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A Writer's Book of Days by Judy Reeves
Judy Reeves : Wordplay


By Judy Reeves

Taking your writing seriously doesn't mean giving up the fun of it. Playing with words — squeezing out the sound of them, arranging them on the page in nonsensical visual dollops — is a delightful way to get some fun back into your work. When your writing begins to feel like manual labor under the August sun, lighten up with these playful tools.

  • Write the words you love (because of the way they look on the page, the way they sound) helter-skelter on a piece of paper. Play with the look of them. Make big loopy Ls and round-as-a-baby's-tummy Os. Use colored pencils or pens. Or crayons. Don't think about which words to write; let your intuitive choose. In this exercise, the meaning of the words doesn't mean diddly. This wordplay activity is about the visual and aural qualities of the words. Each time you play with words, you'll come up with new loves. You're not fickle; you're expansive.
  • Choose one of your words from the previous exercise and use it in a sentence. Now make another sentence with another word. Make a whole paragraph using your words. Read them aloud. Resonate with their sound; savor them in your mouth and as they pass through your ears.
  • See how many words you can come up with for a color, or a taste, or a sound. Try fifty words for the color orange, do twenty-five on drum, sixteen on sweet. Keep these in your notebook so you can refer to them.
  • Create your own thesaurus with these wordplay exercises. Make listings for the color of sky, the shape of clouds, the smell of rain; the contours of chins, noses, eyes; the sounds of laughter, crying, wonder, worry.
  • On index cards or construction paper (something thicker than plain printer paper), make a list of words, either by hand or on your computer, leaving enough space to cut them apart. Use nouns and verbs, a few adjectives. Make a word container out of a cool box or jar or basket. Place the cut-apart words in your container and mix them up. Close your eyes and let your fingers find words to start you on a practice session. Select several to start a poem or create an image. Keep adding words to your word container and keep it nearby as you write.
  • In the midst of a practice session, dig into your jar of words for a word to use in your next sentence. Don't stop to look for a word, or think about how to use it...just go.
  • Poet Susan Wooldridge advised us in her book Poemcrazy to use manuals or reference books to find words. Mine car repair, home repair, woodworking manuals; look in field guides for birds of the Pacific Coast, Appalachian wildflowers, fly-fishing lures, bats, butterflies. Scour cookbooks, pottery books, sewing and glassblowing books.
  • Describe the way something sounds by using color words; write the way something tastes with mood words; use texture words or emotion words or taste words for the weather.
  • Clip words out of magazines and newspapers to make word collages.
  • Open the dictionary to any page and let your eye choose a word to prompt a writing session. Search out unusual words and say them out loud. Take turns with a friend to choose a page number, then find a word on that page to give each other for writing prompts.
  • In your portable notebook, list the words you notice in a day — on a walk, in a café, on menus, marquees, signs, bus boards, and billboards. These could be the beginnings of a found poem. List the words that find their way in through your ears as well as your eyes.
  • Ernest Hemingway wrote, "There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity." Write the names of places. Rivers and towns, rocks, plains, mountains, seas. Secret and sacred places of your own making, public places like beaches and baths, neighborhoods and hideouts.
  • Make a list of the jobs you've had and the verbs that describe the work you performed: hairdresser (wash, style, trim, cut, color, comb), cook (fry, sauté, chop, braise, roast), waitress, bank teller, lawyer, bartender, mechanic, woodworker, massage therapist. Go beyond paying jobs to work you've done at home: painter (mix, stir, spackle, brush, stroke, roll, tape), gardener (dig, spade, plant, transplant, hoe, weed), chauffeur, cook, builder, bricklayer, nurse, seamstress, interior designer.

A number of years ago, the Oxford English Dictionary listed about half a million words, plus another half million technical and scientific terms. These days, unabridged English dictionaries contain 650,000 to 750,000 words. In contrast, German has a vocabulary of about 185,000, and French, fewer than 100,000. But, as they say, it's not about quantity; it's about quality. The right word at the right time.

As writers we make beautiful objects out of a shared and collective experience of language. — Brenda Hillman •

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