The Prose Test Kitchen (1)

I’m interested in startling prose.

Nobody likes prose that tastes like last night’s pizza. Or pizza in general. We’ve had it before. What we haven’t had, what we haven’t had is ginger and pepper and cumin and squash, sausage with apples and cranberries and maple syrup, garlic and roasted tomatoes and caramelized onions and basil and fresh mozzarella cheese. We want spices to singe our tongues. We want prose to explode in our mouths like some spectacular new dish that’s fresher than a farmer’s market.


This epic meal in Korea was definitely not pizza. But it definitely ranks among the best meals I've ever had: kimchi, vegetables, noodles, a pancake-thing, and Coke in glass bottles for dessert


I just read Holy the Firm for my rhetoric class. It’s by Annie Dillard. I found myself underlining almost every sentence in the book — inhaling the strange and startling tastes of her writing.

Sample this:

“The day is real; the sky clicks securely in place over the mountains, locks round the islands, snaps slap on the bay. Air fits flush on farm roofs; it rises inside the doors of barns and rubs at yellow barn windows. Air clicks up my hand cloven into fingers and wells in my ears’ holes, whole and entire.” (12)

And this:

“How may tons of sky can I see from the window? It is morning: morning! and the water clobbered with light.” (61)

Then there’s her account of the moth:

“One night a moth flew into the candle, was caught, burnt dry, and held. […] A golden female moth, a biggish one with a two-inch wingspan, flapped into the fire, dropped her abdomen into the wet wax, stuck, flamed, frazzled and fried in a second. her moving wings ignited like tissue paper, enlarging the circle of light in the clearing and creating out of the darkness the sudden blue sleeves of my sweater, the green leaves of jewelweed by my side, the ragged red trunk of a pine. At once the light contracted again and the moth’s wings vanished in a fine, foul smoke. At the same time her six legs clawed, curled, blackened, and ceased, disappearing utterly. And her head jerked in spasms, making a spattering noise; her antennae crisped and burned away and her heaving mouth parts crackled like pistol fire. […] All that was left was the glowing horn shell of her abdomen and thorax, a fraying, partially collapsed gold tube jammed upright in the candle’s round pool.” (17)

Aren’t your taste buds twitching? Mine are. I think Dillard does a few things just perfectly to accomplish this, and the thing that I am trying hardest to work on right now is:

Using unexpected verbs

Personal favorite: “the water clobbered with light”. I can just picture it: sunlight dancing hard and bright on the ocean. And Dillard captures it all in one word.

From the moth passage: Dillard uses an endless string of verbs to describe fire. “Frazzled”, “clawed,” “ceased”, “crisped”, “crackled”.

I feel like I’m writing an English paper on style. But really, what I’m trying to say is, don’t stick to same-old, same-old. I think we so often get lost in the masses of boring verbs that are lying around in the dictionary and forget about all the exciting ones. Or we forget about sticking boring verbs where they might not belong — to make them exciting.

Example from Dillard again: “the cat poured from her arms and ran” (40). I think the verb “pour” is boring. Sunshine pours, lemonade pours, rain pours. But cats? They don’t pour. Until they do — and we want to applaud from the joy of it.

Try using unexpected verbs

I think of this as a lab experiment: make explosions. Mix things together that shouldn’t mix. Fold a piece of paper in half — and keep it folded so you can’t see the other side. First make a list of ten nouns… Then flip over the paper and make a list of ten verbs… Now throw them together. Make sure they wouldn’t normally fit. For example:




Make ten sentences out of these combinations. Sometimes they might be goofy; that’s okay. I came up with:

The roses stirred perfume into the air

The boots shouted a designer label

The pencil cut squares, shadows, shapes into the sketchbook.

Don’t stick with the usual (sunsets painting color across the sky, rain dumping from the clouds, etc.) Go for bold — go for explosions — go for new tastes.

(Dillard, Annie. Holy the Firm. New York: HarperCollins, 2003.)

Tomorrow: Prose Text Kitchen (2) pulls apart Dillard a little more


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5 responses to “The Prose Test Kitchen (1)

  1. !!!!

    I might print this out.

    I love love love using crazy verbs, but I tend to get stuck on the same imagery. “The words claw up her throat” or something along those lines – used in all my stories at some point! Ugh! I love the make-a-list idea.

    • writerkirsty

      I know, I get stuck with boring stuff, too. I think I talk about tears pricking eyes at least twenty times in The Inbetween… We did this exercise in my style class and I found it really helpful.

  2. amy

    kirsten! i love that you’ve discovered annie dillard! she’s long been a favorite writer of mine and part of the reason is what you’ve listed here…that she chooses her words so carefully, and they surprise you and make you see things with new delight, new meaning, new richness. i once described her writing to someone by saying that i loved her because she sees with the eyes of a scientist, but speaks/writes with the tongue of a poet. she is dedicated to mining out the significance of life and she does that by dazzling you with the way she sees and tells of the world around her. i always feel like i see more clearly, more acutely after reading her.

    • writerkirsty

      Can I quote you tomorrow in part 2? I love that: “sees with the eyes of a scientists but speaks with the tongue of a poet.” I remember not liking her in high school because she seemed so weird, but I have grown into an appreciation of her style this year. I want to write like her!

      Maybe I will try Pilgrim at Tinker Creek over Christmas break…

      • amy

        of course you may quote me. 🙂 and pilgrim at tinker creek! so worth reading. i’m sending you an e-mail of a few blogs i wrote while reading that book…a little too personal to share here. 🙂

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