Ann Voskamp remembers when she watched her sister die. It was a delivery truck. The driver sat at their kitchen table afterward and cried and said he didn't see her, he didn't see her. She remembers how her parents held the body in a blanket, how they prayed she would wake up, how the blood seeped through the blanket.
Thus begins Voskamp's One Thousand Gifts, a book about how to live fully, experience more joy; about how to be thankful, even for the mundane, even for the tragedies. You don't forget stories, and if you can prove your point with stories, you can teach people more effectively than if you just told them what to do.
And, by the way, Voskamp is a poet.
Later, she writes about her home and says, “A child tromps in, boots still on, with a chestful of mail.” Can you think of a more effective word than tromps to describe a child with boots on? I can see him perfectly.
Cut Your ‘The's
About a quarter of the way through the book I stopped reading. Did she really just do that? I thought. Here is the paragraph that struck me:
The crusted pan that baked the chocolate-melt bars slides off the tower of bowls crashes to the floor. Pick it up and watch it sink into sink.
I found that last part, “sink into sink,” open-your-mouth-and-furrow-your-brow fascinating. Not because she plays with the double meaning of sink, but because she drops her article.
I am by no means a grammar snob, unlike our esteemed copy editor Liz Bureman, but an article, as I understand it, is the “a,” “an,” or “the” before a noun.
Voskamp should have said, “Watch it sink into the sink,” but she doesn't. She cuts out the ‘the' altogether and, by doing so, gives the sentence a wonderful rhythm.
Here is another example:
To have the time to grab the jacket off the hook and time to go out to all air and sky and green and time to wonder at all of them in all this light, this time refracting in prism.
It should be, “…and time to go out to all the air and sky and green… this time refracting in a prism.”
But she drops the “the” and the “a.”
Why? What purpose does it serve?
Three Reasons to Drop Your Articles
I don't know for sure, but I have three different theories as to why Ms. Voskamp dropped those articles:
First of all, it surprises the reader. You expect articles, and if they're absent, it makes you pay more attention. You have to pay more attention.
2. To Lend Her Prose Childlike Energy
Also, it reminds me of how a child talks, and by imitating a child, she colors her writing with joy and energy.
3. To Be Like Plato
This might be a stretch, but by dropping the article it almost makes the sink, the sky, and the prism a proper noun, as in I am Joe. I don't have to say I am the Joe. I don't need an article in front of my name because it's a proper noun.
And there is something Platonic about making a regular sink into a proper noun. It is almost as if she is turning her ordinary sink into Sink, the Sink Form in heaven that all other sinks are fashioned after.
So, in honor of Mr. Plato and Ms. Voskamp, today let's drop all our articles. For fifteen minutes, write about the following prompt. Cut out all your “the”s and “a”s and “an”s. See if it turns your everyday ingredients into something slightly more extraordinary.
PROMPT: Write about the last meal you cooked, starting with the shopping experience. Write about buying the ingredients, chopping the onions, sautéing the chicken, and stirring the broth (and don't forget to drop your articles).
Post your practice in the comments.