Ready

“One way of looking at this might be that for 42 years, I’ve been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education and training. And on January 15 the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.”
Chesley Sullenberger

Imagine that you decide to redo your kitchen. A contractor bidding for the job stops by, and when you ask how he’ll proceed, he replies that he’s not sure; he tends to show up with his tools when the mood strikes him and figure it out at he goes along.

Or suppose you go to the doctor with knee pain, and rather than examine you, she says, “You know I don’t always do examinations. Let me think a while about what you’ve told me and when I’m ready, I’ll call you in for some treatment.”

Or you board an airplane, and as you pass the open door of the flight deck, you hear the pilot tell the co-pilot, “You know, forget about the pre-flight checklist. I have a good vibe that this jet is ready for takeoff. Let’s wing it.” (Hint: The pilot is not Sullenburger.)

I suspect (and hope) you would find someone else to help you. That’s because you expect a competent practitioner to have a process for approaching the task.

Yet when it comes to writing, I have known so many writers and would-be writers who fear talking about process. I have also seen many writers and would-be writers struggle to understand why they procrastinate, encounter writing blocks, and feel dissatisfied at the difference between their aspirations and their performance. Some of them contend that since writing is an art, it can’t be planned for. It has to be spontaneous and inspired. Preparation—and any talk about preparation—only kills the creative impulse.

I’ve written about process before, as it’s something of an obsession of mine (which has been stirred up again by this blog post, which I enjoyed). Obviously any writer producing work that satisfies her desires needs no changes in how they do what they, whether or not they have an explicit process. But in decades of teaching, I’ve seen talented, intelligent students struggle to create good writing because they refused to reconsider how they went about writing. They insisted on waiting until the last minute, drafting without any plan or intention, refusing to revise, working in the midst of distractions, and yet were continually frustrated by the results the choices produced.

A process isn’t an answer. It’s a plan for how I’m going to look for the answer.

Writers vary, and each writer’s process should be tailored to that person. Some people work better at night, others early in the morning. Some prefer to plan extensively ahead of time; some do better writing quickly and then revising extensively. Some cannot create without pencil and paper, others need a computer, and still others swear by the clatter of a typewriter. Some need the noise of a restaurant or café to write; some require music; some demand silence. But whatever the individual writer’s particular approach looks like, some reliable way to deal with the challenges that writing poses can be invaluable.

Sullenberger landed an airline—with both engines out, full of 150 people—safely on a river because he was ready to do exactly that, even though he could never have anticipated that situation. And I think it was his process—the way he learned and trained and practiced and prepared each time he flew—that made him ready.

My process serves the same purpose for me. I don’t know what turn a story or character or argument or idea will take until I’m putting the words on the page. But if I have a good process, I’m ready to respond to that turn, that surprising direction or insight. Because I’ve read and learned and practiced and done what I can to make myself comfortable and confident in front of the blank page.

Each enacting of my process is a deposit in the bank, waiting for me to withdraw it when I write. It helps ensure that I don’t arrive at the page empty handed and that I don’t leave the page empty.

Advertisements

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.

Romancing Language in Action: How the Sausage Gets Made

In response to this fascinating post (on what has quickly become one of my favorite web sites), which presents the daily routines of several famous writers, I’ve decided to present my own, typical day-in-the-life writing routine. A warning: This will not include, a la Annie Dillard, a writing shack set in the Virginia countryside.

10 p.m. – Go to bed with a plan to rise at 5 a.m. and write for a couple of hours before everyone else in the house is awake.

4 a.m. – Awaken to the sound of a screaming 2-year-old. Upon investigation find and change a diaper filled with a massive bowel movement.

4:10 a.m. – Send the 6-year-old also awakened by the screaming back to bed, despite his desire to turn on PBS Kids.

4:45 a.m. – Unable to sleep, get up, turn on the computer, and do 5 min. of freewriting, then begin drafting current writing project, a novel.

5:10 a.m. – Interrupted by new screams from the 2-year-old, who wants to get up and turn on PBS Kids. Coax her into her own bed and lie down with her to get her back to sleep.

5:50 a.m. – Awaken in the 2-year-old’s bed, having successfully put her—and myself—back to sleep.

5:55 a.m. – Freewrite for 5 min., followed by drafting on my current writing project, a novel.

6:55 a.m. – Informed by the 6-year-old that he is now awake and is going to watch PBS Kids.

7-8:15 a.m. – Awaken sleeping spouse so that she can get ready for work. Feed and dress the children. Prepare lunch and backpack for 6-year-old, and take him to school.

8:30-11 a.m. – Take 2-year-old to YMCA, place her in child care, and exercise for about 1 hour. Return home.

11 a.m.-2:45 p.m. – Wrangle, feed, and entertain 2-year-old. Worry about money, since I don’t make any.

2:45-5 or 6 p.m. – Take 2-year-old and pick up 6-year-old from school. Go home and wrangle, feed, and entertain both of them. Worry about money some more, since I don’t make any. Wonder about the status of my productivity vis-à-vis society’s current value structure.

6-8:30 p.m. – Along with spouse, wrangle, feed, entertain, and put to bed both children.

8:30-9:30 or 10 p.m. – Either write, spend time with spouse, or watch television (generally performing one or two of the acts while lamenting not doing the other one or two).

10 p.m. – Go to bed with a plan to rise at 5 a.m. and write for a couple of hours before everyone else in the house is awake.

The romance of language, like all forms of romance, must often survive in less than ideal environments. It bears remembering that such is often the case with life in general. This reminds me that however much love involves emotion, it turns on discipline and commitment. It grows less from inspiration and more from habit and conscious choice. A writer must be someone who learns to see the choices that language presents, and who remains willing to make those choices and face their consequences.

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.

Found in Translation

How do I know what I think till I see what I say?
E.M. Forster

On discussion boards, I occasionally see writers present their process as something akin to transcription. They plan every detail of a scene before drafting, and then execute that plan virtually without deviation. These writers focus on efficiency. Who needs writing as discovery? Why meander when you can take the most direct path possible? It presents the essence of writing as an act of will and control.

Of course, I plan my writing too—if not before I draft, then certainly during and after. But I write on more shifting ground. I invariably say something I did not know I was going to say. My characters end up in unanticipated places; the essay subject shifts, altering the trajectory of the piece; the voice of a poem takes a turn that colors the experience of reading it. I have celebrated when this metamorphosis easily improved the writing, and I have despaired when it meant extensive revision. But as I’ve learned more about writing, I’ve come to believe this happens because of the mediating nature of language itself.

So often we speak of mediating in terms of position. A mediator stands between entities—people, experiences, world views—translating each to the other. Writing mediates between writer and readers. We complain when a medium (or the media) doesn’t translate verbatim. “They’re leaving out what he really said,” we say. “That isn’t what really happened.”

This comes from our mania for the “real”: reality television, films “based on real events,” and memoirs that will reveal, at last, the real story behind so-and-so’s life. The more neutral the mediator, the better, and what could be more neutral than “indisputable video evidence”? In sports, we want to see the replay before we believe that the winning basket left the player’s hand in time, or that the soccer ball fully entered the goal. We’ve become addicted to video clips that, unlike written representations, present what happened “unfiltered.” Or so we think.

But I’ve stopped thinking of mediating as neutral. Language has a long history all its own. Each word comes into being at a particular time for particular reasons, and as time has passes, so do the echoes and nuances of that word. In addition, each person’s encounter with a word differs from everyone else’s. Because of this, every reading of a text leaves some elements untranslated. The shift from one way of making meaning to another is always incomplete. To write and to read are like trying to reach through an opaque curtain to grasp an object I can’t see, that I can’t be sure even exists.

I can lament this as language’s failing or celebrate it as language’s power to redirect what it touches. The reader and I meet at the dual surfaces of the text: the side that I experience as its creator and the side that the reader experiences as co-creator. The reader doesn’t receive my writing; s/he creates it with me, in response to what I’ve written. The written text hovers between us, drawing us into collaboration.

The electric circuit between reader and writer that flows through words, syntax, content, and structure gives writing its power over us. It provides the energy that can make reading a book one of the most significant—even transformative—events in a human being’s life. Words have altered my values, my perspective, my actions, and even my identity. Sometimes I’ve encountered those words in the works of great writers; sometimes I’ve found them in the works of writers unknown or forgotten; I’ve even encountered and been surprised by them in my own prose and poetry. That is what keeps me reading and writing.

8 Essential Writing Lessons Journalism Taught Me: Reconsider

The work I did for newspapers was by far the most collaborative writing I’ve ever done, though generally I didn’t think I was collaborating at the time.

Every day, I reported my story, I thought about it, and I wrote it down—or I wrote it down and thought about it. I polished it up nice and shiny and minded my factual as well as stylistic p’s and q‘s, then turned it over to my editing and copyediting colleagues to put their fingers into it.

When the rooting around worked, it worked because those colleagues made you reconsider everything in the story that mattered. I reconsidered it when I sat down beside the desk editor and she questioned this lead paragraph and that quote and this comma and the use of that term. When, perhaps, she questioned whether my story was news at all rather than just the same old, same old. Or conversely when she questioned whether the run-of-the-mill story I had composed might instead be a significant crack in the wall of some institutional edifice.

I reconsidered it when, after I had left work and stopped to have a few beers and arrived at home to have a few more and watch something insipid but entertaining on television, or god forbid that I had gone out with my wife to a movie or dinner with friends, and someone on the copy desk interrupted my insipid entertainment, or I came home from the movie or dinner and found a blinking light on my answering machine (picture a time before cell phones when people were not constantly available).

At each reconsideration, you had to defend the decisions you made. And with each defense, if you had anything mentally going on, you had to ask yourself what the editor was asking you: Had your choices been the right ones? Had you left something out that you shouldn’t have? Had you gotten the essence of the story or had you missed it completely? And sometimes you discovered that the answers to at least some of those questions did not comfort you, but that this discomfort made the story better and made you a better writer. And then you realized that whatever the quality of your decisions, the act of reconsideration itself made you a better writer because it taught you the kinds of questions to ask yourself whether there was a copyeditor at the other end of the phone line or not.

You learned that what a priest I once interviewed said about his faith applied equally well to writing: that finding appropriate moments to question our choices makes our choices better.

In an earlier post, I wrote about the need, at some point, to make conscious decisions about your intentions for a piece and what means you would use to carry those intentions out. A simpler word for that decision-making is design. I would choose an experience I wanted my reader to have and design the writing to achieve that experience.

The collaborative experience in journalism helped me see the equal necessity of reconsidering my design, of being willing to chuck it all and start from scratch if I found my design to be wrongheaded. I have always found this reconsideration both terrifying and liberating. It scares me because it means that hours, days, weeks or more of labor can end up junked. But it frees more than it frightens because however wrong I get it, I can always give myself the chance to recuperate my writing, so long as I’m willing to tell myself the truth about the work I’ve done.

8 Essential Writing Lessons Journalism Taught Me: Engaging Play

One of my first jobs on the college newspaper at Kansas—The University Daily Kansan—was copyediting. As students in Dr. John Bremner’s editing class, each of us had to do a set number of shifts during the semester. I had written before, all kinds of writing for years, since I elementary school; but I had never edited writing—either mine or anyone else’s—as meticulously as I learned to edit in that class and on that desk.

Don Munday served as copy desk chief. He was an advanced undergraduate in his early 20s, but looked ageless. While he sat in the slot of the U-shaped desk, we were arrayed around him on the outside edge, making our editing marks on sheets of newsprint onto which reporters had typed their stories. Don was droll and very smart, and he had on his desk, facing us, a small statue of the Big Boy, a pudgy figure in checkerboard overalls whose image adorned the JB’s Big Boy restaurants that operated in Kansas at the time, and to whom Don bore an uncanny resemblance.

Day slid into shadow during each shift, the next door newsroom’s typing and buzz growing quieter until it ended altogether as evening progressed. Mainly I remember the fun of bathing our hands in words. I’ve never particularly enjoyed crossword puzzles or Scrabble, but decades later I still miss the challenge of wedging music and sense into a difficult headline space.

We formatted each page of our newspaper six columns across, and when it was time to write a headline Don would give us the count—the amount of space we had to fit the headline into: between one and six columns wide, between one and three lines of text, and the size of the print (the larger the print size the fewer words that would fit per line). The smaller the print size and the more columns of width and lines of depth, the more words would fit into the headline and the easier it was to write. One column headlines were the most difficult.

Early on, I learned that to compose a good head I had to read the entire story, distill its essence in my mind, and begin to play with words. Brevity mattered, but so did sound and sense. What began with something like “University Registrar encourages students to sign up for classes early” had to be whittled down: “Registrar urges early registration.” I discovered the value of play without noticing it. I’d try one word then another, searching for synonyms, trying this verb then that, excising adjectives, collapsing nouns into smaller and smaller words. I started to hear the emotional tone beyond strict meaning that each word carries. We editors played with poems, really, composing our kind of haiku. We’d practice with puns, seeing how far we could go before it became too much, too stylized, to obscure.

A few years later, I copyedited in my first professional newspaper job, and experienced one of my most productive periods of creative writing. Knocking off work at midnight or 1 a.m., still energized, in my basement apartment I’d stand by a tall chest of drawers tapping on the typewriter placed atop it, my mind roiling with the language I had kneaded and massaged for the previous eight hours. In play I’d pry my mind open, breaking and remaking the rules it’s impossible to learn any other way. I came to trust the truth of language to push past the limits others have erected to fence out the innovative. I found that surprise resides in play. Language’s musical echoes get buried in everyday exchanges but uncover themselves in play’s silly sideways illumination, in the infrared or ultraviolet glow just outside the spectrum of normal light.

So I bend words, phrases, sentences, ideas into myriad effects, just to see what happens. Just to see how it sounds this way or that, to see where the emphasis falls when I slide the word left or right, when I slip in the punctuation that punches or for fun flip a different switch. So much of writing is necessarily purposeful and directed, but play is my source, tapping into the deep wells within language and within me from which my writing flows. I freewrite; I brainstorm; I make word clusters; I concept map. I don’t expect the product of this play to see daylight; that isn’t its function. But through it I ready myself for serious writing business.