Day 19: The Dignity of Naming

I’ve been reading Pam Houston’s Contents May Have Shifted, and the more I read, the more I am in awe of this book.  Houston is master story teller and though the book is told in vignettes that read like prose poems, it reads like a classic narrative.  I can’t put the thing down, and when I do, I can’t stop thinking about it.  In the first fifteen pages alone, I laughed out loud and then cried.  How the hell did she do that?  Like I said.  I’m in awe.

Today, Houston has me thinking about specificity.  Here’s a sample passage from the book.  Notice the specificity of her details.

The aspens near the pass are holding their breath this week, hints of yellow and crimson, the meadow grasses high after August’s monsoon.  We talk about Myanmar, Cuba, New Orleans.  We talk about stepchildren, wild pants, Italian food, sex.  We snack on the season’s first clementines and raspberry Fig Newmans.  To the west of the mesa the 14ers lay themselves before us, a multicolored kingdom of stone: Handies Peak, Sunshine Peak, Redstone Peak, the Wetterhorn, and Uncompaghre.

Often I think I am too quick to use the general in place of the specific.  I say, “she looked out the windows at the glittering mountains.”  Houston says “the 14ers lay themselves before us…. Handies Peak, Sunshine Peak, Redstone Peak, etc…”  I say, “The wind rustled through the trees.”  Houston says “The aspens near the pass are holding their breath.”  Like I said:  I am in awe.  I read this passage and thought, “How did she do that?”  And then, “Why the hell aren’t I doing the same?”

Natalie Goldberg, most famous for her book on writing Writing Down the Bones, advocates the importance of naming in a chapter fittingly titled “Be Specific.”  Goldberg writes:

Be specific.  Don’t say fruit. Tell what kind of fruit–“It is a pomegranate.”  Give things the dignity of their names. . . . It is much better to say “the geranium in the window” than “the flower in the window.”  “Geranium”–that one word gives us a much more specific picture.  It penetrates more deeply into the beingness of the flower.  It immediately gives us the scene by the window–red petals, green circular leaves, all straining towards sunlight.

Goldberg goes on to discuss the way, compelled to know the names of everything, she bought a book on plants and proceeded to walk the streets of Boulder, examining “leaf, bark, and seed trying to match them up with their descriptions and names in the book.”

Today, as you write and/or revise, think about the names of things.  Maybe it means buying a book and going for a walk.  Maybe it means learning the history of a specific place in time.  Maybe it means pulling out those family photos and making sure you know who is who.  Whatever it entails, think about narrowing your writing focus by broadening your view of the world around you.  As Goldberg concludes,

Learn the names of everything: birds, cheese, tractors, cars, buildings.  A writer is all at once everything–an architect, French cook, farmer–and at the same time, a writer is none of these things.

A more specific exercise

Take a passage of your work (a page of prose or a single poem).  Look at places where your writing skirts around the naming.  Underline words that are nameless (flowers, trees, mountains, drinks).  Then make a list of 5 possible names for those things (A drink perhaps becomes this list: a dirty martini, aloe vera juice, Kool Aid, Almond Milk, Blue Bottle Coffee). Investigate the thing (how does it look?  How does it tastes?  Where does it come from?  What does it mean to you?  To others?)  Then, go back and work the specificity into your prose.

Day 14: Find the Things that Glitter at You: Advice via Pam Houston

I was lucky enough to attend Pam Houston’s reading this previous Monday (accompanied by friend and fellow blogger, Jenn Simpson).  If you haven’t had the chance to see Pam Houston read, do it.  I cannot state this strongly enough.  Not only is the new book amazing, the woman is a sheer force: strong presence, strong personality, insightful, and pretty damn funny.  Even though I’ve seen her read/heard her speak on four different occasions (twice in AWP and twice at the Taos Writers’ Conference), I was still captivated by her wisdom and her writing.  Here is my evidence:

Note the notes that wrap around my hand. When you watch her read, be sure to bring paper along with your pen to avoid ink poisoning.

For those inclined, here’s her remaining Book Tour.  In the mean time, straight from the writer’s hand (literally), here’s some writing advice I weened from Pam Houston.

Take a Regular Brain Dump

Pam Houston’s new book, Contents May Have Shifted is told in 144 vignette type stories.  There are 12 different sections.  Each section begins with a plane ride and is followed by 11 vignettes titled with a different location (“Madison, Wisconsin,” “Albuquerque, New Mexico,” “Fairbanks, Alaska,” etc).  All in all, the book adds up to a whole lot of places that span the entire world.  Though some of the locations repeat (“Davis, California,” for instance), many of them are new.  One audience member wanted to know how she kept track of everything.  Do you write things down, the woman asked, or do you simply remember things in such stark detail? (And believe me, when you read the book, the woman is a master at descriptions, but that is for another blog post or three..).

Pam Houston answered as follows:  You know that part of the plane ride when the pilot lets you know you are an hour from your destination (fifty minutes, forty minutes, the time might change, but the message is the same: prepare yourself for the impending landing)?  Houston uses that announcement as a signal.  While other people use the restroom (her joke), she gets out her notebook and does a “Brain Dump.”  Details, facts, memories.  It doesn’t have to be complete scenes, coherent thoughts, or even complete sentences.  Along with various facts, her goal is to capture “all the things that glittered” at her.

She recommended that writers do the same.  Find a constant in your daily life–after you get home from yoga or after you drop your kids off at school–and use it as a signal to dump the contents of our brain onto paper (metaphorically, of course).  That way, you have the details when you need them, and this stuff can become the raw materials of our creative work.  Also, as an added bonus, whenever you are blocked, it’s easy to become unblocked.  All you have to do is pull out your notebook and search for the “things that glittered at you.”