I made a fascinating discovery today. I was reading one of the books by the dead George Carlin (if I called him ‘the late’ or ‘the lamented’ George Carlin, he would rise from the dead and crush my skull), enjoying some great laughs from his satirical observations about people and government. I then put down that book and picked up a collection of essay by the equally dead philosopher Bertrand Russell. And I found that his opinions, tone, and attitudes were exactly the same as Carlin’s. Not only that, they were just as funny. “Another way in which good men can be useful is by getting themselves murdered.” That’s brilliant. I realized at that instant that George Carlin is Bertrand Russell as a stand-up act.
I’m telling you all this to fill up space on this post. I’ve had a busy weekend, most of it a highly positive busy, but nonetheless busy. So I haven’t had the opportunity to carefully craft one of my more ponderous reviews. So instead I’ll sling at you a writing exercise that I did a few weeks ago. Writers looking for an engaging experiment might want to try it.
Two separate books about writing inspired this exercise. First, Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. I’m not much for modern horror, although the King that I’ve read I’ve liked. However, I love King’s nonfiction: he writes intelligent and learned observations, but with the speaking tone of the most fascinating fellow sitting at the bar. He feels like an old pal. I think this is why, whatever other lessons I may pull from On Writing, that I adore that book so much.
King provides a simple statement about language for a writer who gets stuck:
Take any noun, put it with any verb, and you have a sentence. It never fails, Rocks explode. Jane Transmits. Mountains float. These are all perfect sentences. Many such thoughts make little rational sense, but even the stranger one (Plums deify!) have a kind of poetic weight that’s nice. The simplicity of noun-verb construction is useful—at the very least it can provide a safety net for your writing.
Concise advice, but what struck me about this section of the book when I first read it was the beauty of the sentence Plums deify!. King is right, there’s a poetic weight to this. I couldn’t stop thinking about that damn two-word sentence. It was gorgeous, even though it was sheer oddness.
The second book added into the mix is Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. This is a classic that pops up in many creative writing courses. The book boils down to a serious of vignettes about how to give your writing a Zen-overhaul. I have problems with a lot of Writing Down the Bones, mostly because Goldberg just loves quoting her old Zen master, and also because she seems to think that the only writing anybody will ever want to do is autobiographical sketches scribbled in notebooks in coffee shops. But her central concept of “writing practice,” that a writer must write every day in a concentrated burst of spontanteity in order to banish the inner censor that would otherwise crush creativity, is a great one. Cut through her New Age quotes, and Goldberg is really just advocating that you Get the Ink Out and the Hell with Anybody Else. Experiment, go wild, flex those writing muscles. It’s good stuff.
The chapter in Writing Down the Bones (actually, it’s only a page long) that combined with King to produce the weirdness you’re about to read is titled “One Plus One Equals Mercedes-Benz.” Almost as good as Plums deify!
Turn off your logical brain that says 1 + 1 = 2. Open up your mind to the possibility that 1 + 1 can equal 48, a Mercedes-Benz, an apple pie, a blue horse. Don’t tell your autobiography with facts, such as “I am in sixth grade. I am a boy. I live Owatonna. I have a mother and a father.” Tell me who you really are: “I am the frost on the window, the cry of a young wolf, the thin blade of grass.”
Personally, I think that last sentence is pretentious, but it’s more interesting than the “facts” above it. That example aside, I liked Goldberg’s idea: it’s okay not to make no sense… go ahead and try it!
So, I decided I was going to try an exercise I called “Plums Deify a Mercedes-Benz.” For thirty minutes, I would write without stopping a series of sentences in a single paragraph using standard subject-verb-object constructions (fleshed out a bit, as you’ll see) with complete disregard to rationality. I also aimed to use more unusual verbs, just to make it more interesting.
And now… I present to you the complete and unaltered (except for fixing typos) the results of this experiment. Feel free to stop reading at any point, and skip to the end.
The church steeple undermines the sky. An absent student bisects a class. Many angry gorillas percolate a rapt crowd of zoo-visitors. The tardy fellow apprehends the poet’s longing. Sunfish regurgitate the elderly woman’s lusting for the cigarette toasting the fingers of the young man. A sunbeam sings for your supper. Mountains desensitize the self-conscious woodsman. A fresh sheet of foolscap paper sanitizes a world that waits rebirth. The music of Star Wars absorbs power from diesel tractors. Knowledge squashes the impure feelings of a nine-year-old Lakota boy. The three-hour film doubts if the crew got a good deal on the craft services table when they filmed the extra scene for the extended cut. Clerks notify the disenfranchised miners. Love expands over the dandelion-covered peaks of a trio of hillocks. A symphony orchestra metastasizes all listeners during their third performance of Sadko. Larry King envelopes the State of the Union Address. The last living dinosaur harmonizes the collection of sleepy fourth-grade students. Two violins under-represent female beauty. Words capitalize on a price decrease in transitive verbs. A dying spotted owl baptizes the woods of northwestern Oregon. The river retches over a polluting Mattel plant attempting to animate Barbie dolls back into consciousness. Paragraphs grumble over your morning French roast. An old deity capsizes a cruise ship where shuffleboard has no meaning. The blackbird slices the underdog. A habit hacks up three dissenting senators. Ancient runes usurp nobody’s mobility, except for Nathaniel Hawthorne’s. Zen writing deifies Patty’s virginity. The last step on this staircase oscillates in unimaginable ways. Mary bankrupted her favorite orangutan’s discotheque. The Folger Shakespeare Library euthanized the Socialist Students Movement. A grasshopper ingests too many anomalies. The huge party of LARP players truncated the judges. A spaceship armada intimidates shivering lackeys. A dark dungeon obfuscates your declaimed celebrity. Tomorrow’s blues dance will overhaul the love engines of three blocks-worth of stuffed pandas. A zookeeper amortizes the howler monkey. The inventor of Mad Libs enfranchised the Seven Dwarves. Chuck Jones kamikazied whatever was left of the buffet. The ringtone on Sally’s cellphone activates sonar in Venezuelan fruit bats. The subway train extemporizes three verses of John Keats. This used paperback sale will arouse the Stork Club. Sometimes a cigar just neuters a cigar. Her Bon Jovi poster reflects gamma waves. The newborn tiger club schedules with poor timing. All tanks in this region morph into Red Delicious apples at 3 p.m. Noah’s stopwatch ridicules Noah’s wrist and so de-magnitizes his dysfunctional family. Anna tries to realign her husband’s weekly poker game. Any man that skirls too loudly will not understand why the caged bird re-organizes the filing cabinets. Hannibal is tacking his dead kitten for no reason. The word-count absconds with your free time. All humans quibble the M&Ms dish if the hostess isn’t looking their way. Forty-seconds bewail the end of this exercise in verbs and a single paragraph.
Okay… you probably skipped down to this point. Looking over the paragraph, a few of the sentences do make some sense, although this wasn’t intended as I plowed along. However, the exercise was intended to free up my thinking, and this it did achieve. I recommend all writers try it at least once to tap into interesting ways to say things. At the very least, you’ll end up with a sentence like “Mary bankrupted her favorite orangutan’s discotheque.”