Home > Uncategorized > “Explore and Heighten”: Magic Words From a Playwright

“Explore and Heighten”: Magic Words From a Playwright

When a piece I’m writing needs a little more … something, I call to mind these three powerful words: explore and heighten. I owe this incantation to playwright Alan Gross, who practically chanted it during a workshop that I attended one summer during my college years. Whatever I’m writing, this phrase invariably nudges the content that oh-so-helpful extra bit further.

For example, while working on a project for Nike, I find out that my desk phone is made of material from recycled NFL helmets. Too perfect. Got to tell friends about this. I draft a message:

Check it out—my Nike phone is made of old football helmets.

Then those magic words come to me as if the playwright himself is whispering them in my ear. Explore and heighten. 

Phone … helmet … put one on, pull it down over my ears … am I wearing the phone? … this phone is my helmet … I am a formidable phone-calling foe … who is my opponent? … I hate being on hold … endless marketing hype … why can’t they get some new music? … waste of time … makes me want to hurt someone …

I return to my message:

Check it out—my Nike phone is made of old football helmets. Don’t mess with me when I’m talking on this sucker. All those blasted answering machines out there can put themselves on hold from now on. I make a call, it’s going through.

A classic explore-and-heighten comes from the Monty Python dead-parrot sketch. Mr. Praline (John Cleese) walks into a pet shop, bird cage in hand, to complain to the shop owner (Michael Palin), that the parrot he bought a half hour earlier is, and for some time has been, decidedly dead. Over and over Praline pleads his case. Over and over the shop owner insists, ridiculously, that the bird lives. For example, he claims that the bird is simply “pining for the fjords” of its native Norway. An exasperated Praline launches into a tirade of explored-and-heightened phrases:

Mate, this bird wouldn’t “voom” if you put four million volts through it! ’E’s bleedin’ demised! ….  ’E’s not pinin’! ’E’s passed on! This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! ’E’s expired and gone to meet ’is maker! ’E’s a stiff! Bereft of life, ’e rests in peace! If you hadn’t nailed ’im to the perch, ’e’d be pushing up the daisies! ’Is metabolic processes are now ’istory! ’E’s off the twig! ’E’s kicked the bucket, ’e’s shuffled off ’is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible! ’E’s [bleep]in’ snuffed it!….. THIS IS AN EX-PARROT!!

“Well and good for Monty Python,” you might think, “but the stuff I write involves a little less drama and far fewer dead birds.” I’m with you. But all of us spin out the occasional sentence or paragraph that’s somehow lacking—thin or unclear or mundane. We all make readers yawn or tilt their heads in puzzlement from time to time. Those are the times to invoke the magic of the mantra.

To give you an idea of how this mantra works for me, let me replay the Nike example in slow motion. I’ve drafted my original statement. I like its simplicity, but I don’t want to send it out yet. I sense potential. I relax, breathe. Explore! My sentence, that just-okay stretch of text, opens up. It becomes something palpable, something that I can crawl into. I feel it around my shoulders as I slip in, like a spelunker slipping into a small cave. I’m in a wonderland of half-seen crannies and cavities and side chambers. This space is pure possibility. I look around, expecting—knowing—that discoveries lurk just out of view. Now, heighten! Phone … helmet … put one on, pull it down over my ears … am I wearing the phone? … this phone is my helmet … I am a formidable phone-calling foe … who is my opponent? … hate being on hold … endless marketing hype … why can’t they get some new music? … waste of time … makes me want to hurt someone …  snap on the chinstrap … whose voice is that? … sounds distinctly like my husband … “Marcia! Get that phone on and get in there! Tell the quarterback to run dive-five-right. The left tackle pulls, blindsides the answering system, knocks it flat. Go straight through the line of clerks and into the secondary … you’ll pick up ten, twelve yards easy.”

Explore and heighten. Of course these words possess no magic in themselves. They can’t transform a single word. But they can usher you straight into your imagination, the place where ideas are born, where power finds its source, where the best sentences and paragraphs you will ever write wait for you.

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  1. Doug Eaton
    January 10, 2012 at 5:43 am

    “Explore and heighten”–I like it. It reminds me of Peter Elbow’s free-writing approach that I once used to get eighth graders to do the same thing. I love the way this mantra took you to, “I make a call, it’s going through.” (Consider an exclamation point, though.) A marketeer’s dream come true.

    • January 10, 2012 at 5:22 pm

      Doug, You’re the second person to say that something I’ve written reminds you of Peter Elbow. I’ve never read anything of his, but I like him already.

      As for the exclamation point suggestion, just the other day I was reading William Zinsser (“On Writing Well”) on that very punctuation mark. He’s among the voices urging writers to avoid exclamation points in favor of letting “the order of the words put the emphasis where you want it.” I like the way Zinsser phrases this argument: Exclamation points “rob readers of the pleasure of making the discovery themselves” (of the joke, of the irony, etc.). I agree with him, but even so, I got a little crazy here and used italics. You can see that it was hard for me to hold back. I mean, to hold back!

      Enjoyed hearing from you. Please keep the suggestions coming.

  2. Wendy Hood
    January 10, 2012 at 11:31 am

    What fun! If I had a phone made of recycled football helmets could I write like this? Thanks for the encouragement that there are great paragraphs out there quivering with excitement, waiting for me to come along and write them! I can’t wait to release them into the lineup and see how far they go.

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