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READ/MISREAD FOR IDEAS

All writers know that ideas are either everywhere or nowhere; state of mind controls which. If I’m in a wondering-state, ideas pour forth seemingly out of the ether, and if I find myself stuck, they simply hide, which is when reading often helps.

The other day I was reading the NY Times’s 125th Anniversary issue of the Book Review. In an interview with Colson Whitehead, author of the best-selling The Underground Railroad, he said he was working on a novel about Band-Aids. The mention of Band-Aids resonated with something I had been wondering about as I reapplied them to stitches from Mohs surgery, a procedure to scrape away skin cancer, I had had recently. Each time, I fumbled with getting the Band-Aid opened — the ultra-thin paper is difficult to manipulate. I thought, What happpened to the little red strings? Pull on one and the Band-Aid zipped open as effortlessly as breathing. Today I have started a lyric essay about Band-Aids — that’s how it works.

Even errors can fruit ideas. American poet Elizabeth Bishop once read a misprint in a newspaper; the word mammoth was misspelled as manmoth, which resulted in her poem “Man-Moth”, a dreamy creature who attempts to climb to the moon.

I have a running log of my misreadings, which I consult when my idea well is dry. I misread “kneel’ as “kennel” and came up with the line of a poem: We kenneled our fears, brought them leftover meats and water. Some of the misreadings are downright funny: heart lunch for heart lurch; slacker grammar for slacker glamour; interviewing the famous for interviewing the farmhouse. These will yield, I hope, some solid writing!

Zoom: Humanistic or Robotic

The virtual meeting platform Zoom has boomed since the onset of Covid. The Guardian, a British newspaper, states that its revenue has more than doubled from the same time the year before. Many users love the site; others abhor it. Reasons for both opinions abound and often overlap: convenience, no commuting to work, viewing all participants; inconvenience of technology, lack of personal interaction at the water-cooler, viewing all participants.

During a Zoom class about George Eliot’s Middlemarch, the host asked all participants to disable the microphone and video option to lessen the distraction quotient. Who doesn’t check out each other’s Hollywood Squares-ish windows? Wasn’t he wearing that same shirt yesterday? I didn’t know she had blonde hair. All these people look bored and tired. And, of course, we check out our own images. Oh, my God, is that a zit?!

Most participants followed directions and blacked out, but some — probably out of Zoom illiteracy — had not. When only a few videos play on an otherwise darkened screen, those individuals’ head turns, sitting position, eating and drinking, ad nauseam, do indeed distract. Yet sometimes we get a close-up of a life: A man rubs under his dog’s chin. A woman with short grey hair, styled a la Joan of Arc, bows her head, (maybe searching for how to turn off her video) when a blue-jeaned older man shows up behind her, leans over and kisses the top of her head, then moves out of camera’s view. Another person shoos a child from the room.

This summer I had tuned in to a virtual writing workshop, which did not use Zoom but in its stead a platform called Whova. (Anti-ad: Stay away from Whova.) I’m not sure if the poet running the workshop chose to, but we could only see him; once in a while the co-host’s image would pop up when she spoke. For a viewer, this resulted in a very disjointed, impersonal experience, a headless, voiceless one. At least on the Middlemarch Zoom, we could read names and know that a person existed behind the tiny exed-out microphones. During real in-person workshops the human body in all its permutations adds to the writing being discussed. I recall a gifted poet in my graduate program who read his work in a gentle voice and rhythmic cadence; he gesticulated with his right hand, forming a circle with his middle finger and thumb; he paused slightly at each line-break. It was hypnotic yet also liberating, if that makes sense. The rest of us wanted him to read our poems.

Zoom poses some important social questions. Do we secretly love the voyeurs within us? Will Zoom change forever the nature of group communication? How does it affect our focus with its standard forty minute play; is it just another bit of technology that shortens our attention span? And, finally, how does it determine our social personae? These issues need to be examined, because with no end to Covid and its variants in sight, Zoom is here to stay.

Reading as a Writer

Once during my undergraduate days, a professor assigned the class to write an essay about our group, utilizing the collective pronoun “we”. She asked us what attributes the class shared and wrote them on the board. At the time I was reading John Updike’s Rabbit novels, whose main protagonist is Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, a WASPy, middle class suburbanite, whose attributes were not unlike those of our class. Updike often utilized third-person plural, especially in meditative passages about the lives of those who peopled Rabbit’s world. Here are a couple examples: “We were all brought up to want things and maybe the world isn’t big enough for all that wanting.” And another from a ruminating section: “How sad, how strange we make companions out of air and hurt them, so they will defy us, completing creation.” Both of these quotes are from Rabbit Redux, a sequel to his Rabbit, Run.

Many of my fellow students were also mothers (I attended an all-female college.) I opened my essay with sentences that went something like this: “We navigated our way through the stops and starts of carpools. We selected red, foulard ties to go with our husbands’ s grey suits. We rushed to the market before the 3 o’clock bell tolled at our children’s schools.” Without realizing it, I had learned from Updike.

Francine Prose, novelist and author of Reading Like a Writer, says “After I’ve written an essay in which I’ve quoted at length from great writers, so that I’ve had to copy long passages from their work, I’ve noticed that my own work becomes, however briefly, just a little more fluent.”

Try this for yourself. Take whatever it is you are currently reading (or a book you’ve already read and that you especially like) and underline some passages that struck you as particularly memorable. You can even copy them out, as Prose did. Wait a day. Then reread what you underlined or copied out, several times. The next day write anything for 20 minutes, and assess your work. I’d be surprised if you don’t detect a change in your writing.

Follow the spark.

Whenever an idea, phrase, even just a word, comes to you, write it down. (You would be surprised how even a jotted word brings about a stream of writing.) There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to remember a thought that you didn’t record. Sometimes something comes to me as I am falling asleep, at which point I grab a notebook from my nightstand and mark it down. When I’m out and about, napkins, paper scraps, store receipts suffice. (Careful with the receipts as often they resist writing; I guess they are treated with some kind of preservative!) Most importantly, always have a pen or pencil with you, and if you’re really organized — which I’m not — carry a small notebook.

I recall driving to the beach with my teen-age son and dictating to him some thoughts. Also the recording option on a phone is useful but I prefer actual writing; for me the sound of a pen or the feel of a pencil on paper somehow propels my mind; the manual drives the cerebral. To stir inspiration, William Wordsworth would walk for hours in England’s Lake District. American poet Wallace Stevens, too, found walking an inspiring method. He walked to and fro his job at the Hartford insurance company, using paper scraps he carried in his pockets. Edgar Allan Poe created scrolls for his writing by connecting his pages end-to-end with sealing wax.

Many writers have written inspiration on as many surfaces. Because of his failing eyesight, James Joyce wrote on large pieces of cardboard using a bright red crayon. Famously, at the Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan, Hemingway scribbled on a napkin his six-word story: For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn. Faulkner outlined one of his books on a wall.

Whether you write on napkins or receipts, don’t let them pile up on your desk or remain in your pocket or purse. Follow the spark.

Modeling

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!