working method

Dusting off. Moving forward.

November 9, 2016 | 11 Comments

Feeling your way

September 28, 2016 | 10 Comments

I love it when I can write fast, with excitement. Inspired, you might say. But usually I plod, working and reworking sentences as I go. This is “Writing’s dangerous method,” according to a theorist I admire, Peter Elbow. That’s his term for the folly of trying to invoke at the same time the mind that creates along with its critical editor cousin. Hence my pleasure when a grouchier guru, Verlyn Klinkenborg, flatly declared that concept rubbish. There’s no difference, he said in A Few Short Sentences About Writing, between the critical and creative minds. I wrote about his book here, including “Writing by the think-system.”

I seem to need to edit as I go because I enter the work that way. I learn what it’s about and find connections I hadn’t imagined. Now, sometimes I’ve ended up cutting, in revision, what I’ve so carefully edited and polished. In my defense, I have read many writers say they work this way.

My fast rate, when I know where I’m going, is a page an hour. But last week I wrote a page on my late dog Tess’s old leash and it took me three hours. I couldn’t have written it fast. Or so I feel. Well, maybe faster, but I’m unsure if it would have gotten me deeper into the story. And I feel it did. Yesterday I finished the first draft of “Tess,” which turned out to be 24 pages.

Much may be cut, moved, edited, revised. But for now, it wasn’t just slapped in but written as well as I could. So I don’t do vomit drafts. Sure, I write “shitty first drafts,” per Anne Lamott—but not intentionally. And Mr. Elbow may be right that it’s harmful to creativity to try to draft and perfect at the same time. Elbow’s approach to writing as a process with stages has changed the way composition is taught, from elementary school through college. But I’ve heard more famous writers say they strain, as they write, for perfection.

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Learning to sit

September 21, 2016 | 14 Comments

In the fine short book Ron Carlson Writes a Story (reviewed), the writer takes us with him as he writes a short story in real time at his desk. There are crises and desires to flee. Also steady work and unforeseen breakthroughs. I’ve thought of Carlson as I’ve worked on my new essay, “Tess,” about my late, beloved Labrador. As I explained in my last post on this essay, the story’s meaning is elusive at this point. Discovering that meaning is what makes writing challenging but addictive to me.

The essay’s structure is roughed out, though subject to change. Don’t you almost have to have some structure in mind to start something? Experience gives you a better notion, perhaps, but the actual form and content shift in construction. I have the start drafted and most of the middle and end of “Tess.” I’ve been kind of stuck in finishing the middle’s first draft. I’ve stared at my jotted plan for the last part of this part, a few words, and haven’t felt it. But I’m there to write, so I jump to the essay’s start or its ending to fiddle and add. I know if I show up every day, my subconscious is going to cry uncle and help. Here’s another snippet of “Tess”—like last week’s excerpt it’s from the essay’s final section, a part of it that’s in second-person address:

“Before ice covers the Olentangy River, just a few blocks from your building, you’ll take Tess every afternoon to swim and fetch her Frisbee. The winter will be long for a Florida boy, but you’ll be cozy reading inside with Tess lying nearby on the thin carpet. You aren’t just a broke graduate student, his thick hair starting to thin, living in a clean but threadbare apartment: you’re a guy with a great young dog who loves and needs you. Once she growls at you when you take away her juicy steakbone, and you throw her down, yell into her face, teaching her humans have such rights. Once you blow air at her with your new hair dryer, and when you’re at school she chews it to pieces, teaching you dogs have rights too.”

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In dogged pursuit

September 14, 2016 | 17 Comments

“Endings are elusive, middles are nowhere to be found, but worst of all is to begin, to begin, to begin!”—Donald Barthelme

Lately I’ve been writing essays. I’m in the midst of one right now about Tess, the dog I had when I met Kathy, my wife. Tess took me from youth to middle age. It’s hard to say at this point what the essay is about. Love, I suppose. It’s not all about Tess. But as I feel my way through the story, Tess is the frame for what appears. She’s been dead now 22 years, so I’m dealing with the odd mystery of the past.

Which is interesting, and scary—my initial structure helps but provides scant guidance for what should or must or might appear. Every sentence feels like a gift, every paragraph a golden miracle. I could be making a mess. Well, it’s practice. And sometimes it takes my shelving an essay for two years to see how to salvage it.

Having written other essays, though, I know I better try to enjoy this process. Because essays come and go. Their comparatively quick turnaround is great. So is getting a few published here and there. What’s been hard, sometimes, is starting a new one. No basking in a book draft’s long narrative arc—it’s time for the next one. Already. Again.

“Tess” is structured, so far, in reverse chronological order, starting with her death. Thankfully, I’m past the opening and struggling through the middle, with part of the end drafted. Barthelme’s quote above seems to nail the issue of beginning: starting is hard because you’re starting. Nothing’s yet there. Such work is taxing; such labor is effortful.

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Word by word

September 7, 2016 | 8 Comments

English departments inherently espouse reverence for thoughtfulness, sensitivity, and comely expression. I codified this recently for myself while speaking with my college’s enrollment director. Strolling down a sidewalk, we’d begun discussing a sharp drop in English majors at our institution. This is endemic nationwide, actually—part of a falloff across the board in the traditional liberal arts. Kids are understandably aiming at paying careers. Across academe, however, lamentation ensues. Today, college seems viewed primarily as career training, not primarily as preparation for living a good (conscious) life. A student can still major in creative writing, say, and get a decent job upon graduation—if she’s been canny enough to obtain internships along the way. But increasingly, in doing so she’s actually seen as bucking the system.

Later, I was writing and got wondering what, exactly, I was trying to do. At the sentence level, where I was laboring, what was I trying to achieve? I’ve been writing with my screen zoomed to 225% and in a font enlarged to 16-point type. The hugeness of the display means only about a paragraph shows on the screen. And it makes each word and sentence I see feel huge. This reminds me to place emphasis where I am, because that’s where the reader is going to be.

Feeling my way syntactically and thematically, I’m discovering the story—so that’s one big thing I’m doing. Another is trying to be clear. Another is trying to be elegant. To do those things I fiddle with words, vary sentence structure, and try to end sentences and paragraphs and passages with emphasizing words or ideas. All in an overarching effort to both convey and discover insight. Where, I wondered, before stopping myself so I could work, are such values coming from? Of course they’re broadly espoused in academe. But thankfully, reading itself inculcates them by example and by implication.

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My essay in Assay

September 1, 2016 | 8 Comments

The fall 2016 issue of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, online today, includes my essay “Classics lite: Teaching the Shorter, Magazine Versions of James Baldwin’s ‘Notes of a Native Son’ and Jonathan Lethem’s ‘The Beards.’ ” These are beloved essays. And as my title indicates, they exist in longer and shorter versions—in fact, the periodical versions are technically the “originals,” since they were excerpted to advance the writers’ subsequently published collections.

But since the book versions are canonical, condensations may seem heretical. Especially since the famous book version of “Notes of a Native Son” also deals with America’s great topic, race, and tampering with it, in particular, seems at first blush a sacrilege.

In a seminar in graduate school, I studied these two classic American essays—their longer, book versions—together. Both concern the loss of a parent, but they take very different approaches. Hence they’re a nice pair for writers to study and for teachers to teach.

Baldwin’s, about the demise of his preacher father when Baldwin was 19, unrolls in a warm, formally structured, and syntactically orotund procession. Lethem’s essay employs a modernistically fractured and conversational approach to portraying his devastation in the wake of his mother’s death, when he was 14.

Lethem’s essay shows his loss structurally: “The Beards” is organized according to his mother’s state of health or length of time dead—but the segments aren’t in chronological order. This implicitly helps show Lethem’s grief as transforming and ongoing. He steadily but subtly plants this notion until he shatters the cool, elliptical façade of “The Beards” with a few heartfelt statements.

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The writing life’s mysteries

August 24, 2016 | 14 Comments

“Do what you love. Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still.”—Henry David Thoreau

Neat sentiment, Henry David, and it seems apt for writer Dani Shapiro, who has quoted it herself. Her love is writing, and especially chewing over the past in memoir. Recently in the New York Times Book Review, however, Shapiro discussed the dilemma of being a serial memoirist:

“When I write a book, I have no interest in telling all, the way I absolutely do long to while talking to a close friend. My interest is in telling precisely what the story requires. It is along the knife’s edge of this discipline that the story becomes larger, more likely to touch the “thread of the Universe,” Emerson’s beautiful phrase. In this way, a writer might spiral ever deeper into one or two themes throughout a lifetime —theme, after all, being a literary term for obsession—while illuminating something new and electrifying each time.

“But some readers of memoir are looking for secrets, for complete transparency on the part of the author, as if the point is confession, and the process of reading memoir, a voyeuristic one. This idea of transparency troubles me, and is, I think, at the root of the serial memoirist’s plight. My goal when I sit down to write out of my own circumstances is not to make myself transparent. In fact, I am building an edifice. Stone by stone, I am constructing a story. Brick by brick, I am learning what image, what memory belongs to what.”

Shapiro makes subtle and profound distinctions. Distinctions between publishing memoir and privately journaling. Between personal writing and mainstream journalism. Between life stories and idle gossip. Between settling scores and discovering deeper truths. This is invaluable in extending the conversation on memoir, and in helping refine understanding of the burgeoning genre.

I’m impressed by Shapiro’s frankness and depth. She addresses directly critics’ charges or anyone’s fear of wallowing, of having a different story than your siblings do, of inflicting on others your navel-gazing.

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