Ok, I admit it; I’m a word geek. I love words. I love the way they come together and combine to create images, the pictures they paint. My father was an artist and I’m sad to say I did not inherit his gift for drawing and painting, but I did learn to paint with words.
My pallet is alive with colors. Nouns are my white, the basic foundations of all sentences whether subjects, objects, or extraneous things thrown in to widen the base. Adverbs are black, adding dark contrast, and must be used sparingly. Adjectives are purple where a little goes a long way, and too much simply obliterates the subtler shades. Conjunctions and prepositions are the primary colors, tossed in here and there to combine with the other words, to create the final hues and tones.
But verbs … Verbs shimmer like a rainbow. They can be dull, brown, non-descript, or they can be radiant and glowing, changing color like a hummingbird that flits in and out of the sunlight. Verbs can drive a sentence headlong, or cradle it in a gloved hand. Verbs are the very core of the sentence.
This was all brought back to me in the most wonderful way: reading — of course — a new book. A friend had told me about House of Rain by Craig Childs. The subtitle reads: Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across the American Southwest, and it is a travelogue of sorts detailing Childs’ journey in the footsteps of the Anasazi. I was actually expecting a rather dry treatment of archaeology and was absolutely enchanted when I found writing in its most delicate and image-studded form. Here are a handful of the colorful gems he tosses down as he goes, leaving them to wink and glitter in the dust behind him.
Sage folded and recoiled in the wind.
As the sun set, I could not help staring directly at it, the remaining half circle burning into my eyes, an apricot welding itself onto the earth.
Cold water burped up from beneath my feet.
The ceiling was made of wooden beams corbelled across each other, and they dripped with the dark syrup of rodent urine.
After a few hundred years little if anything was left on the surface, the wind having sewn the earth back together, closing over the wound of humanity.
Sycamore trees burst into maniacal white branches crawling all over the sky.
Sunrise was falling through holes in the forest, long dashes of light touching the ground.
Black fists of smoke wrenched up from orange fronts of flame…
Bedrock appeared from under the sand, whales of reddish stone barely breaching the surface.
I found myself reading with two minds: with one, I followed the story, but with the other, I paid explicit attention to his use of words, and verbs especially. As a writer, I delighted in this treasure trove of literary imagery. It’s very much like prowling a jewelry store, my eyes sliding across the glass-fronted cases until they catch on a pale shimmer of amethyst, noticing without seeing the hundreds of ordinary rings until one unique creation of precious metal and stone stops me in my tracks. Finding that one sublime melding of color and shape amid the dross of the ordinary gives a sense not only of profound appreciation but also of satisfaction for having noticed it.
Reading writing like this inspires me; it calls to me to put my own best efforts down on paper. I know that if someone else can write with such heartbreaking delicacy, I can, too. It inspires me to handle my sentences with great care, most especially my verbs. They can mire a sentence in mediocrity or they can lift it like a song. Choose wisely.