Monthly Archives: October 2009

At St. Annie’s knee

I keep returning to Annie Dillard, poetic, astringent, profound, gnomic. I just read Mentors Musesthis great essay by writer Alexander Chee at The Mourning News on what it was like to study with Dillard as her student at Wesleyan University. It appears in the new book Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers On the People Who Changed Their Lives edited by Elizabeth Benedict. An excerpt from Chee’s remembrance:

“ ‘Narrative writing sets down details in an order that evokes the writer’s experience for the reader,’ she announced. This seemed obvious but also radical—no one had ever said it so plainly to us. She spoke often of ‘the job.’ ‘If you’re doing your job, the reader feels what you felt. You don’t have to tell the reader how to feel. No one likes to be told how to feel about something. And if you doubt that, just go ahead. Try and tell someone how to feel.’

“We were to avoid emotional language. ‘The line goes grey when you do that,’ she said. ‘Don’t tell the reader that someone was happy or sad.’ When you do that, the reader has nothing to see. ‘She isn’t angry,’ Annie said. ‘She throws his clothes out the window. Be specific.’

“In the cutting and cutting and the ‘move this here, put this at the beginning, this belongs on page six,’ I learned that the first three pages of a draft are usually where you clear your throat, that most times, the place your draft begins is around page four. That if the beginning isn’t there sometimes it’s at the end, that you’ve spent the whole time getting to your beginning, and that if you switch the first and last pages you might have a better result than if you leave them where they were.

“One afternoon, at her direction, we brought in our pages, scissors and tape, and told to bring several drafts of an essay, one that we struggled with over many versions. ‘Now cut out only the best sentences,’ she said. And tape them on a blank page. ‘And then when you have that, write in around them,’ she said. ‘Fill in what’s missing and make it reach for the best of what you’ve written thus far.’

“I watched as the sentences that didn’t matter fell away. You could think that your voice as a writer would just emerge naturally, all on its own, with no help whatsoever, but you’d be wrong. What I saw on the page was that the voice is in fact trapped, nervous, lazy. Even, and in my case, most especially, amnesiac. And that it had to be cut free. . . .

“ ‘Talent isn’t enough,’ she had told us. Writing is work. Anyone can do this, anyone can learn to do this. It’s not rocket science, it’s habits of mind and habits of work. ‘I started with people much more talented than me,’ she said, ‘and they’re dead or in jail or not writing. The difference between myself and them is that I’m writing.’ . . .

“ ‘If I’ve done my job,’ she said in the last class, you won’t be happy with anything you write for the next 10 years. It’s not because you won’t be writing well, but because I’ve raised your standards for yourself. Don’t compare yourselves to each other. Compare yourself to Colette, or Henry James, or Edith Wharton. Compare yourselves to the classics. Shoot there.’

“She paused here. This was another of her fugue states. And then she smiled. We all knew she was right. ‘Go up to the place in the bookstore where your books will go,’ she said. ‘Walk right up and find your place on the shelf. Put your finger there, and then go every time.’ ”


Filed under Dillard—Saint Annie, emotion, narrative, NOTED, revision, structure, teaching, education, working method

Revise, then polish

“The writer who writes for revision does not wait for a final draft but works through a series of discovery, Sellersdevelopment, and clarification drafts until a significant meaning is found and made clear to the reader.”—Donald M. Murray, The Craft of Revision (Fifth Edition)

Not many years ago, I was having dinner with a writer I admired, and when she mentioned having multiple versions of an essay I said, “You do? That surprises me.”

“I’m surprised that you’re surprised,” she said.

At the time, I was still polishing and calling that rewriting or editing. I didn’t even know what revision is or that it makes new versions—sometimes two, sometimes four. Sometimes six. Keep them all!

Our cuts, restructuring, and additions we make in trying to make a piece work might not work themselves. Or parts of them might work and some parts won’t. We find this out down the road as a manuscript jells. (Note to MFA students: This why even the best teacher’s review early in the process can be unhelpful.)

Right now, I am adding a chapter that was dropped from my memoir a couple of years ago. That old limbo chapter—which existed in three separate versions—now fits the narrative. In picking and choosing from the previous three versions, I now have two or three more of “What Freckles Taught Me.”

(Freckles was a sheep—pictured in my last post—and today’s photo shows her last two lambs on my lap.)

As Heather Sellers says of revision in her excellent Chapter After Chapter, “It’s not a process of improvement; it’s a Richard,Lambsprocess of learning. Revision means you ‘re-see’ your piece. You see it again and again, in a slightly different light each time. Some lights are more useful, more flattering, more interesting. Some aren’t. Revision is information gathering. It’s not a slow and steady always-forward moving march toward perfection. Revision means making a mess, not straightening up. (Editing is straightening up.)”

Most of writers’ time is spent not writing but revising, she says. And I have to agree, since it took me a year and a half to write the 500 pages I’ve been reworking now for two and a half. Now the book is 200 pages leaner, and I remember what a former teacher, a veteran editor, correctly told me when it was still 100 pages longer and I said I was polishing: “Stop polishing and start cutting.”

What I tell my students about their rewrites of short essays is this: don’t just clean up the copy, make the suggested edits. Do a “save as” and submit a whole new piece. You may not like it as well, and you may be right, but you’ll have two versions of your masterpiece.

Sellers again: “Every time I work on a piece, I make some parts better and some parts worse. When I am sick of making versions, I choose the one I think is best, polish it to the best of my ability, and submit it to publication.”

When it gets rejected, she produces a new version, or maybe restores an earlier one: “With each new version, I learn more about the truth of the piece, so I know which one to pick, which one is right, even if it’s an early draft. Learning is a series of little improvements punctuated by many, many, many terrible disasters.”

But this is why everyone says writing is rewriting, which isn’t what I used to think; it’s not editing or polishing one perfect copy. There always are many ways to tell something and no one right way. But there may be an optimum version that’s discovered through revision. As Don Murray’s quote above indicates, what often happens is that it takes true revision, and many versions, for a writer to discover his structure and what he’s really writing about, his theme or deeper meaning.


Filed under discovery, editing, memoir, MFA, revision, structure, theme, working method

Emotion vs. information in memoir

On a fall day four years ago I sat down to write about my family’s experiences in Appalachian Ohio, where we lived FrecklesCloseupand worked and were part-time farmers for thirteen years. It took me a year and a half to produce a manuscript of 500 pages. It took me another year and a half to cut 200 pages. And I’ve spent the last year restructuring (again).

During this process I’ve learned a lot about writing. When I began, I was a guy who’d made his living for thirty years with words, as a journalist, book publisher, and teacher. That guy didn’t know what he didn’t know. He never dreamed how much he’d learn by writing a book; he planned to sit down and just do it, take a year to write and maybe another to polish. He wasn’t arrogant or egotistical in this plan—he was ignorant.

As writers say, the only thing that teaches you how to write a book is to write a book. All the writing, all the reading you do in the process, all the joy and the suffering accrue. As Annie Dillard put it, all the “richness of the years” goes into a book. Her rule of thumb is that it takes two to ten years for most people—non-geniuses—to write a publishable book. Two years is short for most mortals, though, so let’s do the math: using her figures, that’s an average of six years to write and publish a book.

Writers can get tired and discouraged, but thankfully they also can get addicted to the process. Because it’s all process, which is to say it’s about seeking and learning. A goodly number of friends, family, and writer friends read my stuff and helped. Recently a reader put his finger on my manuscript’s chief flaw in a way that I could understand, or was at last able to hear.

“Your book is driven by a narrative,” he said, “but you abandon it at will and become topical in places, like you’re writing an essay. That confuses the reader and kills momentum and suspense. Honor your narrative. And tighten the time frame—open with buying the farm and end with selling it after your accident. If you do this, you’ll have learned how to structure a book.”

I sulked, then tried to apply my hero’s insight—which led to a cascade of cuts and additions as I saw what truly fit the narrative to which I’d hitched my tale. Over the years others had protested excessive technical farming content, or said the book was too slow to start, or complained that the timeline confused them. I’d responded as best I could, but didn’t grasp what they were really saying. Finally I saw.

Armed with this perception, and working six days a week for the last three months, I’m almost there. I was ready, and the teacher I needed appeared. But as they say in Appalachia, “It weren’t easy.” For the first time, I had to lash myself to go to the keyboard because I was afraid and confused—afraid I couldn’t do it and confused by how to do it. And yet every day’s suffering yielded good progress and, sometimes, amazing results.

Among other things, I blasted apart some chapters and killed a chapter I’d slaved over for years, one I’d cut from seventy pages, completed in a volcanic eleven-hour session at the keyboard one Saturday, and slowly whittled to twentysomething pages. And I restored a chapter that I’d dropped a couple years ago. While working on that new-old chapter, “What Freckles Taught Me,” about the mysterious mothering ability of a dumpy little ewe, I dipped into Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire because I wanted to see how he presented so much information, about humans’ coevolution with four plant species, and yet kept things flowing and human. (It’s a brilliant book, though my favorite of his very popular books is his first, Second Nature, about the garden as a middle ground, between wilderness and city, an emblem of our rightful place in the natural world.)

Pollan has said that journalists alienate readers by coming across as Mr. or Ms. Expert, instead of as mere inquiringBotanyOfDesire1 mortals. Pollan counters this pitfall by pausing now and then to make fun of himself. He shows himself freaking out while being naughty and growing a couple marijuana plants, or depicts his (very smart) head somewhat up his own butt. That is, he shows himself being human, our stand in. His research and insights that comprise his writing are so good he must do this—showing himself being brilliant too would render his persona insufferable.

No danger in my case on either score. But I saw there’s a fundamental difference in our books, between my messy memoir and his refined intellectual literary journalism. Pollan can present more stuff for pure brainy interest, but in my book pretty much all such material must be connected to me, to my history and emotions and to my ongoing story. A memoir is primarily about individual experience, of course, rather than about information or ideas.

So I can’t say in my chapter, “Mothering ability is the sin qua non of pastoral farming.” Or I can, but I’d better also show it: “When I came upon the scene, Freckles was bedded down with her fresh lambs but Fancy was unconcernedly grazing beside her newborn triplets—one of which was dead. And she hadn’t bothered to lick clean the other two, which sprawled in the wet grass, still sodden and dressed in a slimy yellow film of placental tissue.”

The abstract concept “maternal ability” that fascinates me must be grounded in my experience and emotions for readers. As noted, Pollan draws on the human connection when he presents his own interests and experiences as much as possible while unspooling his leafy topics. But in a memoir the personal is constantly vital so that the reader doesn’t think Why is he telling me this? Too much information! Readers must first buy into the character(s) in memoir, and then may accept a certain amount of learning about their world and their passions. It’s a fine line to walk in a memoir set in a complex or technical environment. What is it necessary for readers to understand in order to understand the character (not so much his environment separate from him)?

Rereading The Botany of Desire while rewriting this “Freckles” chapter clarified my struggle, even if it didn’t make it easier. The other thing I saw, which surprised me, was how often Pollan uses line breaks, even when he’s got a perfectly good transition and doesn’t strictly need a white space. He’s giving readers a breather (his writing is smooth, but his ideas are still weighty). I went to “Freckles” and hit the return key after one passage. Now that was easy. And felt righteous.


Filed under audience, Dillard—Saint Annie, emotion, journalism, memoir, narrative, religion & spirituality, revision, structure

When narratives collide, a social-action network, sponsors an annual blog day on October 15, and today all participants Ice Sign Sizedare writing on global warming. A friend challenged me to participate with an angle related to writing. So, Jean, here it is!

A winning narrative has emerged on global warming: the phenomenon is real and human-caused and may be ameliorated. But controversy hasn’t been laid to rest, for the issue is a surrogate for heated human differences. Some conservatives seem to feel that liberals are using this issue to advance their anti-human agenda: Smarmy and Godless! It’s maddening for liberals that some conservatives, even if they now concede climate change is occurring, contend that America shouldn’t take action because China’s now doing what we did, spewing greenhouse gases, and won’t clean up its act: Mean and selfish!

That the global warming issue became, um, polarized—political, ego-driven, partisan—is a conundrum. It’s mystifying to each side that there is another side. At base, each believes that the other’s ways are going to get us all killed. Where do these warring narratives come from? Emotions, according to my last blog post. This answer only deepens the fog, though. We have to wonder why our emotional responses are so different that we coalesce into two bitter groups.

What is the role of liberal and conservative? In my evolutionary psychology just-so story, based on theories of  John V. Wylie, I imagine that two radically different temperaments arose so that we could forge balanced couple partnerships and a social dialectic for action. Caveman conservatives sought to smite the neighboring clan before it could sneak up and do the same: “They want our stuff and are gonna kill us!” Caveman liberals said, “We’ve got plenty! Let’s be friends and share.”

Either might be right, either wrong. Picture the heated debates around the campfire. The compromise: send Moog over; he’s expendable if they cut his throat.

When the two temperaments cleaved into modern political groups, they went to war. Thus Dr. Wylie calls politics our species’ “original sin.” It’s easy to agree, witnessing the anger over any two of their clashing narratives of reality. I think we were intended by God or evolution—take your pick, or call them the same—to work together. Slashing at each other in blind rage, we may not notice when we’ve skated onto thin ice. Then we’ll all go down together.

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Filed under emotion, evolutionary psychology, narrative, politics, subjectivity

Why narrative is necessary

“We humans are the beast who records and shares the present, remembers the past, and predicts the future in narrative. WeOatley_Understanding Emotions.indd are storytellers, using the narrative’s beginning, middle, and end to order the river flood of confusion and contradiction in which we struggle to survive. Narrative is embedded in all effective writing.” —Donald M. Murray, The Craft of Revision

Why is narrative so necessary to storytelling and to our species?

“Narrative is that distinctive form of human thinking by which we strive to understand ourselves and others as people who act in the world to pursue intentions that meet vicissitudes,” explain Keith Oatley, Dacher Keltner, and Jennifer M. Jenkins in Understanding Emotions.

Understanding Emotions has the human psyche this way: Conflicts cause emotions and emotions cause stories and stories extract meaning from emotions. Obviously pleasure provokes emotions, too—but pleasures end—and narrative requires conflict of this or another kind. (Dante was the great celebrator of romantic love—in his case despairingly unrequited and transformed into a narrative of suffering and transcendence.)

In contrast to narrative thinking, science uses the “paradigmatic mode,” the authors note. Of course the scientific method, a process of careful inquiry, has proved so powerful in helping us live longer and more comfortably that we’ve all become little scientists—we even call the study of our society “social science.” Perhaps this is why in this age we’re embarrassed by emotion—isn’t it primitive and weak; aren’t we supposed to be logical?

But why? Why else does the jury system exist but to insert human emotion in a competing narrative between the wretch in the dock and the pitiless science of the law? It seems that emotion is intrinsic to the matrix humans use to gauge life and what’s worthy: ideas, eateries, politicians, potential mates, house painters. Our every perception, idea, and encounter is filtered through the scrim of emotion. How we feel is important. Or at least significant. Making narratives from emotion makes us different from other animals that experience emotion but, as far as we know, don’t tell stories. (And lucky for us they don’t.)

“It seems likely,” Chapter 14 of Understanding Emotions continues, that “narrative is the principal human activity of meaning-making [their emphasis]. And this is not just turning over emotions with a therapist or friend, but reading novels and poetry, watching plays and movies, which can also, at least in some circumstances, have consciousness-raising functions. . . . In every society, in every community, in every family, a history forms, with its characters, its traditions of custom: human meanings about what we people are up to with each other.

“In such traditions, emotions and our understanding of them are the pivotal points. . . . From the earliest times to the present, it is extraordinary that at the focus of poetic, fictional, and folk-historical narratives have been the emotions.”

Why do emotions cause stories instead of scientific summary? I’d say it’s because we want others to understand, above all, how we feel. Our Paleolithic ancestors learned that emotional stories could vindicate and inspire and transport and heal. And all writers learn that showing is a more effective rhetorical strategy than summarizing because showing causes the audience to empathize and even to share emotion.

The therapeutic function of story is that by becoming conscious of our emotions we can alter them, and ourselves. “The idea that we in part create ourselves by conscious reflection” was explored by Shakespeare, who showed people pondering their own speeches and being altered, write Oatley, Keltner and Jenkins. “[O]ne difference between us and the apes is that our emotions are more intentional, more conscious. The principal way in which we become conscious—at least conscious of ourselves—is in being able to give accounts in narrative form as we confide emotional incidents. . . .

“Written narrative literature, from ancient times to the present, concentrates on our emotional lives and on problematics of this kind—as if story telling and story listening have always been attempts to understand these matters. The activity is satisfying because stories provide possibilities of vicarious action, as well as pieces of solutions to the problems of how to act and how to be a person in society. Publicly available stories give members of society common exemplars of action of emotion and of responsibility. They help us to reflect on and become part of the cultural tradition in which we live.

“[Emotions] tell us something is happening to which we should pay attention. Artists bring these vague feelings, the conflicts with others and within the self, the uncertainties that they represent, into awareness. . . . We have argued that the supply of therapeutic help in Western society is too limited to meet the need. But narrative, recounted, heard, and read is not in short supply in any society.”

At least from Shakespeare onward, they note, becoming a whole person has involved understanding oneself in terms of a narrative of one’s life. In constructing and perhaps revising this inner narrative, we consume others’ stories, testing our own emotions in the safe arena of artistic simulation. But the authors of Understanding Emotions warn that narrative, this powerful emotional medicine, must be taken carefully:

“In this imaginative space we experience emotions, not those of the characters, but our own. And just as we change somewhat when we arrive at work, or join a group of friends, or enter the office of a therapist, we may be changed when we enter a space of emotional imagination. So just as we are careful whom we choose as a friend . . . we should be judicious about what we read and what movies we see.”

So. We must tell stories to explain our emotional core. We need narratives to show us how to live and how to die. And we must see lives depicted—summary won’t do—because in events are emotions, our glory and our burden. Writers revise to sharpen a story’s point and to see it in a new way. People employ therapy, art, and plain old time to become aware of their inner narratives and to see them differently, perhaps to change them. Spiritual leaders have repeatedly taught Let go of story and just be; accept your feelings without making a story of them. And yet narrative seems intrinsic and inescapable in some applications: the enlightened use a narrative to knock us free of our narratives.

Understanding Emotions underscores the necessity and inevitability and power of narrative. The stories we tell others can help them or harm them. The stories we tell ourselves can heal us or kill us.

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Filed under audience, emotion, evolutionary psychology, narrative, NOTED, politics, religion & spirituality, revision, scene

Rhythm & flow in works of prose

Clarity is a high virtue, but so is beauty; and increasingly I see that it DamSizedis from varying length and sentence structure that writers achieve voice, rhythm, emphasis, and musicality. Variation works because we naturally vary our speaking rhythm when we’re emotionally connected to what we’re saying:

“He fouled me! That jerk! Coach! You’re always telling us This is just a scrimmage—we’re still on the same team—don’t get carried away. Didn’t  you see him hit me after the whistle? I don’t care if he’s first string. It isn’t right.”

This point is obvious when someone’s upset and emphatic, but syntactical variation works as well to convey any strong feeling in the subtext. And rhythmic sentences can sing to us, perhaps moving our emotions by bending our ears toward the ancient roots of language in music and epic. Consider the opening of Leslie Rubinkowski’s essay “The Funeral”:


Gertie is my favorite aunt, her apartment is four miles from my house, and I haven’t seen her in twelve years. I got lost trying to find her, so lost that the fifteen-minute drive stretched to an hour, so lost that I navigated one-way tubercular streets with a map across my knees before I found the Doughboy guarding Lawrenceville—Penn bends into Butler, I knew that, I didn’t really forget—and I have to force myself not to run to her when I see her across the room: my sweet Aunt Gert in her fawn-colored suit with satin lapels and rhinestone angel pin, her hair, as ever, upswept and immaculate; and I lean in to touch her arm and study the fine familiar fuzz on her cheeks, the broader, softer version of my own jaw line, and the rafts of pink roses that cover her coffin and climb the walls.

The complex structure of the second sentence—with dashes, beaucoup commas, a colon, and a semi-colon—is compelling in its movement and in its tumbling cascade of detail and memory toward the surprise for the reader at the end, a surprise that mirrors the writer’s shock at her loss. Yes, it’s a long sentence. Don’t try this at home, kids! Actually, do. Most of us are stuck at the middling length, when we need short, medium, and long sentences.

As Roy Peter Clark says in his pithy book Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, “Until the writer tries to master the long sentence, she is no writer at all, for while length makes a bad sentence worse, it can make a good sentence better.” And a well-made long sentence carries the proof of its achievement in our delight. (I once counted 199 words in a jaw-dropper by Virginia Woolf in To the Lighthouse. Of course, there are longer sentences, but the longest ones seem famous just for being long.)


Ernest Hemingway is famous for his simple declarative sentences. Actually his diction is simple, his words as common as dirt, but strong in their plainness. Ford Maddox Ford: “Hemingway’s words strike you, each one, as if they were pebbles fetched fresh from a brook. They live and shine, each in its place. So one of his pages has the effect of a brook-bottom into which you look down through the flowing water. The words form a tesellation, each in order beside the other.” And his sentences are varied and often complex even though they’re clear. Some are quite long. They also employ repetition artfully to help them flow with emotion. For sharpening his rhythm, Heminway liked listening to Bach and reading Huckleberry Finn and the King James Bible.

Consider this passage from his story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”:

It was late and every one had left the café except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light. In the daytime the street was dusty, but at night the dew settled the dust and the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference. The two waiters inside the café knew that the old man was a little drunk, and while he was a good client they knew that if he became too drunk he would leave without paying, so they kept watch on him.


(I’m grateful for this example to David Jauss’s Alone With All That Could Happen: Rethinking Conventional Wisdom About the Craft of Fiction.) Here’s part of a passage, also cited by Jauss, from D.H. Lawrence’s story “Odour of Chrysanthemums”:

The trucks thumped heavily past, one by one, with slow inevitable movement, as she stood insignificantly trapped between the jolting black wagons and the hedge; then they curved away towards the coppice where the withered oak leaves dropped noiselessly, while the birds, pulling at the scarlet hips beside the track, made off into the dusk that had already crept into the spinney. In the open, the smoke from the engine sank and cleaved to the rough grass.


Notice how in the long opening sentence the first clause’s words mimic the clanking train and how, after the semicolon, the sentence becomes more flowing as the train recedes. I tell my students to try to infuse their writing, through word choice and sentence structure, with the emotion (joy, love, delight, anger, inexorable movement) they’re trying to convey.

Here’s a bit of “Kathy,” an essay in which I tried to show my love for her and my awe for her questing nature (which, this indicates, she came by honestly). The passage ends with a pungent colloquial farming word:

To appearances another tanned Ohio farm girl who played in the mud, she was eccentric, a birthright that ascended. When she was ten her mother cut her hair short, and Kathy clamped a sailor’s cap atop her head. That summer, a pet duck loved her; Huey’s trust shined from his leaden blue eyes. She carried the white drake around, which he tolerated, and dropped him in a wading pool, which he polluted. Although the family was busy farming, the duck and that useless circular hat got noticed—something about the combination unsettled her parents. Kathy was the only one of his five daughters Karl routinely punished physically, the only child who defied him. Secure in his love, she tolerated his tantrums but drew the line at tyranny. He dangled her by one ankle to spank, his hand hard on her bottom. She kept cussing. Like him, bullheaded.


Consider the variety of rhythms in the opening of Truman Capote’s essay “Hand-carved Coffins: A Nonfiction Account of an American Crime” in his collection Music for Chameleons:

March, 1975


A town in a small Western state. A focus for the many large farms and cattle-raising ranches surrounding it, the town, with a population of less than ten thousand, supports twelve churches and two restaurants. A movie house, though it has not shown a movie in ten years, still stands stark and cheerless on Main Street. There was once a hotel, too; but that has also been closed, and nowadays the only place a traveler can find shelter is the Prairie Motel.


Bill Roorbach’s Writing Life Stories says of this:

“The opening phrases are blunt. The sentence fragments cut the rhythm short—shorter, that is, than our ears expect. This chopping isolates the fragments’ beat from the beats of the full sentences that follow. But Capote doesn’t allow those longer sentences to flow, either. He breaks them with commas, a semicolon, with subordination, interruption, and apposition. This is the vocal rhythm of someone with bad news to tell: hesitant, throat-clearing, yet resolute. And note that each of the last words in these sentences ends with a tongue-stopping (and beat-stopping) T, except the last sentence, with its motel, whose T echoes the earlier stops, but trails into the “el” sound, enough to carry the music forward into a new paragraph. Capote wants the delivery halting, but not so halting that the reader stops and turns elsewhere. Note that you can’t read this paragraph in a joyful rush.”

Roorbach contrasts this with “one you could sing,” a passage trilling with alliteration, bouncy with humor and singsong rhythm, in Doris Lessing’s memoir Impertinent Daughters:

Modern-minded John William McVeigh, proud of his clever daughter, was thinking of university for her, but was confronted with a rebellious girl who said she wanted to be a nurse. He was horrified, utterly overthrown. Middle-class girls did not become nurses, and he didn’t want to hear anything about Florence Nightingale. Any Skivvy could be a nurse, and if you become one, do not darken my door! Very well, said Emily Maude, and went off to the old Royal Free Hospital to begin her training. It was hard: conditions were bad, the pay was low, but she did well, and when she brilliantly passed her finals, her father was prepared to forgive her. She had done it all on her own, without him.

“Note . . . how hard the [opening] sentence lands on the word nurse, which turns out to be the critical word of the passage (an instance of rhythm providing meaning),” Roorbach writes. “Note the tongue pleasure of the phrase ‘utterly overthrown.’ I want to say it again and again. . . . The repetitions in structure here . . . give the sound of a folk tale, very nearly a folk song. . . .

“Rhythm should be attended to in each sentence we write, in each paragraph, but there is a rhythm of paragraphs, as well, a rhythm of sections in an essay, a rhythm of chapters in a book, and all of it ought to be in your control as you write.”

In my own writing, I’ve noticed that passages that flow during composition do so because of my strong emotional connection to the material. But they take a lot of work, anyway, to get right. The writing that doesn’t flow—the bulk of it—can be helped to move by consciously varying the structure of sentences and paragraphs and passages. This isn’t mere whitewash or a trick: varying structure seems to connect me emotionally with the content and its subtext.


Filed under aesthetics, audience, craft, technique, emotion, evolutionary psychology, flow, structure, syntax, teaching, education

Norman Mailer on nonfiction

from an interview with the late writer Norman Mailer by J. Michael Lennon for Creating Nonfiction: A Guide and Anthology by Becky Bradway and Doug Hesse:

“The form, the medium, determines the message. And the message you receive from a novel is different from the message—usually less interesting—that comes to you from nonfiction. Therefore, I like my nonfiction to read like a novel. By which I don’t mean that I fudge the facts. On the contrary, since I’m already out on a limb, I’m careful about the facts. When I’m writing nonfiction I have to be more careful than the average journalist.”

“Back in 1967 when I wrote The Armies of the Night I divided the book into fiction and nonfiction. I was saying, in effect, that they’re equal. When you write history, you’re writing a species of fiction. What one’s doing, ultimately, is giving one’s vision of life. And how one arrives at one’s vision of life is somewhat different in a history than in fiction, but they are much more alike than people recognize.”

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Filed under fiction, honesty, narrative, NOTED, subjectivity