Dispatches | February 15, 2011

One of the first things I remember learning in a writing workshop was that “to be” verbs were boring. Mundane descriptions of a person’s appearance or a job description or setting could easily be made vivid by using exact and engaging verbs. Showing not telling. Etc. You’ve almost certainly heard this before.

Recently, I’ve wondered if this advice (and if I’m feeling really verbose today, maybe I’ll take a crack at other workshop truisms as well…) has been taken to an extreme. In a recent first draft I’m working on, I used the word “lemminged” to describe how two characters snaked around grocery store aisles. Just writing the made-up word “lemminged” made me shake my head with a “Really, Michael?” smile on my face, but I went with my first-draft philosophy of leaving it in and fixing it later. Also, I’ve lately been hyper-conscious of verbs that seem a little too … flashy? … in the submissions The Missouri Review receives. A specific example doesn’t spring to mind, but I can sometimes sense a writer working really hard to make the story’s verbs more and more thrilling. The idea seems correct to me, but the result feels like too much flash and not enough substance.

(Digression: my favorite of these verbs is “undestroyed.” It’s how William Maxwell ended his brilliant novel, a favorite of mine, So Long, See You Tomorrow. It’s Maxwell’s word. When I see it, I know the writer is familar with Maxwell. This is not a bad thing, at all, just a wink and a nod I feel like sharing).

A few semesters ago, I was teaching an advanced fiction writing class, and assigned “The Man Who Knew Belle Starr” by Richard Bausch. Our discussion was going just fine, and one of my sharpest students raised his hand, and pointed to this line:

He was a bad character.

“It’s so boring,” my student said. “Why did he write that?”

What my student saw, I think, was the verb. Not much there. Nor, he probably thought, is there much to the adjective “bad” either. All fair points, and I was happy that one of my students was taking the “to be” editorial advice to heart.

But sentences rarely stand alone. Let’s ignore the rest of Bausch’s sentence for a moment (Or not: “bad character” – who thinks of himself this way? Doesn’t this seem like a petulant, foolish, lost man? And doesn’t that simple phrasing reveal quite a bit about Mcrae to the reader, and isn’t it interesting that Mcrae lacks this awareness? And doesn’t this lack of awareness get him, momentarily, in quite a bit of trouble? And, yeah, I’m getting this all from one sentence and there is actually quite a bit more that could be discussed.) and think about sentences. They do not stand alone. This may seem like an obvious point, but sentences work together to make paragraphs, and paragraphs work together to make narratives, and narratives make stories. The toe bone is connected to the foot bone is connected to the knee bone, and so forth.

The idea that he is a “bad character” lingers in the reader’s mind as more of Mcrae’s history is revealed: his time in the Air Force, his dying father, his time in Leavenworth, and the realization that when he meets Belle Starr “he had started to feel like a happy man.” It’s difficult to not have developed a sense of hopefulness for this “bad character” by the time happiness has begun to creep into his life. One of the reasons this quality remains with the reader is because Bausch established Mcrae’s “bad character” with a sentence that was clear and direct.

The directness of a good “to be” sentence is partially one of style: Richard Bausch works this way, another terrific writer might not. If there is something to be told, something best given to the reader immediately, well then, a writer like Bausch will do that. And if one of those brilliant verbs helps to create the compound-complex, multiple clause sentence that takes a reader’s breath away, then that’s the word to use.

Every sentence doesn’t have to be DEFCON 1. Every sentence, though, does have a purpose. And sometimes, what tips us to a skilled writer’s language isn’t immediately obvious. It’s the way the reader has been setup for what’s coming next. It’s confidence in being forthright with prose. This confidence will catch our attention every time.

Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review