Word Count: How Brevity Blesses

What about this piece makes me thankful?

Its brevity.

Brevity is a tough delight. It disciplines, tugging out of my clutch the hem of billowy, airborne ideas, all those tendrilling side references, sumptuous metaphors, scintillating footnotes, twinkling asterisks.

Brevity demands I pack that whole scope into a kernel.

One bright, firm kernel.

The problem is that I’m a word-glutton. I balk at brevity. I hunger for 75,000 words to work with —a book, for Hemingway’s sake! —not 750 or 500, which are just perfect for the pieces I’ve linked here, but are so much more difficult that the long form, believe me. I crave pages where I can sprawl spread eagle, face down, drooling across my private prairie of expression.

IMG_0909

It’s how I write. It’s how I live.

When writing, I want to say it all. At once. It’s my greatest challenge. I begin with one thought, it blossoms too quickly into 20 pages, and then I agonize for a week, whittling to 200 words. Honestly: 200 words. Can anyone even answer the phone with 200 words?

Yet word counts like those in the articles I’ve linked you to are prime training, excellent toning. They make me write better. I’m forced to trim away my “pretty darlings.” Those are the twirls of a phrase, references to research, curves of storyline, the U-turns into fascinating asides, even the mouth-watering words that, okay, might be gorgeous in isolation, (like under museum glass), but which, in the end, don’t drive home my point. In fact, they veer me and my reader from it.

(Tell the truth, though. Who can resist “pellucid”? or “efflorescence”? or —my heart!— “syzygy”?)

As I said: word-glutton.

And world-glutton. Because living, I also want to do it all. Be it all. At once. At least that used to be the case. I’ve learned the hard way that life stories, like the literal pieces we write, also have a word count — a “moment count,” let’s call it—and that numerical count is a mystery. We call that transience. Admitting this makes all the difference. You reduce to what matters.

But hold on, you say. Reduction feels risky. It’s scary to say a sweeping “no” in order to say a focused “yes.” To trim away the peripheral from the central, the optional from the vital. What you get, though, when you do that in writing is the polished bullet: precision of word, clarity of thought, stinging and ringing and substantial prose. You might even get a masterpiece.

BYU I 1963-66114

(Photo: David Dalton archives ©)

And reduction with living? If my life’s aim were reduced to “one true sentence,” as Mr. Hemingway said breeds the best writing, what would that sentence be? And how does that one truth, that driving thesis, move me through my days and weeks? Does that sentence —spare, compact, sleek— train my concentration, make my life coherent, single-themed, resonant with integrity?

Brevity reveals genius. It also breeds it. And it happens to be part of what makes mundane stories into poetry or even scripture. In the moment we recognize that the story we are writing with our lives (focused, concentrated, even consecrated) is more than mere meandering, earthbound jangle, that the narrative is bigger than its lined-up words, larger than any string of moments, and moving both from and toward something outside the bounds of brevity, then we’ve really found something. Maybe it is a sacred script we never realized we were writing. Maybe it is our very selves.

 

 

 

 

Poem: Sailing to Manti

Manti LDS Temple, SAnpete County, UT. Photo archives David Dalton ©

          Manti LDS Temple, Sanpete County, UT.                              Archives David Dalton ©

 

SAILING TO MANTI

by Melissa Dalton-Bradford

(To my husband, on the anniversary of our
 December marriage in the Manti temple)

 

We sail the vein:

Perforated, gray southbound highway

Down

From dawn’s perch

We approach,

Splaying this languid stage of sagebrush

In two

Vast contours, undulating,

Old rocky chronology seeping left to right,

Largo to sostenuto . . .

Bending beyond peripheral vision

Curling,

wrapping,

enfolding

Heaven,

Her mist-mottled crepe curtain

Whispers,

Torn,

As ragged hem reveals enough:

Mountains, their triple depth in

Slate then ash then dust

Hang an ageless opaque canvas.

Drawn, we aim.

 

Trusting, we offer

Hands stretched through a veil.

 

We sail.

 

==

 

 

A year after I composed the above poem, tragedy struck our family and I wrote a companion piece, Thistle Valley, describing a different drive southward to Manti. You can read that poem in this post.

 

Fluctuat Nec Mergitur

I know.  I vowed I’d be the dutiful blogger and complete in tidy fashion my series on swimming in the digital ocean. Rest assured, that ocean’s not going anywhere so I’ll get to it.  But that might take a while.  Keep reading, and I’ll explain.

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Photo: © pretoperola/123RF

My change in direction has something to do with  this. (Go ahead a read there after you’ve let me have my little say here, please.) It’s the first of my pieces for Inspirelle, a white-hot new webmag based in Paris, which is a “woman’s guide to life in Paris and beyond.”

(I believe in Paris, in the beyond, in women, in guiding, and in life. So it’s a great fit.)

So … back to oceans, back to life:

Fluctuat nec mergitur

Those words, (meaning “tossed but not sunk”), are glowing right now at the base of the blue-white-red illuminated Eiffel Tower. They shine in bold response to the terrorist attacks in Paris this month.  We can also apply them universally, to all acts of terrorism — Beirut, Russia, Kenya, Nigeria … a catalogue that can, if you’re not steadied, unhinge your sanity.

I also apply those words to the many terrors broad or private that punctuate the human experience. I’ve known some directly, and am observing all sorts in others’ lives, in your lives. Our voyages are different, but the ocean that holds humanity is the same, and none will cross without being thoroughly — and sometimes violently — shaken.

Major recent events in the world at large and in my immediate sphere have struck some deep plates. “Upheaval” doesn’t fairly describe it; “cataclysm” comes closer.  These strikes have accentuated divisions between nations, whose boundaries I can trace with my finger and whose leaders names I’ve memorized, as well as among real friends whose names and faces and stories I know by heart. Peoples — and specific people — have been struck and destabilized.

Joseph_Mallord_William_Turner_-_A_Disaster_at_Sea_-_Google_Art_Project

Painting: Joseph M.W. Turner; “A Disaster at Sea”

That Sinking Feeling

In all this, there’s a temptation to claim we’re sinking, en masse, and with one inevitable glunk-glunk-glunk. But that mindset can breed hysteria (not good on the deck of any ship), or the slump of torpor. It can even increase violence.

Though fractures crack across the planet and through the core of my community, and though I often feel I’m straddling chunks of Pangea, her landmasses groaning and shifting, plate tectonics making a wild ripple ride of the face of things, I’m choosing (albeit sometimes shakily) to fight to stay afloat.  I know I can’t merely float.

Floating (false bravado, whistling in the dark, pretending immunity, retreating in a bubble, or following popular tides including those of nihilism and cynicism) — they all make us much more vulnerable to the ferocious downward suction of our times.

Reaching Deep, Reaching Up, Reaching Out

Is there a way out of that downward suction? Here’s an idea: Reach deep, reach up, and reach out. Elsewhere on this blog, and subsequently in my second book, On Loss and Living Onward, I’ve described these three reaches with different descriptors (steadiness, illumination and love), and how reaching in all three ways helps when our private world is in turmoil. These times we inhabit are volatile, requiring a far richer, more stable inner life than ever before necessary. I sense I need devotion to something larger than my fickle, earthbound, egocentric self. And I need increased service and compassion to my fellow passengers with whom I share this turbulent voyage.

Where do I start? Here. I start right here with writing. And while at times it’s fitting to write about the landscape of the digital ocean (screen time, filters, stuff we haven’t even thought of yet), other times, like right now, I only want to write about the ocean writ large. When terror roils and the earth moans, when fear rules and humankind grieves and keens, compartmentalized themes feel irrelevant, even irreverent.

So here’s to increased reverence. Thanks for allowing me to reach deeper in the next posts. With luck, we’ll remain buoyant together.

 

 

 

 

 

More Digital Safety: When Your Flood is a Leak

Not all damage to our house originated at an external source, and not all of it came from what could be called a “flood.” We found an internal leak.

Somewhere in the middle of ripping out the bathroom, the workers found within the walls of the house itself fissures in pipes. Slow, steady, trickling at a rate that could cover the floor in under a minute’s time, water was entering the house behind its own walls. Experts who assessed the problem told me those leaks alone could have filled up a basement in a matter of hours, maybe a day. Which is why, in spite of having stanched the outdoor leak, having run industrial fans for weeks on end, and having essentially stripped the basement to the bone, things remained soggy.

Sometimes, know what? Grrrrrrrr.

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So back to our metaphor pointing to digital safety: As a parent, you’re lucky if you can identify the immediate source of digital danger. Your child tells you she has been cyber-bullied. You search the computer history and find a link to a porn site. You trace what seems at first blush like an innocent conversation between your twelve-year-old and an online pen pal, only to find the trail leads to a lewd chat room and a sexual predator, a stalker. Lucky you: at least you’ve pinpointed the source of your flood.

But the truth is that the digital world makes for more leaks than for sudden, discernible floods. Digital information is running throughout our walls all the time — through ceilings and floors, through our fingers, across our laps. This is why it is absolutely critical that parents, teachers, and other adult role models are alert, savvy, and totally engaged in directing kids toward wise digital citizenship.

hartschools.net

hartschools.net

In other words, parents have to be there. By that I don’t necessarily mean literally sitting elbow-to-elbow every time little Hannah switches on her gadget, or little Milton flips open the family laptop. Although, hmm, in the earliest years, why not? I’d suggest you be physically close-at- hand discussing, directing, and modeling responsible cyber presence. You do that just like you do when Hannah memorizes her multiplication tables and Milton practices his arpeggios on the cello. You are near, encouraging, talking it through, sharing the experience.

As children grow older, being there means being interested in, communicative about, and up-to-date on what is happening in the world your child is navigating. I mean being actively alert, not passive and resigned to whatever floats across the screen. Like you, maybe,I’ve heard one too many times from parents that they have no right to check their child’s history because that child “needs her privacy”, and from certain school administrators (aware of rampant sexting among their students) I’ve heard that, well, hmmm, “this is simply today’s world” and “we’ve got to leave these kids their right to choose.”

Sometimes, know what? Grrrrrrrr again.

With that kind of rousing support, you might feel that you’re on your own. Don’t be defeated. Don’t shrug or resign.  Be there watching out for potential leaks within what is admittedly a whole world of wildly cool stuff.

dailymail.co.uk

dailymail.co.uk

Maybe you’re relatively new to parenting yet old to the digital world. Or you’re old to parenting, but relatively new to the digital world. Whatever the case, it is vital to rid yourself of any denial (“Never my child!”) and shake yourself into reality by being on the lookout for some of the many leaks that are inherent to our digital world. Here is a sampling of some of those leaks I’ve learned of in my years of parenting, volunteering with youth, talking with the best parents and mentors, and researching digital trends:

(Check the underlined words for links giving you much helpful — thought sometimes disturbing — additional information)

Harassment and Extortion

Bullying and Threatening

Sexting and the exchange of provocative/pornographic texts or images

Spamming, stalking, scamming

Pirating and plagiarism

Gang recruitment

And the encouragement of eating disorders, suicide, drug abuse, self-harm, and other forms of violence toward both self and others.

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I can recommend this resource for parents, teachers, counsellors, and youth regarding digital safety. In spite of its Americanness, which limits somewhat its application on a broader scale, (it refers to “school districts” and presupposes the user’s familiarity with US legal norms),  it offers many high quality, ready-to-use tools like video coaching and external links.

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What “leaks” have you noted in the lives of youth you care for or work with?

What resources have you turned to as a parent or other adult role model to train youth in healthy digital citizenship?