Vigor takes work

E.B. White, writing in Maine

I just reread Elements of Style, and several bits of wisdom have taken residence in my mind.  This was the first time I’ve read the fourth edition.  I found the updates to this edition helpful, in particular, some of the tidbits in the final section on style.  If you haven’t read it, do.

I’ve been working through a novel, editing, pruning, and rearranging.  Strunk and White remind me of point 22, on p. 32 of this edition: “Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.”  This can apply to sentences, paragraphs, lines of poetry, and even words: the beginning and end of these units carry the most power, the most weight.  The middle can be incidental, or worse, ignored.  Here’s a clever example (possibly urban legend, but interesting anyway) of how words can work with mixed up middles becoming invisible, and yet the content is still clear.  (Thanks to my friend Lara for digging this up when my human memory failed.):

“Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.”

Beginnings and ends of these words are stable, are what we expect, and therefore they guide in reading through the garble.

Another thing that Elements of Style illustrates is more visual than literal.  Writers have to learn the twin arts of making a mess (making a creation, a draft) and then cleaning it up (editing, revising).  If you look at the layout of the examples in Strunk and White, you could consider the left column (before the makeover) as the making of the mess, and the right column (after the makeover) as cleaning it up.  I’m going to use this idea when I talk to students.  I think it helps to put the implicit and explicit judgment of Strunk and White into a context: all writing is a process, a walking through and then away from the muddy, toward the clear.  Start somewhere.  Edit as needed, strive to improve the mess, to communicate better.

Maybe the most important advice is point 17, on p. 23, “Omit needless words.”  An anthem for some people who write, an ideal to strive toward.  I’ve been polishing, weeding the needless, plucking extraneous words from overburdened sentences.  Sometimes it takes years to realize a word is needless.  Omit needless words is a noble mantra and practice.  With time, I could whittle this paragraph down even more than I have, but in the battle between how the blogosphere measures time and my tendency toward perfectionism, I go for speed and risk flaws.  This time, for the first time, I found (or noticed) the sub-mantra of Omit needless words on p. 19, under point 14.  “Note, in the examples above, that when a sentence if made stronger, it usually becomes shorter.  Thus, brevity is a by-product of vigor.”

It’s worth repeating: “…brevity is a by-product of vigor.”

That is such a beautiful fact, and beautifully put.  No wonder I am tired, this revision has been vigorous.  The novel is shorter.  And, I hope, stronger.

The importance of manuscript formatting/I admit to being a nerd!

As a new faculty person, I am learning about a thing I refer to as “Thesis Season.”

It’s fascinating and exhausting.  I’ve read a bunch of creative writing manuscripts in the last few months, sitting right next to to sentences, words, and images.  (Luckily, the writing is often beautiful, lyrical, strong, clean, titillating, and compelling.  I do love my job.)

One thing, though, that has got me all het up, is the importance of following instructions.  Some writers are more comfortable with computers and word processing than others: writers are like other humans in that way.  If I could, I would take all these writers into a room and together, we’d go through each step to achieve proper formatting.  Margins, line spacing, consistent typeface, point size, page numbering.  I know that these details can be really hard to face if you’re not adept at digital technology.  I’m lucky that my previous job was all about showing students and faculty how to navigate the word processing jungle.  I’m a nerd about this stuff.  According to Microsoft, I am a “Word Expert.”  (This always amuses me, especially when I’m writing, because the last thing I feel like is a word expert!)  For this reason, however, I harp on formatting.  My students might be tired of hearing it, but I am trying to help them as they approach the larger world where their work will be judged by someone who doesn’t care about them nearly as much as I do.

As writers, it’s in our absolute best interest to follow guidelines EXACTLY.  If a publisher desires certain formatting, we better pay attention.  If the goal is to impress the reader with our lovely words, sentences, images, then having the manuscript itself not distract from that seems essential.

Teachers, but more importantly, future editors, are easily distracted by a writer’s inattention to these details.  They are looking for a reason not to read our work.  Let’s not give them the one that is, in some ways, easiest to avoid.

If a writer wants to be taken seriously, is in her best interest to gain control over the “physical” aspects of manuscripts.

The Word Expert has spoken.

On making a mess

I saw this photo of Obama’s speech and was inspired.

The following is from Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day, pages 33-34:

“How does one really begin to write? William G. Perry Jr. has described the process succinctly: ‘First you have to make a mess, then you clean it up.’ If you think about the implications of this statement, you quickly realize that how you write is up for grabs: no more neat outlines with Roman numerals to follow, no elegant topic sentences for each paragraph, maybe not even any clear sense of where you’re going.”

I use that idea when I teach writing courses. I believe it applies any type of writing. Once people accept the premise, it frees the writer to do what is needed. To write something.

Clearly Obama knows this. I’m glad to know that someone still uses a pen. And that the person “running the country” cares about what he says enough to make a mess.

Obama: The candor and poetry of not (yet) being a president

As I consider Barack Obama’s book, Dreams from My Father, which we are discussing in a class I’m teaching at Antioch University McGregor, a couple overarching things tug at me. I am going to try to leave current politics, approval ratings, and Nobel peace prizes out of this.

The first thing: Throughout, Obama writes with such candor. Having been elected president four years after the 2004 edition was published, I find it fascinating to read his thoughtful and (I assume) unvarnished critique of the power centers, and the role of president and government. The type of openness Obama presents in these pages is blankly missing in the speech and rhetoric of so many politicians. When he first wrote this book, before 1995, he couldn’t have dreamed how his life would unfold. Something in that is refreshing.

The second thing: There is a poet in the White House. In some ways, Obama seems like a frustrated poet, but so much of his writing is pure poetry, too much to note here. One that sticks out: the end of the passage on p. 315, talking about a waiter in Kenya:

“And so he straddles two worlds, uncertain in each, always off balance, playing whichever game staves off the bottomless poverty, careful to let his anger vent itself only on those in the same condition.
A voice says to him yes, changes have come, the old ways lie broken, and you must find a way as fast as you can to feed your belly and stop the white man from laughing at you.
A voice says no, you will sooner burn the earth to the ground.”

The flow, and construction, to me, it’s simply poetry.

I keep thinking back to a speech I saw on C-SPAN when Obama was first running for president, where he talked about the importance of various subjects in school… “And poetry,” he added. At that moment, my husband (who is also a writer) and I agreed, “He’ll never get elected.” And yet…

In this book, his poetry is in his words, and his focus, the corners where he chooses to shine a light. So often, the book reads like a novel. So I keep thinking: what are the implications for us creative people, many of whom have spent careers feeling marginalized and invisible, to have someone who understands doing the job of the president?

Who are you this time?

(Quoting Tom Waits before coffee is always good. I could do it in my sleep. Sometimes I dream about Tom Waits; it’s always some sort of message about myself as an artist. But that’s not what I was going to write about.)

I’m teaching this academic writing and discourse class at Antioch University McGregor and yesterday was the in-person kickoff. It’s filled with an amazing, inspiring group of students from several disciplines and programs, but the beauty was in how they found common ground, talking about an address given by Paulo Freire. The address was called, “The Importance of the Act of Reading.” (It’s great, you should read it.)

After the first part of the session, where I’d done a little spiel about Lynda Barry and my academic writing demons, this student asked me, “Rebecca, are you actually Tina Fey?”

I don’t know what prompted the woman’s question, was it because I was being amusing and silly? Was it my eyeglasses? My purple silk disco shirt? Or because I look like Tina Fey? (Do I?) Or maybe because I come across as anxious and neurotic? (Am I?) Whatever the reason, I will take it as a compliment. Tina Fey cracks me up; I think she’s pretty brilliant, though some episodes of “30 Rock” seem to be a bit like the creators are playing with their food, but I will forgive that. Everyone needs to play with their food sometime. And by the way, I wouldn’t mind Tina Fey’s salary.

But I said, “No, I’m Sarah Palin.”

I thought it was a funny and somewhat sophisticated comeback, which I’m not usually known for, but the student just looked at me. Which proves it: I am not Tina Fey. Tina Fey would have gotten a laugh.

Academic! Writing! Demons!

As my colleague, Susanne, and I were designing a class on academic writing and discourse for graduate students at Antioch University McGregor, we had some great conversations about writing. I am new to this faculty job, and while I’ve been around academic writing as a writer and teacher in various contexts, I have a lot of anxiety and baggage about it. Talking with Susanne about where our perspectives (hers as a social scientist and mine as a creative writer) have common ground and where they diverge, I started to think about my anxiety in terms of Lynda Barry’s excellent book, One! Hundred! Demons! I began to refer to my baggage as demons. And since we’ve asked the students to share personal reflections throughout this course, I thought I’d share some of mine.

Lynda Barry art
(This is a photo of Lynda Barry, working on a demon.)

(I know the word “demons” has heavy connotations, so I want to acknowledge that right away, and make clear that I’m taking the word not from a Judeo-Christian context, but from the rather jovial or at least somewhat irreverent context of Barry’s work, which she began after reading about a traditional Japanese painting exercise.)

Writing used to be fun!
When I was a child, my creativity flourished at school and at home. Dr. Seuss was a major inspiration in my work at school. We had little stapled story books that we made, with drawings of characters and sayings, or lines, many could have been Dr. Seuss castoffs, such as “the Fog sat on the Log and saw a Frog.” In this picture, there would be a fog sitting on a log, with a frog hopping by. Sometimes the fog would say “Hi frog” and the frog would say “Hi fog” and things like that. I was attending the Antioch School (an experimental elementary school that began as part of the education department at Antioch College). When I was there, it was called the Antioch Free School. I remember another assignment when I was a little older. We went outside with paper and pencils and we were told to imagine being at our own funerals, in the casket, observing who was there and what they were saying. (This was in the early 1970s.) I went to the Antioch Free School until I was nine years old. At home, my parents encouraged me to tell stories. I made up a story about a girl and her pet mouse, and my father mimeographed it and we sold copies at the local sidewalk sale. The book was called The Hole in the Shirt. So clearly, I was encouraged to do this writing stuff.

In middle school, my teacher, Ms. Mapes, played classical music on a tape recorder while we wrote stories. I wrote something inspired by the movie “Fantasia.” We had to keep a journal. The rules where that we could write whatever we wanted to, but we had to turn it in occasionally, and it would not be graded. In retrospect, I realize that she was trying to get us writing, and to make sure we actually did it. I enjoyed this a lot.

In high school, I took a writing class. The first part of the year was creative writing, and the second focused on “modern trends in literature.” We had to write PAPERS! This was not as fun as writing stories. The way we were taught to write papers was:
1. Decide on thesis.
2. Write an outline.
3. Write paragraphs following the order of the outline, to support the thesis, and so on.

Much later, I realized this was the wrong way to write anything. It was like making a cake from the icing inward.

Because I was “a good writer,” I survived writing papers in college, but I didn’t enjoy the backwards process that seemed to be the way people expected you to write papers. Then came the Malvolio paper.

I was a theatre major. During my last term at college, I was directing my senior project, a fully staged production of “Strange Snow” by Stephen Metcalf. I was also taking a very challenging seminar on Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” for which I was writing a paper on Malvolio. To complicate things further, in the school’s production of Twelfth Night, my seminar instructor was playing the part of Malvolio.

So not only was I making the cake from the icing inward, I was baking it in the shape of the person who currently inhabited the cake.

I didn’t spend as much time as I should have on that paper. My focus was on the play I was directing, the culmination of my four years at college. Subsequently, I was awarded a C on my Malvolio paper, which was a pretty low grade for me.

Fast-forward now, twelve years into the future. I began graduate school in creative writing. I was not a literature major in college, so I hadn’t written as many ACADEMIC papers as others, plus I felt, compared to the literature majors, I wasn’t WELL READ enough. (This also added to my general intimidation in graduate school: others, especially the students who had majored in LITERATURE, seemed to know how to discuss books ACADEMICALLY much better than I did. I was just a lowly writer, after all, thinking about things like craft. I brought truckloads of baggage about this.)

As part of my MFA program, we had to write a thirty page critical paper about an aspect that was important to us as writers. We were free to chose our topics. Because I was writing a novel with a child protagonist, but intended for adult readers, I chose to write about Henry James’ novel, What Maisie Knew. It had been twelve years since the Malvolio paper. Approaching Maisie, I had certainly never been this invested in an academic paper before. I was finally feeling that I could write my creative work with more ease, though it has never been easy per se. But the idea of a critical paper (something that had to be “SCHOLARLY,” whatever that means) was supremely unnerving.

Research and reading was okay. I took plenty of notes, used index cards, notebooks, made sure to write my initials in the margin of my notes when I was recording one of my own thoughts or questions. I opened a word processing file and formatted my paper before beginning to write; I procrastinated productively. I finally had to brainwash myself and stop calling it a (capital “C” “P”) “Critical Paper.” I started calling it an “exercise.” This helped, sort of. I even wrote “work on exercise” in my datebook. I bought a set of Legos to play with as I worked on the paper. I rolled a big length of butcher paper on the table and, with colored markers, began mapping the connections, themes, and ideas that I wanted to thread together. I took over the kitchen table. I bought treats. Of particular help was a jar of Nutella. I did not keep the jar at the table, but in the cabinet. When I got up to stretch, which was frequently, I ate a spoonful of Nutella as a reward. The nutty chocolate goodness seemed to help. Candied ginger was a motivating treat, too.

Like many people, once I began the actual writing, it went pretty quickly. (And I didn’t have a deadline chasing me; it wasn’t an all-night writing session or anything.) I realized that, with academic writing, I need to ruminate awhile, and then I can write. The draft was okay. My mentor sent back loads of good suggestions and questions, which helped me to tighten, clarify, and say what I actually meant. I survived writing the Maisie paper, and the process, though at times painful, was very empowering.

Through all this, I learned and keep learning and thinking about a couple things:

o How to decrease the tendency of academic writing to kill the FUN in writing.
o The erroneous and IMMOBILIZING idea of having to know the answers BEFORE you start writing.

And I realized that it’s okay, even as a teacher, to admit that I still have a lot of anxiety approaching this kind of work.

I am still biased against dead, dry academic “scholarly” writing. As a writer and reader, I enjoy and value creative, freer writing much more than “academic” writing. But I have come to believe that writers don’t have to exile their creative and authentic selves from academic writing. In fact, it seems to me the most beautiful writing (in any genre or field) is lead by the human writing it, no matter the audience, subject, or genre.

I do tend to prefer “academic” writing, or any writing, when it is clear and un-jargoned. This does not mean it has to be overly simple. But I prefer writing that includes rather than excludes me, writing that doesn’t require me to know a secret set of words. Or if it does, writing that gives me enough context and friendly help to lead me inside the story of the prose.

All writing comes down to practice. Writers practice observing and thinking, practice translating thoughts and observations into words, practice editing, strengthen sentences and rebuild structures: no matter what you’re writing, these are some common elements. I want to believe that the creative practice can inform and sustain the practice of academic writing. If reading and writing is a car, yes, some parts of myself need to sit in the front and drive when I’m doing some types of reading and writing, but I want to bring the other parts of myself along for the ride.

I love sentences when they are “good.” To me, a “good” sentence usually has something to do with ECONOMY and GRACE. I love it when I begin reading something and realize that I’m in the hands of a good storyteller. When that happens, something inside my soul exhales and I relax and ease into the story, no matter what story it is…

It seems to me that, particularly with graduate level work, we should write on things about which we are passionate. Things that interest us in a deep way, keep us awake at night. Something we need to know more about. Otherwise, why bother? Academic writing might not be comfortable, but it might as well be enjoyable, ideally for the reader as well as the writer.