Sunday, October 18, 2020

Turns of Phrase

A surge of golden finery

I’m gob smacked by turns of phrase that transcend the ordinary and lift a story into the lofty realm of literary non-fiction. It’s so much more than telling the story. It’s turning text into prose. This dawning was prompted by a masterful article entitled In My Mountain Town, We’re Preparing for Dark Times by Christopher Solomon in Sunday’s New York Times. Solomon, a contributing editor for Outside Magazine, crafted something special in his tale of fall’s arrival in tiny Twisp, Washington. I have longed to type the name Twisp, a town of 910 in the Cascade Mountains. 

As I read the article for the third time I began reading aloud from Solomon’s extraordinary piece. Each phrase was a nugget that’s the level of writing to which I aspire. Then I mined my own words to uncover my own jewels if there are any. I want to polish my own words to approach his stratospheric achievement. It’s so so good. 

And I quote: “where winds shake the aspens’ first golden coins to the ground.” I might have described the leaves on our aspens as “golden discs.” This shows the narrow difference between functional and poetic. 

“At the river, the water runs skinny but runs cold again with the return of freezing nights.” Skinny takes it to another level.

“and the fishing is good in the squinting hours around sunrise.” Good God. 

“It is autumn again in the mountains of the West, and what is not gracefully dying is desperate to live.”

Or, “October’s yellow afternoons smell of winter at the edges.” I'd have said “There’s hint of winter on a cold fall morning.” Yawn. 

“The soft ovation of the cottonwoods sends another round of leaves adrift on the water.” Not “the rustle of the cottonwoods.” Ovation. 

And, “We take ridgeline hikes among larch the color of struck matches…" My favorite.

“The woodcutter’s saw screams in the quiet forest.” 

“The fish lurches to the fly.” 

“I stand in the river, ice water girding my hips…” 

“And so, my friends and I fish too long when we should be picking the last frost-sweetened plums.” 

We tear at the days immoderately, like animals, and we wolf them down, hoping to fill a hole we see yawning ahead. Hell, the whole damn passage. 

And finally, “We are laying by memories for winter, as the bear puts on fat,” What a poetic analogy that is. 

As I took stock of my recent writing, I found a handful of phrases that that teased the possibilities. That affirmation drives me to a craft works in which very phrase is a pearl. 

In my latest article for Shadow and Light Magazine, the one called 110 Degrees in the Shade, I wrote: 

“I stood in the rubble beneath a half-missing roof and listened to the wind whistle through cracks in the plywood and tarpaper walls.” 

"The wind howls, the sand drifts through the porous siding. 

“There’s quiet despair in the silence of dashed dreams.”

“…where meals where shared, and love was made.” 

“Then the laughter and anger that happened within these walls disappeared into the creeping sand of the unforgiving Mojave.” 

Christopher Solomon’s miraculous examples and the best of what I’ve written give me a target. And hope. They suggest that I can write at another level. That becomes my dream. 

Long ago I read that if you want to write creatively you need to write daily for at least two hours. The admonition says the you must sequester yourself in your writing space and can’t leave until you’ve written something and that, even if you stare at the screen for the full 120 minutes, you can’t leave your cell. That was years ago, and I’ve done it precisely once. The results from that single effort were promising. And yet nothing since.

Solomon’s superb craftsmanship, or talent, gave me a jolt of energy. Reading his rippling words tells me to weave memorable phrases into meaningful stories. 

There is functional writing that gets the job done, there is craft and there is work with a definable voice. The same is true of making music or making a singular photograph. There is skill, it seems to me, and then there is talent and beyond that something otherworldly. Since high school I’ve been told that I should write. Writing competently is easy for me but I haven’t been moved to polish my skills into something above workmanlike, if indeed that’s possible. The same is true of mastering finger style guitar or mastering anything for that matter. In 1960 I was a competent rhythm guitar player who was satisfied to accompany my vocals. Not only have I not grown as a player, but my entire repertoire is sixty years old. It’s so old that it would be new to an audience today. 

My pipes have descended into a raspy whisper and I now I struggle with the three-finger tremolo I once mastered.  I guess you have to practice. Yet the brain remains facile and overflowing with fodder for a real creative writing push. 

I’ve booked my office for the prime 9 to11am time slot today. Visitors Prohibited.


John Ellsworth said...

Master that three-finger tremolo for the written word and you're well on your way. You do have the gift. Luck now.

Steve Immel said...

Thanks, I some sense this one was for you. Thought you'd get a kick from Solomon's phraseology. Some sweet confections.

Blacks Crossing said...

Solomon's phraseology is juicy and full of flavor, but yours, Amigo, has some of the same elements. Both his and your writing included here made my heart soar. As far as writing two hours a day. Yes, absolutely. One straight forward way of doing this not as a project but as practice, is to write serious and well-constructed emails. They aren't always but should be our modern letters. Not all friends and relatives will appreciate them, but write them regardless. I do it and frequently write tomes to those who will appreciate them. Some of my favorite writers are print journalists who are required to write every single day and meet a deadline. Your blog is part of that practice. Writing for Shadow and Light will give you another boost in that direction. As John E. indicated, you do have the gift. Thanks for sharing it. Onward!