Sherbet Trees and Language Playgrounds

dawntreeOne of my favorite times of day starts just before dawn, when the sky begins to lighten from the indigo of night. The back of my property ends in a deep ravine, its steep sides stacked with lean pin oaks, red maples, elms, and ashes. Those trees, winter-bare, their branches like veins against the now-azure backdrop, are the stage upon which a quiet show commences.

First, the topmost branch tips go from black to charcoal. If a wind is blowing, the slender twigs seem to scribe themselves like brushes against their cerulean canvas, arcing back and forth in a placid expression of abstract art. As dawn gathers itself, the inky black trunks, flat silhouettes against the air, resolve into coarse detail. The sun announces itself by painting the somber bark a faint ruby-gold.

Beginning at the branch tips, this orange glow—what Liz, my significant other (and also an author), likens to sherbet—flows down and down the bark, moment by moment, until the east side of every tree is alive with morning color. Living on a hill as I do, the upstream trees get their golden adornment before those farther down slope.

Through the trees on the far side of the gully is a farmer’s field, plowed now as it awaits spring planting. The dull red clay picks up the blush of the sherbet and turns a brilliant burnt sienna, seeming almost to be its own light source.

The trees glow brighter and brighter, the sun chasing away the darkness and reasserting itself over the land. Now the trunks vibrate like polished gold, the long shadows they cast retreating back towards their lofty creators.

And it’s time to go to work.

Playing with words all day is a privilege. I feel like I go to a playground for language, where some words are easy to get along with, while others always have to take the ball and run away. My job is to enjoy how the agreeable words flow from the keyboard onto the screen, while coaxing the rascals and teases to harmonize.

Sometimes, no matter what, they won’t. Some words gather into cliques and stand by the swing set yelling at everyone else. Okay, so do they get ignored? There’s always the “delete” key.

Rather, if a phrase—or even a raucous paragraph—jumps up and down, shouting at the top of its lungs, I try to listen through the noise to what it’s telling me. Maybe things have been going too easily, and—rather than being a bully—this phrase or paragraph is an excited Muse, trying to get my attention by banging a rock on the metal bars of the jungle gym.

I’m a “pantser”. That is, a writer who writes by the seat of said pants, as it were. I used to plot and outline and agonize, and I recall planning one novel in particular: a four-by-eight-foot dry erase board (in the days before OneNote, Evernote, and Scrivener), covered with every minutiae of event that would occur in that particular story. And you know what happened when I went to write it?

It was boring.

Oh, the story itself was perfectly serviceable, but I was bored. All the fun had gotten sucked out of it by all my outlining and planning. There were no surprises left; the characters existed merely to fulfill each ensuing step in my meticulous blueprint.

Don’t get me wrong—I know most of the broad strokes, major events, beginnings, and endings that will occur in my stories before I type the first word. And certainly I use OneNote to record ideas and keep track of who is where, and wearing what. But other than that, I get to know the characters in much the same way readers do: a bit at a time. That way, they surprise me with what they come up with, and, I trust, are more delightful to my readers.

Liz loves to outline, and that is her process. Her characters are fresh, and quirky, and you never know what they will say or do next. That works for her. Pantsing works for me. The writing process is a lot like a fingerprint: no two alike.

For me, if I set it in my mind that the sherbet trees would look the same every single day, I might never enjoy that morning glow-show ever again. But every day it seems at least a little different. Is it because the trees have grown a millimeter since the day before, and now the shadows fall where they did not the previous day? Is the sun moving more northward for the coming spring? Is the breeze stronger or weaker today than yesterday? Am I perhaps standing just an inch or two to the left of my position the previous day? Am I well-rested and energetic, or sleep-deprived and grumpy?

All those variables make every day a fresh marvel, both for the trees, and the words.

*****

Sherbet Trees and Language Playgrounds
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