In defense of the much maligned adverb

Disclaimer: All adverbs used in this post are used purposefully, joyfully, and ironically.

Adverbs have always been a perfectly acceptable, completely legitimate member of the parts of speech family. Think back to 4th grade grammar: Nouns, Verbs, Adjectives, Adverbs…

I’m not sure when the rules concerning adverbs took a turn for the worse. We could blame Hemingway and his no frills school of writing; Kurt Vonnegut, Stephen King, and Elmore Leonard all famously decried adverbial usage. (King said the road to hell was paved with them…)

It’s fine with me if they don’t want to use adverbs (or semicolons); every writer finds their own voice, their own style. But don’t go writing off an entire part of speech for everyone else. To suggest that writing be simplified into nouns, verbs, and just a few adjectives is to take away nuances, phrases, complexity, and experimentation in writing.

Those who hate adverbs say churlishly that it makes for lazy writing. Instead we must find interesting verbs. And, of course, that is true. Sometimes. But it is always appropriate to vary sentence structure — to write a long, lovely sentence filled with adverbs and adjectives after a short informational sentence. This helps to build tension. Long sentences help to draw out time in a scene. No one (except beginning readers) wants to read short sentences exclusively.

Adverbs encourage lazy writing? Any overused word or word form is bad writing. All words should be chosen carefully and meaningfully, not just adverbs. Adverbs tend to get the blame because overuse is particularly annoying and spotted easily. Is it fair to lay the blame for poor writing squarely at the feet of adverbs?

Adverb haters also warn against using an adverb with dialogue tags, such as “he said lovingly.” This has actually become a form of punning called Tom Swifties. (“I’ll race you across the pool,” he said swimmingly, or “I love modern art,” he said abstractly). But there could be a time and a place and a character who uses this type of wordplay. Well maybe not, but they are fun…

Just to do some research, I pulled a few books from my bookshelves by authors I respect: Annie Dillard (who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975 for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek); Elizabeth Goudge’s The Scent of Water (Goudge was a British writer who lived and wrote at the turn of the twentieth century); Many Waters by Madeline L’Engle (who won the Newbery Award for A Wrinkle in Time); and Persuasion by Jane Austen, about whom nothing more needs to be said. Then I noticed that all these authors were women, and the authors above who hate adverbs are all men. Hmmm. So I added a book of essays by Wendell Berry (What Are People For?) —  and The Stone Raft by Jose Saramago, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998.

I turned to a random page-in-the-middle of all the books and counted the adverbs on the page. There are many other common adverbs (that don’t end in -ly) that tell how, when, or where; common adverbs such as more, less, far, near, very, most, never, over, again. Yes. Words we can’t do without. But I only counted the -ly adverbs, because really, I think those are the words that offend the sensibilities of adverb haters.

Four novels and two books of essays by distinguished writers. Here’s the tally:

Madeleine L’Engle — 2  (certainly, northerly)

Annie Dillard — 3 (barely, slightly, apparently)

Elizabeth Goudge — 4 ( tolerably, calmly, only, unexpectedly)

Wendell Berry — 6 (he used fully twice–in the same paragraph repeatedly), cheaply, locally, directly, particularly)

Jose Saramago — 8 (hopefully, only, discreetly, finally, scarcely, barely, stoically, immediately) Obviously, he had not heard about the adverb’s adversities. Of course, Saramago also said “…but how much has also been gained by saying more than was strictly necessary.” Flouting the writerly rule of omit needless words with this one phrase, Saramago reminds us that rules are meant to be broken. Just do it skillfully, and the Nobel Prize for Literature could be yours.

…and finally, Jane. Her characters all wait anxiously, speak sensibly, wish earnestly, appear gentlemanly, observe frequently, admire exceedingly, declare warmly, act politely, look instinctively, and certainly call the carriage immediately.

I’ll take Jane Austen over Stephen King….unapologetically.

The unexpected, unwanted lesson — Learning and letting go

This is a sermon I’ve been writing to myself. It may not apply to you. Just saying…

Silly me. I thought at my advanced age, lessons in life were already learned. I’m old enough now to be the one offering sage advice rather than stressing over just what this lesson is supposed to teach me.

I know better than that really. The road we travel is never guaranteed to be smooth no matter how new or old your vehicle, no matter what season. It is the season of potholes after all.

And the journey we’re on is always guaranteed to teach us something–if only we pay attention to the curves. Interstates are boring after all.

But this one — it was tough. I was blindsided by it and maybe still haven’t recovered. So I’m writing my way through it and trying to see it through a mirror of objectivity, which might be an impossibility since mirrors are reflections of what we ourselves see.

I try to believe the best of everyone. I try to be kind, and in turn, I think others should be kind. I try to deal with those who aren’t on a limited basis. Life is too short to be bothered by unkind people, don’t you think?

In February I took an online writing course. I was looking forward to it and eagerly did the first few assignments. And then…

The instructor sent me back a detailed critique. I wanted critique. Tell me that the scene didn’t work because the dialogue was unrealistic; tell me that there was too much description, not enough description, whatever specific critical analysis you’ve got. But don’t say general ugly words. When I read them, I was stunned. They had no purpose except to insult. I read them again. I was not only astonished that an instructor would write such things to a student, I was crushed.

eat your wordsI know that I should not care what some unknown person wrote to me under the guise of criticism. But I did.

Suddenly I doubted whether I should even be writing. I had been praying for answers as to whether I should continue writing this already-overlong piece of fiction; perhaps this was the answer? I put down my pen and unplugged my keyboard. I didn’t open WordPress. I didn’t open Scrivener. Instead of writing on a blog, a fiction project, and a non-fiction project, I wrote nothing.

And during this six weeks of quiet, I rediscovered that I do need to write. The writing may never turn into a novel. It may never be published. Yet whatever our creative outlets are–writing, art, music, storytelling, sewing, gardening, woodworking–they are neglected at peril to our own well-being.

I have been trying to banish the fear and ugliness that instructor dumped on me. I don’t know why the words were so unpleasant, but I have used prayer to try to forget them.  It isn’t easy for me to let things go; I’m a dweller. I dwell on what I should abandon and leave behind. Conveniently, the sermons at church these past few weeks have been walking us through the book of James, and I have listened with my heart to his apt words:

Consider it pure joy my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.  –James 1:2-4 (NIV)

Trials of many kinds. That means trials of all sizes and extents — from the huge life-altering events to the smaller every-day grouches that throw off one’s plans for the hour, day, or week. And please note what perseverance does — it makes us mature and complete, not lacking anything. What would be without trials?  Spoiled children, selfish and demanding, lacking character and wisdom. In just a few more verses, James tells us what will happen when we do persevere:

Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. — James 1:12 (NIV)

Having passed the test by not giving up, brings us God’s approval; not necessarily human approval, because human approval passes away with the seasons. It’s your fifteen minutes of fame, and pretty much only serves your pride; God’s view of our perseverance is like snow on daffodils– they droop in the snow, but when the sun comes out they stand taller and appear more golden than ever before. (Yes, there’s been a lot of snow on daffodils around here lately.)

That brings me to human approval. I’m guilty of wanting it. I’m guilty of being very unhappy when there is discord between humans I am close to. Heck, I’m even guilty of disliking it when people I don’t like dislike me. Or something I’ve done. Or something I’ve written.

But we can’t allow meanness or unkindness to win, and by dwelling on it, or taking it too seriously, we allow it too much power over our lives. By listening to churlish words, I allowed my own confidence to be shaken. I gave those words power.

Yet the truth is that words do have power, and if we read further in the book of James, he tells us that:

the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. — James 3:5-8 (NIV)

James doesn’t mince words. Our tongues are small, but vile, and cannot be controlled; he compares our tongues to a fire that can set the entire forest ablaze. We’ve all set wildfires with words; just because I was on the burnt end this time, doesn’t mean I can forget the times when I lit the match.

There are several lessons here.

1) Don’t let others’ words or actions derail you from your own goals or make you lose confidence. Be not afraid.

2) Don’t dwell on it; move on. Know that your perseverance will bring you maturity and strength.

3) Aim to please God, not humans. Forgive the imperfect humans that surround you, for you too, are imperfect.

4) There will always be curves ahead and potholes in the road, no matter what season. This journey is a pilgrimage and the way we travel is the substance of our lives. The words we say, the kindnesses we do, the love we show–that’s what counts. Those potholes will always be there — the significance is in how we deal with them.

5) Pray. We aren’t meant to drive off into the sunset alone. 

147. On Writing 50,000 Words in November

NaNoWriMo

 

It was an up and down affair. Have you ever heard the folktale/joke routine That’s good, That’s bad? Mostly it’s the joke that goes, “Oh, that’s good. No, that’s bad because… Oh, that’s bad. No, that’s good because…

Yes. That’s the way my November went.

  • It was good when my characters did things that were totally surprising that I hadn’t planned. It’s true. It happens.
  • It was bad when that character led me to a wall and I had no idea where to go next.
  • It was good to leap over that wall and jump into unknown territory.
  • It was bad when a character just flowed from the keyboard to the screen, and I had no idea who he was. It’s true. It happens.
  • It was good when suddenly I had an aha moment, and that character joined the rest of the crew just like it had always been planned.
  • It was bad when I got to the middle and seemed to be slogging around and around in the Slough of Despond.
  • It was good when that terrible ‘stuck-in-the-middle’ disappeared and the words began to flow across the screen as fast as I could type them.
  • It was bad when I wrote a phrase that made me cringe in despair.
  • It was good when I wrote something that made me laugh out loud.
  • It was bad when I re-read the beginning and wondered what I was trying to get across…
  • It was good when I took that  crappy narrative beginning and tried to turn it into poetry —  And. It. Worked.
  • It was bad when I felt as if I was totally wasting my time — What am I doing writing this stupid novel that’s lousy, too detailed, and no one’s going to read it, and I’ve spent all my spare time — and time that wasn’t spare — on the dumb thing.
  • It was good when I reread one of my chapters and thought “ooh, I like that.”
  • It was bad when Mr. H.C. would say, “Don’t worry, I don’t need to eat tonight.” :-)
  • It was good when Mr. H.C. said, “If this is something that you need to do, then do it.”

I started with 7 chapters written, which I did not use in my word count. The few days before Nov. 1, instead of writing another chapter, I wrote an outline. This was genius, if I do say so myself. I also did a vague timeline, which was less helpful, but I still did refer to it and adapt it as I wrote.

So, I won’t bore you with more words. I’ve got to get back to my novel, because IT STILL ISN’T FINISHED.

I don’t know how or when or if I’ll finish, but I do know this: I’m 52,962 words ahead of where I was on November 1.

And it feels good.

Oh, that’s good.

No, that’s  bad, because I’m still not done.

Oh, that’s bad.

No it’s good, because — I did it!

Oh, that’s good.

Yes, it is…

 

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have laundry to do…