Writing Excuses 12.12: Words as Words, with Linda Addison
Key Points: Picking the exact right word, for the shape, sound, visual space, as an object unto itself, independent of meaning. Taste your words, feel them, find the rhythm, the breaks. “Poetry is to be read like a fine meal or a fine wine, one sip at a time.” Journals! Write down anything and everything, then go back and pull out words and ideas and feelings. Write stories and turn them into poems. Write poems and create stories out of them. Take words out. Change words. Read them out loud. Create a startling image. Change hard and soft words, or sibilants and bebop. Take out the most important word, and let the reader put their own ideas, their own breath, their own emotion in there. Play with the rhythms of poetry, to learn them. Make them an unconscious rhythm that you can draw on. Poetry, like music, is organic and normal. It’s the cadence of storytelling around the fire. Whether you want to write poetry or something else, pay attention to word choice, the music of words, and to words as words.
[Mary] Season 12, Episode 12.
[Howard] This is Writing Excuses, Words as Words, with Linda Addison.
[Dan] 15 minutes long, because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart. I’m Howard.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Linda] I’m Linda.
[Howard] Linda, thank you so much for joining us. I almost said four-time Stoker award winner Linda Addison. And now I just did.
[Linda] Just go ahead and say it. Get it out of your system.
[Howard] But the title here, words as words… You are, among many other things, a poet.
[Linda] I am. That’s my first voice. I’ve got almost 300 in print.
[Howard] As a humorist, I find that picking the right exact word, for the shape of the word, the sound of the word, I mean, the visual space that a word takes up on the page, that is as important as what the word means. So when we say words as words, I’m thinking of them as objects unto themselves…
[Howard] Independent of the meaning that they have.
[Linda] Exactly. I mean, each word to me… I’m sort of crazy for words. I actually like to do cold readings of other people’s work because it makes me concentrate on each word, and I find a word can be quite delicious.
[Howard] When you say cold readings, reading aloud someone’s work you’ve never read before?
[Linda] It’s quite an experience. I enjoy it because it’s like a discovery. You really have to slow down and really like catch each word and taste it and feel it and try to find the rhythm and the breaks. I like it. It’s scary for some people, but I enjoy it.
[Howard] It sounds… It sounds wonderful.
[Dan] I love…
[Howard] Dan, you had some poetry background.
[Dan] I love word choice, and I’ve been trying to teach myself speed reading. One of the basic principles there is that you don’t sound it out in your head as you say it, you just kind of capture the meaning of it.
[Dan] But there are certain authors, and all poetry in particular, that you can’t do that. You have to slow down and you have to just really feel and taste those words as you’re saying them.
[Linda] Truly. I mean, I speed read the New Yorker because it comes every week. I mean, if you don’t speed read it, you end up with… What I know some friends have is a column of magazines in the corner to be read. But for me, poetry is to be read like a fine meal or a fine wine, one sip at a time. Within reason.
[Dan] Now, you describe poetry as your first voice. What do you mean by that?
[Linda] I mean that… As strange as it sounds, I’m always… Poetry is always going through my head, all the time. When I’m talking to people, when I’m looking at people, when I’m thinking, while I’m awake, sometimes when I’m asleep. Earlier, I thought, “Wow, there’s something wrong. I probably need a brain scan.” But now, since I’m making money and winning awards with it, I’m like, “Forget that. I’m okay with this.”
[Dan] And as a four-time Stoker winner for your poetry, what is it that brought you to horror poetry in particular?
[Linda] Well, that’s the interesting thing, is that I don’t necessarily consider my poetry horror. I mean, it’s not so much blood and guts as it’s a little bit moody, psychological. It’s not really so much horror maybe, it just doesn’t fit anywhere else. But I read a lot of horror and I have written stories and gotten them published. So I suppose that’s where people started reading me. That’s how I ended up getting nominated for the award. But if you read my work, it’s moody, kind of shadow stuff, but it’s not blood and guts.
[Dan] All right. So, if… Now, one of the reasons I’m so excited to have you here on the show is because we’ve never actually done episode about poetry before. So I know that we have listeners who are poets, and I want to get to them eventually.
[Dan] But first, what advice can you give to our listeners who may not have ever considered poetry or who enjoy reading it, but have never tried to write it? How can they get started?
[Linda] Well, I’m a big journal writer. I have boxes and boxes of journals. I’ve been writing journals since 69. So I think either with your phone, which a lot of people use, or a little notebook, which I always have, just write down anything and everything that occurs to you. Something that you overhear, at the end of the night thoughts that you have. When I do a new collection, this is what I do. I go back to my journals, since the last collection, and I pull out little words and ideas and feelings. Then I build poems off of those. Also, you can just write something as you feel it. Don’t think whether it’s a poem or not, it may seem like a sentence. It can be reshaped into a poem. I mean, if words are words, then you could write, and I’ve done this, I’ve written stories and then turn them into poems. I’ve written poems that I’ve then created stories out of. It’s a matter of the form, like art. With poetry, you’re creating an image with as few words as possible. An easy way to do that is you start taking words out. Take words out. So in rewrite, that’s how you create the poem’s shape is by taking words out, for the most part. Or changing the word that you’re using in there. One of the tricks I use is that when I’m rewriting a poem, as I’m re… And I always read them out loud. Because for me, that is where I can hear whether it’s working or not. I might take a word that I have and totally switch it and replace it with another word. For example, if I’m using a soft word, find a hard word. So, if I say something something like satin, well, how would that feel if I said something something like a razor? So in that way, you’re creating a sort of somewhat startling image, a slightly different image, and it shakes up the mind. To me, that’s the point of poetry is to create a feeling and image… A flash of something.
[Howard] One of my favorite examples of that is lyrics from Cake Short Skirt/Long Jacket. One of the lines was “fingernails that shine like justice.”
[Dan] “And a voice that’s dark like tinted glass.”
[Howard] Like tinted glass.
[Howard] I love that, because it makes me see something that I couldn’t have seen if you just described this person to me by telling me the color of her nail polish and the fact that she’s… I guess an alto? I don’t know. When I’m writing humor, I have a specific goal in mind. I’m trying to elicit a metabolic reaction. Laughter. What I’ve found… You talked about substituting satin with a razor. Taking a word that is full of sibilance, like say the word sibilance, and replacing it with a word that’s full of b’s and popping, a bebop sort of word, has a completely different flavor in the mouth, and the contrast… We talked about meals. Okay, maybe I’m way off base here…
[Linda] No, no, I’m with you.
[Howard] Picking the wine that goes with the food, picking the bebop with the punchline is often the only way to make the punchline work.
[Linda] Exactly. I think that’s very true of poetry. Another big thing with it, and I’ll give you an example, is that taking out even the most important word can change something into a poem, into a more musical concept. For example, I had written something where, this is before the rewrite, “Some days life feels like flying in a plane, a huge metal impossibility.” So that’s a sentence, that’s how I feel, that’s what you write in a journal. So what I did is, I’m doing these live poems on Twitter now, and it automatically goes to Facebook, so if you’re a follower, you’ll see them every day.
[Howard] What’s your twitter handle?
[Linda] Or just look up Linda Addison.
[Howard] I’ll put… I just want to get it in the liner notes.
[Linda] Look up Linda Addison. So, one of the live poems I wrote started with that sentence. What I did is I took the word life out. Now that’s the whole point of what I wrote. But by taking it out, it allows a space for people to read it, to put whatever they want there. So what I put up as the live poem a couple of days ago was something more like “Some days, it’s like flying in a plane, large, metal, impossibility, until it lands.” A whole different sense of something when someone reads it, because now I’m not telling them what it is. It could be their writing a book, it could be they’re having a child, it could be getting married, it could be a job, it could be not winning a job.
[Howard] Well, removing the word life… When you say, “Some days life is like…” What you are saying is some days, my opinion of everything, of all existence, is this. Removing that word, during this day, what I am feeling is the impossibility of… the words you used, which I didn’t remember…
[Linda] Flying in a plane, and huge, metal, impossibility.
[Howard] That’s… I love that example. Because by removing the word life, you’ve stopped telegraphing the punch. Because anytime you say life is like… I am expecting a contrast that’s going to tell me something about life. You remove that, and now when I get to the huge metal impossibility, I’m experiencing one of those days where the brain chemistry is off or where it’s just been a terrible day, but my head hit the pillow at the end of it anyway, and I’m still alive.
[Linda] So, as I’ve helped other… Talked to other people about writing poetry, I say, “Try these tricks.” Try them, read it out loud, and see how it sounds now. Take out the main thing. When you write a poem, take out the first and the last stanza. Because we have a tendency to over explain. Take that out, and see what you have left. For me, I like poetry that allows a space for people to put their own breath, their own emotion. I’m just creating somewhat of a framework, but it could be anything that they put there.
[Dan] All right. Now, we’re going to pause right here. I wish we could keep talking about this for an hour and a half. But, very quickly, since you introduced yourself to me as Linda Buy-My-Book Addison, why don’t you tell us where we can buy your book?
[Linda] Sure. Well, if you go to my site, lindaaddisonpoet.com, I have links. They’re available on Amazon, on all the e-book things, Apple and all that jazz.
[Dan] And your most recent is?
[Linda] Well, the one that I was going to talk about…
[Dan] Oh, okay.
[Linda] That I would mention is How to Recognize a Demon Has Become Your Friend, which is one of my least poetic cover… Titles, but it is…
[Dan] But very evocative.
[Linda] Very. That was the point.
[Chuckles] It’s not an accident. It’s written… It’s really science fiction, fantasy, and horror. It’s actually a poem, a story, a poem, a story, because I wanted to… I actually intellectually created this book as a way to introduce people to my work, because not everyone wants to buy a whole book of poetry. So this is got a little bit of everything in it, and it want a Bram Stoker and people like it. It’s got good reviews. So I offer people this, if you buy it, you don’t like it, I give you your money back, if you don’t find one thing in there. So far, so good.
[Dan] Perfect. All right. That book is called How to Recognize a Demon Has Become Your Friend by Linda Addison.
[Linda] Right. Entertaining and yet instructional.
[Howard] I checked out your twitter feed just now. nytebird45. nytebird45 was… The spelling had me tripped up at first.
[Howard] I want to talk a little more about the limitations that you might place on yourself when selecting words. I find that when I’m writing fiction, at least, there are words that just don’t fit in character voice. Even though it’s the word that very much might best sell that punchline. Often, I find myself balancing between well, how important is this word construct? Because if it’s important enough, I may have to change the whole scene in order to put somebody else here who will actually say those words. What are the limitations that you, as a poet, put in place when you are selecting your words, when you’re doing this writing?
[Linda] It’s really kind of the other way, and that is that in time, I’ve found that I tend to use the same words, because those images… So what I do is try to just use really different words. So it’s not so much a limitation as much as an expansion. It’s an infinity of words.
[Howard] Well, that’s absolutely a limitation.
[Howard] The limitation is I’ve used this word.
[Howard] This one’s used up. I have to…
[Linda] I hadn’t thought of it that way, but you’re right. I do like to be aware if I’ve overused words, and use something entirely different.
[Howard] My journal is a train wreck of overused words.
[Linda] Absolutely. And it should be. It should be only whatever you feel at the moment. No one’s going to read the journal. You’re not publishing the journal. It’s just to capture something for you to work with later.
[Dan] I think that that’s a good point about poetry in general. I know a lot of people are very intimidated by it. Especially if they have gone through high school English and they have had to learn all the different forms and sonnets and different kinds of things. Poetry does not have to be difficult. Especially when you’re just starting out. Write what you feel. Write what comes to mind. Write down words and sentences that you think are interesting, and don’t worry about trying to conform to an outside structure or anything like that.
[Linda] True. Then I’ve… I can write all the different forms. I do like to play with form. I have a BS in math, and a lot of them are very mathematical. But I have been told that my poetry is very accessible, and I like to think so. I can write as cerebral… That word… As anybody, but…
[Linda] I also have a lot of work, I think people just find interesting and fun, maybe a little.
[Howard] So, BS in math…
[Howard] You have a math background. I roomed with…
[Linda] Math and physics.
[Howard] I roomed with a couple of math majors. I remember one of them, his final exam was “Document the solution to the Rubiks cube.” [Screech] Does that language, because it is a language…
[Linda] It is.
[Howard] Does that inform the wordsmithing you do?
[Linda] It has influenced it greatly, in the sense that I do like to experiment. So I have actually Michael Collins’ book on poetry form. He’s one of the guests here. I find that his definitions and examples of forms, they are quite mathematical. Which is simply a way of defining the rhythms of a poem. So I do like to play with those rhythms. Then, I sit down and write my own, I don’t say, “Oh, I’m going to write a sonnet,” or “I’m going to write this.” I just let it sort of happen. More organic. Unless I’m being asked to write something specific. So I like the mathematical breakdown, which is just a breakdown of rhythm. It’s a good way to get a different kind of sense of music.
[Howard] I’ve… I studied music. I’ve found that the number of syllables and the placement of the accent in words was critically important towards making a punchline work.
[Howard] Usually, there is a word in a punchline, or in the last line of the comic, there is a word that I want to put as close to the end as possible. Which means structuring the sentence in a way that that word actually makes sense at the end. Then restructuring it so the balance of that last line has a cadence that’s funny. For me, it’s very… You said organic. It’s very seat-of-the-pants for me. I don’t have any math for it, I don’t have any formula for it, I just know when it sounds right.
[Linda] Well, I think if you… If you play with it, which is what I’ve done when I first discovered sonnets. I said, “Okay, how is it?” I broke it down, I wrote them, I practiced them. Then it becomes part of a subconscious rhythm that you can draw on. So now, when I write things, and I’ve had people say, “Oh, this is a so-and-so.” I’m like, “Okay…”
[Linda] “That’s fine.” But it’s not that I set up necessarily and said, “I’m going to write this particular thing.” Haiku is slightly different. Haiku does have a very standard definition, but I’ve written enough of them that when I start writing them, again, it’s not something I necessarily have to count out.
[Howard] Our tagline is an accidental haiku.
[Howard] And we found this out, I think, five years into the podcast. I realized, “Oh. That must be why the tagline has been so effective.” “15 minutes long, because you’re in a hurry, and we’re not that smart.”
[Dan] We wish we were smart enough to have done that on purpose.
[Howard] Oh, my gosh, I… Yes.
[Linda] It’s good, though. I like it.
[Howard] But the… I use it as an example, one, because our listeners are familiar with it, and two, because adhering to a form, even unconsciously, is effective for a reason. The form exists because it communicates things to us in a way that the meanings of the words don’t.
[Linda] That’s why I think that… I think poetry is more organic and normal for people than they want to admit. If they allow themselves. Because it’s like music. There’s a reason for… The original storytelling had a certain cadence to it around the fire, just like music. So it’s a natural thing that we’re just afraid of because we been beaten our head in school about it.
[Dan] One of my favorite poems of all time is, again, a piece of found accidental poetry from a physics textbook. “And thus no force, however great, can pull a cord, however fine, into a horizontal line that shall be absolutely straight.”
[Linda] I like it.
[Howard] Holy crap.
[Dan] The mathematician who wrote that had no idea. That’s just how we talk.
[Dan] That’s how we use words. So we’re basically out of time, but I do want to end on this note. That as much as we’ve talked about poetry, and as much as I love poetry, word choice and the music of words and thinking of words as words and not just as things that are there on the page, that applies to everything that you write.
[Dan] Whether it’s a short story, a novel, or a giant Brandon Sanderson dog killing novel, the very specific words that you choose…
[Howard] That’s not because they’re printed out of dogs…
[Howard] It’s because if it falls on the dog…
[Dan] As far as we know.
[Linda] You do know, this is World Horror. I’m not buying that it’s not normal.
[Howard] Okay. Sorry, Brandon.
[Dan] Sorry, Brandon. So, yes. Think about the words you’re using, and think about why you’re using them. Really try to get into that.
[Dan] So, you said that you had a little writing prompt to throw at us at the end?
[Linda] Always. I mean, it may be something I end up building my life poem on today, because I haven’t done it yet, but it’s four words. I would suggest playing with something that starts “Driving through the tears.”
[Dan] I like it. All right. So there’s your writing prompt, dear listeners. You are out of excuses. Now go write.