Guest Blogger Miranda Weiss | Thinking with Words

I don’t
need to reiterate how language is tied to thought. This is a fundamental tenet
of linguistics, isn’t it? That what one can think is bound by what one can put
into words. And, on the flip side, that thought is set free by language. As I
write, I’m not sure whether this is comforting or terrifying. Sure, I have
thousands of words at my disposal, but not as many as some, not nearly as many
as I could have. So as I draft a piece of writing, I make lists of words, words
to help me think, words to help me write.
I heard
that Susan Sontag did this, too. I find that encouraging. I scroll to the
bottom of a draft on my computer screen and make lists of words that I intend
to include in the lines of a piece of writing. I did this exercise countless
times for my book Tide, Feather Snow.
It’s my story of moving to Alaska, of having everything I knew before suddenly
becoming useless. And it’s also about words—how we take in the words of a new
place and how that shapes the way we think and feel about it.
listing practice is more than just a thesaurusy kind of exercise. It’s about
thinking through the nuances of an idea as well as the capaciousness of it.
Which is why,
when conjuring myself as an eleven-year-old playing along the creek behind my
family house in Maryland when I was growing up, I made a list of things
explorers do. They navigate, traverse, map, etc. This helped me create my
character as a kid for an essay that ended up in The
Washington Post
an explorer of culverted creeks and scrawny wooded borders as millions of
periodical cicadas emerged and transformed my suburban neighborhood into what
felt like uncharted territory.
I give Eva
Saulitis—Alaska’s beloved poet biologist and gifted teacher who died this past
January—much of the credit for introducing me to this technique. She was my
first creative writing instructor and in one of the classes I took with her (I
took four or five from her in all), she asked us to make lists of verbs that
belong to various professions: chefs, firefighters, carpenters, etc. This
exercise increases the raw material I have at my disposal. It also helps me
think about extended metaphor and building characters in nonfiction.
Here, give
it a try. Make some lists:
  • Kinds
    of red
  • Verbs
    a surgeon does
  • Synonyms
    for “trash”
  • Ways
    to “say” (e.g. whisper, shout, etc.)

Miranda Weiss is a science and
nature writer who lives in Homer. Her natural history memoir,
Tide, Feather, Snow: A Life in
Alaska, was a bestseller in the Pacific
Northwest. Her
Northern Lights column
about life in and around Homer appears weekly on the website of
American Scholar. In addition, her work
has appeared in
The Washington Post, The Economist, Alaska Dispatch News,
and elsewhere.

1 thought on “Guest Blogger Miranda Weiss | Thinking with Words”

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top