"Revise toward strangeness."--Brenda Hillman
I came across this sentence a few years ago. Hillman, a wonderful poet, was speaking directly about the process of poetic craft and the remarkable quality of poetic language--yet might we say her statement holds true for the craft of fiction as well? If so, how? What does it mean?
It doesn't mean, of course, that we should revise our words and sentences to be quirky for the sake of mere quirkiness, or reach at all times in our work for bizarre or unsettling effects. No, what Hillman is talking about is the simple tendency many of us have, in our early drafts, to succumb to the lure of the familiar and the easy. As in:
"The trees whispered in the wind."
Not bad, not horrible; but certainly overused, certainly expected, certainly . . . familiar.
The trouble with a sentence like this is that it has lost much of its capacity to move a reader, simply because it's been encountered too many times (for a nice discussion of this point, read John Gardner, The Art of Fiction). The reading brain isn't really all that different from the hearing brain (which will stop hearing a clock that's all the time ticking in a room) or the seeing brain (which after a while ignores a picture every day hanging on a wall next to an open window). As writers, we need to work consciously to help readers see and hear (and taste and smell and touch and feel) in fresh yet recognizable ways; we must make things "strange" in the sense that we make them visible again. As in:
"The trees rubbed shoulders in the wind."
At least it's striking. But it's lost too much of the shushing of the leaves for my taste, and it feels odd without being entirely effective. Let me try again:
"The trees rubbed their sticks in the wind, fanning flames of green."
Less familiar, but it feels forced. I'm trying too hard, and still losing the sound I want to suggest.
"The trees brushed their skirts in the wind."
"The trees wound their skirts around their heads."
Where's the sound? How can I make the reader hear it?
"The trees sashayed alongside each other."
"The trees slippered along in the wind."
Better. I hear the "s" sounds, and see motion. Very anthropomorphic, very Zora Neale Hurston, though. I'm not sure it's really me (i.e. we don't need to revise until we're strangers to ourselves, to our own styles and tastes).
"The trees spun like sugar in the wind."
Oh, come on.
"The trees spun, then sagged."
How about simply:
"The trees aired their nests out. Then stopped."
That's me, unexpectedly.
How will you revise toward strangeness?
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