Friday, October 12, 2007

Arthur Plotnik Q&A

It's no secret that I'm a fan of Art Plotnik, his columns in The Writer and his book, Spunk & Bite.

So the other day I emailed him and asked him to be a guest blogger.

BDB: I'm known as someone who advises against using adverbs but now that I've read Spunk & Bite, the right adverb can make all the difference. Where did we get this idea that adverbs were bad?

AP: It’s the old story--a few rotten apples putting the reek on whole adverbial barrel. Among the rotten pomes are these: the tired and limp (really good); redundant (cleanly laundered), the cliché (greatly exaggerated), the hedgey (somewhat terrifying, differently abled) and the excessive (marvelously, gorgeously attired).

Such stinkers obscure the point of adverbs; for, you see, vee must haff vays to get more information out of adjectives and verbs. Adverbs are the best means of doing so. For example, in a story by Antonya Nelson, the teeth of a homeless girl are described as “flawless.” But here comes more information: They were “orthodontically flawless”--an important clue that the girl was from a high-society family.

BDB: Your writing is so liquid and lively and has such voice. Do the words pour out of you effortlessly?

AP: Excuse me while I slurp up that bubble drink of praise. Ahh. But word flow? About as effortless as breaking out of San Quentin. Writing! All those trite and tired habits of expression to escape, all that tunneling between too much and too little, all those police to circumvent--grammar police, PC police, thought police, trend police. Most people can gab effortlessly, but gab is the antithesis of writing. Writing is the gift you give of agonizingly crafted language in a thrillingly felicitous assemblage that somehow sounds effortless.

BDB: Have you always had a distinct voice or did you work to develop it?

AP: I’m not sure that, outside acting, you can work at voice. Okay, maybe I’ve always gone for the odd yok, and maybe I’ve habitually mixed my dictions. But what I’ve worked at is being liked (which I suppose can influence voice) and getting heard. I think that most writers, as they read, get a ton of stylish voices in their heads--the voices that say “literature” or “journalism” to them. Into this mix come the diction and locutions acquired from family, certain teachers and peers, pop culture, and assorted role models. This melange, if one is not too self-conscious about it, can give rise to a distinctive voice, a personality, even as one concentrates on the fundamentals of writing.

BDB: If someone wants to strengthen their voice, what do you advise?

AP: A good start is to jettison all hackneyed expression, especially clichés, catch phrases, and trendy locutions that make writing sound like cellphone patois. When you replace generic expression with something inventive, your particular brand of inventiveness will help distinguish your voice. Consider how Michael Chabon invents a fresh way of saying “Landsman wakes up and smells the coffee” in his novel, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union: "The coffeemaker begins its expectorations around seven. A few thousand molecules of coffee vapor tumble into the bedroom and worry the hairs inside Landsman’s beak." And there you have that personifying, comic-bookish- yet-literary Chabon voice.

BDB: How do you revise--or do you?

AP: All I do is revise. Write three words, revise two, and revise all three the next day. Why? Because, in writing (as opposed to speech) I can do so! Because opportunities are always out there for more concise, more evocative turns of phrase. Because when I’m finished with a piece of writing, I don’t always have to feel “I shoulda said this, or I should said that,” as I so often do after opening my mouth.

I revise as I go along, which may be a deadly method for anyone who hasn’t been a career editor. Editing--questioning how something will strike an audience--has made me the compulsive reviser I am. I revise e-mails, notes to my wife on who telephoned, everything I write. But an editing/writing career has enabled me to work right and left brains in tandem, like walking a pair of rambunctious terriers. The better way for most people, of course, is to write freely, tell their story; then, donning the merciless-editor’s hat, go back and revise.

BDB: Tell me, and everyone who visits this blog, one thing they shouldn't forget.

AP: To writers: Either tell your readers something they don’t know, or tell them something they know in a marrow-churningly inventive way.


I love this guy....


Bruno said...

I think it best that I remain astonishingly and uncharacteristically silent.

Lauri said...

What a great phrase "marrow churning".

Carma's Window said...

A great post by any other name. I want to know more.