Word Craft and Wood Craft

Longtime nonfiction writer Larry Cheek, who wrote for national magazines like Arizona Highways, learned something of life and craft as he used his hands to build a thirteen-foot sailing dinghy in his garage.

His slow learning and adept noticing, his quiet, patient work along with his frustrations and discouragement, letting his hands learn the feel of wood—when it’s wet enough to bend or dry enough to glue. His hands learned; he learned. And over a year’s time, his hands built his sailboat, Far From Perfect, that in full sail transported him to the dock at Whidbey Island, ready to teach MFA-level writers about writing craft.

Cheek’s woodworking lessons, recorded in his book The Year of the Boat, echo lessons about word working.

Woodcraft teaches how to hone the lip of a piece of wood to fit with another, how to sand and smooth so splinters will not ruin your next voyage. Story craft teaches how to listen so hard to words that you hear beneath them—their cadence, their musicality. How you use dialogue and plot and characterization. How you use words to describe, to bring to life the world of story.

The Famous Brian Doyle and His Masterful Word Play

His hands fluttered. The Pacific Northwest writer—middle height and slight with a feathered do from the 90s—was about to address the MFA students who had filled Captain Whidbey’s Inn. I worried. Could this nervous guy do it? I was to learn: boy, could he. Here was no ordinary writer. This was Brian Doyle.

Doyle, who succumbed to brain cancer last year, knew how to speak. He knew how to write, too. Doyle upped the standard of university magazines and anthologies with his whimsical insights. He was, after all, the master of word play.

For example, his stunning lyrical essay, “Joyas Voladoras,” teaches me. It teaches me the value of a wandering structure minus the enumerated transitions indoctrinated into us by English professors everywhere (like me).

What first reads like a nature article on the wonders of hummingbirds soon moves to its focus:  hearts. The blue whale heart—the largest heart—is explored, and then the human heart. All along in his meandering musings, he’s showing me word play.

Take this sentence about the blue whale: “[The baby blue whale] is waaaaay bigger than your car. It drinks a hundred gallons of milk from its mama every day and gains two hundred pounds a day, and when it is seven or eight years old it endures an unimaginable puberty and then it essentially disappears from human ken, for next to nothing is known of the mating habits, travel patterns, diet, social life, language, social structure, diseases, spirituality, wars, stories, despairs and arts of the blue whale.”

Did you see Doyle’s word play? “Waaaaay,” “mama,” “unimaginable puberty” and so on. We won’t even mention that the sentence held 70 words, which breaks William Zinsser’s readability caution by about 50 words.

So, Doyle offers a gem while breaking composition rules, spelling rules, readability rules. And I love it! (Just don’t tell my students.)