#AtoZChallenge: K is for Kilimanjaro



Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai ‘Ngaje Ngai,’ the House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.

I studied Ernest Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” some twenty years ago. Since then the image of that leopard has remained with me, a creature exhausted in its way to meet God, a symbol of loyalty and loneliness, to me at least.

I was taught to try to write like Hemingway, to make my language as succinct as possible, without wasting time and energy on unnecessary adjectives and adverbs. It is like writing poetry (or Twitter, as I later discovered) — make your every word count. When you let the words do their job, the imagery will present itself.

Years later I started reading Stephen King, who, in his efforts to encourage all writers to adopt a “simple and straightforward style” (as suggested by Mark Twain), famously proclaimed in On Writing that “Adverb is Not Your Friend”. Indeed, his remarks in this regard have been so frequently quoted, discussed and debated that it seems everybody these days wants to get onto the rooftops and shout, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

However, if you read King’s writings carefully, you will find that he has never told you to remove all the adverbs from your writing. To borrow his words, one dandelion in your lawn can look “pretty and unique”, and one is allowed to use an adverb in dialogue attribution “only in the rarest and most special of occasions”.

Only with fierce self-discipline should writers use adverbs. If you read Hemingway, you will see that a rare appearance of an adverb can create an everlasting emotional impact on readers. Like a supernova, a sudden burst of energy that leaves an impression in the permanent, calm darkness that is the universe. It prints a lingering image in your mind’s eye.

Next time when you have a chance, observe Mr Spock in Star Trek. On that stone-cold rational Vulcan face, if you ever see an eyebrow slightly raised, you know something has gone terribly wrong. That is the dramatic effect you are seeking with the absolutely occasional use of an adverb.


5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. lancequadras
    Apr 13, 2015 @ 21:06:51

    It is only after reading your first 2 lines had i gone to check about Kilimanjaro and the leopard. You have explained it really well. Looking forward to other such thought provoking posts.


  2. loulymar
    Apr 14, 2015 @ 10:37:29

    Excellent post. I tend to use way too many adverbs.


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