Verbs not adjectives

[This was an email from 2010 that attempted to explain what I had drunkenly been describing to a friend at one of our parties. I failed. But she was terribly nice about it. I found the email later, turned it into a blog post. Then I realized I hadn’t discussed metaphors at all–which I always advise to use sparingly because the reading brain tends to trip over them–and worse yet, couldn’t discuss them. So I decided to do more reading up on metaphors. Now, reading this again, I don’t see why I thought this piece failed, as it works fine without the metaphor discussion. Whatever. This is what happens when college drop outs try to think like smart people.]

Ya know, L., I just remembered we were talking at that party about my verbs-instead-of-adjectives thing. Here’s the LA Weekly piece I was describing:

Lockjaw and Prez made him pick up the saxophone. This was New Orleans. There was a teenaged “Iko, IKo”, the very first. By ’63 he’s in L.A., playing Marty’s every night, and players—Sonny Rollins, everybody—dropping by, sitting in. Steady work with Basie and the Juggernaut and Blue Mitchell. Twenty years with Jimmy Smith. A million sessions for Motown and Stax, and first call for a slew of singers—that’s where you refine those ballad skills, with singers. Live he slips into “In A Sentimental Mood” and everything around you dissolves. There’s just his sound, rich, big, full of history, a little bitter, maybe, blowing Crescent City air. He gets inside the very essence of that tune, those melancholy ascending notes, till it fades, pads closing, in a long, drawn out sigh. You swear it’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever heard, that song, that sound, and you tell him so. He shrugs. “It’s a lifetime of experience” he says, then calls out some Monk and is gone.*

How that piece happened was I asked to do a pick on an upcoming Herman Riley gig at Charlie O’s. He was one of the great tenor saxophonists and yet a virtual unknown. I called him up for a few comments before writing. He spilled for a half hour, his whole life. It was overwhelming. I didn’t dare cut him off. He was one of my heroes. So I just dashed off some notes and then pulled them together. I had 200 words, tops, to work with.  I probably had 400 words first draft. Kept winnowing. Reducing.  Down to the verbs. It’s nearly all verbs, action. I had a real good friend at work I used to instant message all the time, and I became fascinated with how language was used in our messages. By how brief a message could be if reduced to the verbs, and how much of an impact it would have. It could be quite visceral. I was doing a lot of heavy thinking about neurolinguistics then, how language works mechanically in the brain. It seemed to me that action was much more effective than description, and could get across the same info. Furthermore, when you used verbs instead of actions, the brain—by means of mirror neurons—automatically pictures what is being described without any necessary descriptive context—it somehow fills all that  in. That means that virtually no description is needed beyond bare hints. I never say where it is I am seeing him play here, even though that is based upon an actual event (a Charlie O’s gig I had just seen.) But even so, invariably the response from readers was “I felt like I was there”. Where exactly? It doesn’t matter. All that matters is the action.

The brain is more powerfully affected by action than anything else in language. It sees something or even reads about something and the exact same neurons that are used to actually perform the action are stimulated. I just picked up a glass of water. In your mind the exact same neurons that you would use to pick up a glass of water fired off as if they were picking up a glass of water and not me writing that I had. No matter…whether you do it, watch it, or read about it, the effect is the same. And that is why narratives that are based on action instead of description, that describe movement, things take place in time, are so powerful. **

That being said, you have to think about perspective, and not from the point of view of the writer but of the reader. I believe it works this way: if you describe something in first person the reader’s mind has to visualize the action, then interpret it into you taking the action, and then interpreting that action as if they were doing it themselves, and then imagining you doing so, etc, etc. That’s a lot of steps. Third person works the same way pretty much.  Second person, in English, anyway, is impossible to pull off—you do this, you do that, etc. Very cumbersome. Our language is not grammatically designed to pull that off easily (but that’s another lecture….) So I use an implied second person. Everything I do is first person, but I remove myself (by not using the first person pronoun much) and let the reader get the feeling that it is actually he that is doing/seeing/hearing what I describe. Again, this shortens the steps necessary for the brain to interpret what it is reading into understanding.  I’ve noticed that the fewer steps required the faster the language is retrieved by the brain and the more powerful the impact. And good writing is all about impact. You want to move people, you have to increase the visceral impact of the prose. And to do that you need to think about how it is that the brain turns the words you right into thoughts it can visualize. It’s verbs, baby.

The brain is designed for verbs. It sees in verbs. It has instantaneous perception in verbs. Adjectives take extra thinking. You don’t want extra thinking. You want your words to turn themselves into those units of perception that lay beneath language, that existed before language, and you want that process to occur as quickly as possible. Think of porn. The sexual excitement people get viewing it is not literary. It’s older than that. As is love. And just about anything else important. I mean the hell with language. You have to get beneath it. You have to aim for the centers beyond the brain’s language centers, because that is where the feeling is. That is where you move people. And the most direct way to get there is action, verbs.

It interesting to note that vision was initially a matter of detecting motion, indeed a matter of detecting the change in light. If a primitive animal was hiding and suddenly all was light, it meant something might have exposed it in order to eat it. Or if the light suddenly changed to dark, it meant something blocking the light might be there to eat it. This implies movement. Go forward half a billion years or so and amphibians detect movement and not much else. You can see this in a frog to this day. A fly sits on a leave three inches from the frog, the frog can’t see it.  The fly takes flight and zap, it’s the frog’s lunch. Reptiles can see more than amphibians. Mammals more still ***. But the fundamental basis of recognition remains movement.

Adjectives reflect a much more sophisticated vision and awareness of what is being seen. Adjectives require observation and analysis. There is no equivalent of mirror neurons for the kind of information adjectives describe. You watch a tennis player serve the ball, the mirror neurons fire in exactly the same way in your brain as they do in the tennis player’s brain even though you are not actually moving. They reflect the motion. But the neurons that fire to let you know that you are seeing a tennis player with red hair, a blue shirt and a green tennis ball, they do not fire in the same way the tennis player’s does. The only automatic understanding of what you see is the parts of the brain that detect motion, that is action. Those have been firing off in brains for hundreds of millions of years. They are part of the fundamental infrastructure of the brain, much as the hypothalamus deep in the temporal lobe controls the fundamental 4 F’s (feeding, fighting, fleeing and mating) of human and mammalian behavior, and reptilian and amphibian and fish behavior****. That is, going back over half a billion years (though way back when it was not necessarily a hypothalamus per se in other animals, I believe, but the things that evolved into our own hypothalamus). Mirror neurons are also an ancient part of the brain. Information relayed through mirror neurons is understood instantly by the brain. Whatever you write that fires them off will be much more quickly and powerfully–indeed viscerally–responded to by the reader. In fact, you have only to give the absolute barest amount of descriptive detail, since the brain seems to automatically fill that in. If you say you walk into a room and sit in a chair, the reader’s brain automatically seems to provide all the details it needs to understand the scene. The reader gets that “it feels like I’m there” feeling. And nothing gets a response from readers more than prose that makes them feel as if they are part of the action. Makes them feel they are the one actually walking into the room and sitting in a chair. Or sitting in a bar and seeing and hearing a saxophone player.

Plus you should spell good.



* Another popular example was The Infinite Groove, which jazz players particularly responded to. It even made it into my obituary.

**  I suspect that’s how pornography works, incidentally.  A guy watching someone else having sex actually feels that it is he having sex. Mirror neurons.

*** I know I left out fish, birds and invertebrates (especially cephalopods) but since I’m discussing the human brain I was thinking amphibians-reptiles-synapsids-mammals-primates-us.

**** And birds. And synapsids between reptiles and mammals too, obviously.


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