To Shiny No. 9 More on Writing
I’ve always believed that good writing should be free from the use of too many trite words or generic forms of expression. If we want to say someone is nice, write specifically how he is nice, rather than just to say “he is nice,” or worse, “he is very nice.” If he is sad, fine, skip the over-used word “sad” and then try to describe in subtle, meticulous words either his look or his mental state or both to convey his state of sadness. This of course is easier said than done. I’ve asked my students to go out and watch how people eat and then write short descriptions of different people eating. It’s called practicing the basics, like painting students painting still life objects, or piano students going over the keys.
Andy Rooney of the “60 Minutes” fame is good in using simple words to describe physical forms and movements. These two passages are my Rooney examples to students on crossing legs. If you want to write about people crossing their legs, don’t just stop there, write more and show how different people actually cross their legs. Here are Rooney’s observations:
“They crossed their legs, twisted them like pretzels, put their arms over the back of the chair next to them, squirmed continuously. Some of the college girls curled one leg up under themselves and sat on that.”
“If chairs were comfortable and supportive of us where we most want support, we would not feel that great urge to lift one foot off the floor and hook the back of the knee over the other knee. Men often don’t actually cross their legs, they place one ankle on top of the knee of the other leg and simultaneously rest the palm of one hand on the ankle that is on the knee.”
As a student of writing, I have a selection of these passages saved. From time to time, I would dig them out and repeat aloud the passages a number of times, trying first to remember them, then to forget them. I’ve told myself this is a way to learn great writings through the act of the subconscious.
Rooney’s hero, E. B. White, whom Rooney allowed as a writer who “may have written the English language more gracefully than any American who ever lived,” liked animals and liked writing about animals. Here are his lines describing a guinea chicken:
“I solved perpetual motion last July when my youngest grandson gave me a guinea chick on my birthday. The chick was only three days old and he, or she, immediately accepted me as his, or her, mother. I still function in that capacity. The guinea is now full grown, in full plumage, and in perpetual motion. He hates my bicycle, mounts me when I kneel, chases cars and trucks, gooses my terriers, and befouls my woodshed. Except at night when he is roosting, his head is never still a minute. And his curiosity is insatiable. I named him Jack, and in another couple of months he will probably be laying eggs—which I won’t know what to do with…”
I love him for his childlike curiosity, admire him of his intricate observation, and adore his ability to be able to arrange words in such captivating fashion.