Thursday, September 4, 2014

Writers Learning from Other Professions: Baseball Players

Writers and athletes might not seem to have much in common, since one occupation is mostly cerebral, while the other is very physical. I do think writers can learn a lot from athletes, though. Athletes are also absorbed in a quest for excellence. Like writers, athletes are performers whose goal is not a performance, but a career-long struggle to do their best at their craft.

Baseball is the sport that I know better than any other, and there are two things about playing baseball well that seem valuable for writers. One of them is adjusting. To succeed at baseball, you have to make constant adjustments, sometimes in the space of one at-bat. When Barry Bonds was playing, I watched him hit many times at the San Francisco Giants’ beautiful waterfront ballpark. 


Part of Barry’s success was that he could adjust to a pitcher’s strategy incredibly quickly. If a pitcher got Barry to swing at a ball that was low and outside early in the count, Barry would just act cool, as if he had no idea what the pitcher was up to. Then, maybe after Barry had fouled off a pitch and taken a couple of balls, he would know what the pitcher and catcher were setting him up for. He knew they were hoping to sneak that same low, outside pitch by him for a swinging strike three. Barry just casually inched closer and closer to home plate with each pitch, so his bat could extend a bit farther, and the next time that pitcher threw him the same pitch Barry had hopelessly missed earlier in the at-bat, WHAM!—home run.

So, what does that have to do with lyric poetry? A lot, in my opinion. Just as batters have to adjust to what the pitchers are throwing them so they don’t make the same mistake twice, artists have to make constant adjustments. It doesn’t work to write the same book twice, or the same poem, short story, memoir  or essay twice, no matter how good it was the first time. The reader is already expecting a certain type of character, a certain tension, a certain ending. Writers have to continually vary the sounds, images, situations, characters, settings, tones, and/or points of view in their work. Otherwise their writing becomes stale, predictable, tired.

Another way that baseball and writing are similar has to do with confidence. If the same two teams play one another with the same two starting pitchers on the mound, the outcome can be completely opposite on two different days in the same baseball season. What is the difference? Many times, it has to do with confidence. The vital importance of confidence in baseball is something I’ve learned from listening to the San Francisco Giants’ broadcaster Mike Krukow, a former major league pitcher. 


Kruk, as he’s known to fans, always talks about how winning builds confidence in a team. That confidence allows them to play loose, relaxed, and with enjoyment. This prevents a hitter from pressing during an at-bat, trying to do too much, feeling the weight of expectations. The result of confidence is often success.


Again, what the heck does that have to do with writing the twist at the end of a short story? Well, it does have to do with writing—I think that when a writer is enjoying the process of creation, that fun can be reflected in the reader’s own enjoyment of the finished product. But this also has to do with reading one’s work out loud. So much of reading aloud has to do with confidence. If you stand in front of an audience and feel assured that your work is going to please and engage, that is a crucial part of giving a good reading. If you’re so nervous you could die, you’re not going to be able to connect to the audience of readers. But how do you gather confidence as a reader of your work? I think it’s a largely question of practice, and of writing work that you believe in, that you feel is important for you personally to deliver to an audience, or that you have fun reading to an audience.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8
Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;
Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka

Friday, August 22, 2014

Anne Sexton as a Love Poet

Readers don’t normally think of Anne Sexton as a love poet. Confessional, yes. Powerful, definitely. Romantic? Not really. The author of poems such as “Her Kind” is better known for verses that show the grittier side of the psyche, rather than the smooth surfaces of love.

Anne Sexton 
Recently I stumbled across a book of hers I didn’t know, Love Poems, published in 1969, five years before Sexton’s death. This is not the face of Anne Sexton we usually see, as in the portrait on her Wikipedia page, staring off intently into space, looking slightly abstracted. Love Poems reveals a passionate Sexton, making a headlong effort to connect to other individuals:

Then I think of you in bed,
your tongue half chocolate, half ocean

from “Eighteen Days without You: December 11th

In Diane Middlebrook’s Anne Sexton: A Biography, Sexton is quoted in an interview as saying, “The love poems are all a celebration of touch…physical and emotional touch.” The sensuality in these poems is about linking deeply with another person.

Of course there is a confessional side to Sexton’s love poetry as well. This book is not about love in marriage, but her various affairs with men and with at least one woman. The lesbian poem, “Song for a Lady,” ends with this couplet, with its play on the word knead/need:

Even a notary would notarize our bed,
as you knead me and I rise like bread.

Nothing apologetic here about this affair with another woman.

The poems are often about missing an absent lover. Sexton’s “For My Lover, Returning to His Wife,” is the ultimate Other Woman poem, the language electrified by emotion. A mixture of compassion, admiration, and fury, the poem describes the wife the speaker’s lover retreats to:

           She is all harmony.
She sees to oars and oarlocks for the dinghy,

has placed wild flowers at the window at breakfast,
sat by the potter’s wheel at midday,
set forth three children under the moon,
three cherubs drawn by Michelangelo…

There is something a little too perfect about this ’60s Normal Rockwell domestic scene, particularly since we know that her lover was driven to escape it.

What struck me most about these love poems is that the image commonly presented of Anne Sexton as the madwoman—not in the attic but in the knotty-pine suburban den—is often not accurate. Sexton wrote verses of the greatest fulfillment, as well of poems of emotional desperation. Here, in full, is my favorite of Love Poems:

US

I was wrapped in black
fur and white fur and
you undid me and then
you placed me in gold light
and then you crowned me,
while snow fell outside
the door in diagonal darts.
While a ten-inch snow
came down like stars
in small calcium fragments,
we were in our bodies
(that room that will bury us)
and you were in my body
(that room that will outlive us)
and at first I rubbed your
feet dry with a towel
because I was your slave
and then you called me princess.
Princess!

Oh then
I stood up in my gold skin
and I beat down the psalms
and I beat down the clothes
and you undid the bridle
and you undid the reins
and I undid the buttons,
the bones, the confusions,
the New England postcards,
the January ten o’clock night,
and we rose up like wheat,
acre after acre of gold,
and we harvested,
we harvested.


I love the contrast between the snow outside and the hothouse lovemaking indoors, by the gold light of a fire or a sunset. Then there is the archaic language: crown, slave, princess, psalms, bridle, gold. The poem's diction has a formal dignity, which acts as a foil to enhance and ennoble the sensuality. What an image: “I beat down the psalms”! The repetition of the final phrase, “we harvested,” is such a triumph. Unlike many poems in the collection, there is no note of guilt or nostalgia in that ending, just fruition.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8
Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;
Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka

Monday, August 11, 2014

Noël Coward's Collected Stories

I recently came across Noël Coward’s The Collected Short Stories in the public library. I never knew that Noël Coward wrote short stories. I thought of him mainly as a delightful writer of plays, many of which were adapted for the movies, and as the author of screenplays for several films. Coward’s credits include the script of the play and movie Design for Living, as well as the play Private Lives and the script for the theater that was adapted into the wonderful movie Brief Encounter.
Noël Coward
Coward was a witty and knowing writer, so I thought I’d give his short stories a chance. I wasn’t disappointed. There are several wonderful selections in the book, but I’d like to highlight one that I think has an interesting message for writers, for artists of all sorts, and for practically anyone, come to think of it.
The first story in the collection, “Traveller’s Joy,” concerns a character named Herbert Darrell, an actor past his prime, staying in a theatrical boarding house in a provincial city in England. This could potentially be quite a sad story, since the actor has fallen on fairly hard times since his days as a romantic leading man in the West End of London. Darrell is now reduced to playing character roles in tours of the provinces in whatever play he can land a part.
The dilapidated boarding house where he is staying is owned by a middle-aged spinster with a hunchback, a Miss Bramble, not a glamorous leading lady by any means. Still, she plays an important role in the story, but more on that in a moment. 

We first see Herbert Darrell putting on his makeup for the evening’s performance, rehearsing in his memories his successes and failures in the theater and in love. Darrell may have slipped into a life that is a poor sketch of his former stardom, but he still has high points (not to mention several Guinesses) to float him over those moments when life’s failures swamp him with gloom.

Noël Coward then switches point of view in the story to Miss Bramble’s thoughts the next morning. (Coward, perhaps influenced by film, is very fluid in the way he approaches point of view in his stories.) We realize through her recollections that she ended up spending a night of passion with Herbert Darrell, who fell asleep while she slipped out of his room. Coward describes in a moving way how, for Miss Bramble, this night was literally once in a lifetime: “Again she shivered, this time with the sudden chill of clear realization that she wanted him again, that every nerve in her body was tingling with an agony of desire.”

Even though Darrell gives her a cold and piercing look when she returns with his breakfast in the morning, Miss Bramble was prepared for this snub. Nothing will prevent her from preserving this night in her memory like a delicious jam of summer figs, just as Darrell has nourished himself through his ups and downs in the theater with his recollections of glamorous opening nights and love affairs with stars.


The take-away for artists, writers, and others is this—life is full of the shoves and slices of the quotidian. What can sustain a writer through these wounds is to keep a recollection of first learning about an acceptance, seeing a new book in print, receiving words of gratitude after a reading, or hearing praise from an admired colleague. Those moments are easy to shrug off, overlook, or forget if we don’t think we deserve the acceptances or accolades, but the way to keep going is to genuinely savor and remember those small but important treats.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8
Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;
Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Writers’ Career Paths, Part 2: Peaking at the Beginning, Middle, or End?

The writer Joseph Heller published his first novel Catch-22 in 1961 at the age of 38. He went on to publish six more novels, as well as plays, screenplays, and two autobiographies. I have only read some of his later books, and Good as Gold was memorable, but I don’t think many readers would dispute that his first book was his best.

Joseph Heller with his family, not long after the publication of Catch-22
I knew Joseph Heller a little bit growing up. His daughter Erica and I were classmates and friends in our early teens. Joseph Heller was as funny as his books. Tall, broad-shouldered, he towered over most people. He used to describe himself as “The World’s Tallest Midget.” But I digress.

Publishing his best book first put Joseph Heller in excellent company. There was also Charlotte Brontë, who wrote Jane Eyre at age of 31 before any of her other novels. J.D. Salinger authored many good books, but I think the consensus is that his first book, The Catcher in the Rye, is the classic of all his works.

Why would a writer create her or his best book right at the beginning of a career, before that person has the experience, maturity, and craft to polish a work to a shining finish? Sometimes that first great plot or narrator’s voice that gets a writer on the page is so good, it just can’t be outdone. Many writers who write their best book first keep trying to recreate that magic, but hey—writing one great book is nothing to sneeze at! How many have done it?

More common as a trajectory for writers is to produce the best books in mid-career. One great example of this is Virginia Woolf. She published her first book, The Voyage Out, in 1915 at the age of 33. In my opinion, Virginia Woolf never wrote a bad book, but she certainly hit her stride in the middle of her career, when she published in succession Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), Orlando, (1928), and A Room of One’s Own (1929). That has to be one of the best four-year runs in the history of literature. Her subsequent novels were also good, but, in my opinion, not up to that amazing mid-career burst.

There are many other examples of writers who warm up with a few books of fair to middling quality, then write their masterpiece(s), and finish a career with works that don’t quite measure up. In his early years Leo Tolstoy wrote three autobiographical novels that are rarely read. Those were the prelude to War and Peace and Anna Karenina, which he penned in middle age, but didn’t equal again in his later years, despite his fame. 

It makes sense that peaking in mid-career is the most common path—at this stage, the writer has acquired some chops, and has begun to discover which themes are closest to the heart. Energy and originality are still relatively easy to access.

Another familiar example of this trajectory is Gustave Flaubert, who wrote Madame Bovary in mid-career. But the author Dorothy Bryant argues in her play Dear Master based on the correspondence of Flaubert and George Sand that all his previous work led up to the exquisite novella “A Simple Heart,” which he wrote toward the end of his life.

Dorothy Bryant
That leads us to the third type of author, one who is striving to write a certain kind of book all his or her years, and realizes that ambition after many false starts, only at the end of a career. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke authored books of poetry from his adolescence, but one could argue that his greatest period was a stretch of only a few weeks in February 1922, four years before his death, when two of his most celebrated books poured out of him, almost as if dictated: Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus. At least, that is the legend that Rilke promoted, which was good business, since it gave those two later books a special status.

George Orwell wrote excellent nonfiction from the start of his career, but only his devoted fans (like me!) read his early fiction. Right at the end of his life, though, he wrote both Animal Farm and 1984, his two most famous and widely read works.


One can also see the rationale behind the career that climaxes in a best book or books. It can take a whole lifetime to get it right, to assemble the toolbox that a writer needs to build the dream house, the work that brings together the themes that eluded the author at a less mature stage, with all the craft it takes to realize that blueprint.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8
Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;
Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Writers’ Career Paths, Part 1: Prolific vs. Painstaking

I’m going to devote a couple of blogs to the different types of careers that writers can have. I’d like to start by talking about volume. There are some writers who are extremely prolific. They write almost every day, often for several hours. These writers spin out book after book. Other writers are extremely painstaking in their process. They sweat every adjective. If they produce one poem or one short story every few months, that’s a lot.

Here are a couple of poets who represent those two extremes.

The Japanese author Yosano Akiko (1878–1942) was renowned for her ability to write as many as fifty poems in one sitting. She wrote mostly five-line tanka poems, but still! In her lifetime, she is said to have written more than 50,000 poems. That’s an average of about three a day for her entire career. In addition, she was the author of eleven books of prose, including literary criticism, an autobiographical novel, and a translation into modern Japanese of one of Japan’s classics, The Tale of Genji. You might wonder if she was able to do this because she was a single woman who had no children. No, actually. Yosano Akiko gave birth to and raised eleven children. She must have been a hurricane of energy. 

Yosano Akiko
Here’s my translation of a poem by Yosano Akiko that I like a lot:

that hateful fan
endlessly wafting
sandalwood incense
in my direction—
I snatched it away

At the other extreme, there’s the U.S. poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911–1979). I’m holding her book, The Complete Poems 1927–1979. It weighs less than a loaf of bread. Excluding her translations, it’s 228 pages, and even with her translations from Portuguese and Spanish, it doesn’t reach 300 pages.

Yosano Akiko lived to her 66th year; Elizabeth Bishop, 68. Roughly the same lifespan, but a difference in output of about 10,000 pages.

Who is the greater writer? Well, it’s hard to say. I don’t read Japanese, and only one book of Yosano Akiko’s has been fully translated into a European language. Claire Dodane translated into French the poet’s masterpiece, Midaregami, or Tangled Hair. Dodane’s translation is titled Cheveux emmêlés—same meaning in French. Yosano Akiko wrote this book about her scandalous love affair with the leading male poet of the day, Yosano Tekkan, whom she married and had such a large family with. The book contains 399 tanka poems, a fair sampling of her work in that form. Not every poem is a masterpiece, but there are a remarkable number of excellent poems, especially when you consider that Yosano Akiko wrote this book when she was 22 years old. But quite a few of the poems—I’d say the vast majority—are not at the same level as the best of the collection.

Elizabeth Bishop, on the other hand, must have produced endless drafts of her poems. She published only a handful a year, maybe 120 in her lifetime. Each poem is a sapphire, with every facet cut and polished. Is that a better way to write?

Elizabeth Bishop
I like to think that Elizabeth Bishop and Yosano Akiko wrote roughly the same number of pages of great poems, even though their output and process were so different. But that’s not necessarily the case. And who is in a position to make such a crazy calculation?

There are dangers both to being a prolific writer and a painstaking writer. The danger of being a very prolific writer is that quantity becomes so central that quality may never enter into the equation. Fortunately, that wasn’t true for Yosano Akiko. Some of her poems are bad, some mediocre, some great, some absolutely classic.

The danger of being a painstaking writer is that authors of that sort are such perfectionists that they sometimes never finish anything. Or if they do, what they produce is so precious that it lacks spontaneity and juice.

For some writers, a painstaking process works well, and is absolutely necessary to satisfy the perfectionist within. For prolific writers, the method is to set free all the thoughts and images and emotions and stories and then let the reader sift through and pick favorite pieces.

There is not a right or a wrong answer about how prolific to be. I think it’s a question of personality. Readers may have similar preferences, liking writers who are great stylists, or ones who can tell a good story. Personally, I enjoy the work of both prolific writers and painstaking writers.


Zack Rogow’s play, Tangled Love, about the life and work of Yosano Akiko, will be given a free public reading on Tuesday, July 15, 2014, 8 p.m. at the University of Alaska Anchorage, in the Arts Building, room 150.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8
Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;
Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Thoughts on Literary Fame

Fame. It’s as irrelevant to good writing as sunny weather. Or is it the gold ring we’re all reaching for?

I was moved to write about fame because I’ve been listening during my commute to a collection of poetry on CDs called The Spoken Arts Treasury. This compendium of the writings and voices of 100 leading poets in the United States was released only 45 years ago, but I was shocked by how many of the poets who were considered necessary writers in 1969 are unknown today. I don’t mean that I’ve only read a couple of their poems. I mean that I had never even heard the names of a good portion of the poets in that collection.

The Greek goddess Pheme, source of the word "fame"
Maybe even more surprising is the fact that a collection released in 1969 did not include many of the poets of the U.S.A. whom we now consider to be some of the leading voices of the mid-twentieth century, such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Allen Ginsberg (too radical for that time), June Jordan, Adrienne Rich (who had already published her first Selected Poems in 1967), Anne Sexton, or May Swenson. In just 45 years, we have dramatically changed our sense of who the important U.S. poets of that time were. Many writers included in The Spoken Arts Treasury do continue to find readers: Elizabeth Bishop, e.e. cummings, Langston Hughes, Robinson Jeffers, Sylvia Plath, William Carlos Williams, etc. But it seems almost arbitrary which poets were included in this anthology.

The word “fame” comes from the name of the Roman goddess Fama, which in turn comes from a Greek word that just means “talk.” That in turn, is related to Old Church Slavonic bajati, but you already knew that. Hey, Zack, what is your point? The point is that fame is just talk, it’s not hard evidence of truth or quality.


Just because a writer is known today, or unknown today, does not mean that her or his reputation will remain that way. In fact, it’s almost a guarantee that tastes and readers will change, and that writers whose work speaks to a particular time and/or readership will vary in popularity, or maybe find new readers in a different time or place. We should not be intimidated by a writer’s reputation and feel we have to like that person’s work. On the other hand, we should appreciate writers who are not well known, but whose work we genuinely enjoy. In other words, trust your taste and your reaction to a work of literature, not the writer’s reputation.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8
Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;
Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Why a Thesaurus Is of Limited Use to a Writer

Sometimes a writer is on a treasure hunt for a particular word, a word that will clinch a certain passage. The French, of course, have a phrase for that type of word. They call it le mot juste, the exact right word. The author Gustave Flaubert was famous for finding le mot juste in his novels, such as Madame Bovary. But let’s say that, in this case, le mot juste is just not coming to mind, or if you can think of a word that has the right meaning, it’s too cliché. What do you do?

Many writers turn to a thesaurus. That reference work is a great bestiary of words, holding almost all the synonyms in the English language. The word literally means “treasury” in Latin—very appropriate.

I have nothing against thesauruses. I love just reading through them and seeing all the possible gradations of meaning that exist among different words that mean almost the same thing, and how those synonyms differ slightly in the contexts where they are used. In fact, when I was thirteen, one of my best friends nicknamed me Roget, I had such a crush on words.

The first English thesaurus was compiled by Dr. Peter Mark Roget (1779–1869) in 1805, but the book was not published until 1852. Dr. Roget was a physician from London who served as a human subject for the earliest experiments on the use of nitrous oxide, or “laughing gas,” which he also wrote about. 

Dr. Peter Mark Roget
His first collection of synonyms was titled, Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition. I’ll buy that a thesaurus can facilitate the expression of ideas, but I do believe it has limited use in literary composition.

Why? Because a word that a writer is seeking is almost never as obvious as a synonym of another word that a writer might reject as cliché. Le mot juste most often appears out of nowhere, a word that surprises, delights, or shocks the reader. A thesaurus will not help a writer leap across a chasm to that sort of word. At best, the thesaurus will help a writer step over a narrow puddle.

Here is an example from a poem that Sylvia Plath wrote right before her untimely death on February 11, 1963. The very last poem in her Collected Poems, dated six days before she died, is titled “Edge.” Describing a woman who has passed away, leaving behind her children, Plath writes:

She has folded

Them back into her body as petals
Of a rose close when the garden

Stiffens and odors bleed
From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.

Interesting to thing about a mother incorporating her children back into her—or maybe the subject of the poem is gathering into herself a kind of childishness in a flight from the tonnage of adulthood.

Sylvia Plath
If Plath had used a thesaurus to find the right word in this passage, she could never have come up with the stunning phrase “the garden//Stiffens and odors bleed/From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.”

Normally, a writer might say that a flower’s scent wafts. But that’s a cliché. If Plath had cast her net wider and looked in a thesaurus under waft, she would only have found drift, float, be carried, etc. More clichés. You can’t get from tired language to more dynamic speech just with synonyms. A writer has to distort or wring the language till she arrives at something as vivid as a flower bleeding its odor. The search for le mot juste requires imagination, not just a reference work. Well, Plath might have gotten odor from a thesaurus. She could have started with the more conventional aroma or scent and then picked a synonym rarely paired with flower, because of its unexpected negative connotations. There, a thesaurus could be useful.

Another example. Three months earlier Plath had penned a poem called “The Childless Woman,” where she writes:

I spin mirrors,
Loyal to my image,

Uttering nothing but blood…


The usual verbs that describe emitting blood might be shed, ooze, spurt, seep, or trickle. (OK, I admit, I got this list from Roget’s Thesaurus.) But Plath goes so much deeper with the verb “Uttering”. The blood of this childless woman’s period is eloquent, it can speak of her emotions. Never could a thesaurus produce that result. It might even impede it. That’s why a writer has to be cautious in using a thesaurus. You can’t get deeper just by casting wider.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8
Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;
Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka