revision

Poetry & prose

June 15, 2016 | 12 Comments

I wonder how many prose writers unconsciously draw on the rhythms and content of the poems they read as children? The longer I write, mostly nonfiction in my case, the more poetry I read. Poetry’s distilled wisdom feeds me as a person, and its precise diction and careful phrasing nurture me as a writer. Poetry grows your literary intelligence and seeps into your sentences.

Formalist poetry—which employs meter and sometimes rhyme schemes—enchanted me during my nine years as book publicist and then marketing manager for Ohio University Press/Swallow Press. David Sanders was the director then, a poet and a publisher of poets who launched the Press’s esteemed Hollis Summers Poetry Prize. We didn’t publish only formalists, and poetry collections of any kind constituted a handful of our annual publications, but they were among our most interesting. I moved on, and later so did Sanders, but our old Press, now led by Gillian Berchowitz, has just published a new collection of his poetry, Compass and Clock. In it, Sanders mixes free-verse poems with those that employ formal elements. The book was elegantly designed in-house by Beth Pratt, using Jeff Kallet’s collage “Sunrise” as the cover’s striking image.

I’ve read Compass and Clock twice. There’s the strangeness of true art in odd little poems like “He Was Once,” about a man who drives a widow to a mountaintop to watch an incoming storm.

Along with his witty wordplay and his poetry showcasing, as poetry does, the power of metaphor, I was struck by Sanders’s spare, precise descriptions. The “thin curtains” in one poem seemed so perfect, telling, and sad.

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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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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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Memoir’s fiery psychic struggle

October 7, 2015 | 15 Comments

In The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr reiterates her everlasting obsession: honesty in personal prose. She’s been criticized in the past for protesting a bit much about memoirists not fabricating. Her practice is of sharing pages with those mentioned. The revelation here is how she unites this basic concern with the thrilling imperative to find an authentic perspective/voice/persona. As she puts it:

“Each great memoir lives or dies based 100 percent on voice. . . . The goal of a voice is to speak not with objective authority but with subjective curiosity.”

She skims over many writers’ obsession, structure, feeling it’s your perspective that determines in the first place the story you structure: “Usually the big story seems simple: They were assholes. I was a saint. If you look at it ruthlessly, you may find the story was more like: I richly provoked them, and they became assholes; or, They were mostly assholes, but could be a lot of fun to be with; or, They were so sick and sad, they couldn’t help being assholes, the poor bastards; or, We took turns being assholes.”

Karr observes that the you writing the story can forget without even realizing it who the past you actually was. How she loved, feared, yearned. Karr feels that inner conflict is memoir’s real driving force:

“The split self or inner conflict must manifest on the first pages and form the book’s thrust or through line—some journey toward the self’s overhaul by book’s end. However random or episodic a book seems, a blazing psychic struggle holds it together . . .”

Ah, the mysterious nature of self, memory, and remembered self. Upon these memoir (and much of adult life) rests. Starting with finding your truth-finding-and-telling present self, maybe the macro-struggle to achieve authenticity—a fair truth—is why we honor personal writing, if we do. In Karr’s portrait, this subset of literature is, in its beauty and risk, a scale model of the larger struggle to be awake and human.

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Mister Essay Guy

September 30, 2015 | 9 Comments

In Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy, Dinty W. Moore plays both straight man and humorist. He answers prominent creative nonfiction questioners—who pose ridiculous or book-length conundrums—and then he presents his more-or-less illustrative essay. Out of the absurd queries flow pervasive exaggeration, deft timing, addled answers, and wry storytelling. This sustained comedic performance glimmers with wisdom concerning life and the creation of art.

To state the obvious: Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy employs the structure of an advice column. Many now call such a borrowed structure a “hermit crab,” a term coined by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola in Tell it Slant. Within Moore’s clever container, this mega hermit crab, are baby ones, such as essays presented as lists, and one on a cocktail napkin.

And then there’s his playful, celebrated experiment in form, “Mr. Plimpton’s Revenge,” a Google Maps essay on his encounters as a bumbling college student charged with escorting the befuddled literary lion. A personal favorite Moore works in is “Pulling Teeth, or Twenty Reasons Why My Daughter’s Turning Twenty Can’t Come Soon Enough”; he explains in his preceding answer that it’s all he could salvage from a failed book project on adolescent girls that consumed five years of hard labor.

In “Have You Learned Your Lesson, Amigo?” Moore appreciatively dissects the craft of two con artists who fleeced him on the street. This is reminiscent of his essay “The Comfortable Chair: Using Humor in Creative Nonfiction,” in Writing Creative Nonfiction, edited by Carolyn Forche and Philip Gerrard, which profiles an unctuous but irrepressible furniture salesman named Howie. Moore so admires professional competence that he’s amused by Howie and less than outraged by the latter pair of larcenous fellow travelers.

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Atoka Gold, Dad’s bull

September 2, 2015 | 10 Comments

All summer I’ve been writing about cattle. My father’s bull Atoka Gold is a character, one of the purebred Herefords Dad raised during the early 1950s in California. What got me drafting a memoir essay was that in early June, when I brought my wife home from having surgery on her foot, I found a stockman’s cane among the umbrellas in our foyer.

I dimly recalled receiving the cane when I was four. This was about 1959. We had resettled by then in southwestern Georgia, and Dad bought a bull from a nearby farmer, R.W. Jones Jr. Walter Jones was a prominent breeder of polled (naturally hornless) Herefords who has since become legendary. He gave me the cane. Finding it again sent me into our basement, where I found Dad’s framed color photograph of Atoka Gold.

I wove my memories of what surrounded the cane, me, Dad, and Atoka Gold together with my research into Mr. Jones and polled Herefords. I braided in my wife’s recuperation this summer. There’s always so much to explain, but good writing concerns more than one thing—so, great. Except my essay grew at one point to 27 pages. Rather long!

In my mind from the start, the piece really illuminated the nature of memory, imagination, and story. But early readers wanted more about my relationship with my father. I resisted, having written so much before.

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