editing

Feeling your way

September 28, 2016 | 10 Comments

Revise, he said

June 1, 2016 | 18 Comments

When you ask someone to read your work, I tell students, convey what concerns you have. Readers tend to report what they noted anyway, maybe errors underscoring their own expertise. Which often consists of the baggage they carry from past English teachers—rules of thumb enforced as rules. “I was taught never to use a sentence fragment!” “You can’t begin a sentence with and.” “Semicolons look too fussy.” So, I say to my classes, “Be sure to get your questions addressed.”

My students seem to receive their best advice from people who regularly write. In the college setting, this means other students. On average, any student writes much more than the typical American. Students in the same writing class tend to convey the sharpest insights, of course, since they also know that particular genre. People lacking confidence as readers usually don’t do much writing themselves—especially “creative” writing: any kind of essay, narrative or personal journalism, poems, stories. Which means, I think, they doubt their own experience of reading the work. Maybe they think it’s their fault when they trip over infelicities. Or they wonder about gaps or TMI but, unaware of how much rethinking writers do, assume content is fixed.

Historically, taste has been developed by steady, close reading of quality stories, poems, essays, and novels. Every reader helps, though. Suggesting one better word is huge. The most comprehensive reader of my work I’ve ever had was a fellow teacher. She taught literature and composition and also published scholarly essays. She read a lot of good books, both classics and current; she constantly graded and edited student essays; all the while, she worked to make her own writing clear, colloquial, trenchant. The judgment and technical expertise she brought to bear on my work was humbling. But one person, even if she’s a great editor, isn’t enough. Everyone catches something. At least three readers seems ideal.

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Reading as writers

April 6, 2016 | 17 Comments

Gay Talese’s essay in the current New Yorker, “The Voyeur’s Motel,” makes me wish I were still teaching journalism. It’s about a man who bought a motel near Denver in the late 1960s so he could spy on guests, which he did for decades. It’s creepy and horrifying, his behavior and Talese’s tale, but you can’t look away. Or stop thinking about the man and what he saw with his wife, including their aim, sex, but also lots of disquieting behavior, including a murder. Talese’s pleasurable-but-ethically-problematic account is over 30 pages. Yet students would gobble it up like candy.

Reading this compelling narrative essay coincided with my recent brooding about reading. This involves mine and the reading I assign to students. Most people seem to read largely to seek pleasure. Do we grow by tackling more difficult work? Probably—but so what, for casual readers? For students, must I stick with something that’s obviously genius but to them not very enjoyable? Since I read largely as a writer now, I’ve agreed to the harder path, but most students haven’t.

After my share of classroom disasters, I’ve learned to meet students where they are. Which means assigning books, essays, and stories that they’ll love. I also must admire them, of course. Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life is genius and so is Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. Which do you think a class of eighteen year olds would actually read? Most undergraduates, even many writing majors, cannot yet appreciate certain works.

For one thing, they aren’t yet old enough to identify readily with older folks and certain situations. For another, they lack endurance, especially for dense exposition. Teaching senior citizens this year in continuing studies classes, I expected a big difference. Indeed they could identify with a wider range of ages. But they were beginning writers, too, and they balked at demanding nonfiction.

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Sign me, Bemused

December 3, 2015 | 30 Comments

Way back in graduate school I wrote a paper on the misuse of forte. It means a person’s strong suit when pronounced “fort” but refers to a loud musical passage when pronounced as its spelling indicates, for-tey. Or once it did. The distinction has almost been lost partly because people who knew better began mispronouncing forte to fit in.

Which I think is what interested me, that cognitive dissonance. Everyone wants to belong, to be admired by her or his chosen group. So I was upset when I realized recently that I’d misused the word “bemused” several times in my book, Shepherd: A Memoir. The memorable one to me involves our ewe Big Mama and her sardonic attitude toward me. I said she was bemused by me.

But bemused does not mean “extra amused”; it means bewildered or confused; a secondary meaning is lost in thought. The word is so rampantly misused that its meaning may be changing. And even when used correctly, its meaning often is unclear.

Here’s Mary Karr, describing her father as her storytelling model, in The Art of Memoir: “He had a talent for physical detail and a bemused attention to the human comedy.” Karr is a best-selling memoirist and a respected poet, so we must assume she’s using the word correctly here. Or must we? I think so. Yet Karr intends praise, and it’s more flattering to her father to picture him as amused by the human comedy than confused by it. Maybe he’s just a bit puzzled like everyone else in this comedy of errors we call life.

You can see the lack of clarity flowing from this slippery word.

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Structure & style

October 14, 2015 | 13 Comments

Published writers always say revision is the sin qua non of effective prose. Dinty W. Moore just affirmed it in my interview with him—he claims to produce weak first drafts, which become strong as they undergo up to 50 revisions. In her new The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr says one of her poems might take 60 versions. “I am not much of a writer,” she says, “but I am a stubborn little bulldog of a reviser.”

I used to think I was a great reviser myself. Probably because I edit and polish as I go, and then polish some more. Recently I’ve seen that two factors that impair my revising also seem to afflict some other writers.

The first issue involves resistance to complete structural overhauls. I saw this in my book. I put it through six versions, which embodied two excellent, hired developmental edits; one free problematic one; a paid whole-book copy edit; and countless piecemeal edits from friends and fellow writers. After all that, I resisted—because I feared—the mere idea of soliciting one more opinion. I was scared that someone would show me clearly that I needed a whole new approach that would send me back to the blank screen.

I’ve seen this resistance in other writers, and it’s a problem if the writer has stopped too soon—no matter how many years s/he’s labored. Ironically, and thankfully, while reading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild at the eleventh hour, I saw a key structural move I needed. And a new template for my prologue. I’ve written about this breakthrough, which I saw only because of years of work, including the advice I had been receptive to. After learning how to use backstory from Strayed, and writing a new prologue that like hers showcases a dramatic moment, I knew my book was ready.

It gives me chills to recall that an editor had actually suggested, at the very start of my writing, the restructuring I took from Wild—but I’d forgotten his advice

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Wrong word! 

August 19, 2015 | 12 Comments

I’ll never forget the day in high school when my English teacher accused me of plagiarism because of a word. I was 16 or 17 and had shown off by using “belies” in an essay. Since I was disrespectful to him, and acted like a simpering idiot in his class, he had good reason to suspect and dislike me. True to form, I laughed in his face. But that was long before the internet, which has made plagiarism—and catching it—easy. So he couldn’t do much except glare.

I’m sorry Mr. X!

I was just showing off, using a new word I’d learned. Partly I was flattered that he thought I had taken a professional’s work. Wow, though. Really just one word had tipped the balance. Diction does give us away. But I catch plagiarism these days because a student who slams together bald syntax suddenly turns in flowing, clause-laden, prose. Cheaters have the sense to change words they don’t understand.

Teachers’ and writers’ occasional admonitions against thesaurus use have always struck me as odd. They fear a student or rookie is going to use an overblown, polysyllabic word. One he doesn’t understand and that stands out from his mundane diction. I suppose that has happened once or twice. What using the thesaurus does for me, in contrast, is to remind me of old, plain, short words.

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Publishing essays

April 21, 2015 | 8 Comments

I sent this email last week to my “Writing Life Stories” students, who meet in person with me once a week and otherwise online.

Class,

I’m reading your new memoirs with enjoyment, appreciation, and a feeling of accomplishment as a teacher for what you’ve done. This semester, you’ve all made art from your experience. We’ve pondered and tried many aspects of writing—but we haven’t touched on publishing. I have some advice on that if you are interested in pursuing it. But first a caveat.

Last summer, attending an intensive writing workshop taught by a respected writer, I was struck by how stringently she separated writing from publishing. And by how sparingly she praised what we wrote. She was a nice person; it was just that we were there to make new work. The point was to keep making pieces, not to jump the gun and think about publishing them, not yet. I don’t think she thought in terms of whether she “liked” or “loved” an essay, but, rather, focused on whether it had some spark, some alive quality.

Most pieces, written in response to prompts, we filed for the future, to be struggled with or cannibalized back home. But everyone churned out one piece that she suggested we might read to the assembled workshops at the end of the week. Those we slaved on, late into the night in our dorm rooms. Then she tried to help each of us further realize its potential. By that time, the extra insight she could provide was powerful. The more frustrated a writer is with his own piece—meaning he has struggled hard with it on all levels and has turned it into an external object, a misshapen piece of clay he’s almost angry at—usually the more help an editor or teacher can provide.

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