A while ago, my book club read Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin. The book is compilation of ten writing exercises (most with multiple parts, so it’s more like 15 or 20 exercises), along with explanations and examples. (See my other post about Steering the Craft here.)
The very first exercise was probably the most fun, and one which Le Guin suggests can be done many times over. It’s about the sound of language. Most children, she says, “enjoy the sound of language for its own sake. They wallow in repetitions… they fall in love with musical or impressive words and use them in all the wrong places.”
When I read this, I immediately thought of my husband. Le Guin says many adults lose their adoration of aural language when they learn to read silently. But Paul is not one of those people. He splashes around in the pool of sound like a happy baby elephant. When I do yoga, he calls it “yogurt.” I made shepherd’s pie the other night, and he called it “Keebler’s Pie” because he “just likes the way that sounds.” He calls his computer his “comp-troller” and pronounces champagne “champ-in.” Just for fun, mind you. Because he likes to play with language.
Paul also likes to play with rhyme. Oh lord, does he love rhyming. He likes to sing made-up songs, and it’s also not uncommon for him to say something and then start saying words that rhyme with it, usually making his way around to words that aren’t even real words at all. For example, we might have a conversation that goes something like this:
Him: Are you a bear?
Him: Are you a bear who likes beer?
Him: Are you a beer bear?
Him: Are you a near bear?
Me: I guess.
Him: Are you a bleer bear?
Me: You’re weird.
His word-play used to annoy me because it made no sense and I’m a logical person. But now I understand that he’s not trying to communicate anything (except perhaps his love). He just likes to play with sound. It’s fun for him. So now I play along with him, and we have conversations that consist of nothing but rhymes and nonsense words. As a writer, it’s good for me to splash around in the pool of sound.
And Ursula K. Le Guin’s first exercise in Steering the Craft is simply that: playtime in the language pool. She says:
Exercise One: Write a paragraph to a page (150-300 words) of narrative that’s meant to be read aloud. Use onomatopoeia, alliteration, repetition, rhythmic effects, made-up words or names, dialect — any kind of sound-effect you like — but NOT rhyme or meter.
I tried it several times, and the hardest part was making it a narrative (a story) and not a poem. Below is one of my attempts. Try it for yourself!
Mad Scientist Man is in the living room lab, solving equations to save the world.
“I’m making dumplings for dinner,” I tell him, and he says he knows — he can smell ‘em.
Pretty Kitty purrs and rams her head against his leg. She wants to play, but he pushes her away. He’s got equations to solve and a world to save.
“Honey bun? Dinner’s almost done.”
But he’s busy with his work, so I eat alone. Pretty Kitty mews, and I give her some.
I wash the dishes — Pretty Kitty’s and mine. Both us know how tonight will go. He’ll stay up late with math and do physics in the bath. When his tummy growls like a bear in heat, he’ll make a midnight snack of crackers and cheese. And in the morning I’ll clean crumbs as he lies down to sleep.
Mad Scientist Man is hoping it’ll happen tonight. He’ll solve the equation. Save us with science. But sometimes I wish he’d just come to bed and do a little work on me instead.
*P.S. If you decide to read Steering the Craft, I highly recommend you get it from the library. It’s out of print, and the price to buy it is absurd.