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June 25th, 2012 / 8:01 am
Craft Notes

Another way to generate text #5: “synonym clusters”

Me & my friend, back when.

This one’s easier to do than the dictionary clusters, but similar in principle. First, you look up a word in a thesaurus and collect every synonym for it. Then you write through that cluster of words.

Let’s try it with “bald.” Synonyms include:

bald, baldheaded, bare, bare-bones, bareskinned, barren, bleak, clean, denuded, depilated, disrobed, divested, dour, exposed, glabrous, hairless, head, in one’s birthday suit, naked, nude, peeled, plain, primitive, rustic, severe, shaven, shorn, simple, skin head, smooth, spare, spartan, stark, stripped, subdued, unadorned, unclad, unclothed, uncovered, undressed, unembellished, unrobed, vanilla

(To get this list, I copied the first three entries at Thesaurus.com into Notepad, then deleted all the extra text, then arranged the synonyms alphabetically in Excel, then deleted all the duplicate entries.)

Now let’s write something with that:

I slept with a bald woman once.

Using a simple line she picked me up and took me back to her place, a rustic cabin. Those digs were spartan. Her decorations were simple. The four walls and ceiling and floor were unadorned. The paint, a plain color, had long ago peeled away. The floor was stark. The bed was bare-bones, just a mattress on the floor. Once there she did away with all formalities. “Strip,” she said, so I stripped. I undressed. I took off all my clothes. I made myself unclothed. I uncovered myself. At last I was unclad, unrobed, unembellished. I stood before her bare-skinned, naked, in my birthday suit. I was nude. For the next five seconds I felt exposed. Then she did the same and once disrobed she completely subdued me. Her body was just as bare as her head. Every part of her lovely physique was smooth. I asked her if she were a Nazi skinhead. She shook her depilated head and said it was simpler to keep clean that way. Then, assuming a severe look, she pushed me onto the mattress. Assuming a dour look, she fell on top of me. She said not to worry about a condom; she was barren. I entered her bare-skinned. The whole act was pretty vanilla. Throughout, I couldn’t help thinking bleak thoughts. Not being shaven myself I wondered what she saw in me. I worried about her thoughts, which were hardly transparent. Would I wake up like Samson, denuded? At last we’d divested ourselves of our passion, such as it was. Shorn of restless desire, we slept. Come morning I woke up still hirsute, but she’d taken off. I stole a crust of bread and left. Sometime later, I entered the monkhood. On every ninth day, I spare her a thought.

leftover words: baldheaded, glabrous

This technique has the benefit of remaining pretty focused, since you’re dealing with so much similar language. (Although its downside is that lots of starting words will yield roughly the same word lists.)

Also, obviously, while I certainly tried to, I didn’t feel obliged to use every word. I consider these techniques generative, useful for stimulating the mind, and not constraints, as in the Oulipo, whose total obedience is necessary for the work’s formal completion and therefore artistic success.

I used a variation on this technique to write one of my stories: “You’ll Be Sorry.” And both that piece and the above provide examples of something I’ll talk about in my next Shklovsky post, the concept of “tautological parallelisms.”

Until then, go crazy, go daffy, go loco, go kooky, go loony, go mental, go nuts, go off the deep end, go off the wall, go off your rocker, lose it, wig out, freak out, go psycho, blow your stack, crack up, flip your lid, flip out, blow a gasket, fly off the handle, go ballistic, go berserk, go batty, go bonkers, go wacko, go cuckoo, go bananas, lose your cool, lose control of yourself, lose your mind, blow your mind, go haywire, and have fun.

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