“We think in sentences, and the way we think is the way we see. If we think in the structure subject/verb/direct-object, then that is how we form our world. By cracking open that syntax, we release energy and are able to see the world afresh and from a new angle.”
In a chapter called “Syntax,” in her always refreshing guide, Writing Down the Bones, Natalie offers a fun exercise to shake up our sentences and give them a shot of adrenalin. Here’s what she suggests:
“Try this. Take one of your most boring pieces of writing and choose from it three or four consecutive lines or sentences and write them at the top of a blank pieces of paper:
‘I can’t write because I’m an ice cube and my mouth goes dry and there’s
nothing to say and I’d rather eat ice cream.’
“OK. see each one of those words simply as wooden blocks, all the same size and color. No noun or verb has any more value than the, a, and. Everything is equal. Now for about a third of the page just scramble them up as if you were moving wooden blocks around. Don’t try to make any sense of what you write down. Your mind will keep trying to construct something. Hold back that urge, relax, and mindlessly write down the words. You will have to repeat words to fill a third of the page.”
‘Write I’m an mouth rather cream say eat ice and nothing dry I an write…’
You get the idea. After you’ve scrambled up the words for a third of the page, you can throw in some punctuation randomly — periods, commas, exclamation points — all without trying to make any sense, just playing around.
Then, Natalie suggests that you read your third of a page of randomly arranged words aloud, “as if you were saying something. You might try reading it in an angry voice, an exuberant, sad, whining, petulant or demanding voice, to help you get into it.”
What’s the point of this? Based on Natalie’s experience as a writing teacher, it’s a way to shake up our style, to dust the cobwebs from our prose, and force us to see the words we’ve written in a conventional structure in a fresh way. As she puts it, “The more you are aware of the syntax you move, see, and write in, the better control you have and the more you can step out of it when you need to. Actually, by breaking open syntax, you often get closer to the truth of what you need to say.” Mmmm. I’m going to try this exercise and see what happens. How about you? Something to ponder this week, as we write on.