I’m reading Ursula Le Guin’s excellent book, “Steering the Craft: A 21st Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of a Story. These short pieces below are two responses to her suggestion of warm-up exercises before writing. She asks the writer to listen to the sound of the writing - use repetitions, luscious word-sounds and the “crunch and slither of onomatopoeia.
I think one of the most important thing I’ve learned from the first couple of chapters is that narrative writers need to train their mind’s ear to listen to their own prose and to hear as they write. One narrative sentence should lead to the next sentence to keep the story moving forward. Ursula in her instruction is inspirational in her use of words. She asks for exuberant vocabulary (I love that), musical rhythms, and dramatic phrasing.
Exercise 1 Working on the sound of your writing
She woke up, trembling, on a golden sandy beach feeling the grit beneath her cheeks and sand in her teeth. She tried to blink but her eyelids were pasted almost shut with dried sand. Her ears were filled with the sound of surf rolling up beside and around her. Deep, rolling waves shattering into a glittering spray of millions and millions of droplets. She used a finger to wipe one eye clear and gaze around. Sand, sand, sand lay ahead and she could just see the tops of green trees swaying in a line about 400 feet away. She tried to stand up, but her rubbery knees wouldn’t hold and she fell down on her behind with a thud and a small splash. A bird cried in the distance; another overhead. She craned her head upwards to see, but the blinding sun forced her to cast her eyes away and shut them for a moment to ease the burn and glare the rays had etched onto her eyeballs.
What had happened? She saw that her jeans were torn ragged from the knees to the thighs and her tattered shirt barely covered her arms. Her feet were bare and itchy. She bent over to scratch and saw with horror that hundreds of tiny sand fleas were crawling up from the beach across her feet to her ankles, leaving a red path across her skin. Overcome with revulsion she jumped up, screamed and ran back into the water brushing off the irritating insects and crying at the same time: gurgling, gasping, and snorting for breath. She wiped the snot off her nose with her arm. Back turned to the sun, she staggered out of the cool water and began to walk across the hot sand to the shade of the trees.
As she walked, she kept her head down but was keenly aware of everything around her. In a short choreography, small green turtles scampered ahead of her feet, dove into the sand and instantly disappeared. A pelican landed, almost silently on a shard of brown mottled driftwood; all she heard was a whooshing noise as his wings beat the air just before his landing glide. Showing off, he looked at her from his side with one piercing eye, then puffed himself up. Dismissing her as a danger he shook his feathers like a maid would shake a dust mop out a kitchen door. Her throat was dry as chalk. She could barely swallow. She was going to need water, and soon. Were those coconuts in the trees? Was this a desert island? Her mind rushed through the panic to her favorite childhood story of The Swiss Family Robinson. And to Tom Hanks washed up, like her on a beach, but with Mr. Wilson. But she had no Mr. Wilson—or did she?
Exercise 2 Describing emotion
Terrified, she looked around in panic, eyes agog. Everything was blurred; she couldn’t focus. Blood was pulsing hard in her temples and she could feel sweat in her armpits. Suddenly she could smell herself, the smell of raw terror— the stink she used to smell from the trucks passing by full of cattle going to the abattoir. Her stomach churned and she was conscious of her pounding heart and the raw wound on her hand. In the distance, she could see the shark fin retreating but he wouldn’t be gone for long. She tried to think but fear stabbed at her brain repeatedly, like dagger thrusts. Dizzy now, she groped around in the lifeboat to see what she could use to beat the beast away at his next attack, leaving a bloody trail as her arms moved. What was that sound? Her ears were feeling, not listening. There was a roaring coming from inside her head so hard and deep, she felt her ears might explode. When she tried to crawl across the boat, her knees had locked in place and she was panting like a trapped animal. What to do, what to do….she couldn’t think—panic obliterated all her neural connections. It was as if a fire alarm was ringing in her head and a flashing sign in the bloody red, swirling spaghetti strands of her brain, warning—Danger, Danger, Danger!!!