If my kids were to make a talking doll of me as a mother, one of my recorded phrases would be 'I will throw that in the trash.' 'If you don't put that down right now, I will throw that in the trash.' It's very funny to hear myself say certain things - like noticing which phrases become the most popular to use.
I'm pretty good at inventing phrases - you know, the sort of words that suddenly make you jump, almost as though you'd sat on a pin, they seem so new and exciting even though they're about something hypnopaedically* obvious. But that doesn't seem enough. It's not enough for the phrases to be good; what you make with them ought to be good too.
Life is so diversified that to any statement I could make about living organisms there are exceptions. Because of the many exceptions, I should qualify everything I say with hedging phrases such as 'generally, ' 'usually, ' and 'almost always' But I'm afraid the constant repetition of these hedges will slow me down and bore you. So let's make a pact now that I forego the hedging phrases and you are to understand that almost all my statements may have rare exceptions.
I need a little language such as lovers use, words of one syllable such as children speak when they come into the room and find their mother sewing and pick up some scrap of bright wool, a feather, or a shred of chintz. I need a howl; a cry. When the storm crosses the marsh and sweeps over me where I lie in the ditch unregarded I need no words. Nothing neat. Nothing that comes down with all its feet on the floor. None of those resonances and lovely echoes that break and chime from nerve to nerve in our breasts making wild music, false phrases. I have done with phrases.
Alice leaned first one way and then the other, down the line of children. She said, Is everybody understanding this?" One child said, "The misuse of power is the root of all evil?" Alice said, "Well... " Another child said, "There is no justice on the earth?" Alice said, "Well... " Another child said, "We are all alone in the world?" Alice said, "Well... " Another child said, "The greatest depth of our loss is the beginning of true freedom?" Alice said, "Well... " Another child said, "The disposal of human waste is the responsibility of the brokenhearted?" These were all phrases Alice had put on the chalkboard after other field trips. It occurred to Alice, hearing these phrases now, that she might have attempted to do too much with a class of fourth graders. She was willing to admit to some excesses. Alice said, "Just listen.
Like prepositional phrases, certain structural arrangements in English are much more important than the small bones of grammar in its most technical sense. It really wouldn't matter much if we started dropping the s from our plurals. Lots of words get along without it anyway, and in most cases context would be enough to indicate number. Even the distinction between singular and plural verb forms is just as much a polite convention as an essential element of meaning. But the structures, things like passives and prepositional phrases, constitute, among other things, an implicit system of moral philosophy, a view of the world and its presumed meanings, and their misuse therefore often betrays an attitude or value that the user might like to disavow.
When a writer first begins to write, he or she feels the same first thrill of achievement that the young gambler or oboe player feels: winning a little, losing some, the gambler sees the glorious possibilities, exactly as the young oboist feels an indescribable thrill when he gets a few phrases to sound like real music, phrases implying an infinite possibility for satisfaction and self-expression. As long as the gambler or oboist is only playing at being a gambler or oboist, everything seems possible. But when the day comes that he sets his mind on becoming a professional, suddenly he realizes how much there is to learn, how little he knows.
As a songwriter, I'm gathering clues and possibilities all the time, whether I see a piano that day or not. I've tried to explain to people how I collect these dispatches, because I think anybody can do what I'm talking about. Once I do plug in, I might get only one line and two bar phrases of the melody. I always have elements of songs around that may never ever get recorded. As far back as Little Earthquakes, I began to realize that I needed to have a library of notes, phrases, words, things that might prove useful at any given time. Within a few months' time I'll gather hundreds of those fragments. Half won't be used. And then the craft comes in, the part that is about painting a world. You want listeners to smell the lavender, to feel the point of those knitting needles in a handbag of the granny who happens to harbor a loyalty to Madame Defarge. You want the listener to know the wood's burning in the stove when they walk into the song with me. Music is about all of your senses, not just hearing.