Often I’m reading an article in a magazine or a chapter in a book, and a particularly well-written passage grabs me. Perhaps unconsciously the passage attracts me because it demonstrates a technique that I am teaching to students at the time. But when I do come across something, I go straight to my printer and copy the piece, thus accruing rich fodder for the next time I see my students.  Just yesterday I was reading Kathryn Schultz’s review of Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk [The New Yorker, March 9, 2015] and realized that her elegant and unobtrusive paragraph-to-paragraph transitions would fit the bill for a group of middle school boys I am working with who are eager to learn how to improve their writing in terms of fluidity.

That same issue of The New Yorker offered another piece suitable for these boys, one of John McPhee’s occasional additions to his On Writing series titled “Frame of Reference”.  Widely known as a pioneer of creative non-fiction, McPhee teaches writing courses at Princeton and is the author of many books, including two that were nominated for the National Book Award, and his Annals of the Former World won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999.  The gist of his essay is that writers should be wary about mentioning people, places, situations that only their generation would understand, say, alluding to a certain level of a video game only aficionados of that game would ‘get’. Beware of obscure words and phrases, too, warns McPhee, who occasionally broke this rule. One such example: “With his pure-white hair, his large frame his tetragrammatonic mustache, Lawson personified Higher Authority.”  Lucky for McPhee, his kind editor answered the flurry of querying letters that arrived at the magazine about how he modified mustache.

Please do not think me NYer-centric, as many other magazines and newspapers are troves for teaching and tutoring material.  National Geographic, for example, prints articles that are tailor-made for younger writers, anywhere from fourth to sixth grade.  As lovely as the photographs are, their captions and accompanying articles are mostly written in clear, accessible prose. When I come across prose in other publications that is cloudy and difficult, I use samples of it to model “how not to write”.  I’d rather not reveal which ones consistently provide examples of this type!

When to Write: Habit or Fancy

Often I read advice from other writers. This is a confession of sorts because I have the guilty feeling that if I consider myself a writer then I wouldn’t need advice. But I suspect fellow writers have perused Open Culture postings titled “10 Writers Lay Out How to Write a Short Story” or “Ray Bradbury Gives 12 Pieces of Writing Advice to Young Authors”, the latter of which I’m really embarrassed to admit reading considering that I am way past the designation of ‘young’. Flavorwire, too, publishes similar pieces and recently previewed Sarah Stodola’s new book, Process: The Writing Lives of Great Authors. Stodola found much diversity in the habits of writers like David Foster Wallace, Virginia Woolf, Joan Didion, Toni Morrison, and George Orwell — autodidacts, nine-to-fivers, or slow and steady.

Some of the time I write every day, usually in the morning, because if I put it off, it doesn’t get done.  Interspersed with these spurts of discipline are periods when I write when the fancy hits me, which I really don’t recommend, for if I don’t write for a few days, you can label me restless, irritable, and distracted. I’ve noticed that my alternating styles align with where I am in a draft: Discipline reigns in the initial stages, fancy, during revisions. So, what does that pattern tell me? I’m more pleasant to be around when writing regularly and that revision is to be avoided. (It’s hard stuff, that revising!) Monitoring and noticing your writing behaviors can be illuminating and a way to change fancy to habit.

Writing Workshops and Collaboration

In her essay “Collaboration, Control, and the Idea of a Writing Center” Andrea Lunsford lays out data she accrued from her research on collaborative writing, which is exactly what a writing workshop provides a platform for. She says, “[T]he data I amassed mirrored what my students had been telling me for years: not the research they carried out, not their dogged writing of essays, not me even, but their work in groups, their collaboration, was the most important and helpful part of their school experience.”  Her research supported the idea that collaboration also provided gains in problem finding and solving; learning abstractions; interdisciplinary thinking; sharper critical thinking; and a real bonus: a deeper understanding of others.  (See my post on the morality of writing for an expansion on this bonus result.)

Inherent Morality of Writing

Lately, I have been thinking about the moral component of writing.  Don’t get me wrong, now; I realize I am at risk for being mocked as high-minded and highfalutin’ here.

The other day while tutoring some seventh-graders, I reminded them of the old saw, “Don’t forget your reader.”As further explanation, I urged them to pretend the reader is a space alien and, therefore, must have things explained concisely and clearly. Another variation is “Always consider your reader as a friend who wants to understand.”  Their glazed eyes led me to ask, “What is the opposite of self?”  A  boy with a severe case of bedhead lifted his chin, sat up straight, and replied, “You?”

Right then and there, I realized that the concept of recognizing the Other as separate from Self might be a new one for my students. When they can access a virtual universe, post selfies on Instagram, ensconce themselves in all matter of video-game chaos, it is no small wonder. (Now, I sound like a Luddite.) But, to press my point, isn’t it good to break out of oneself by considering another? Isn’t there simple goodness in moving away from selfishness to selflessness by caring and seeking to understand someone besides ourselves? This is what I mean by the inherent morality of writing.

College Essay Reaps a Golden Harvest

In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, the author stated something I remind my students of  often: your essay is an all-important, if not  key, component of your application.  After admissions staff  have culled the most promising applications based on GPA, test scores, and the like, they look to the essay in their final vetting. If two students with equally impressive transcripts are in the penultimate pile, it’s the essay that determines which one will make it to the final pile.

All of the above (sorry to harken back to SAT lingo) is nothing new, as high school counselors point out the essay factor to anxious applicants probably twenty times a day.  What is new, however, is the word count for the personal statement of the Common Application: it has been extended from 500 to 650 words. Word-counting students might groan at this, but the truth is that if a student writes an authentic personal essay — one whose seed is what excites, incenses, or moves its writer — the additional 150 words are a godsend.

An essay that rings true reaps the wheat, a false one,the chaff.

Hard Copy or Monitor?

During the revision process or just reading drafts, I usually print out a hard copy. For me, reading print is a more pleasant experience than reading from my laptop screen. It’s a visceral thing. I feel my shoulders drop, my muscles relax. I can hold a printed mass of paper and feel the weight of it. I can flick each page over. All of these physical actions relay a sense of purpose and accomplishment. As a writer I need a bit of self-congratulation now and then!

Word Book

When I typed the title of this blog post, I almost typed ‘Bird’ Book, the kind that birders record their sightings of different bird species.  A Word Book is very similar; instead of bird sightings it is a list of word sightings.  Often I will come across a good word while reading.  Sometimes a word just pops into my head, or I  might hear someone use a good word.  Words also show up accidentally, like my almost-typo in naming this blog post.  (American poet Elizabeth Bishop once caught a typo in a New York Times article — manmoth rather than mammoth, the result of which is her poem “Man-Moth.”)

I choose cool books that are small so I can tote them around in my purse: a miniature version of the standard black-and-white marbled copybook; a little handmade book; and if I’m feeling grand, an expensive moleskin one. If I don’t have my book with me, then I use my iPhone notes, but I always transcribe them later to my book and always with a pencil.  This is an idiosyncrasy of mine.  I love to write with a pencil because I love the sound and feel of pencil on paper.

Because I am a grammarian,  I categorize words according to parts of speech. Because I am a poet, sub-categories are  vowel sounds (assonance) and consonant sounds (consonance.) In addition to my poems, I can also rely on sound as a way of pumping up meaning in fiction.  Consider how James Joyce does this in his short story “The Dead”:  His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

I would be fooling myself if I thought any of my sentences could achieve Joyce’s functional beauty here, but a Word Book will help me aspire to his genius.  Who knows, maybe Joyce had a Word Book!


Where to Write

How many times has someone suggested that you write in the same place each day? Many, I’m sure. Is this really necessary?
When I think back on my undergraduate days, I recall sitting long hours at a library carrell, the second one across from eighteenth century British literature.

When asked what would be the best environment for a writer, Faulkner offered this:

If you mean me, the best job that was ever offered to me was to become a landlord in a brothel. In my opinion it’s the perfect milieu for an artist to work in. It gives him perfect economic freedom; he’s free of fear and hunger; he has a roof over his head and nothing whatever to do except keep a few simple accounts and to go once every month and pay off the local police. The place is quiet during the morning hours, which is the best time of the day to work. There’s enough social life in the evening, if he wishes to participate, to keep him from being bored…. My own experience has been that the tools I need for my trade are paper, tobacco, food, and a little whiskey.

One thing I do know is that when I am in solitude and writing I am happy. If I want to be happy for a couple of hours a day, then I will write. It’s as simple as that.

Write Everyday

Write every day.  Write at the same time every day. Write at the same place everyday.

From lower school on, teachers, workshop leaders, and other writers have reminded us of  these tenets of good writing practice. In On Writing, Stephen King says he writes every morning and recommends that a writer’s desk face a wall to avoid distractions.  Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones, interprets the every day rule as  “My goal is to write every day. I say it is my ideal. I am careful not to pass judgment or create anxiety if I do not. No one lives up to his ideal.” In other words, don’t beat yourself up if you take a day or two off.  Just don’t avoid it for a third day; this will invariably extend to a  fourth, fifth and so on. Procrastination breeds guilt and kills imagination.

Here are ways I rationalize my procrastination: My ideas are percolating all the time. I write when I jot a word down on a napkin while out to dinner.  Manual activity, like pasting images in my photography journal, exercises the creative part of the brain. Is it the right side? I can never remember. Then I will research the brain, after which I might throw a dark load into the washing machine.

Procrastination is a sign of fear, fear of rejection, fear of criticism, and, the great kahuna, fear that your writing is just plain bad, boring, sophomoric.  In her book Bird by Bird, Annie Lamott offers a bit of solace.  “I don’t think you have time to waste not writing because you are afraid you won’t be good at it.”  I have advised my students to let go of the fear because one of the cool things about writing is that it is never finished. We write and revise endlessly.  Revision liberates us.  As Gertrude Stein once said, writing is writing is writing is writing.



Gertrude Stein

Gertrude SteinGertrude SteinWhile tutoring a high school sophomore, I was reintroduced to the work of Gertrude Stein. My student had been given a passage from one of Stein’s books and was told to write an essay about it. After reading and rereading and rereading some more, she picked apart each line, each phrase, each word trying to wring out some meaning. She added punctuation, which of course Stein had left out. She read out loud to her friends. She cried. This is what flummoxed looks like.

Exacerbating her frustration was the teacher’s prohibition of on-line research. Sure am glad I didn’t have this teacher in my first upper school honors course; honors curse is more like it. (Subsequently, I learned that the teacher who wrote the assignment was out on maternity leave, and the substitute was also Stein-stymied.)

At the start of out first tutoring session, I  assured her that her writing skills were solid.  Instead, we would work on her thinking skills. Thinking and writing go hand-in-hand of course, but when faced with such a challenging passage as Stein’s, our thinking may have to change a bit.  Obviously a close reading here will not suffice, so I encouraged the student to take a movie camera’s view.  For example, rather than relying on the close-up shot, pull back for a panoramic one.  Are there any patterns, repetitions?  It’s more than obvious that Stein’s writing is not a narrative nor an essay — is it even prose?  Maybe it’s a poem of sorts. At this point, the student began to look for common poetic devices and got on her way with the assignment.

N.B. We squeezed in a grammar lesson, too, since Stein’s pronouns often came long after their antecedents — pronoun agreement with antecedent!  Later the student texted me that  she was the only one in her class who even knew what an antecedent was!