Verbs and Nouns Only: avoiding the traps of trope

Barbara Jane Reyes raises a timely and timeless inquiry on a complicated and frustrating issue in her post: “Luis Alberto Urrea, and telling story” on Poeta y Diwata | June 12, 2009. She questions her own critique of Asian American authors when tropes come to play in text.

Reyes writes:
One theme running throughout Urrea’s work is the border, the imposed physical border between the USA and Mexico, the lives of real people and real communities as a result/in spite of this border, its spiritual manifestations which people impose upon one another. Urrea, who is biracial, describes his parents’ home as having a border down the middle, as the two grew more estranged from one another. And rather than rehash his stories here, I wanted to say that I’ve been thinking since then about our telling community stories, how a writer can avoid cliche or spin a commonly used theme such as the border, into stories that are fresh, enjoyable, and engaging, which I think Urrea accomplished yesterday. Read more here

Its difficult enough to be concrete and specific with every painstaking word, image, scene, and story. The art of subtlety feels next to impossible. Compound this with writing about specific ethnic communities and the task to stay true is magnified. Its so easy to generalize with pen and paper. The medium is essentially two-dimensional. How does one go about recreating a three-dimensional world with a paper thin canvas?

If mama is preparing tortillas on the metate, how do we make this act come alive without stumbling into a cliched scene we’ve seen before hundreds if not thousands of times both in real life and on the page? How do we “make it new”? Avoiding cliche is a matter of treading the blade of a knife. Writers try to make a story, an issue, a moment personal for readers, but in order for us to do this we have to be objective with the words we use. The objective makes for the personal. The more we stray from the abstract, avoid generalizations and over-simplifications, and shun sentimentality, the less our work will fall into the traps of Trope.

Every appellation, all attempts for locution must be executed with meticulous care of language. Each word we choose must be measured and weighted against stereotype. We cannot be lazy. We must be vigilant with every stroke of our pen. Cement characters in action. Verbs and nouns only. No adjectives or adverbs allowed. Post this over your writing space. Tattoo it on your hand. Words should invoke flesh and movement. Leave the rest to your reader.


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