Sep 012010

Lately, NC has been overrun by some strange, possibly disturbing (disturbed?) posts.  There have been  trips to Wal-Mart, essays about dead, German philosophers, a gilded Michael Jackson and ‘Bubbles’ statue, and some impostor (or series of impostors) running around claiming to be DG.  It’s all very confusing.  It seems the perfect time to throw my “Top-10” essay back into the mix.  How could it hurt?

For those of you following these posts with bated breath (and I know there’s at least one of you out there…Bubbles is a huge fan) it began as a series of short essays covering ten of the more important lessons I learned as student working with DG last semester at VCFA.  DG approved this series and has been paying me handsomely for each installment.  (By the way, Doug, the checks haven’t been arriving.  Could you re-confirm my mailing address?  Thanks in advance.  These Talisker bills are adding up.)

I’m down to the top two.  Number two covers, quite simply, verbs.

(Please note: all quotes in this post are from DG’s essay, “The Attack of the Copula Spiders.”)

I entered last semester (my third) bright-eyed and eager.  Though tales and legends swirled regarding the dangers of the Shredder’s realm, I believed I could safely navigate the terrifying path, escaping with little more than a few scratches and cuts.  Ah, the joy of innocence!  Three steps into that primordial, Canadian forest, a sharp pain split my calf.  Toxic venom spiraled toward my spine.  Before I could hack off my own leg to prevent further injury, the face of a copula spider appeared, a spider bearing a shocking resemblance to DG.  It mocked me as it scurried back to its upstate NY home.  Arachnis copulataris.  (Confused?  Keep reading! )

“A copula spider occurs when a student uses the verb ‘to be’ so many times on a page that I can circle all the instances, connect them with lines, and draw a spider diagram on the page.”  (See exhibit A)

Exhibit A: The Copula Spider

After a fair amount of groaning from my advisor, I discovered that my verbs sucked.  Sucky verbs inhibit the writer.   Imagine a baseball pitcher whose pitches don’t reach home plate.   Verbs carry the load in creative writing.  Mine couldn’t carry a tune.

“All sentences have verbs (apparently many of my writing students don’t seem to know this).  Every verb is an opportunity to present, represent, or picture an action.  The more precise and arresting the action is, the more lively the sentence.”

Passive voice and ‘to be’ forms occurred constantly in my work.  In spite of a sincere attempt to do better, my stories flagged because I didn’t pay attention to my verbs.  They flowed from my brain to the page with little more than a glance.  I told myself that I need to concentrate my writing on story structure, on interesting plot twists, dynamic characters and lyrical prose.  Ha!  How can any of that even occur with lackadaisical  verbs?   Good stories starve to death without strong,  interesting and active verbs.

Fortunately, the solution wasn’t as complicated as the problem was entrenched.  DG suggested an exercise: to track a page or two of verbs and see how many were poorly chosen.  Being the masochist that I am, I decided to take his advice to heart.  When I completed a draft of a story, I tried to leave a few extra days or more to run a ‘verb sweep’.  Rather than tracking a page of verbs, I decided to sweep the whole story.

Armed with an orange highlighter, I marked every verb in the new story.    The results were staggering.  The number of weak verbs stunned me.  Even after paying more attention to DG’s ‘gentle’ guidance , I still relied on passive and copula construction.   But by marking my verbs this way, however long it took (and it really didn’t take that long), I could quickly identify verb choices after the first draft.  I could go back and change the verbs only, ignoring the rest of the story.  I’d never done that before.  I’d always edited everything at once.  This isolated approach helped considerably.  And though my next story suffered from various other structural and creative flaws, the verbs improved.

I didn’t change every verb.   But changing even half, even a third, helped considerably.  And I didn’t need to run verb sweeps each time thereafter, at least not as formally.  I began to pay more attention to my verbs right from the very start.

“As I say, there is nothing illegal about the copula, and as you may have noticed, I am using it over and over again in this essay (the reason being that the action of this essay is in making connections between things that are not normally connected, that is, in grouping, linking, and defining terms.)  A useful and necessary verb, the copula only weakens prose with incessant repetition, when the author depends on it too much, in a narrative context.”

Like malaria, the copula spider venom returns every so often, but I’m better equipped to deal with the toxins.  I catch myself in the throes of a copulating fever.  (Wait, that’s for a different essay.)  Though my struggles continue, I can identify weak verbs more readily.  Verbal-discipline raps me on the knuckles now, especially when my fingers tap out the ‘w’ ‘a’ ‘s’ keys in rapid succession.  It’s simply easier to catch myself after a few verb sweeps.

The cost of checking every verb might seem extreme.  I don’t do it on every story, but I do find myself working the verbs first.

As someone wiser than me once wrote:  “Good prose is vigorous, aboil with verbs, packed with motion and conflict and story at the level of sentences themselves.”

Up Next…A review of #’s 10-2, then the unveiling of #1.  Bubbles, you out there?

-Rich Farrell

See all the posts in this series starting here.

  4 Responses to “#2 of The Top 10 Things I Learned This Semester: (Invitation to a Re-shredding)”

  1. Checks? What checks?

    OMG, you don’t mean cheques, do you? I had to run your post through Google Translator to get the gist. In Canada, we call them cheques, and, of course, I haven’t sent you any cheques because I didn’t know what the heck you were asking me for.

    All those mysterious emails asking me to “check” you. What was I to think.

  2. I forgot the translation issue. Mea culpa. I should also mention that I prefer payment in USD, not jugs of maple syrup or whatever Canadian currency is these days.

    Option-B simply open a “Pay-Pal” account and direct my salary straight to the Isle of Skye bank.

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