Here Be Dragons

By JT Ellison

Here Be Dragons.

Supposedly, on ancient maps, cartographers labeled sections that were unexplored with these three words. It represents the bogeyman, the deepest darkest corner of the closet, the literary equivalent of Do Not Enter. So I take these mythical words, stretch the meaning a bit, and apply them to today’s post.


I recently came into possession of a magnetic poetry kit. The kind that has a ton of words jumbled up with a magnetic backing so you can write poetry on your refrigerator door. I’ve always had fun with this stuff. At parties, we used to start the night with a single word, and every person who went to the fridge was required to add on. It would start off entirely logical, poetic, meaningful, and by the end of the night, would be nonsensical, string after string on words that were utterly discordant.

At the time, under the influence of mankind’s finest inexpensive beverages, it was a riot. In the light of day, not so funny. There was always the one person who had stayed up later than everyone else, who nursed along a broken heart, or a broken soul, who left the saddest imaginable notes hidden in the jumble.

We’re all poets at heart, aren’t we? I know I am. I’m a terrible, horrible poet. Should burn all but one or two of the idiotic crapola I wrote in college. Yet every once in a while, the spirit moves me, and I try my hand. It’s god awful stuff that I end up deleting.

So I thought it would be fun to have my own little game of poetry on the refrigerator. No pressure, nothing of importance. Just another way to play with words, which is my dearest passion. I break out the kit, tear things apart, careful to keep the three letter words separate from the fours and fives, separate the multiple I’s from the Am’s and Me’s, etc.

Ready, Freddy.

My first foray into this new game pleases me.

Life is a languid symphony of never and always.

Sigh. How pretty. I leave this on the refrigerator and go to bed, a love note of sorts for my husband.

The following morning, I come downstairs, knowing that hubby be playing the game, will have left me a note. Something to compliment my beautiful phraseology perhaps, or an entirely new sentence will have emerged. Maybe it will be romantic, maybe it will be wistful. Maybe it will give me an idea that causes an eruption of like-minded words and similes that will keep me happy for the rest of the day.

I knew he’d leave me a note. And he did. It read, and I quote:

Smell my finger.

Have I ever mentioned hubby was an economics major?

Once I picked myself up off the kitchen floor, wiped the tears from my eyes, called him to compliment his sarcasm and admit he tickled my funny bone, a thought occurred to me.

It’s fitting, really. We can write the purple, flowery prose with a capital P all day long. We can pour our hearts out onto the page, examine and impress ourselves with our imagery, our command of the language. But it’s the short, sweet stuff that makes the most sense, cuts through the bullshit and makes our writing tight and spare.

I’d like to think that I have a literary style to my writing. But I also try to keep the sentences short, punchy, to the point. It is possible to have both. I think. Which is what I mean about here be dragons. As a writer, I feel like I need to get better, to take chances, to work myself to death finding the most sophisticated yet approachable terms and descriptions. I think we all move off into uncharted territory daily, coming up with new, better phrases, finding different ways to relate our thoughts to the reader.

What about you? Are you a slave to metaphor, or do you prefer the slam, bam, thank you ma’am approach? And who does either style the best?

Wine of the Week:
2005 Renato Ratti Torriglione Barbera d’Alba

19 thoughts on “Here Be Dragons

  1. Naomi

    I enjoy both. Finally read Kate Atkinson’s CASE HISTORIES and it’s your classic literary novel, beautiful prose with a unique rhythm, amusing metaphors and descriptions. The story sagged for me in the middle, but quickly redeemed itself in the end. I’m finishing THE VIRGIN OF SMALL PLAINS now and it has different qualities. A more straight-forward mystery (although there’s jumping in time and no formal detective in the traditional sense), it features assured taut writing with a clear plotline that doesn’t meander. Both were page turners for me.

    It seems like a lot of journalist-types write more simple prose, a discipline sharpened through their former profession. (Your finger smeller is a journalist, right?) As a writer, I read both kinds of books for the magic of words and the muscle of plot.

  2. toni mcgee causey

    I took Faulkner and Hemingway courses back-to-back and the experience was almost like whiplash. Both work. Their effects, though, were significantly different. I like different choices in rhythm in the same way I want variety in music. Hip hop to waltz–depends on the mood of the story as to what’s needed.

  3. Louise Ure

    Great post, JT. And your husband’s response-note is a howl.

    I have a story.

    I just did a presentation last weekend to a small group at a library in Gilroy, California. All the attendees were writing — one a memoir, one childrens’ books, one short stories.

    An older man sat at my right. Strong, weathered, with hard-shelled hands. He said he was a farm worker, an immigrant from Mexico, and had been taught to read and write for the first time in his life only three years ago.

    He was writing poetry.

    He showed me his work. It’s the most powerful — raw, passionate, intense — stuff I’ve ever read.

    No word was more than one syllable.

  4. Candace Salima

    I really prefer a balance between the two styles. I know Faulkner and Hemingway are held up as some of the greatest writers, and to their credit, they ruled the literary world.

    I prefer, write and teach, a three-dimensional style of writing that touches on each of the senses.

  5. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I’m with Candace – I prefer a balance. A lean and fast moving story with beautiful language. Obvious example – Ken Bruen.

    I’m reading Elizabeth Hand right now – WAKING THE MOON, and oh, is the language gorgous, it’s giving me fits of jealousy.

  6. billie

    I’m reading Marianne wiggins’ Evidence of Things Unseen now, and she does a wonderful job of writing beautifully but the dialog in particular is lean and potent and speaks volumes in very few words.

    Cormac McCarthy is another favorite of mine who manages to be both lush and spare at the same time.

    I tend to write lush and then pare that down to a leaner final draft.

  7. JT Ellison

    Yay! Internet!

    The wonderful by-product of this post are the book recommendations. I’m sneaky, aren’t I?

    David, I know some drunk English majors too! Thankfully Hubby is more moderate in his habits.

    Naomi, Hubs did work at a paper for a long while. He pointed out last night that he is very creative, thank you very much. He was stymied in his efforts to look for Pull.

    Toni, funny thing, I can’t get through Faulkner, but love Hemingway. White Elephants, spare, tight, devastating.

  8. JT Ellison

    Louise, do you have an internal radar that draws fascinating people to you? There are people with that talent, and I wonder if it’s an unseen vibe or just the highly underrated ability to listen.

    Candace, good to see you here! Love to hear more about that teaching style…

    Pari — And then I edit. Amen, sister!!!

    Alex, I need to get that one. I’ve just finished THE POST-BIRTHDAY WORLD by Lionel Shriver. Loved it. Sipped it because I was consumed with fits of jealousy at her ability to evoke, her depth of language, the vast imagination that came up with the parallel stories.

    Yet by the end, I was ready for a straightforward story with no muss, no fuss. Moved on to Stephanie Meyer’s TWILIGHT. I was blown away, it’s definitely not simple, but it’s forward. I love it.

  9. billie

    Stephanie Meyer’s series is on my list. I did this terrible thing while away writing this past time – started FIVE books at once and read a bit of each every day. Then I came home and freaked. I’m a one book at a time reader normally and once back in the real world having five going blew my mind.

    Now I’m stuck on Marianne Wiggins (not one of the original 5, which means those are still on hold) b/c the writing is so gorgeous and the dialog so potent, every time I open the book I go back to the beginning and start it all over again just to re-experience it. I read further in each time, but I’ve still not cracked the first hundred pages!

    I think I’m trying to have an epiphany with regards to POV and dialog, vis a vis this novel.

    And I’m off on a tangent here.

    Spare and lush at the same time. That’s my new mantra.

  10. toni mcgee causey

    Oh, I completely agree on the balance; I was holding those guys up as the extremes.

    It’s funny about Faulkner — I had a course in his works and didn’t have a problem with it. A year or so later, I tried reading another of his works I’d missed and couldn’t get through two pages for the density. Apparently I can do it if it’s for a grade.

    I wish I could write poetry, though. I’ve tried; burned most of it.

  11. JT Ellison

    Will, PDD? Is there a medicine for that???

    Billie, I read multiple novels at once. I have to. Unless it’s a Big Book, to which I will allocate all my time (like Rowling, or Gabaldon, or Child) the rest I normally split up — one in the car, the bathroom, the living room, my office, the bedroom. I snatch here and there. If I don’t read while I’m writing, I wilt.

    Toni, I think Bobbie Faye needs to write some poetry. ; )

  12. Fran

    Daniel Woodrell’s “Winter’s Bone” – so raw it bleeds, but the imagery is sheer poetry.

    Never knock the economist/engineer types! Long ago, my best friend and I attended a theme party. The theme was “explorers” and she and I went as “sexual researchers”. We came up with a five page questionaire filled with truly absurd questions. We left the theatre party that was the original themed party and went to one thrown by engineers.

    The engineers’ answers left the theatre folks in the dust! I think there’s a hidden creativity in people who are practical in their everyday lives, and I adore it!

  13. spyscribbler

    Oh wow, JT! That’s priceless!

    I have a closet obsession with haiku. BAD haiku. I can’t help it, but I love writing it, even though it sucks. And that 5/7/5 thing? I don’t even bother to get that right, LOL!

    I love MJ Rose’s voice. It’s erotic, the way she uses words, and yet nothing is ever purple.


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