Impactful Words, Part II

Many of us bloggers are also voracious readers, and noticing special combinations of nouns, verbs, and adjectives that inspire or challenge us is a fun and, I think, worthwhile exercise.  It has also been enjoyable to comb my bookshelves, triggering memories of certain periods in my life when these books struck a chord.  Here are four more passages that have had an impact on me as a reader, writer, and/or person:

1. E.B. White’s Here is New York: 

In the candid light from unshaded bulbs gleam watermelons and lingerie.  Families have fled the hot rooms upstairs and have found relief on the pavement.  They sit on orange crates, smoking, relaxed, congenial.  This is the nightly garden party of the vast Lower East Side–and on the whole they are more agreeable-looking-hot-weather groups than some you see in bright canvas deck chairs on green lawns in country circumstances.  It is folksy here with the smell of warm flesh and squashed fruit and fly-bitten filth in the gutter, and cooking. 

I remember reading White’s Here is New York during a creative non-fiction course during sophomore year at Middlebury College.  This course served up a series of moments when I realized it could be as enjoyable to read well-written non-fiction as it is to devour a wonderful novel.

2. Stephen King, On Writing:

One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little ashamed of the short ones.  This is like dressing up a pet in evening clothes…Make yourself a solemn promise right now that you’ll never use “emolument” when you mean “tip” and you’ll never say Josh stopped long enough to perform as act of excretion when you mean John stopped long enough to take a shit. 

I think my vocabulary is fairly strong, but when I write I take King’s words to heart.  Flowery adjectives and complicated “show-offy” language does not get the point across as effectively as simpler word choices.  Concrete nouns and strong verbs are always, in his opinion, more useful to effective writing than adjectives and adverbs.  I concur.

3. Anne Lamott’s bird by bird

You get your confidence and intuition back by trusting yourself, by being militantly on your own side.  You need to trust yourself, especially on a first draft, where amid the anxiety and self-doubt, there should be a real sense of your imagination and your memories walking and woolgathering, romping all over the place.  Trust them.  Don’t look at your feet to see if you are doing it right.  Just dance. 

When you write, you put yourself out there, especially if you are attempting to write for publication or any other audience.  This is a great reminder that you need to trust yourself and take risks as a writer.  I remember my high school prom–I was on crutches from a recent knee injury–but I decided to get out there and attempt to dance on one leg.  Had a blast.  Within the realm of writing, nothing good comes from standing on the edge of the dance floor leaning against your crutches.

4. Pat Conroy’s The Great Santini

He dressed in fatigue pants, a military issue T-shirt, and combat boots.  High on his left arm, a tattoo of a red cobra, fanged, coiled, and ready to strike, stood in stark relief to his pale, freckled skin.  His hair was cut short in a military burr….Quickly, he did fifty pushups and twenty situps.  Then, he jumped up from the floor and began to run in place.  He pulled a rosary from the pocket of his fatigues and began to say the first decade of the rosary.  The drumming of his feet on the floor echoed throughout the darkened house.  

Power of character.  Like The cult classic movie The Big Lebowski, The Great Santini is driven by the character.  Most specifically the disturbing and unforgettable Bull Meecham, described above early on in the novel.  I’ve always been drawn to writing and film that creates or portrays amazing, larger-than-life characters, and The Great Santini is no exception.

Again I ask, what words have had an impact on you?  Are there any books on your shelf that take you back to “ah-ha” moments or other periods of inspiration?


  1. Becks,
    This passage resonates with me, as I find the process recollection, nostalgia, and even haunting memories to be a fascinating part of the human condition. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I read the History of Love four years ago and although I do not typically choose fiction, I fell in love with this book, particulary with the old man who narrates a good bit of it. I find that I love good characterization in stories, whether the stories are written, acted, or documented, as one of my main interests lies in discovering the ins and outs of personalities and relationship dynamics. The quote below from the History of Love has always stuck with me. It is probably more meaningful in the context of the entire book, but it has always conjured up this very clear image for me of this older, stooped reclusive man, furiously moving in a frenzy of both memories of joy and sadness.

    ““I took a drink, wiping my mouth with the back of my hand, repeating the gesture that was made a hundred times by my father and his father and his father’s father, eyes half closed as the sharpness of alcohol replaced the sharpness of grief. And then, when the bottle was gone, I danced. Slowly at first. But getting faster. I stomped my feet and kicked my legs, joints cracking. I pounded my feet and crouched and kicked in the dance my father danced, and his father, tears sliding down my face as I laughed and sang, danced and danced until my feet were raw and there was blood under my toenail, I danced the only way I knew how to dance: for life, crashing into the chairs, and spinning until I fell, so that I could get up and dance again, until dawn broke and found me prostrate on the floor, so close to death I could spit into it and whisper: L’chaim.”

  3. Great passage Issac, definitely resonates. Sometimes, it doesn’t take much, or it can be a single student, to inspire me as a teacher or pick me up on any given day.

  4. I’ve been mulling over some quotes since your last post. This is more of a passage, but I’ll post it since you have enjoyed a previous one from the same book. I think it may resonate with you as a teacher:

    “Gvarab was old enough that she often wandered and maundered. Attendance at her lectures was small and uneven. She soon picked out the thin boy with big ears as her one constant auditor. She began to lecture for him. The light, steady, intelligent eyes met hers, steadied her, woke her, she flashed to brilliance, regained the vision lost. She soared, and the other students in the room looked up confused or startled, even scared if they had the wits to be scared. Gvarab saw a much larger universe than most people were capable of seeing, and it made them blink. The light-eyed boy watched her steadily. In his face she saw her joy. What she offered, what she had offered for a whole lifetime, what no one had ever shared with her, he shared. He was her brother, across the gulf of fifty years, and her redemption.”

    – from The Dispossessed

  5. Watermelons and lingere – I love that! The Alchemist post with my illuminating Blogger post was kind of my attempt to answer your question here. I know I have others. Maybe for another post. The Grapes of Wrath was one that I got a lot out of….thanks for another thought-provoking post!

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