In my undergrad writing class: Advance writing, my teacher told us to dig out our manuscripts we were about to hand in and asked us to go through and cirlce all the “was’s” that we could find. Change your manuscript to exclude them.
We had beautified our stories and visibly shuddered as we took our red, purple, black, orange or chartreuse pens to cross out every “was” we found, which I can tell you were many!
No one dare ask why in that class. We just did. Here’s something I had written:
“Engagements are applauded. Weddings are revered. Divorces tend to dissolve one’s existence.” It’s something I threw away. I started over after this and wrote a highly detailed dissolution of my marriage that was later published. I started out with was and are, but I ended up with “dissolve.”
I am reading The Death of the Heart and keep thinking of the main character, Portia, wiggling into a damp dress in a damp house by the seaside. It’s so tactile, I wonder if Elizabeth Bowen ever had to sit and take out her “was’s?”
“A black night wind was up and Waikiki (name of beach house) breasted it steadily, straining like a liner: every fixture rattled. This all went to heighten a pre-party tensity of the nerves. Portia wormed her way into her black velvet, which, from hanging only behind a curtain, had taken on a briny dampness inside: the velvet clung to her skin above her chemise top…She was first downstairs and, squatting on the tiled kerb in front of the fire, heard the chimney roar. With arms raised from the elbows, like an Egyptian, she turned and toasted her body, feeling the clammy velvet slowly un-stick from between her shoulder blades.”
Okay, yes, we do have some “was’s” in this passage, but look at all those yummy active verbs. “Wormed,” and “rattled” and “taken on” and “toasted’ and “un-stick.” There’s also “briny dampness” and “clammy” velvet.
I’ve had the great luck of being a nanny for a family with a seaside house. What? You own a seaside house? Can I visit? At any rate, the clamminess is spot on. Everything takes on salt. I remember that fine line between being annoyed by the sound of the sea and being lulled by it. I want to take the next flight to a rocky crag of a beach line in England, so I can do what I love to do with reading and that is experience the synchronicity of the exact surroundings of the book I’m reading at the time. It’s a rare occurrence, but delicious. Actively seeking the surroundings in which a book was written is perhaps the nerdiest goal I have. I allow myself all the was’s of a writing moment, though. It’s through the “was” and “are” that we get to “wormed.”
Somehow, I think Ms. Bowen didn’t have to cross out a single “was” for this one.