The Courage to Combine
Waiting for my mug of lemon ginger tea to cool, I crawl into bed with 3 different books — Donna Tart’s The Goldfinch, Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust and, world-renowned author and writing teacher, Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. It’s Sunday. I want these books to inspire tomorrow’s transition from writing to teaching, being-to-doing, to signal with a conductor’s magic touch the hum of noundom towards the buzz of verbs. Literally, I was looking to prepare a lesson on verbs: “The life and energy of a sentence” Goldberg calls them. With great power, though, comes great responsibility. The power of verbs to vivify and animate, I know, is paralleled by their equal capacity to drag and dull . . . to become deadweight, to empty. The mug of tea could sit on the bedside table or it could conceal in secretive steam the journal beneath its porcelain base. The hammock could move in the wind or it could buck like a bronco in the breeze.
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I wanted to inspire a lesson that would encourage students to avoid the first species of verbs and gravitate towards (wait patiently for, spot, pounce on) the latter — verbs that splash water onto the mind’s face. But I didn’t want them to do this sort of thing because I said so. I want vivid writing, verbs included, to be a natural reflection (the brain’s flexion?) when it is paying vivid attention; I want active writing to be the mark that looking, listening and seeing actively make.
I lifted The Goldfinch, read a page, and was swiftly deterred by a crowd of adverbs, the footmen and maids trailing after action-words that can’t do it (whatever it was) themselves.
Next, I grabbed for Goldberg. I like Goldberg. I like the grammar of her sentences, but I like her sense, her spirit, more. Goldberg’s goal is to bring writing to “people who think they can’t write.” She believes that, along with the pursuit of happiness, writing is an inalienable right (write?). Writing is the way we come to know ourselves. “When you start writing down your thoughts, no good or bad, no judgment . . . you start to find out what you really think, see and feel. So often we walk around and have no idea who we are . . . once you connect with that, once you understand that, you’re centered and you can clearly listen to what others have to say, and clearly say what you have to say.” For Goldberg, (and for me) writing isn’t just an outward performance, it’s an inward journey, a discovery, as basic and powerful as one of the five senses. Every tool Goldberg gives in Writing Down the Bones helps train this sixth writerly sense, attune it to our truth and the truth around us.
I opened to her chapter titled, “The Action of Sentences.” The page wasn’t dog-eared or marked in my notes. I just got lucky. So much of reading and writing is like this: an intuitive probing and stumbling upon . . .
In the chapter, she began discussing the importance of keeping action words fresh on the page. However, more important than this, she says, is keeping our verbs conscious. If we do use “put, sit, run, see, go, get, have, make” etc., we should use them for a reason — to capture a casual exchange of dialogue between characters, to absorb a child’s point of view, to smooth out and familiarize our own discourse after a string of mellifluous prose. “Maybe run, see and go are for you. But choose them consciously. Don’t be write asleep, snoring . . .” (Goldberg).
The trouble is, many of us are chronically unconscious of our empty verbs. They fill our language like styrofoam cups–cushioning, conveniencing, propping and containing, but also polluting, desensitizing and, little by little, transforming the linguistic environment around us. The price we pay for using them is so small each time, so indirect, we don’t notice we’re using them at all; don’t notice how meaning, on a whole, loses its potency, its poetry, its sharpness, its truthfulness.
Empty verbs have inertia. (With remarkable ease I will now contradict my styrofoam cup analogy.) They’re the chairs in the room next to the standing desk. They are hard to resist, but they lead to weight-dumping in the wrong places, disengagement where we should stay flexed and alert, long term lower back pain in the syntactical spine.
The goal is not to scour and scrub all empty verbs clean from our writing. They have their place. Most obviously, in dialogue. Last night, after dinner, for instance, the tea kettle whined its piercing whine, and I grumbled to my boyfriend “I’ll get it.” He gave me a wry smile and said, “Wow, Babe, get, really? How . . . empty.” I glared and punched him in the arm but, of course, he was kidding. He was not catching me in a moment of hypocrisy, but rather language in its multiplicity. Language is a precious silk to be woven into expensive, extended metaphors. But it’s also a handy(wo)man’s tool to be grabbed, used, and dropped, in a hurry. “I’ll extinguish the fires that make metal scream?” Nobody’s got time for that, nor is this anything a normal person would say. As butterfly catchers of dialogue, empty verbs should end up in our net wherever they flutter around, light and unaware, in the air between characters.
The goal — in life and in writing — is not to never sit down. The goal is to simply keep consciousness on its feet — to know when and why you collapse and relax, and when and why you erect and energize. While you’re drafting, sit, lie down, roll around on the floor, dance. . . whatever keeps the words flowing. There’s a difference between sitting in the chair because you can’t find your legs, and sitting because it’s the part you’re playing; because the subject you’re capturing is sitting too.
Goldberg doesn’t linger long in the conceptual — it’s a chapter about action-taking, for God’s sake. A page into the chapter, she sends you into an exercise. The exercise came with no name, just a — “Try this!” I did, and you should too . . . even if you don’t think you’re a “writer.”
First, list 10 nouns on the left column of your notebook or document. You can look around your room and rattle off the things you see, or follow your steady stream of thoughts and grab the passing nouns along the way. When you’ve listed 10 nouns, think of a profession: cook, teacher, construction worker, artist, engineer, parent, puppy-trainer. When you’ve chosen, use the right side of your page to brainstorm 15 verbs associated with this calling/craft.
Now you should have two columns, the left one with nouns, the right full of your career-related verbs. Then the fun part. Make sentences! You use a noun on the left as the subject of your first sentence — “dinosaurs” — and then select a verb from the right as the action that this subject will take “marinate” (cooking-related). It’s kind of like “connect the dots,” but there are no right or wrong answers, any combination can work . . . as long as you can finish the sentence. “Dinosaurs marinate in the earth.” The result is a series of implicit metaphors, a splattering of poetry born from the strange couplings between subjects and verbs:
“The lamp ate the darkness,” (6th grader).
“The dachshund caramelized in the sun” (Me).
“The tiger diagnosed himself with stripes” (6th grader).
“My husband’s snoring sawed my sleep in half” (Natalie Goldberg).
“Leaves encrusted the pathway” (Me).
As in the case of metaphors and similes, the distance between things here (sawing from sleeping, tiger-stripes from disease, brown dachshunds from burnt sugar) shrinks. The separate find common ground. Logic loosens up and, in that space, poetry has its word.
After some reflection, I realized this lesson was not about verbs. It wasn’t even just about language or writing. In “My husband’s snoring sawed my sleep in half” or “The lamp ate the darkness” the fresh and exciting part is not just the verb “sawed” or “ate.” The thrill lies in their positioning, their transplantation from one assumed context to another . . . After reading these sentences, those verbs are granted a sort of poetic dual citizenship in the territory of the imagination: a saw lives in the shed (and in Frost’s poem “apple picking,”) and in the bed with a wife and her sleep-wrecking husband.
Long story short, this exercise is not about freshening verbs, it’s about creating connections. It’s about finding more than one home for things. They are not always easy connections to make, let alone imagine. What opens the mind and heart are not passive uncoverings of sameness (two yogis in Manhattan Beach hit it off; the snoring husband wakes her up), but a courageous, curious effort to bridge distances and differences (a yogi in Manhattan Beach seals a pen-pal romance with a Syrian refugee; a husband saws his wife’s sleep in half with snores). No one believed sawing belonged in the bed, but look at her now. No one thought they’d make it, but maybe they will? No one believed lamps had mouths, but now each time I turn off the lights before bed, I feel paper-thin jaws clamping down onto an indoor darkness.
These courageous, unexpected connections can be made in so many spaces of our lives. An easy place to start is in the kitchen. The daring leaps of semantic faith demanded in Goldberg’s exercise (and in courageous writing in general) remind me of the nights I’ve ventured into my fridge and freezer, endeavoring to make a Shabbat SiP meal: a few tired looking vegetables in one drawer, stiffening cheese in another, mysterious paleo tortillas from Amazon and frozen meats. With the same playful certainty with which I set out to craft a sentence, I take a breath, and tell myself a meal will be made. I un-randomize the random, enfold and encrust the disparate with, fat, acid, heat. I feel a spider in her web, weaving ingredients into some larger design, more felt than known, more instinctual than intellectual.
“Why didn’t I think of that?” The reader of the perfect poem thinks, when she comes across the striking, never-before uttered metaphor. “Why, well, of course!” remarks the taster of a new, bold menu item. Crunchy and smooth coalesce . . . sweet and savory symphonize . . . acid and cream adjoin.
That’s how the random can feel once it’s welcomed, trusted, and integrated (into our kitchens, our sentences, our senses). At the very least, consumers tilt their heads in surprise, at the very most, they close their eyes and open their minds. A family favorite or not, publishable or not, you end up with something new, with something uniquely yours, something to write about.
But it’s hard to create this freshness in life (writing, in cooking . . under quarantine). We need to contrive a randomness beyond our intelligent design . . . beyond our conscious control. But how? Where do we find the exercises, the rules and steps for creating freshness in our lives, especially a life under quarantine?
Luckily, it is not the endless options nor abundance that, in my experience, ignite creativity’s butt. Often, and contrary to common thought, scarcity is the nest of newness. It wasn’t the whole dictionary that made Goldberg’s exercise fruitful and fun. While we have freedom in brainstorming our list of nouns and verbs, these lists soon solidify and become very singular. Each list is a wall we must write ourselves over, around or through.
Quarantine imposes the creativity-inducing barriers of Goldberg’s exercise into our own lives. Think of the people in your home as nouns or subjects in one column: your brother, sister, spouse, dog, cat are all lined up, waiting and wanting to do something with their days. And then over to the right you have a prefixed set of verbs, things you can do. These will include ingredients in the fridge for meals, games and activities in your backyards, books and crafts in your living rooms.
We each have this fixed list of nouns and verbs. Because of these fixed pieces, there is suddenly a new urge, a need, to experiment, explore, slap new things together and see if they stick.
My mom notices where dirt has built up around the planter boxes, and uses a shovel to uncover the golden gravel beneath. A boy next door holds up a hula hoop and tries to kick a soccer ball through it. A young woman piles her old textbooks atop the counter of the kitchen to architect a stand up desk (so that she can write straight-spined, active verbs). Athletes repurpose wine bottles as arm weights. Girls relocate dolls outside to mingle in new terrain. Inside, there are new connections being made too: parts of our partners that, within the usual daily rhythms of separation and reunion, we never had the pleasure to meet are now emerging and trying to connect with our own vulnerable parts. Because, of course, we are discovering new parts of ourselves: the part who likes to write in their underwear in the morning, bake cookies (in a sticky, battery haste) between Zoom lessons, . . . throw a soccer ball through a hula hoop, whip cream cheese into chocolate chip cookies (spoiler alert).
Just as a fisherman spots the contours of river-running trout most easily when the water has stilled, you are starting to see what swims, deep inside you, in the stay-home stillness of this global storm.
This sort of close seeing and curious combining happens best, for me, in stillness, when I sit in one place long enough. Think of the fairytale, I can’t remember which, when birds perch on the shoulders of the troubled prince or princess, deer laying at statue-still feet. Ideas can be like that. For them to reach us (sometimes) we need to quit reaching. I know I told you that making a habit of sitting down in your verbs would lead to lethargic sentences, but sitting down and finding stillness in your life help create the conditions for connection making.
The recipes I’ll share this week (weekend) were inspired by the sleep-sawing, dachshund-caramelizing, mixer and matcher in me. I hope they awaken the combiner-in-hiding in you. Mostly, I hope my reflections and recipes help you find gratitude for the walls that stand in your way, and see that they are the ones making you muscle your body, mind and soul into new combinations of doing, seeing, saying, and being.
“The cream cheese crawled into the cookie.” Follow the original recipe for Cream-cheese Chocolate Chip cookies here! OR for a wheat free and refined sugar free version that tastes just as delicious, follow my adaptation here:
3/4 cup oat flour,
1.5 cups almond flour,
¼ cup coconut flour
1 tsp baking soda,
½ tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
Beat in separate bowl:
¾ cup coconut sugar
6 tbsp ghee/ coconut oil/ butter, ROOM TEMP (or defrost for 30 seconds)
Add to the above butter-sugar mixture Mix until combined:
8 oz cream cheese
2 tsp vanilla
Slowly mix the dry ingredients into the wet.
Incorporate about 1 cup (I didn’t actually measure, just make sure there’s a whole lot) of chocolate chips/chunks into the batter.
Place your batter in the freezer for 20 minutes or in the fridge for 45. (Overnight in the fridge is fine, this is just the minimum to avoid melty, puddly cookies)
While cookie batter cools in fridge/freezer, preheat oven to 375 degrees FLine a baking sheet with oiled parchment paper.Bake cookies for 7–10 minutes depending on where you want your cookies to fall on the goo-crunch-chew spectrum.