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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!