Active Adverbs

Whenever things don’t go well on the writing front — that is, I find myself doing anything but writing when I’m supposed to be doing exactly that — I pick up my copy of The Collected Stories of Richard Yates.  He’s been my corrective for quite some time.

He’s a deceptively simple writer, a master of the unfettered prose.  And I swear, every time I read him again, I pick up something new.  Like here, a passage from the first story in the collection, “Doctor Jack-o’-Lantern.”  The story is about a new kid in class and his teacher, who thinks she’s helping him out, except she’s accomplishing exactly the opposite.

The last children to leave would see him still seated apologetically at his desk, holding his paper bag, and anyone who happened to straggle back later for a forgotten hat or sweater would surprise him in the middle of his meal — perhaps shielding a hard-boiled egg from view or wiping mayonnaise from his mouth with a furtive hand. It was a situation that Miss Price did not improve by walking up to him while the room was still half full of children and sitting prettily on the edge of the desk beside his, making it clear that she was cutting her own lunch hour short in order to be with him.

Adverbs are bad, we are told.  And yet, “seated apologetically at his desk” and “sitting prettily on the edge of the desk” — these adverbs are so active, so alive, that I think no, you absolutely can and should use adverbs, just like this.  Sparingly, strategically deployed.

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