Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Good Writing Should Sing

NOTE: More babbling aimed at my FDENG 101 class.

I don’t claim that everything I write sings, but there are times I succeed. And there are times that something I write sings better than something else I’ve written.

The secret, I think, is to gathering the information and images you want to share, and then sharing them without getting in the way. If we can take ourselves out of the picture, we can get to the singing.

Here are two passages I wrote off the cuff this morning. The first one, I think, sings. The second one, well, it’s okay, but there’s something missing. Or, rather, something in the way. Me. Read on:

The alarm will go off in three minutes, but he’s already awake. He turns the alarm off before it sounds and the house is quiet. In the darkness he finds the clothes he laid out the night before and carries them to the bathroom. He showers and dresses.

Then quietly, with the bathroom fan off and the light extinguished, he goes back into the room to find the dog.

The dog is Dottie, a year-old dachshund. If he doesn’t find her, hidden in the bedding with his wife, she’ll stir and cry and bark because she wants to be with her Daddy – or at least her Daddy’s breakfast – every morning. Or at least poop in the bed and make Mumma angry. She emerges from the blankets, tail wagging.

“Hi Dottie,” he whispers. “Ready to go?”

She squirms and thwaps her tail on the quilt, the loudest noise in the room.

They descend the stairs together and race to the back door. He struggles with the lock – it’s worn and needs replacing – and sends her out into the cold air. She leaves pawprints in the fresh snow and sniffs about as he prepares his breakfast.

Hearing the plate clink quietly on the table, Dottie is at the back door, whining to be let in. He lets her in and she races to her place at his feet under the table. There, as the breakfast sandwich is eaten and the breakfast milk is drunk, she breaks the laws and shatters the quiet with barks, the next more urgent than the last. He shushes and snaps his fingers and when she does, the dog startles and stops barking. But only momentarily. The temptation of bread and butter and cheese and turkey sliced thin is too much. She barks.

But the meal is consumed despite the barking. Their last dachshund died of a broken back from being overweight. Not this one.

Five-thirteen AM. Time to take the dog silently back up the stairs – the breakfast is gone so the barking is over – and then head out into the cold morning to catch the bus.

In the play “The Little Shop of Horrors,” Audrey tells us a lot about herself – she delivers a mini profile – when she sings the song “Somewhere That’s Green.” How does that song work to tell us a lot about Audrey? Here’s the song:

I think the best thing about this song is that nobody listening had to have someone there, asking the questions as Audrey gives the answers. The answers to the questions just come out as she sings and tells us about the life she’d like to live.

Now, compare the passage above to this one:

I asked him what his morning routine is like, and he said, “I set my alarm for 4:30, but I’m usually awake two or three minutes before that and turn the alarm off so it doesn’t wake anybody up. I shower and get dressed. I try to have the bathroom fan and light off so it doesn’t disturb my wife. Then I have to find the dog. ‘Hi, Dottie! Ready to go?’”

Why find the dog, I asked. “She makes too much noise if she doesn’t get up with me, and sometimes she poops on the bed if I don’t get her out on time,” he said. “It’s fun to put her out in the mornings after it snows to see the little footprints she makes. She’s very impatient. Sometimes I have trouble with this worn-out lock and she can’t stand it. Usually while she’s out, I make my breakfast. She knows what I’m doing and makes her potty break as short as possible so she can join me. I swear she can hear the dishes clattering from outside. When she does, she gets really noisy and insistent that I share. But I don’t. I snap my fingers or shush her to keep quiet, but it usually doesn’t work. My wife says she can’t hear the dog barking in the mornings, but I don’t like to take chances. She and the kids need their sleep.”

Why don’t you share with the dog, I asked. “Our last weenie dog died of a broken back, due partly to being overweight,” he said. “I don’t want that to happen to this dog.”

“Usually about a quarter after five – this morning, it was 5:13 – I take the dog back up to bed and then I leave to catch the bus. That’s about it,” he said.

So what are the differences? Bonus point time: I’m thinking of three things that make the first passage stand out from the second. The first, I’ve already told you: I took myself out of the passage. I don’t have to sit there, showing myself asking the questions. The other two have to do with quotations and with verb tense. Bonus points to those who can tell me how my use of quotes and verb tense choice in the first piece differ (and are maybe better) than in the second piece.

No comments: