Writing Out of the Box

Some young, inexperienced friends of mine bought their first house this week. They asked my advice about decorating it--I've owned half a dozen houses over the years, of all shapes and sizes--and I thought for a moment, and said honestly: beware the box. Some houses, like this one, invite boxiness. The house itself is a rectangle; all its rooms are square. It's a serviceable, in fact substantial canvas. But your temptation, I said carefully (I've owned houses like this one), will be to repeat the box over and over. To buy square rugs, square pictures, and when it comes time to paint a room, paint it all in one nice color. One very nice color, in fact. Because it feels so . . . solid. Safe. And only when you have lived in this steady symmetry for a while will you realize how tight it all feels. How you've left yourself no room to breathe. How the structure has worked you instead of you working the structure. How you've goofed.

My advice, I said, is find ways to open the box. Play with it. Paint two or three walls of this room one color, and the fourth another. Introduce unexpected shapes. Make pathways. If you look at highly geometric Navajo rugs, you'll see what's called a "spirit line"--a line of color leading out of the pattern that looks like an imperfection, an interruption, but is actually a deliberate breaking open of the sequence to let energy in and out. It's bad luck, in the Navajo tradition, to box the spirit in. I've always had better luck, and better design results, I told my friends, when I remember this. I love looking at Navajo rugs and searching for the unexpected thread that leads away from the obvious and to the very edge of the fabric, outward into . . .

I try to remember this at the level of the sentence and the paragraph as well. In my rough drafts, some of my writing tends to be boxy, while other passages are loosey-goosey (another blog post for another day). I don't mean they are bad sentences. They are generally fairly good sentences: solid, serviceable. They say what I mean; they get the job done.

But they don't move much air around. For example, here's the first version of the sentence I wrote above:

"In my rough drafts some of my writing tends to be quite boxy, while other passages seem to lack any structure at all."

Not bad. Makes the point. A bit formulaic, though. Frankly, I can't imagine getting anyone to take a breath and really look at their own sentences with that kind of stuff. How about:

"In my rough drafts some passages tend to be boxy; others bag around my ankles."

Better. A gust of something, at least. Not just a description, but an invitation. To imagine. To compare. Boxes? Ankles? What kind of writing is that? (I think we all know.)

But let's say you are describing something boxy. Surely we want the writing to reflect what we are describing, yes? Surely this is when we should make sure the prose is totally square?

"The house itself is a rectangle; all its rooms are square. It's a serviceable, in fact substantial canvas. But your temptation, I said carefully (I've owned houses like this one), will be to repeat the box over and over. To buy square rugs, square pictures, and when it comes time to paint a room, paint it all one nice color. One very nice color, in fact. Because it feels so . . . solid. Safe. And only when you have lived in this steady symmetry for a while will you realize how tight it all feels. How you've left yourself no room to breathe. How the structure has worked you instead of you working the structure. How you've goofed."

Now imagine that paragraph without the spirit-line, How you've goofed.

Air. A shift in gears. A shift in diction. A shift in energy. Movement in an unexpected direction. As a gesture of kindness to the reader ("I do not want to bore you. I respect your need for interest. I can ride more than one horse, I promise"). As a way to keep the writing awake and alive. As a way to keep myself awake and alive. As a way to keep sentence, paragraph, chapter, plot moving into the next room.

As a way to tickle.

--MD

Comments

What a great way to think of prose-craft. Thanks so much for this post!
Reminds me of the shaped verse back in the day--was it Herbert who did a lot of that? Beautiful.

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