Tag Archives: voice

Evocative Language

When I was in middle school I kept a poetry journal. Not mine, mind you. Like most middle school girls, I DID write poetry but it was pretty pretentious and crappy. I kept a journal of other people’s poetry and I set a lot of it to music when I was in high school and early college. Interestingly, once I stopped writing music, I also stopped keeping a poetry journal.

Well, when I started writing a few years ago, I decided to make a new journal. I love a beautiful turn of phrase and I think you can get away with much more lyrical language in poetry than in prose (not always true, I know). I went to a writing conference and heard Monte Schulz speak (This Side of Jordan) and one of his major themes was that there shouldn’t be this huge linguistic divide between commercial and literary fiction. Just because Stephen King doesn’t use poetic language doesn’t mean you can’t. He suggested keeping a journal of beautiful lines from any and all sources to use as an inspiration and so I did. In an ironic aside, I hated his book. He talked about finding the voice of a period (This Side of Jordan is depression era) and using the language as it’s own character. While I loved that as a theory, I only got half-way through the book before I got so annoyed at the stilted dialogue that I gave up (and I rarely give up on books). Oh well. He was still one of the most engaging speakers I’ve ever heard and I felt like he’d given me permission to wax poetical even though I was writing in a commercial genre.

Looking through the new incarnation of my journal, I am finding a lot of song lyrics. You know how tunes get stuck in your head sometimes? I have this problem (perpetually) but I also get text stuck in my head (it’s even more tenacious when its a line with a lovely tune, too). So I thought I would maybe use these mini-lyric-obsessions for blog topics.

This week, I am listening to the King is Dead by The Decemberists. They totally cheat in the beautiful/evocative lyric category because their lead singer/somgwriter is actually an english professor somewhere. And the songs are not about normal modern song topics. They’re about british serial killers and highwaymen and the seventeenth century Spanish monarchy and Stalin-era genetic engineering. This album is about war in all its myriad forms and there are a handful of lines that I am haunted by. I’m curious how they communicate without the music – I can’t separate my feelings about the words form their tunes in my head so I’m not impartial. Here they are, in no particular order:

“This bulkhead’s built of fallen brethren bones”  & “There’s plenty of men to die, you don’t jump your turn” Rox in the Box

What a creepy image. If you think about it literally, you can imagine a soldier sheltering under the bodies of fallen comrades. I get the idea of those dead protecting the speaker and I think its such a beautiful way to say something that could be described very prosaically – like, “I was sheltering behind the dead bodies”. But the “fallen brethren bones” is so evocative. It gives so much mood but it keeps the image clean (there’s no decaying flesh or steaming entrails). And the second phrase makes me think of that character trying to die to avenge the other soldiers? Taking too many risks out of fear or despair or anger? I have a whole story in my head from just those two lines, but that story is only intimated. It gives me so much creative license and the language is so beautiful it really encourages me to make that story – and make it beautiful.

I lived a childhood in snow” January Hymn

This one is both literally descriptive and figuratively stirring. Again, I could write a whole character just from that phrase. This song happens to be very singable, and I love the way this line feels when sung. I just want to roll it around in my mouth.

“You’re standing on the landing with the war you shouldered all the night before” June Hymn

Can’t you just see this character? I actually get an image of Anne Shirley in Rilla of Ingleside when she finds out that her son is killed in WW1. Again, this phrase is beautiful and I get such an immediate flash of who it describes. The rest of the song describes flowers and birds and to have this line in the middle of a pastoral description is a cool effect – it almost gets lost, like you can be in a beautiful place and almost forget the horrors of the world. Almost. It also has a lovely sense of renewal – the war was “last night” and now the world is new and the birds are still singing and the vines are still in bloom. Delightful.

“A barony of ivy in the trees; expanding out its empire by degrees” June Hymn

Thats just a really cool metaphor.

“Come attrition, come the reek of bones” & “Bride of Quiet; Bride of all unquiet things” This is Why We Fight

Again, so creepy. And what active and interesting word choice! And the video is really neat – in a Lord of the Flies kind of way.


So anyway. That’s what I’m in the grips of this week.


Filed under Poetry, Reflection

Gaiman is my hero of Voice

So I’m not generally a big fan of short stories. I guess what I love about reading is the opportunity to be carried away by a character or world and in a short story, that doesn’t ahppen as easily. Often  it’s because the author doesn’t have to time to develop their story in the way I like. But sometimes it’s because the author DOES carry me away – and then it’s over. When I read something that I really enjoy – something that I’m really transported by – I feel let down hen I’m done and if that story was short, then I’m let down sooner. That being said, I just re-read the most wonderful (and instructive) short story. It was called “Murder Mystery” by Neil Gaiman and it’s in his Smoke and Mirrors anthology.

I’d read this a few years ago when a student of mine discovered Gaiman. When I saw a copy of “American Gods” on his desk, I remarked on it – can you believe it was the first novel he’d ever read for pleasure? Of all the books to start with, right? When he discovered that I’d read it, he started spending a lot of time hanging out by my desk talking about it. He was one of those really smart, insightful kids who hated school – he should have been doing my class assignments (which had nothing to do with literature, in case you’re wondering) but at least he was using his brain for something useful so I let it go. And I love talking about books and I was thrilled that he was showing enthusiasm about something marginally academic.

Anyway, once he finished American Gods, he went and bought all the other books he could find, including the short story anthologies. He loaned them to me so that we could talk about them and I have to tell you, Gaiman is kind of a sicko. I had many very uncomfortable moments reading his often erotic, explicit stories knowing that my 17-year-old male student had read them too. Creepy.

I recently thought that maybe I could write a short story or two to enter a contest and I was reminded of those anthologies. I picked them up as tutorials of a sort, thinking that I could get a few ideas for flow and timing and how to create a world in such a short space. Gaiman is really, really good at that. But what I also realized is that he is a master of voice. From story to story, the voice is different – wildly so in some cases. And yet it’s always him. Its incredible and inspiring. But there was one story in particular that blew my mind. I read it just before going to bed and I had to go downstairs and talk to my husband about it for half an hour before I could sleep.

It starts with the main character reminiscing about the first time he’d been to Los Angeles. He describes how the weather had prevented him from returning home to London for several days and then he hooks up with an old girlfriend, and then he can’t sleep so he walks down the street by where he’s staying and sits on a bus bench to have a cigarette. It’s all very vague and unconnected and you have no idea where the story is going – which is kind of annoying but certainly makes you feel as lost as the character. Then some random guy asks the narrator for a cigarette and, when the narrator won’t accept money, the guy offers to tell him a story as payment. And that’s when the amazing part of the story begins.

So, the guy tells this story about being an angel who investigates a murder in heaven. It’s a cool story all by itself but what really amazed me about it was the way it was written. The language was totally different than in the rest of the story – even when the angel is talking in the contemporary part. Gaiman breaks up the angel’s story with the occasional brief return to the bus stop and you can totally tell when you are because the language is so strikingly different. But not in a gimmiky way  – I found it masterful and I only wish that I can someday learn to control my writing so tightly!

Additionally, it’s just a cool story. Gaiman’s language is beautiful and creates such a vivid picture for me and his stories are always so unexpected. I just read this other cool one here, too: The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains. He also has great titles…

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Filed under Reflection, Writing Craft