Monthly Archives: May 2010

Keys to conveying experience

Writing theorist Peter Elbow believes a key to effective writing is getting readers to breathe “experience” into the words. To accomplish this effect, the writer must first have the experience herself.

“Narrative,” he observes, “is a way to get your reader’s attention, but it is a rudimentary kind of attention, mere curiosity about what happens next. It doesn’t make her actually build an experience in her head. Narrative is powerful but you need to have it in addition to experience in your words, not as a crutch or substitute for experience.”

In Writing with Power, Elbow offers these ideas, which are especially relevant for writers who are trying to build scenes:

• “Direct all your efforts into experiencing—or re-experiencing—what you are writing about. . . . Be there. See it. Participate in whatever you are writing about and then just let the words come of their own accord.”
• Fix words and add, cut, or modify when you revise. Think then about audience, structure, tone.

• Let your scenes grow out of an an experience rather than out of an idea.

• Ask test readers where your writing made them see or hear something. “Much of your writing will cause no movies at all. That’s par. But when feedback shows you even a few short passages that actually do it, you will be able to think yourself back to what it felt like as you wrote them. This will give you a seat-of-the-pants feeling for what you must do to get power into your words—what muscle you have to scrunch or let go of to breathe life into your writing.”

• Train and practice seeing and conveying images. Elbow advises playing a game where you give other participants images until they can see a scene; do this by focusing on a small detail—not the whole terrace but “on the small table next to the canvas chair the No. 2 pencil with a broken point touching the moist ring left by a cold drink on a plastic table”—and listeners should stop you if they don’t get movies in their heads.
“It’s by illuminating a tiny fragment of a scene and just suggesting the rest of it in a minimal way that you are most likely to get listeners to recreate the scene for themselves,” writes Elbow. “One tiny detail serves as a kind of a dust particle that listeners need in order to crystallize a snowflake out of their own imaginations.
Trying to describe everything usually means that nothing really comes alive. And by zeroing in on just a detail or two, you establish your point of view.” And he has a final point:

• Don’t use this advice about experiencing to procrastinate. Sometimes you just have to write and keep trying as you write.

I recommend Writing with Power, an unusually insightful book on the craft and helpful for narrative writers and for teachers. He has a chapter on how expository essays can be written with more power. (Just as a scene can be written without fully experiencing it, so a thought can be described without experiencing it.)


Filed under audience, editing, essay-expository, narrative, scene, working method, workshopping

On giving readers an experience

“Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn.  Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one.”—Basho, The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Sketches

If writers desire readers to breathe life into their words, then they must breathe experience into their words as they write, says Peter Elbow in Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process. “I don’t know why it should be the case,” he writes, “that if you experience what you are writing about—if you go to the bamboo—it increases the chances of the reader’s experiencing the bamboo. But that’s the way it seems to work.”

This idea holds clues to the weird power of scenes. Elbow speculates that images tap more of the writer’s memory fragments, thus becoming vivid experience rather than abstract ideas or conceptions. He notes that one drawing technique forbids the artist to look at the paper but to pour all energy into seeing, and explains:

The drawings people produce when they can’t look at their paper are very instructive. They are liable to have obvious distortions of one sort or another. But they usually have more life, energy, and experience in them than drawings produced when you keep looking back to your paper and correcting your line and thereby achieving more accuracy. They give the viewer more of the experience of that torso or apple. . . .

It may be complicated for psychologists or philosophers to deal with this distinction between seeing and really seeing, but it’s simple enough to notice it on certain occasions: you stand there on the lawn and really see that beech tree and somehow the perception fills you or fully occupies you—the tree is wholly present to you. Or else, you stand there and, yes, you see it, but somehow you don’t see it fully, for you are slightly distracted or numb or unable to focus your attention. Some of your energy or attention is elsewhere. There is incomplete impact or commerce between you and the tree.

So the principle, at least, is simple:

If you want your words to make a reader have an experience, you have to have an experience yourself—not just deal in ideas or concepts. What this means in practice is you have to put all your energy into seeing—into connecting or making contact or participating with what you are writing about—into being there or having the hallucination. And no effort at all into searching for words. When you have the experience, when you have gotten to the bamboo, you can just open your mouth and the words that emerge will be what you need. (In the case of writing, though, you will have to revise later.)

It is probably easier to really experience something if you are actually standing there looking at it. But not necessarily. And it is probably easier to really experience something if you have actually seen it—that is, you will probably do better writing about memories than made-up events. But not necessarily. For the essential act in experiencing something is wholly internal . . .

In other words, as Ford Maddox Ford supposedly said, the writer must see characters as if they are on a lighted stage. Elbow expands and refines this idea:

For you as a writer, then, the crucial distinction is between trying to experience your subject fully versus trying to find the right words. In the one activity your energy and attention are directed wholeheartedly to what you are describing, in the other your energy is directed at your language or at your reader or at considerations of what kind of writing you are doing. . . .

When your raw writing grows directly out of full experience of your subject, the life entrapped in those words enables you to generate more words during the revision process that also contain life. The life in those original words keeps you in touch with the experience and enables you to dart back into it even if only for a moment as you search for a better word or phrase—even though you are engaged in the cold, calculating process of revising.

Elbow believes writers succeed more often in rendering small moments than in big, dramatic ones, which they refuse to experience as they write. He says keeping the mere thinking self—the pushy ego—out of the way tends to simplify the words used and emphasizes the essence of the experience. In any case, “Experience the tree” is better advice, he says, than “Give more details.” And beware of later feelings that flood the memory; they can prevent the writer from re-experiencing the original feeling in order to create.

Next: Elbow’s tips for conveying experience.


Filed under audience, scene, working method

It’s reading that’s hard

Writers complain a lot about how hard their work is. But dipping into Peter Elbow’s 1981 classic Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process (2nd edition, 1998) gave me a new appreciation for what readers are up against. Start with this insight: it’s readers who bring meaning to texts. For every word a writer uses, the reader must supply its meaning, either from pre-existing knowledge or from looking up the damned thing.

“Meanings are in readers, not in words,” writes Elbow. “When the page says chat, English readers bring thoughts of a cozy conversation; French readers bring thoughts about cats. Readers build meanings; words just sit there.”

For a writer, obviously, this means you must get readers to construct your story and its meaning. Elbow says this is akin to asking readers to make a sculpture, using a pile of limp balloons they must inflate, from your instructions. Or it’s like making them pedal a bike—do all the work—while you steer. He elaborates on this idea of the reader as creator:

You can’t give readers a finished product no matter how much you want to—any more than a playwright can actually send a live play through the mail. She can only send the script—a set of directions for producing a play. The best you can do is make sure you have overhauled the bicycle so that the pedalling isn’t harder than necessary. You can promise not to go up unnecessary hills. You can make sure there aren’t any holes in the balloons or misprints in the paint-by-numbers picture that would make the tree come out purple—unless you want it purple. But no matter how good a job you do of preparing the piece of writing, still the reader has to do all the work of pedalling, blowing, or painting-by-numbers.

So maybe, with work, readers can take your meaning. But Elbow then asks how can they have the experience you wish? This is a second layer of work, which requires the readers’ consent, as well as their supplying the imaginative or psychic energy necessary to form an image. Elbow uses an example of his trying to read a flawed novel, in which he was also frustrated with its author, a student, and explains:

Whenever in the past I had stopped reading because of this kind of frustration, I had tended to describe it as a case of the writing ‘not working.’ For the first time I now realized that beneath most cases of words not working lies an act of refusal by the reader. (There are, I admit, some cases where the reader doesn’t refuse and tries as hard as she can and still gets no meaning or experience. But readers usually refuse to try any more long before they’ve really given their all.) . . .

What emerged finally was this distinction which now seems so important to me: I allowed that writer access to my mind, but I didn’t allow her access to my experience. It’s as though I were a musician reading the score for a symphony on paper in silence. I was looking at it, seeing what key it was in, seeing what kinds of melodies and harmonies it uses, how it blends winds and brass, seeing where it is loud, dramatic, quiet, and so on—all without hearing any sounds in my head. I was doing a competent job of reading the directions for the production of music, but it would have taken an extra piece of effort, an additional investment of self—however automatic or subliminal that effort might be for a good musician who enjoys what she is reading—actually to hear the sounds, to experience the music.

At every moment, he emphasizes, the reader makes a choice whether to merely to get the gist—to read the directions—or to continue to invest the effort to have the experience implied in the words. In the hands of a skillful writer, a reader may feel the writer is giving her the experience—but she’s given her consent and is supplying the energy. The directions were clear, fun, easy, and the reader had and maintained the desire to do the work of decoding.

Is it any wonder that professional writers tend to write simply? That they emphasize vivid showing (scenes) rather than abstract telling (summary) to convey human experience? Elbow’s insights give me some sympathy with students who bounce off challenging prose and just give up. It explains the fatigue I sometimes feel in reading a student writer’s work that requires me to do far too much work. And it explains why some of my own writing has been rejected: too much effort for insufficient reward.

There’s another factor, Elbow says: Trust. Sometimes readers lose heart because the instructions are poor or the subject doesn’t interest them, but in others they may not trust the writer. “There are lots of experiences that I won’t let writers persuade me to create for myself till I trust them,” he explains. “No one can make me feel terrified or make me cry unless somehow she wins my trust. Thus, a piece of writing is likely to fail with me if someone tries to put an intensely scary or sad scene right at the beginning. I simply won’t row if she steers me toward that waterfall. I won’t let her play with my feelings. Yet, often the very experience I refuse to create for myself in the opening page or two is one that I am willing to have later on, after I have become involved—which is the same as saying after I have come to trust the writer.”

For Elbow, trust is built by a writer who begins her story by talking, telling an interesting idea or starting a narrative, or by describing a room or landscape, easing him in. He needs to experience the texture of the writer’s mind. The writer, he believes, must be completely focused on the experience she wants the reader to have—not on how she’s manipulating him. He says readers also pick up signals when a writer is trying too hard. And they resent it when the writer uses taboo subjects like sex or violence simply to capture attention and consent. On the other hand, readers may consent to go along with an overpowering writer whom they’d run from in person. Children, he warns, are literally more “impressionable”—more likely to create an unwelcome experience—and so must be protected until they develop their powerful refusal muscles later in adolescence.

Next: Elbow’s advice to writers on rendering experience.

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Filed under audience, reading

Reading & writing in the digital age

When Steve Jobs presented the iPad recently, The New Yorker reported, “The decision to enter publishing was a reversal for Jobs, who two years ago said that the book business was unsalvageable. ‘It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore,’ he said. ‘Forty per cent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year.’ ”

In fact, computer users have been shifting their non-book reading the screen, but it’s too soon to predict the impact of the digital age on the physical book, according to Dennis Baron, a professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois, in A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution (Oxford, 2009). I came across Baron’s well-written book while browsing at my local library and was intrigued by is examination of the effect of the digital age on reading and writing.

“As with other technologies that facilitated textual production, the computer is giving both writers and readers the opportunity to produce and consume massive amounts of text,” says Baron. Although computers don’t help us read more quickly, unlike their impact in making writing physically easier, “they allow us to find things to read more quickly.” Baron predicts, “The ebook audience won’t grow until that technology evolves to a point where digital text is as easy to access and as inexpensive as an MP3 player or a paperback. . . .[Meanwhile] the conventional book continues to thrive. ”

Newspaper, website, and blog reading strike me as the chief use of the flashy Apple iPad. I’m concerned about its computer-type screen for book-length reading, and hear reports pro and con about that issue. While I don’t yet own even a Kindle or its ilk, I probably will, and hope that such dedicated readers will prove useful for those who buy many books and for those who like to read multiple books while traveling.

In A Better Pencil, Baron tries to put the e-issue into the perspective of five thousand years of literacy history. “[T]he digitized text permeating our lives today,” he writes, “is the next stage, not the last stage, in the saga of human communication” and “it’s impossible to tell from what we’re doing now exactly where it is that we will be going with our words tomorrow.” While the digital world may not have changed fundamentally our reading process, it has made readers more obvious collaborators with writers. Baron adds:

Reading is in itself an act of rewriting. As our minds process the words we read, we create meanings that a writer may never have intended or even imagined possible. In addition, from the days when words first began to be inscribed, readers have always been able to physically annotate what they’ve read, and this too is a kind of textual revision. . . . [T]he invention of the highlighter in the 1970s encouraged readers to take up annotation big time, despite the fact that critics of that new technology griped that highlighting was quite different from marginal comments that actually dialogued with the author. . . . Not only can readers now mark up a [digital] document for their own use, they can also actually remake what they read, seamlessly revising it, transforming it into something completely different, even unrecognizable, even doing so without leaving visible tracks.

Baron’s focus in his book on writers and writing technology was fascinating, given my preoccupations—I periodically fantasize about writing in longhand, despite my discouraging handwriting, and I fight the urge to return to the manual typewriter because I miss the keystrokes. He has a refreshingly tart perspective to offer to romantics like me:

It’s likely that Shakespeare got right down to writing only after a lot of prep work. . . . Elizabethan writing tools were not exactly plug ‘n play. Writers of Shakespeare’s day maintained their own quills, mixed their own ink, and sprinkled each sheet of paper with a powder called pounce to prevent the ink from being absorbed in an illegible blot.

This fiddling and adjusting is a technological barrier between writer and page, equivalent in its own way to booting up a computer, clicking an icon, or refilling a paper tray. But [self-described neo-Luddite Theodore] Roszak feels that because the quill pen worked for Shakespeare it must be better than the computer. He says, “I’d like my students to ponder the fact that by the time they have located their style sheets and selected their fonts, Shakespeare was probably well into Act One, Scene One.” But it is equally likely that by the time today’s students have completed their assigned computer exercise, checked their Facebook page, downloaded some MP3 files, and moved on to an intense chat session, the Bard was still chasing geese around the yard to get his first quill of the day.

Love that image!

In fact, Baron argues that “the more we get used to any writing technology the more natural it becomes. The computer has already become naturalized as a writing tool for many writers, and one correspondent even writes in a letter to the editor that the computer is actually a more natural writing tool than the pen: ‘For many seasoned computer users, the brain seems to be more at ease sending signals to one’s fingertips to pound the keyboard rather than sending instructions to the same fingertips to write on a piece of paper’ (Kasim 2003).”

Drawing a parallel between lingering suspicion of computers for writing and the fear that greeted widespread typewriter use, Baron quotes from a massive study of typewriting, in the 1930s, in which several thousand typewriters were made available to elementary and even kindergarten students. Teachers were surprised at the results:

The typewriter reduces distraction of writing. In typewriting, the teachers say, the child’s mind is more on what he is writing than on the task of transmitting it to the page in legible form. There is less interference with thinking when writing with the machine than with pen, pencil, or crayon, particularly in the lower grades. This judgment . . . should reassure those who may fear the “mechanizing” influence of the typewriter, for in [the teachers’] opinion the machine tends to reduce and simplify the mechanics of writing, and tends to free the mind of the writer for more effective thinking and composing. (Wood and Freeman 1932, 122-23)

Both the visionaries and the critics tend to miss what the computer is actually doing to the process of writing, says Baron. “[B]ecause of computers, more people are writing more; they are creating new genres of writing; and they have more control over what they write and how it is distributed.” He continues:

Though schools are looking to computers as a way to increase literacy, we have no hard proof that the digital revolution has increased reading. What is certain, however, is that more people are writing, and they are writing more than ever.

In addition, as other writing technologies did before it, the computer is allowing writers to develop new genres and encouraging readers to read in new ways. Moreover, unlike the printing press or the typewriter, the computer gives writers greater and more direct control over what they write. In the office, as writers switched to computers, they began to bypass the typing pool, composing, revising, and printing final drafts of letters, reports, and other business documents on their own rather than relying on secretarial help. In school, computer-generated type is becoming the norm. Children are taking control of the design of their school writing even as they learn to write, and handwriting, which often posed an insurmountable aesthetic stumbling block for some young writers, has been replaced in many curricula by keyboarding.

Computers enable both everyday writers and professionals to exert greater creative control over their text. More and more writers consider fonts, graphics, even sound and video to be integral parts of their composition process. . . . Increasingly, writers find themselves bypassing traditional editorial supervision of publication, and the self-publication of blogs, web sites, and space pages often finds a niche audience.

I suspect there’s a link between the ease of revision computers allow and the explosion in the 1980s of more creative, process-based writing led by gurus like Peter Elbow and Donald M. Murray. Granted, much of that involved handwriting and maps, but computers let you keep moving stuff around once you did type it up. Unfortunately, I sense that composition classes at all levels have drifted back to more punitive instruction (focusing on errors) and to an emphasis on academic, thesis-driven prose, leaving the realm of discovery to creative writing classes. And to the exploding digital world of formal and informal workshops, web boards, blogs, and other sorts of writing communities that may be leaving the relevance of traditional frosh comp in the dust.

Next: Peter Elbow’s vital message for writers about readers.

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Filed under reading, working method

Chautauqua Festival June 17–20

I visited the retreat in Chautauqua last winter for the first time, and it’s a magical place—an early twentieth-century intellectual spa and retreat where ladies and gentlemen discussed great ideas over tea in old Victorian houses and in stone amphitheaters modeled after Greek temples. The annual writer’s retreat there next month is worth considering, both for the atmosphere and for the workshopping.

Each registrant works with one established writer in poetry, fiction, or nonfiction. In nonfiction this year: Jacob Levenson and Thomas French; in fiction, Aimee Bender and Dan Chaon; in poetry, Michael Waters and Patricia Jabbeh Wesley.

For more information, a brochure, schedule, and a Youtube video go here.

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Filed under teaching, education, workshopping

Wot the quid, mon?

From my son’s blog, Kierkegaard in Me, I’ve learned the word quiddity: the quality that makes a thing what it is; the essential nature of a thing. 2. a trifling nicety of subtle distinction, as in argument. (Unless noted, definitions here are from

Wikipedia elaborates:

It describes properties a particular substance (e.g. a person) shares with others of its kind. The question “what (quid) is it?” asks for a general description by way of commonality. This is quiddity or “whatness” (i.e., its “what it is”). Quiddity was often contrasted by the scholastic philosophers with the haecceity or “thisness” of an item, which was supposed to be a positive characteristic of an individual that caused them to be this individual, and no other.

Tom used quiddity thusly:

If . . . you mean that I had a hand in the creation of these posts, or inspired their genesis, or even in some sense authored them myself—this too, I cannot deny, for all of us merely in the act of reading said writings gave them connotation and skin, hence substance, hence quiddity.

That post, which portrayed him in mock trial for his cheeky blogging about his professors, was pawky: (adj.) Chiefly British: Shrewd and cunning, often in a humorous manner; cunning; sly.


Filed under diction or vocabulary, humor, reading

Dave Eggers on journalism’s virtues

Author Dave Eggers burst onto the literary scene with his memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius; his latest book, Zeitoun, is about the Homeland Security/FEMA ordeal suffered by a Syrian-American immigrant and his family in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Eggers recently gave an interview to Jeff Gordinier for Creative Nonfiction (Spring 2010) in which he talked about the immersion journalism he undertook to report Zeitoun. He talked about the influence of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and of Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song: he likewise used small sections, holding his writing to what he could prove, with line breaks between paragraphs full of implication, and the effect was a “certain spare, brutal rhythm.”

Eggers said that in addition to long periods of hanging out with his subjects he likes interview sessions of about three hours and records his interview subjects (he has the recordings transcribed). When he wasn’t interviewing the couple or other sources, he drove around New Orleans, taking photos and visiting places where events in the book take place. Eggers conducted more than two years of interviews for Zeitoun. Late in the process, as they were driving around New Orleans one day, his main character revealed that he’d been subjected to repeated humiliating strip searches when he was in custody as a suspected terrorist. “These revelations don’t arrive on schedule,” Eggers said, “and they don’t always arrive in the middle of a formal interview. You have to commit to a loose process that might take years.”

He writes at home, his office an eight-by-ten space in his backyard. Inside it, he’s got an Ikea couch and a coffee table and writes sitting on the couch, his feet on the table, typing on his laptop in his lap. He always listens to music, he said, a lot of Beethoven and Bach while writing Zeitoun, when his staple of Indie rock was throwing him off. He doesn’t have internet access at home and is usually on line only twice a day, once in the morning and once at night.

Eggers earned a degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, and he credits that training along with his experience in daily journalism with giving him the tools to report real-life stories. “That first book of mine was written in a blur, over a very short time, and was a relatively uncensored version of my voice,” he told Creative Nonfiction. “But I’d trained as a journalist long before that book, and Zeitoun is a reflection of that training—the ability to get out of the way of the story when necessary.”

On immersion journalism and interviewing:

“You have to question every word, every adjective, and be able to prove everything. Not only that, you have to check with the subjects, Kathy and Abdulrahman, to make sure you’ve gotten it right. So it’s limiting in terms of whatever creative freedom you might seek or value as a writer. . . .

“I had to quiz Kathy so often about what happened this day and that day—she was in the dark for three weeks, and I wanted to know what each and every day was like. I kept asking Kathy how it felt to live with that kind of pressure, and it took some time to really get at her emotions from that period. . . . It was a lot of work trying to reconstruct those days. I asked Kathy so many mundane questions: What did you do each morning? Did you make breakfast? When did the kids start going to school? Did you stay at home most days, and in what room did you spend most of your time? She thought I was nuts for caring about the day-to-day details.”

On literary influences:

“The more I studied the writers who influenced me a lot—Mailer and Orwell and Didion among them—the more I realized they had different versions of their own style, adapted to whatever story they were telling. Didion’s fictional voice is very different form her journalistic voice, and even her nonfiction changed significantly over the course of her career.”

“Orwell was so good at channeling his rage into these wonderfully effective and disciplined vehicles. I think discipline is key. That’s where the training in journalism helps, I think. A war reporter’s job is to report the horrors and folly of war; if he does his job well, he can illuminate the effects of bungled foreign policy far better than, say, some rant on the op-ed page can (not that all op-ed commentaries are rants). I guess that’s the difference between showing and telling. An op-ed tells; a story shows.”

On teaching journalism and on getting newspaper experience:

“I recommend journalism courses and/or writing for newspapers to every young writer I meet. I  think there’s a discipline—that word again—that’s very valuable. And a humility. You learn to examine every last word—to be able to prove it and its worth—and to make every word count, because in newspapers you usually work within strict word limits. You learn about meeting deadlines. . . .

“One of the most important things about newspaper work is how it forces you out of the house and puts you in touch with actual people. As a novelist, you might see someone on the street and assume a lot about that person. But you interview that person and most of your assumptions are upended. When I teach writing to high schoolers, I send them out on the street the first day. I tell them to find someone about whom they might assume certain things and then interview that person for 20 minutes about his or her life and opinions. It works every time. The first time I did the assignment, one of the students interviewed a guy with a Mohawk, leather head-to-toe, etc. he assumed the guy would be a liberal anarchist with all kinds of radical views but, in 10 minutes, found out he was actually a staunch conservative, who lived at home with his mom.”


Filed under craft, technique, honesty, immersion, journalism, teaching, education, working method