Years ago I heard author and activist Rick Bass speak at Elliott Bay Books in Seattle. He read “Titan,” a haunting short story from his new collection For a Little While, giving us a full forty minutes of his work. The room was hushed as he read. I sensed people around me taking in his words through the tender membranes of their skins.
Afterward he answered questions about writing and reading. Someone asked how he does what he does—that is, how he brings his readers right into his settings. Rick answered by advising us to “tell not show.”
“Don’t write ‘light’,” he said. “Show me the light. And don’t use ‘grace.'” He made a face of extreme distaste. “The word ‘grace’ should be banned from literature. Along with ‘beauty.’ And ‘love.'”
Rick knows whereof he speaks. In 1990, when I first heard him read from Oil Notes on national radio, I thought, how great: here’s a petroleum geologist who sees clearly what developing oil entails and is writing about it. He had a few books under his belt—not the few dozen he has published since. Of his work then, he said: “There are two ways to write. The way I do, and the way I want to.”
Later that year I would begin writing my own short stories, starting with the first scenes of “The Middle of a River in Flood.” I yearned to write about my world—the world of rivers and water and river people—in a way I hadn’t read yet in the work of others.
Twenty-seven years after I heard Rick read on the radio, he sat in the Elliott Bay basement and advised against using certain on-the-nose words. His suggestion reminded me that I use them shamelessly. (“Shamelessly” should be avoided, too.) “Avoid words” may crop up in our work; when we see them, we can strike them. I think of them like the “avoid notes” my musician husband, Paul, warns guitarists about. When playing a tune, we may land on sour tones that are likely out of key. It’s best to hop off them at once.
Rick’s compact scenes move fast, conveying devastation or hope or affection in the sparest language. I had always wondered how he approached structure, so I asked his thoughts about scene writing in his short stories.
He made a few self-deprecating remarks, saying all his scenes come out the same length no matter how hard he tries to vary them. Then he said that he starts writing a scene with a sense of the mood he wants to create, using color and painting a feeling. He didn’t mention word count or planning or how one scene leads to the next—important as those are. Instead he reminded us about all-powerful mood.
(For more advice and instruction on building a story from scenes, I recommend Jordan Rosenfeld’s excellent Make A Scene.)
Rick had put a certain hunger for a lost place and time into his work. He hadn’t written “sorrow” or “longing” in so many words, but he’d conveyed those feelings. The mood of the night has stayed with me, as Rick’s stories do.
Soon after that event, I returned to my own manuscript in progress. I found avoid words all over the place in it, as short-cuts into feelings. The words hit me with dissonance, like those clunker notes on the guitar.
Such a process, growing from the way I do write to the way I want to—about water, and rivers, and river people. To get to “beauty” and “love” with some measure of grace. 😉
Yes yes yes yes…them thar avoid words haunt my work, along with the ly adverbs that are a sign of lazy embroidery…thank you for the gentle nudge!
Elisa, I knew you would like this one! You’re such a seeker of great writing and of creating your own excellent works. We shall continue as best we can! Writing this world we see and inhabit. Thinking of your beautiful mountain home today. xo