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.

Antioch Writers Workshop July 2010

Embroiled fully in this year’s Antioch Writers Workshop.  I love being around writers, talking about writing, writing with writers, the world cracking open before me.

Before the keynote on Saturday, I was driving to campus and feeling guilty, semi-taking a week off from child, home, life, to do the workshop, because sometimes it seems like choosing to be a writer is a silly luxury (but is it even a choice? I ask myself).


Then I realized (it’s so easy to REALIZE things while driving, isn’t it?) that all writing is really about life.  Whether fiction or nonfiction, poetry or prose, a person (who is alive) puts something on paper (or screen, or sand) and it means something to at least one person.  What else is life, if not that?

Innocent hubris

There is a trajectory of mental states from the beginning writer toward the seasoned, thick(er)-skinned writer.  I think that development along that trajectory includes getting beyond the innocent hubris of “My writing is great! People have always said so!” and moving toward the knowledge that all good writing takes work and generally benefits from a variety of voices giving constructive feedback.

Like the child who is always praised and never challenged, we do no service to ourselves by glossing over things we need to work on.  I ought to know.  I used to be one of those innocent hubris writers.  I hope I’ve moved beyond it.

I sure have a few calluses.

My characters are slackers.

The outline of my novel-in-progress is now fully scrawled in 24 notebook pages.  The next job is to type it up, massage it into a sort of stage manager’s “bible” which was a technique I used with The Watery Girl. This process seemed to help.  Character motivations, scene breakdown, major “props” or icons that I needed to follow through the novel, for continuity.  But now what?  I still have to figure out how this story ends.

Writers often talk about how their characters take over, dictate, and decide what happens next.

So where are my people?  Asleep, at the bar?  It’s sunny out, did they call in sick today?


The Lorax, revisited

What do we think of Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax these days?

I recall the book from my past, though I don’t exactly remember it from my childhood.  I’m not sure if I read it back then.  Being someone who cares about the environment and loves Dr. Seuss on what feels like a cellular level, I bought a copy (printed on recycled paper) for my two-year-old daughter.

She discovered it last week.

Discovering a book, for her, usually means that she wants her parents or any other literate person who happens to be around to read the book several times per day.  But the Lorax is long, and we didn’t make it to the end of the story for the first few days of its discovery.

But my husband and I both want to hide the book, and dread it being handed to us by the little waif who lives in our house.  I think there are two reasons for this.

1) It’s really, really too long.  I think it could be cut down by half, and would be a much stronger book.  The number of clunky sentences in this book is astonishing, considering who wrote it.  And I think this is because:

2) The genius of Dr. Seuss seems to be squelched, choked, or otherwise obscured by HAVING AN IMPORTANT MESSAGE.  Sure, there are messages in plenty of his books, and even though I agree with most of the message in this one (rampant, irresponsible industry=bad, trees=pretty) his message seems to have bent the tree of his narrative over too far, so that in a way it resembles a dying version of one of the book’s skewed, leaning, tufted trees.

As a writer, this is a really good lesson to learn (over and over again, each time my little cherub brings me the dreaded book).  If you have AN IMPORTANT MESSAGE (which is fine, and has its place) please make sure that the message doesn’t wilt the narrative.

And cut everything down by half.  But not the trees.

Writing really bad stuff

If you want to write, you have to write some really bad stuff first. You have to sit down, get out paper or computer and put one word in front of the other, like walking, and if you’re lucky, it can be as unthinking, un-thought about, as walking…for stepping is something most adults who can walk rarely examine.

Gets you from one place to another.

While you’re getting from one place to another, the awful part is to be thinking, “This is all crap; I can’t believe how bad this is,” but that’s part of how to make things.

The stuff has to exist in its crap-like state before you can make it better.

I read once that Joy Williams rarely revises her work; it just comes out brilliantly. Lucky her! The rest of us just have to write lots of crap. I guess it’s good to be writing at all, even if it’s crap.

You have to keep knocking on that dark door…

To blog or not to blog?

I have always been a fairly private person.

Although I used to work in information technology, I am ambivalent about the virtues of computer technology. Including blogs. But back before Facebook and Twitter and all that noise was born, the buzz was that in order to exist, one must have some sort of “web presence.” So I decided to buy the domain, assuming some day I would need it. I created a website, really like an extended business card for myself as a writer. I also had a blog accessible from that website, and I decided against doing a purely personal weblog, but instead chose a somewhat rigid form: short nonfiction essays, exercises really, each inspired by something I had seen. Each with its accompanying image. I thought I would post something most days, but as a writer who is pretty concerned with well made sentences, my output wasn’t as bloggy as that of so many bloggers. (If you want to peruse those archives, they have been moved to the blog you are currently reading.)

My blogging was too precious, then, because I wanted time to reflect, time to draft and ponder before posting. My goal for each post, at that time, was to have a polished piece, so these little ruminations could accumulate into a published soapbox. As if each post would be something I might theoretically send to a magazine for publication. Or some day, collect into a book.

As part of an online class I’m teaching, we read George Orwell’s excellent essay, “Why I Write.” One of the reasons Orwell lists in the essay about why he writes is political purpose. He talks about how he was motivated to write, often, by something that angered him.

These days, writing out of anger is everywhere. It’s free and simple: just set up a blog and start yelling. And the glut of ME!-ME!-memoirs that continue to be published between portable covers speaks to the fact that there is an audience for certain types of yelling. But I’ve always thought that it’s important (at least to me) to let the anger simmer for a while. Sort it out. Go to therapy if you need to. Gain distance from the irritant. To extend that metaphor, let the pearl develop. While I like the immediacy of the technology, I want to see more pearls out in the blogosphere.

The line between public and private has disappeared. In fact, sometimes it seems like the membrane that existed between public and private has been turned inside out. I don’t want to hear others’ cell phone conversations in the public restroom, but I do, all the time. To paraphrase a friend who was ranting about the inanity of Facebook status updates, while I hope people eat good, interesting food, I don’t really give a rat’s arse what even my closest friends and family had for breakfast. (No offense.) But why do people think that the world cares about what they had for breakfast, unless it was something truly remarkable, like a freshly killed sparrow? I have enough email and things to do in the day, as I’m sure you do, too. Why would I want to wade through all that? I’ve thought about closing my Facebook account, because it’s so annoying (and yet embarrassingly addictive) but I like that I can occasionally find lost people, so I’ll keep it for now.

And if you’re reading this now, I guess my question, to blog or not to blog, has been answered.

More on the stuff

I was thinking more about this having excess stuff in the closet, house, etc. It’s like having a really wordy paragraph. I need to edit. In my house, or closet, I’d rather have clear, good sentences and words, without noisy distractions, so that reading my life (and getting dressed in the morning) is more elegant and calm.

Why do we wait for the end?

I was thinking about something that is often on my mind: sentences. When building a sentence, depending on style, and purpose, often a writer will place the idea or word that needs the most emphasis at the end. I’m sure there are reasons for this placement; people remember what you put last. Or, maybe no one pays attention until the sentence is (almost) over.

Recently, my daughter, who will soon be 21 months old, has been filling in the last word of many books my husband and I read to her. So she’s tracking that last word; the end is what resonates. Maybe what’s at work here is something primal. Maybe, even as babies, we are waiting for the period. For the pause. For the breath.

I don’t know, but I suppose there are worse things about which to obsess.