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.
This 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 The American Scholar. In addition, her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Economist, Alaska Dispatch News, and elsewhere.