Category Archives: blogging

My blog has been reborn

New posts aren’t here. My new site has all this content & more.

Gilbert Logos x

I’ll keep this blog up under this old richardgilbert.wordpress.com address, which some readers have bookmarked. Many others have already been using the current url, where the blog and its five years of content are now located for ongoing posts:

http://richardgilbert.me/

For some time I’ve been paying WordPress a little extra for that custom url. So most readers should transfer seamlessly without having to do anything. If you bookmarked my first address, which had continued to function with the custom url, you will have to make a new bookmark. I’m not yet sure about this transfer’s impact on subscribers, because I had two addresses in play before and either one worked. Now they are separate.

Please visit my other location for everything that’s here and all the new content that has been uploaded since July 12, 2013.

Thank you,

Richard Gilbert

Advertisements

Comments Off on My blog has been reborn

Filed under blogging

John McPhee on writer’s block

In which he nails the issue & I rename this blog Draft No. 4.

If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you will never be set free, if you feel sure that you will never make it and were not cut out to do this, if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer.

—John McPhee

—source unknown

—source unknown

Thursday night, I told my wife about my notion of renaming this blog, called Narrative now well into its fifth year. “It’s getting confused with Narrative the online magazine,” I said. An acquaintance recently offered me a fine guest post, I explained, but withdrew it when I told her this wasn’t that Narrative.

Kathy nodded, taking this problem under advisement.

“Today I came up with the perfect name,” I went on. “I’ll call it The Fourth Draft. You know, that was my book’s transforming draft.”

“I’ll have to think about that,” she said, giving me pause. I saw that The Fourth Draft sounded like a minor-league baseball team or a microbrewery.

Friday morning, I sat down with my oatmeal and opened my new New Yorker, the April 29 issue, to John McPhee’s latest piece: “Draft No. 4.”

More than a title, it struck me as a sign.

McPhee’s essay, my favorite so far in his valedictory series on writing, is about writer’s block. He suffers the torments of the damned in forcing out his first drafts. “How could anyone ever know that something is good before it exists?” he asks, nailing the existential problem writers face in trying to make something out of nothing. “Until it exists,” he adds, “writing has not really begun.” Much of this grandiose problem of facing the blank page with the self seems simply the difficulty of thinking: writing is concentrated thought. Yet it’s true as well that one writes in Kierkegaardian “fear and trembling.” One wants—no, wishes—to be worthy.

And first drafts don’t feel very worthy.

For McPhee, though, subsequent drafts just get easier and better. At last, in draft four, he draws boxes around many of his chosen words. He explains:

You draw a box not only around any word that does not seem quite right but also around words that fulfill their assignment but seem to present an opportunity. While the word inside the box may be perfectly O.K., there is likely to be an even better word for this situation, a word right smack on the button, and why don’t you try to find such a word? If none occurs, don’t linger; keep reading and drawing boxes, and later revisit them one by one. If there’s a box around “sensitive,” because it seems pretentious in the context, try “susceptible.” Why “susceptible”? Because you looked up “sensitive” in the dictionary and it said “highly susceptible.” With dictionaries, I spend a great deal more time looking up words I know than words I have never heard of—at least ninety-nine to one. The dictionary definitions of words you are trying to replace are far more likely to help you than a scattershot wad from a thesaurus. If you use the dictionary after the thesaurus, the thesaurus will not hurt you.

McPhee allows himself to enjoy the fourth draft, his final draft.

Honestly, I thought producing the fourth draft of my book, a memoir of farming, would kill me. I’d enjoyed writing the first draft, so much so that after some cutting and polishing, I was ready to shop around what I was probably calling draft three. Luckily I ran into an editor who bluntly directed me to get the services of a developmental editor. So I found one. Namely Bill Roorbach, a novelist, award-winning short story writer, and memoirist.

Development? That isn’t a big enough word for what Bill did to my book. I mean for my book. From sentences to story arc, he laid about with a heavy sword. But with a strangely positive energy and kindness—he believed in my story! All the same, when I got his report I crashed for three months.

My persona wasn’t working—there was blurring between me then, the guy in the action, and me now, at the desk recalling (plus he mentioned a meta-level of “me” beyond all that: the me creating the me at the desk; that one still tests the limit of my cognitive abilities). The narrative arc wasn’t working, either, because I’d bring up a character who should have appeared throughout, but dispose of him right away, as if the chapter were a stand-alone essay. And my scenes weren’t sustained enough to dramatize fully my experience.

Whew. Bill’s markup in Word looked like the Fourth of July. I say I crashed for three months, but the actual fetal position surely lasted only about three weeks. Then I got up and thought, and walked and thought, and read voraciously. I questioned myself down to the soles of my feet. I grasped what Annie Dillard said about sitting with a book as with a dying friend. I decided I’d worked too long and hard to quit and let my book fully expire. Though I’d cobbled together an awkward narrative homunculus, I still yearned to share my story.

And the heart of my monster was there, weakly beating. Bill said the creature just needed major surgery.

My crisis over Bill’s editing turned out to be trivial. For the first time, I had to force myself to the keyboard. The resistance, I’m sure, was fear of failure. Then the usual happened: it took me an hour to re-enter the work; in the second hour I started producing; in the third and final hour, all I’m usually good for, came any good stuff. My usual hourly rate held steady, a page an hour.

I’ve just polished my sixth draft, and my book is ready. I hope to announce a publishing contract soon. Meantime, it’s not easy for me to rename this blog, because I love the word narrative and think of myself as writing for an entity I created called Narrative. But everyone else loves the word too, and with a literary magazine having claimed the name, I feel like someone who writes about TV news calling his blog CNN.

So in honor of my agonizing but fruitful fourth draft, and in hopes that I might one day emulate McPhee’s comparative ease and pleasure in his fourth drafts, I hereby rechristen this old blog Draft No. 4.

24 Comments

Filed under blogging, craft, technique, diction or vocabulary, memoir, MY LIFE, Persona, Voice, POV, revision, working method

Spiritual affinities: Tolle, Rilke, Woolf

Spooky Sky, Moss x

Spiritual Affinities.

I’m pleased to have a guest post today at Daisy Hickman’s Sunny Room Studio on the spiritual insights and strength I’ve drawn from a number of thinkers, especially Eckhart Tolle, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Virginia Woolf. They’ve given me “fragments to shore against my ruins,” as T.S. Eliot put it in his poem “The Waste Land.”

5 Comments

Filed under blogging, MY LIFE, religion & spirituality

The ‘So what?’ dilemma

Craft as conduit to art & Brenda Miller’s seminal essay on form.

Adverse Camber x

If a writer is any good, what he makes will have its source in a realm much larger than that which his conscious mind can encompass and will always be a greater surprise to him than it can ever be to his reader.—Bret Lott, “Against Technique”

I read many student personal essays, memoirs, and literary analyses. I’m not one who bashes student writing, says kids today can’t write—the vast majority of even freshmen are competent writers, especially of essays for teachers. What they’re not is professional writers. Nor do most aspire to be.

But then, while I try myself to emulate a professional’s ability, I’m a student too. Isn’t any writer? I believe that the cure for what ails us aspirants and our flawed efforts lies largely in craft. And craft also addresses the implicit and sometimes explicit curse that vexes memoirists and personal essayists, “So what?” That is, Why should we care about your life? Why should we care what you think? These challenges are fellow travelers with the bitter and ignorant “navel-gazing” charge that faces even bestselling memoirists.

My guest post on this issue, on how memoirists can tell their stories in ways that interest a general audience, appears on my friend Shirley Hershey Showalter’s blog on memoir. Much of my lengthy post discusses a seminal essay by Brenda Miller, “A Case Against Courage in Creative Nonfiction,” which appeared in the AWP Writer’s Chronicle of October/November 2011. Miller, editor of Bellingham Review, emphasizes craft’s role in helping writers turn the raw material of their lives into shapely, publishable stories. Form, the various elements of the craft of presentation, she says, protects writers from the pain of their own revelations, delights readers, and transforms one human’s experience into art.

And it does seem almost magical, really, the way one writer can interest us with her account of her divorce while another’s tale bores or angers. Yet most essays Miller receives as an editor, including over 400 each year as entries for the Annie Dillard Award in Creative Nonfiction, fall short. She says:

[U]nfortunately, most of these pieces do bore us, most of them announcing themselves as yet another rendition of “this happened to me, I’m being brave, please listen.” This earnestness makes us sigh and turn to the next piece in the stack. We don’t really want to hear what happened to this stranger.

I can’t help but smile at this pro’s tough love—and she is a pro, Miller having won six Pushcart Prizes herself—even though I know she or her weary posse has rejected my own hopeful submissions for the Dillard Award. Thankfully the models she cites as successes in her essay are ones that I and other hopefuls might learn from. For instance, Miller praises an essay that’s helpfully available on line, Sherry Simpson’s concise “Fidelity,” which cuts back and forth in its braided structure between a bear, which is threatening Simpson and her husband during a wilderness canoe trip, and her displeasure with her mate. In Simpson’s essay one can see how craft imposed on raw experience makes the essay not only interesting but more real, more lifelike. We can easily grasp that even when threatened by grizzly—maybe especially then—a person might still brood about her hubby.

So, craft.

This blog has been mostly about craft, even though craft isn’t the most important thing about writing. The self that produces art and its intent are what’s crucial. A paradox about art, however, is that craft is all we can really discuss. It’s what we can teach and work at. And anyway, craft is the path to art.

Of course, technique by itself is hollow if enshrined. Often to me writing seems simply a struggle with the self, the practice of craft pressuring what’s in the self that engenders art to come forth. This is the real mystery, ultimately, not how it’s done but that it’s made to exist and why. This is a spiritual matter and seems too personal and too various to address directly in a group setting or format; it lurks in the resonant negative spaces, the white spaces, of our discussions.

So we talk about craft, the necessary conduit, the way in.

See also my post from 2008, “Between Self and Story,” about writing’s deeper or spiritual dimension and its relationship to craft.

14 Comments

Filed under blogging, braids, threads, craft, technique, Dillard—Saint Annie, essay-personal, memoir, religion & spirituality, structure, teaching, education

A deeply processed tribute to Nora Ephron. I admire it.

Superhero Underpants

I will miss you.

In today’s New York Times obit, Meryl Streep is quoted as calling you “stalwart.” Stalwart is something I’ve never been.

You weren’t a whiner.

I am.

I don’t like that about myself, but obviously not enough to make great inroads into changing. Husbot bears the brunt of it. But this is not a whiny post. This is about how you affected–and still affect–my life.

I remember when Mbot was six months old and I was feeling particularly sorry for myself, that I came upon a profile of you in The New Yorker. For a couple of months after reading the profile, I sucked it up. I kept my mouth shut when I wanted to whine. I looked on the bright side. I had more confidence in myself. I didn’t mind making enemies for the sake of saying something I believed. Yet at the same time…

View original post 960 more words

4 Comments

Filed under blogging, humor, NOTED, Uncategorized

Europe redux: a blog-free vacation

Distance and difference are the secret tonic of creativity. When we get home, home is still the same. But something in our mind has been changed, and that changes everything.—Jonah Lehrer*

After my next post, on Dinty W. Moore’s new book The Mindful Writer, this blog is apt to fall totally silent for a few weeks. On Tuesday I’m flying with my wife and daughter to London, where we’ll meet up with our son who has been living in Copenhagen as a Fulbright scholar, studying the Christian philosopher Soren Kirkegaard. He’s the Family Intellectual, bound next for a master’s in intellectual history at Cambridge. My daughter, who is finishing a doctorate in higher education, and my wife, who leads a university, are Women of Action. Since I am the labeler here, I get to say that I’m the Family Artist.

But I’m also a stay-at-home fellow. And we’ll traveling through England, Scotland, and Ireland. So I hope the quote above is true. I think it is, based on the week I spent a couple summers ago in Florence with my son. My creativity surged during and after that trip. The discomfort that I fear and avoid is, apparently, exactly what I need. All the same—and as incorrect and ungrateful as this is—I dislike the hardship of travel and wouldn’t do it if not for work or family. I feel I missed my prime traveling years, when I tied myself down farming. No regrets, but that period made me earthbound in more ways than one. I hate air travel and airports, to be specific. Last winter, when I went to Florida for a month, I drove myself down, a three-day journey in our twelve-year-old soccer-Mom van.

I know I’ll be so glad I went—know that, but only intellectually, at this point. Aside from spending time with my family what I’m looking forward to is reading the novels and memoirs I’ve packed and taking photographs, lots of them. I love the city scenes and landscapes of Europe, and this time I’m going to try to get more people shots. There’s a neat post on Gizmodo, “100 Tips From a Professional Photographer,” the precepts oddly resonant for writers, and No. 84 observes that “landscape photography can get dull after a while.”

So: people. Those compact Scotch and Irish faces. We’ll see, with my camera’s puny lens. But I’ll be looking, and trying to get in close. (Surely dogs count. I still grieve the photo I missed of a Florentine swaggering through a plaza with his inappropriately large harlequin mastiff.)

When we return in early June, Ohio is going to feel like July, especially after the British isles. Already the month of May here in central Ohio is like mid-June—something about the upper airstream: hot and dry the result.

Anyway, and best of all, summer is here. My season, one of languor and promise. Good for remembering and writing.

 *Taken from Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist, noted here earlier. I’ve since read it and highly recommend it.

11 Comments

Filed under blogging, film/photography, MY LIFE

Elizabeth Browne has wrung out the gems in the fascinating NYT story about Robert Caro and his working process.

Elizabeth Browne

I’m tinkering with a nonfiction book idea. By that I mean, I have a book in mind that I’d like to write, and in fact have written bits and pieces of it and collected some research for it, but I have yet to find the right voice, tone and format to tell the story I’d like to tell. I have a long history of getting overwhelmed when attempting longer work, partly because of the sheer volume of information that one needs to research, sift through, organize, and access while writing. Then there’s the organization of the writing itself; will an outline help, or maybe chapter summaries, or should I just wing it? And then there are the technological and logistical choices: Can I store all of my research within Scrivner, and also write a draft in the same program? Will I like that method? Maybe I should use Word, and…

View original post 685 more words

3 Comments

Filed under blogging, immersion, journalism, NOTED, working method