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Word pictures

I love authors who paint with their words. Harper Lee (aka Nelle Harper) mastered the word picture in To Kill a Mockingbird:

"Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o'clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft tea cakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum."

I feel like the luckiest person alive when I read that sentence. And though I committed it to memory ages ago, I stare at the words for long stretches of time like they'll creep inside me and snuff out the prose-pilfering troll who lives in my brain.

Elizabeth Strout (Olive Kitteridge; Abide with me; Amy and Isabelle) is another author I'm quite fond of:

"Through her closed eyelids Olive sees a red light slanting through the windows, she can feel the sunlight warming her calves and ankles on the bed, can feel beneath her hand how it warms the soft fabric of her dress, which really did come out nicely. It pleases her to think of the piece of blueberry cake she managed to slip into her big leather handbag -- how she can go home soon and eat it in peace, take off this panty girdle, get things back to normal."

I torture myself for hours in bed -- or sometimes at my desk in a child-sized chair -- trying to capture the textures and smells and colors of someplace familiar and significant with my words. It drives me close to murder, and every sentence reads like stinky pig slop -- ALWAYS.

My voice doesn't do serene like Strout and Harper -- Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Conrad ... On the rare occasions I do manage to dig out a few lovely lines from my dark and twisted soul they feel wrong -- foreign -- like someone else wrote them.

Perhaps it's the writing I use as my guage -- To Kill a Mockingbird and Olive Kitteridge are both Pulitzer Prize winning novels. Am I reaching too high?

Playwright Edward Albee ( Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf; The Zoo Story; The American Dream; The Goat, or Who is Sylvia) suggests reading crap for encouragement:

"If you are going to learn from other writers don't only read the great ones, because if you do that you'll get so filled with despair and the fear that you’ll never be able to do anywhere near as well as they did that you'll stop writing. I recommend that you read a lot of bad stuff, too. It’s very encouraging. 'Hey, I can do so much better than this.' Read the greatest stuff but read the stuff that isn’t so great, too. Great stuff is very discouraging."

Here's what I hope: Harper smashed stuff and swore a lot before she found the perfect description for overheated housewives in Maycomb, Alabama -- Strout punches her desk or kicks holes in the walls. So long as their words caused some measure of pain ...

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