Monday, October 17, 2011

Building Muscle

"The length of the sentence isn't as important as the words in it.  Be sure that each word is significant, that it fully advances the meaning.  As you revise, delete all extraneous words: make your writing muscular." ~~ Sue William Silverman (from *Fearless Confessions: A Writer's Guide to Memoir*)

I'm struggling with the writing process lately (or still), so I'm binge reading.  And I've really come to value the craft books as much as the memoirs themselves.  As I was making my way through Silverman's book this morning, the above quote struck me for several reasons.  First, I was actually reading the book at the gym, while hampster-wheeling my way around the elliptical machine.  The gym radio was blaring, the six gym televisions were all flashing various news and entertainment and food shows at me, and the 4:45am diehards were chatting and clanging metal weights against metal racks. 

Sounds a bit scattered, no?

I wish I were one of the peaceful zenfolk I so admire, who strive to work through one task at a time, remaining present and mindful of each moment, rather than multitasking and ADD-ing their way through life.  But I'm not.  I have a strange sort of brain filter that seeks lots of stuff at once, and then compartmentalizes it all before bringing it into focus.  Sort of.  And sometimes.

So as I muscled my way through this morning's cardio, I  bookmarked Siilverman's "make your writing muscular" advice, knowing that it was just what I needed to read today. This is just the sort of imagery that reaches me.  I am so much more likely to respond to something quick and practical over something deep and wordy, despite how deep and wordy I often tend to write.  Or live my life.  After all, you can cover up a lot of meaningless nothing with abstraction.

When I worked as a personal trainer, I was forever reminding my clients that "a pound of muscle takes up less space than a pound of fat."  While people often heard this as "a pound of muscle weights less than a pound of fat," the point was - a 150-lb woman with 15% body fat is going to wear smaller clothing than a 150-lb woman with 30% body fat.  They both weigh the same in terms of mass, but the woman with 15% body fat is physically smaller (though not lighter) than her bulkier counterpart.

So what about language?  What about word ecomomy?  When I first started thinking about lightening up my language, I thought about it in terms of "putting my language on a diet."   But perhaps that wasn't the right train of thought.  Perhaps I should have thought about it in terms of "word bulking."  Or "language carbo loading."  I don't necessarily need fewer words, but I do need tighter words.  More compact language.  More sculpted, defined language.  And, in the process, less word flab.  In keeping with the diet metaphor (a particular fascination of mine, for reasons that will follow in future posts) my work is filled with cellulite sentences and love-handled phrasing.  And yes, I love it for its individual beauty, but I know it could be a healthier version of itself, even as its beautiful curves learn to comfortably take up space in the world.

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