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Living in Your Head and Word Exuberance

Sometimes the principles behind good writing seem so simple to me, but they're simple like riding a bike is simple: before you can ride a bike, it seems impossible, but once you start riding you can't remember why you couldn't do it.

I was thinking about this while reading Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes.  How does he create such amazing effects?  How did he write such a great book?  I think the answers are simple, like riding a bike: he lives in his head and he lets his language go.

Here's an example from early in the book.  It's the description of what a train whistle sounds like at night:

The wails of a lifetime were gathered in it from other nights in other slumbering years; the howl of moon-dreamed dogs, the seep of river-cold winds through January porch screens, which stopped the blood, a thousand fire sirens weeping, or worse! The outgone shreds of breath, the protests of a billion people dead or dying, not wanting to be dead, their groans, their sighs, burst over the Earth.

First, I think, Bradbury really gets into his own head to write this.  He either remembers or vividly imagines what it is like to be in bed in the middle of a summer night when you are fourteen years old and nothing sounds lonelier than a distant train whistle.  I think of Bradbury closing his eyes to do this, taking a few deep breaths while he really, really tries to hear that train, because writing isn't at first about forming the words on the page--it's about getting to the moment he's trying to write about--it's about trying to relive it in all of its particulars.

Then, when he's as present as he can make himself in that moment of memory or imagination, he lets his language go.  Look at the passage again.  What marks it is exuberance, not restraint.  He's thrown himself into the language or at the language (I'm not sure which preposition to go with here).  The first clause, "The wails of a lifetime were gathered in it from other nights in other slumbering years," is figurative three times in sixteen words: two personifications and a hyperbole.  And he's hardly started!  The metaphors take off after that.  The whistle isn't just a "howl" (which is a great word choice at this point), it is "the howl of moon-dreamed dogs."  The whistle becomes not just a cold wind, but a "seep of river-cold winds through January porch screens."  After that, the whistle becomes the groans of the dead in an extended metaphor of 27 words. 

Whew!  That's quite a train whistle.

I don't want to write like Bradbury--I want to write like myself--but I've learned from Bradbury to get into my head, and I've learned that I have to grit my teeth and be brave with my language.



( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 21st, 2009 03:00 pm (UTC)
Testify, and amen.
Jan. 21st, 2009 04:10 pm (UTC)
He's very poetic.
Jan. 21st, 2009 05:40 pm (UTC)
Jim, you're dead-on with this post, especially the reference to writing like yourself. I've had a much more positive response to my writing, just over the last year, when I've made myself stick to the language and rhythm that felt right in my own mind, rather than shaping the words to what (I supposed) the market might want.
Jan. 21st, 2009 08:20 pm (UTC)
Nicely put!
Jan. 21st, 2009 07:33 pm (UTC)
Whether one writes like him or not, I think there's a lot to be said for exuberance in writing. It's one thing I strive for (though mine is often hit and miss)...but I was overjoyed not long ago when someone whose opinion of my writing is extremely important to me told me that she thought the exuberance in something of mine she read was its best quality. When the writing has that kind of energy I think the reader can't help but pick it up too.
Jan. 21st, 2009 08:19 pm (UTC)
I may have phrased that poorly. I don't want to sound like Bradbury (I love his sound--he's one of my favorite authors--but he already sounds like himself *g*), but I would love to write with the same verve and enthusiasm he has.
Jan. 21st, 2009 08:22 pm (UTC)
No, I got that--I think I just phrased my reply poorly.
Jan. 22nd, 2009 11:44 am (UTC)
Thanks for the reminder of the importance of going inside oneself and living the moment or the feeling before trying to commit it to paper.

I'm always struggling to remember to go into my own head, and almost always forgetting to...
Jan. 22nd, 2009 12:50 pm (UTC)
You're welcome. I hope your writing projects are going well.
Jan. 23rd, 2009 03:07 am (UTC)
Good food for thought.

As I was reading those excerpts, though, the thought that ran through my mind was that if I had written them, someone would surely tell me to kill my darlings. :-\
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )