A young woman I know has a passion for fashion. Everyone knows it. Her teacher tells her to keep working on her French because there’s a very fine fashion design college in Montreal…and then Madame works her network to introduce her to a fashion designer. (Young’un is savvy: she notes that she needs to work on her math so she can manage “all the money”.) For Christmas, Grandma gives her a sketch book and templates of mannequins and clothing. The sketchbook is finished – full – in just a few days. Mama cuts up old sheets and draws dashes on them with sharpies to teach her how to follow lines with the needle. And, for her birthday in four months, our budding fashion designer has three requests: a business suit; a sewing machine; and a blender. You know the Sesame Street segment, “one of these things just doesn’t belong here”? That’s the blender. She wants to make smoothies for breakfast. The business suit and the sewing machine, on the other hand, are for the business she’s itching to get started. The suit is so she can take meetings and the machine is to sew clothes. She’s already spirited a chair out of the kitchen to create a home office and cleared a table in her bedroom to make space for the future sewing machine. Her will be done.
Oh and this business, she tells me, is really more of an empire. She wants to design clothes and own the factory that produces them.
This young woman has passion and a vision.
Who were you when you were six? Who did you want to be?
When I was seven, I started writing stories. My second grade teacher would hand out a sheet of paper with a line drawing of something – every time it was different – at the top of the page. The doodle was a writing prompt. It was a tough assignment. Most of the kids struggled to fill a page but I always needed more paper. It was the best part of my day. Even then, I knew I was a writer, not because I had “talent” but because I enjoyed it enough to do it a lot.
And that’s what I told my daughter when she and I and Madame were having a parent-teacher-student meeting: sometimes the things you love as a child do turn out to be your calling. I always wrote stories. Now people pay me to write stories. Now my passport says “writer”.
As much as she loves designing, Sophie loves God, and she believes both loves are related. She told me, so full-up with spirit and herself that she was bouncing in place, “Mama, my talent is designing. God gave me this gift.”
That is an awesome – in the fullest sense of the word – thing to say and believe.
I have trouble believing in talent and in God.
That’s not quite right. I have trouble having faith in talent and God. I work towards both.
Sophie’s close to God. She believes, she talks to him, she prays in the back seat of the car that traffic will abate and we’ll make the movie on time. We make the movie on time. She takes everything to Him: bad dreams, bullying, homelessness, poverty, sewing machines.
And so who am I to say she doesn’t have a calling? Who am I to say God hasn’t blessed her with an innate talent? She and He are tight. I’m not privvy to all their conversations or their plans. I’m just the chick tasked with hiring her a seamstress.
So Sophie and I have different understandings of talent. She thinks it is God-given and a calling to be served – and in her life, that’s certainly true, because everyone in it is rallying to her call – but I think talent is pleasure and preference. You like doing something so you do it a lot, and when you do it a lot, you get good at it.
I, for example, am really good at sex.
And, so far, here are the ways I’ve said you can get good at writing:
- Love words. Wonder at them and savour them as though they are holy. Because language is divine: even this earth was breathed into place on the wind of words. In the beginning was The Word.
- Use understatement and strive to say the expected in unexpected ways.
- Use parallelism and then, when you’re feeling really tricky, swap the order of the adjectives in your parallel lists.
- Use material objects to develop your characters and hint at their backstories.
- Give good quote. Write sentences so tight they beg your people to repeat them. Pack your wisdom and opinions in fiercely edited prose.
- Write or at least read poetry. Give yourself to permission to write bad poetry so that you’re free to experiment with romantic phrasing, alliteration, assonance, consonance and other poetic devices that will inevitably make your prose more lyrical.
- Write with the worldview of a colt and edit through the lens of a skeptic. Delete the words just, actually, very and really. (Confession: I need to take my own advice.)
- Ditch the pressure to craft perfect, magical, alchemical pages and just write. Anything. Every day.
That’s the quick-list of lessons learned and preached in Sunday School for Sentences.
Ah, the list. Usually the only thing that induces my gag reflex are lists. (Let’s further test it with another quickie.) Here are three terrific resources for nurturing your craft:
And the moral of today’s lesson?
To introduce emotional tension and rhythm to your work, vary the length of your sentences and paragraphs. To develop a climax, or a series of climaxes, think about riding – and writing – a roller coaster: follow a long, emotionally intense paragraph with a short, terse, pointed sentence. The long paragraph is climbing the hill. The short sentence is screaming down it.
This also works with sex.
Sunday School for Sentences will be a sixteen-part series. Missed one? Here they are:
- Sunday School for Sentences #1: Explain the Expected in Unexpected Ways
- Sunday School for Sentences #2: The (Textual) Reverse Cowgirl
- Sunday School for Sentences #3: Object Lessons (from Kanye West and JD Salinger)
- Sunday School for Sentences #4: How to Give Good Quote
- Sunday School For Sentences #5: Why You Should Write Bad Poetry
- Sunday School for Sentences #6: Two Damn Fine Writing Tips
- Sunday School for Sentences #7: There Are No Magic Words
- Sunday School for Sentences #8: How To Execute a Climax or Series of Climaxes. I’m talking About Writing. Mostly.
- Sunday School for Sentences #9: Thread the Grommets, Lace the Corset, Feed the Rabbits
- Sunday School For Sentences #10 – Work It
- Sunday School for Sentences #11: The Pigs In Space Edition
- Sunday School for Sentences #12: Screw SEO. I Write (Wackadoo Titles) for PEOPLE, Not Search Engines. And So Should You.
- Sunday School for Sentences #13: How to Write an Intimate Cosmology of Cheesecake, Cheesecake Shots (or not) and Shoplifting
- Sunday School for Sentences #14: What Picasso And Dave Chappelle Know about Writing. For Realz.