Precision and Movement

In the foreword to his book is 5, E.E. Cummings described the theory of his poetic technique:

 I can express it in fifteen words, by quoting The Eternal Question And Immortal Answer of burlesk…”Would you hit a woman with a child?—No, I’d hit her with a brick.” Like the burlesk comedian, I am abnormally fond of that precision which creates movement. (emphasis mine)

During the holidays, staying up later than I should, I stumbled across one of those programs you would expect to find on the third PBS channel at 10 or 11 o’clock at night: a reading/talk/question-and-answer session with poet Sonia Sanchez recorded earlier this year at a local college. I’m ashamed to say that I know her work only vaguely, from a few poems in some required English Lit survey decades ago, which, at the time, did not draw me in. But in the TV program, she hooked me immediately. Some of the poems she performed I loved, some less so. I could not escape, though, her energetic engagement with language.

In particular, she talked about her exploration of haiku—the Japanese unrhymed poetic form conventionally made of 17 syllables distributed over three lines: five syllables in the first, seven in the second, and five in the third. Sanchez discussed her combination of haiku with the blues.

But the idea I immediately tucked into my “when I’m stuck” mental folder was doing a book-length work in the form of haiku cycles. Usually when I struggle, it has to do with trying to go big in some way: in form, in idea, in theme, in plot. Everything starts to feel overwhelming, and I lost any confidence that I’ll be able to manage what I’ve started. But a haiku I can do. I can come up with 17 syllables and hone it into something work building on. Rather than try to cover the whole canvas at once, I can work on this tiny corner, that small square, getting just the right shade of that small object.

That level of focus involves working precisely, and it makes it easier for me to create that “precision which creates movement.” Just 17 syllables on one aspect of an idea I’m exploring in an essay. Just 17 syllables about a detail of the setting in a scene for a novel. Just 17 syllables about a key point in an argument.

Patience. Precision. Movement.

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Learning to Love Shitwork

Lately I’ve seen several blog and discussion board posts mentioning the difficulties—even burdens—of editing. Some have praised the value of it; others have bemoaned or even questioned the necessity of it. Two experiences have skewed my own perspective. First, I had an excellent copyediting professor as a college undergraduate, and excellent editing supervisors during my professional work as an editor. Second, from a couple of decades of teaching college-level writing, I read, surely, thousands of pages of unedited writing, and became good at recognizing it pretty quickly. Based on that background, I learned a long time ago to take the value of editing as a given.

But editing represents a larger issue I’ve encountered in a variety of work I’ve done, and it seems especially crucial in trying to write well. That issue is how practitioners in a given field approach the shitwork related to that field.

Because every occupation has its shitwork. If you work on a farm, as some of my high school friends did in Kansas where I grew up, shitwork takes the literal form of the manure you have to shovel, step in, spread, sweep, and even purchase. If you don’t like dealing with shit, a farm is not the place for you. Nor, for that matter, is medicine. You may decide you want to become a pediatrician because you love children or like helping people, but if so you’d better quickly get used to bodily fluids in a wide variety of odors, colors, and viscosities. Doubly true if you want to become a nurse.

And make no mistake, I don’t mean shitwork as a term of denigration. I mean the grease on your hands that lubricates the machine; the networking that helps you meet people who challenge you; the slow review of rows and columns of data that confirm your new theory. I mean the sometimes tedious, line by line, point by point, beautiful grind.

Performers have to rehearse; athletes have to practice (as even basketball star Allen Iverson learned to his dismay); both have to travel. Politicians have to smile and shake hands and listen to everyone’s complaints. Construction workers have to ply their skill in unfriendly elements; entrepreneurs have to raise money. Even the pope—the man who supposedly holds the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven—has to hold audiences, smile beatifically, and keep his cardinals somewhat placated.

That kind of inevitable, ongoing, potentially grinding interaction allows for only one productive response: love.

Let me propose a correlation between competence and the acceptance of shitwork. It goes something like this: The mediocre complain about shitwork; they resent having to attend to the picayune details that are part of any craft, and they deal with them grudgingly if at all. The competent tolerate shitwork; they accept it as a necessary part of performing well at something that matters to them. The adept come to love shitwork. This is not to say they always like it, any more than a loving parent always likes being in the same room with his children. But they welcome it as the stuff you can feel between your fingers; they to relish its odor not because the scent is sweet but because it grounds them in the work itself and in what it takes to do that work well. And more than anything else, doing the work well keeps them going.

Someone said that if you want to be a writer, you’d better love working with words and sentences. That’s why, although I’ve by no means mastered the shitwork that good writing demands, I love exploring it in detail, as some wonderful bloggers I know have done here, here, here, and here, as well. And on a good day, you will find me on my knees, nose down, up to my elbows in it, as it should be.

Eight Essential Writing Lessons Journalism Taught Me: Attention

In details there’s the truth.
Richard Ben Cramer

In all probability, nothing taught me more about paying attention than my time writing about the dead. So it’s fortunate that the newspaper writing for which I first was paid was an obituary. As a 19-year-old city desk clerk at the Eagle and Beacon in Wichita, Kansas, I daily transcribed obituary notices phoned in by funeral home directors.

For many outside journalism, obits (obituaries) evoke a mixture of the morbid and (perhaps for that reason) the comical. We all take the important dead—those famous and those related to us–seriously. But the idea of writing about the dead for a living, especially the ordinary deceased who have died in ordinary circumstances of ordinary diseases or age, often strikes people as somewhat bizarre.

And I felt the same way, until it became my job. At that point, anxiety initially replaced the humor. What if I misspelled a name or omitted a relative from the list of surviving family? What if I got an honorary title wrong or missed an important civic group to which the deceased belonged? Sometimes I overheard the periodic calls editors received from disgruntled family members; I didn’t want to be the cause of one of those calls. So attending to details meant first and foremost not screwing up.

Later I wrote obituaries involving more than the standard funeral home notice. Several papers where I worked had an informal habit of running a daily “long obit,” which we reporters referred to as “the death of the day” or “death du jour.” From the death notices we received, we chose someone once in the public eye—maybe in a peripheral way—but perhaps no longer so. Since I was an intern, reporting and writing the death of the day often fell to me.

Over time, writing obits became less about not getting it wrong and more about saying something true and essential about that person’s life. Once I wrote about a lawyer with a distinguished but behind-the-scenes career in the state attorney general’s office years earlier who had committed suicide in his 40s. I remembered talking with his former boss, the former attorney general himself, and the mixture of respect and grief I heard in his voice brought home that everyone, however unknown, has had someone somewhere who felt the same way about him or her. The level of the person’s fame didn’t determine the quality of the obituary; the level of the writer’s attention to details did.

Attention, then, had everything to do with creating an engaging experience for the reader. But to what, exactly, does the writer need to attend? Everything. Weaker writers, I discovered as a teacher, focused only on content and, to a lesser extent, organization. Beyond that, they simply tried to avoid mistakes. The stronger the student writer, however, the more the elements of writing to which she attended. As I improved as a writer, I had broadened my writing concerns in the same way.

The words I chose would shape the tone and impression the reader felt. Through them, I could engage the reader intellectually, emotionally, even morally. I could generate humor, irony, compassion, outrage. And of course, my words helped drive the rhythm and pace of the writing. I could speed the reading up or slow it down, set a musical or matter-of-fact tone.

Attending to sentence length and structure created, enhanced, or destroyed that crucial sense of “flow.” Students I taught often assumed that all sentences in journalistic writing are short and punchy, that they all read like a passage from a Hemingway short story (which are not, by the way, all constructed completely from short sentences either). Engaging writing of all kinds, however, is more likely to use a variety of sentence lengths and types. The trick is figuring how often to use what kind of sentence and at what moment.

That figuring begins with attending to language in general, especially written language. To succeed, I attended to the differences between the stories my editors chopped up and rearranged and the ones they left intact. I attended to how other, more successful writers used words, syntax, structure and content. I read more attentively the writing of students in my classes, of writers on the student newspaper, of professional journalists, of essayists and novelists, historians and scientists.

This may sound like the most tedious labor, but it has never felt that way. And that’s because the most important quality I look for in a writer is something we’re all born with but which we often let atrophy: curiosity. Good reporters, like all good writers, have a desire to understand. They look toward when others look away. They ask questions when others would rather not know. In my writing and teaching, I found that the simple act of consciously attending doesn’t just give us more information; it cultivates our curiosity. And that’s a mental muscle all writers—and the rest of us—need.