Why Good Writing Begins and Ends in Poetry

About 15 years ago, as I worked on the final stages of my dissertation, I often got stuck (as people working on dissertations tend to). Sometimes days would pass without my producing anything. But eventually, I would remember my foolproof method for getting unstuck: reading and writing poetry.

Let me note for clarification that poetry had nothing to do with my dissertation subject. I wrote a very social-sciency study of students in a freshman composition class. From a semester of observing, reading papers, and interviewing students, I crafted a set of case studies trying to explain why some of the students gained more than others. My final product reads way more like anthropology than it does like Nikki Giovanni.

Nevertheless, I turned to poetry while I wrote, as I have turned to it many times before and since. And wherever I see brilliance in writing, I find elements of the poetic. From the Preamble to the Constitution to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, from Dashiell Hammett to Lorraine Hansberry, from Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting to a Chris Rock monologue, where language engages and moves, entertains and enlightens, poetry is at work.

These days, we ghettoize poetry as the realm of emotional expression; poets, according to that thinking, are rarified “artists” who create through inspiration or some inscrutable gift. Poetry is a dense and tangled garden in which the creative hide “themes” and “symbols.” Or we denigrate poetry as “flowery,” forgetting that without flowering plants, much of the food we eat would not exist.

But ultimately poetry turns on precise language. And using language precisely means employing all of the facets of words, not only their literal or denotative meaning but also a word’s history, its connotations, its sound, and all the other associations it evokes. Whenever a writer concerns herself with how the reader will respond to the words themselves—that is, with aesthetics—she has entered the realm of the poetic.

For much of history and around the world, poetry served as the dominant genre, and not just in texts we would now call “literary.” Historians, politicians, educators, theologians, and cultural critics of every stripe and in every culture have used poems to argue, to advocate, to persuade, to philosophize, to rouse people to action. Even today, much of the multi-billion dollar industry of advertising used poetic strategies and techniques, if not outright poetic forms.

In fact, I believe that the false (and common) separation of the practical and the aesthetic (rhetoric from poetry, art from science, art from technology) constitutes one of the greatest disasters in human history. It has meant that we devise “things” (a machine, a policy, a law, a building, a system) to do something without considering how we (people, living things, our environment) will experience what’s being created or devised.

This was, ultimately, the brilliance of someone like Steve Jobs—like him or not. He relentlessly, obsessively considered how the users of his technological products would experience them, not just in terms of ease but in terms of engagement. He didn’t simply ask, “Does it work?” He also asked, “What kind of relationship with the user will it foster?” He thought poetically. The writing that I admire most does the same thing. It creates an engaging experience with the reader. It creates a relationship between the reader and the text that generates attention and trust.

For that reason, to this day, when my writing well runs dry, I turn to poetry. As in the days of my dissertation, I find that when I struggle to bring a stubborn concept to the surface, casting it in poetry and letting in sound and rhythm helps me clarify what I really mean. Or I open a book by one of my favorite poets (Dickinson, Shakespeare, Gwendolyn Brooks, William Stafford, C.P. Kavafy) and remember that language is much more flexible and expansive than I’m allowing myself to be.

I’m not trying to create great poems; I’m simply returning to the poetic heart of all good writing.

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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.

8 Essential Writing Lessons Journalism Taught Me: About Drafting

I would enter the doors of the newsroom greeted by the jangle or bleat of telephones, the click of typewriter (eventually computer) keys, the voices of reporters talking to sources on the phones or gossiping with one another or trading insults, the shouts of editors checking on the status of stories in progress. Through the noise, I would make my way to my desk, turn on my typewriter or log into my computer, place my notes in front of me, and begin drafting my story.

That moment invariably excited and terrified me the most because it involved the most mystery, even more than the unknown of gathering information. By the time I began to draft, I knew I had something. I also knew, though, that I would only discover its true outlines in these moments. A story I thought was great might crumble in the writing of it; a mediocre story might suddenly take on new life; I might find that I’d done too much reporting, or far too little. All of this the words and sentences would tell me as they emerged from the blank surface of the page or screen, when the draft takes it first physical form, moving from the conceptual to the concrete.

It may sound obvious that you can’t write well without actually, well, writing, but like many of my students, I have at times worked hard to avoid drafting. Sometimes I’ve outlined and planned ad nauseum; sometimes I’ve obsessively gathered information; sometimes for days, weeks, even months, I’ve gone over in my head what I thought a piece should look like and sound like and say; other times I’ve just daydreamed about who I’d like to cast for the film version of my novel, or I’d concoct imaginary interview responses for my imaginary book tour. Anything to keep from simply putting my rear in a chair and letting the words and sentences out.

Like so many students and would-be writers, I’ve sometimes thought of drafting as a chore to get through. But my writing works best when I treat drafting as its own event in the process of creating a text. It’s not the recording of ideas or the tedious playing out of a predetermined plan. Without sounding too mystical—oh what the hell, I’ll sound mystical—during drafting, language steps forward and asserts itself. Echoes and allusions and rhythms fall onto the page; some of them work and some don’t, but in what appears I get my first sense of what might be possible.

In the ruthlessness of its deadlines, newspaper writing forced me into that realization on a daily basis. I couldn’t avoid it; I couldn’t hide. And the exercise of turning language loose on subject after subject made me a more trusting, more confident, and better writer. Who needs a daily word count target when you have a city editor breathing down your neck at 5 o’clock every weekday evening?

In a telling scene in the film All the President’s Men, the late, great Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (played by the late, great actor Jason Robards) reads through an early Watergate story as Woodward and Bernstein anxiously look on. To their dismay, he takes out a red pen and begins crossing out large chunks of their story’s main assertions. He responds to their objections by saying simply, “You haven’t got it. You haven’t got the story.” And though they are disappointed, they recognize that he is right. They aren’t yet ready to write the story they would like to write, to say what they think they want to say.

For me, that scene represents the hard truth of drafting and of what the draft tells me. The words and sentences on the page—not the concepts in my head—determine whether a piece of writing works, whether it creates the experience for the reader that I want it to create. The drafting is where I find the text.

8 Essential Writing Lessons Journalism Taught Me: Intention

When I taught college writing, I sometimes asked my students what they thought motivated writers to write. Journalists, the students generally agreed, wrote from a vague desire to “inform” a general audience. But every reporter worth a damn that I ever knew wanted more. We wanted to render compellingly what we saw and heard. We had mixed motives: ego and ambition, public service, a hope that we could goad readers into doing the right thing, or make them notice when the right thing wasn’t being done. We wanted people to read our stories, and we wanted what they read to matter.

Making my writing matter meant finding something I wanted to say in each story I covered. It meant determining what each story was going to be about, not in the sense of its subject matter, but in the sense of revealing what made that subject worth writing (and reading) about. It meant finding an “angle.”

During one summer internship, I was assigned the “Fourth of July” story. These are the kinds of stories that newspapers hire summer interns for. It saves editors having to compel a regular, fulltime reporter to work resentfully on a holiday writing the kind of story that newspapers feel obliged to run but that no one really wants to write and readers don’t necessarily want to read. Generally, nothing new or significant happens; Fourth of July is Fourth of July.

Grateful as I was for the internship, I didn’t want to do the story. It meant driving around to neighborhood picnics and barbecues and fireworks celebrations, conducting man (or woman) in the street interviews of ordinary people saying ordinary, less than scintillating things. But I had a story to write, column inches to fill, and a deadline to meet. I had no idea what to write about Independence Day, but that’s what the reporting was for. In short, I had enough parameters set for me to create a sense of urgency. The rest I had to come up with myself.

Eventually, my angle turned about to be the almost universal refrain among the people I interviewed—old and young, male and female, native born and immigrant—that Independence Day had less to do with remembering the source and history of our freedom and more to do with a holiday and fireworks shows.

Journalism taught me that writing without an intention is like shooting an arrow without any target. Somewhere in the process of producing a piece of writing—not necessarily at the beginning—I need to find a clear intention to give my work shape and cohesiveness.

The intention for a piece of writing can be discovered in a thousand ways: identifying the audience, creating a thesis, choosing a genre, constructing an outline, determining the vocabulary, deciding whether to write in first or second or third person, the length of the piece, its title, its subject, and a hundred other choices a writer eventually has to make. In much of the writing I’ve done, someone else (an editor, professor, publication, style guide) made some of these limiting decisions for me. But ultimately the writing didn’t work unless I created or discovered my own.

Some of my writing students demanded that I provide every intention. “What do you want?” they continually asked. In a thousand ways, I tried to say, “I want you to find, within the parameters of the assignment, something you really want to tell me. I want you to do your best to make me care about what you want to show me.” To most students, intention belonged to teachers, and they were handed out, never discovered by the writer. For a few students, intentions were irrelevant; only creativity mattered. And creativity meant releasing themselves on the page with no parameters, no rules, no need for any kind of coherence.

But setting the intention for a piece of writing is as necessary as putting words on the page, because it’s from that intention that the experience I want my reader to have comes to life. And it emerges from a dialogue between the constraints others impose on our writing and those we find for ourselves.

Eight Essential Writing Lessons Journalism Taught Me, Part 1

I graduated from high school 35 years ago as a strong enough writer to escape first-year college composition and get into journalism school, but I didn’t really understand how to write well. Six and a half years later, when I left fulltime journalism (reluctantly—but that’s a story for another time), I had become a much stronger writer, but not from magical inspiration or newfound talent. Journalism forced me to compose more and work harder, and it made my writing process more conscious and deliberate. In high school, I could turn out a decent paper on demand, but through journalism, I began to learn what writing was and how to work on it; I learned how to experiment and play with words and clauses and phrases and sentences; and I learned that mastering the process would change what my writing could do for readers and what it could do for me. In the decades that have followed, as I’ve written fiction and poetry, edited technical manuals, composed a doctoral dissertation and other academic pieces, and worked as a college-level teacher and administrator, journalism formed the foundation of whatever success I’ve had. It certainly isn’t the only place to learn these lessons, but the more I developed as a writing teacher and administrator, the more I recognized that I kept drawing from this source.

So here I present the first of the eight essentials lessons I learned:

In June 1983, I stepped off the train and into a steamy Philadelphia summer to work as an intern on the business copy editing desk of The Philadelphia Inquirer. On my first day at work, my brilliant and affable copy desk chief, Jim Moffatt, gave me a button a couple of inches in diameter that read in capital, multicolored letters, “ PYIRP.” I found out that this stood for “Put Yourself In the Reader’s Place.”

Moff reminded all of us on the copy desk that whatever the newspaper’s writers and columnists had in mind, those of us on the desk had one primary job: to stand in for the reader who would pick up the Inquirer at a newsstand or from her front stoop and make sure what she read was as accurate and understandable and engaging as we could make it.

From then on, I tried to practice what Moff preached, but decades passed before its significance sank in, and it took even longer before I consciously made it the core of how I define writing: To write is to create an experience—made of words, sentences, a structure, and content—that engages the reader.

Of course, written texts achieve (or attempt to achieve) all sorts of other aims. They persuade, entertain, energize, inspire, disturb, provoke. But if what I write doesn’t manage to elbow its way to the forefront of a reader’s attention, it won’t achieve anything else. I’ve found that this holds true even when I write exclusively for myself. The ideas, phrases, vignettes, descriptions, and other bits and pieces I (as writer) have put down in my journals and notebooks over the years were recorded so that I could re-experience them in a particular way later as a reader.

This became clearer to me years later when I taught writing to college students. I discovered that no matter how technically clean the writing, something often seemed missing from my students’ work, and I discovered it was this: They had no particular intentions for what they hoped to accomplish with their readers; in fact, they generally had no sense of the reader at all. Instead they fashioned packets of information with no purpose beyond generating the number of words the assignment required. But they failed to imagine the possible responses of actual human beings to what they might say or how they might say it.

At that point, I understood consciously what before then had only driven my work implicitly: The attempt to engage particular readers in particular ways for particular purposes had shaped my decisions, had helped me choose which words and which combinations and what details to include, and these had given my writing the coherence and direction that made it work.

And this backbone has structured my own writing, and my work with other writers, ever since.

How Play Forms the Foundation of My Writing, Part I

Here’s what I believe: If, during the course of a day, I can only do one writing-related activity, that activity should be play. On any given day, I could draft new material, edit or revise one of the drafts I’ve been working on, outline something I’ve written, plan how to organize an idea I have for a piece, do some reading or research for a poem or story or essay. Each of these is a good use of my time; each can help me as a writer. But if I can only do one of thing, it should be play. Why?

Because nothing expresses the love I feel for someone or something as powerfully as play. Nothing cements my regard as much as shutting off all purpose and advantage and gain and simply spending active, pleasurable time in the presence of who or what I love. Play says that at this moment, the joy I share with you matters more than whatever use I might get from doing anything else. It says that I gladly turn over the most precious things I have—my time and my active attention—to the happiness of being with you. In play, I also give up control and will and direction. I open myself up to surprise. I forget about the outcome because the moment with you matters more than any outcome could. And as much as intention eventually informs my finished writing, I also need to learn to practice letting go of intention and outcome when I create.

Given the power of play, its ability to consume me emotionally and physically and psychologically, of course I struggle with it. Ironically, it often takes work for me to give myself over to play. Sometimes I pretend I’m playing when I’m really just tuning out, vegging, watching television, drifting along the electronic waves of the internet, or evening reading an interesting or diverting article. For me the difference between these activities and play lies in the engagement and energy I feel while I’m doing them and the sense of reinvigoration I feel afterward.  When I “pass the time” relaxing, I don’t feel worn out when I’m done, but I generally don’t feel recharged either; it’s more as though I’ve awakened from a nap that didn’t last long enough—or that lasted too long. Part of me wants the time back.

But when I play, my mind and body feel sharper, even if I end up more physically tired. It’s often after engaging in some writing play that I feel most ready to get down to work, and if I can’t do that, I’m frustrated. In a strange way, knowing what feelings may follow play can discourage me from doing it sometimes. That is, I anticipate the energy my playing generates, and I hesitate to get myself cranked up if I won’t then have the opportunity to use that energy. I’ve found, though, I never really waste the energy play produces. If nothing else, I connect more strongly to the person or subject the play has been about; I feel more alive; I have a stronger sense of optimism and possibility; I believe that I’ll be able to deal with problems that seem insurmountable when I haven’t played.

So that’s the role that play serves in my writing life—a fundamental role. In Part II, I’ll writing about what forms my writing play takes.

I’d love to hear from you: Is play a part of your writing life? Why or why not? And what does it look like when you play with language?