwards is only one editing technique, but I hope that looking at things from this perspective helps.


Reading: Li-Young Lee

My latest order from Amazon came in the mail yesterday. It was for 3 new books, all by one of my favorite poets, Li-Young Lee. The books are Rose, the city in which i love you, and Book of My Nights. I’ve read most of the poems individually. It’ll be nice to have them all together in their proper volumes.

I first read Lee in an American Lit class a few years ago. We read “Persimmons” and “This Room and Everything in It.” Both poems talk about his father, which was something I needed to see. I didn’t know how to write about people close to me at that point (and have only improved this skill marginally). I learned from him not to try too hard to write about someone. Don’t force a theme based on a personality trait. Just write about them honestly and simply. Write about instances that may seem insignificant. It’s in the little glances at a person that we see the big ideas.

His use of language is another remarkable feature. His diction is simple and straightforward , but don’t let this fool you into thinking that the poems are simplistic. Easy words form complex metaphors.

I could probably continue writing about him, but I want to get to reading these books. Here is a video of Li-Young Lee reading for UC-Berkeley’s Lunch Poems program:

Some things never leave a person:
scent of the hair of one you love,
the texture of persimmons,
in your palm, the ripe weight.
” -from “Persimmons”

p.s. In other book news, I ordered the Poets Laureate Anthology from Barnes & Noble the same day; it finally shipped this morning. I’m mildly annoyed, but it was free to me because I had a gift card (not entirely free…gift card for $25; priced at $27.68, so I paid $2.68)