Category Archives: editing

Learning the craft, part three

Don’t submit your beloved manuscript too early.

Sky Hole 2x

This is part three of a three-part series on the major lessons I learned while writing Shepherd: A Memoir, which is scheduled to be published in Spring 2014.

There’s such a high in completing a book’s first draft. A whole manuscript. In You’ve Got a Book in You: A Stress-Free Guide to Writing the Book of Your Dreams, Elizabeth Sims nails it:

To write a book is to open and give yourself to a world thirsty for authenticity. Writing a book is a heroic act, and it is an accomplishment no one can take away from you. When you come to THE END you will know a wealth of things about your subject, about writing, and about yourself. You will be a deeper, richer, more complete person.

The tough love part for me resided in a simple question. Do you want to publish it? Your baby? You don’t have to—but I wanted to. And so I learned that if you think your book is ready, it isn’t. You must know it’s ready. That took more work, in my case. Six drafts over seven years.

A rookie mistake, which also afflicts writers at every level, is sending off a manuscript too early. It’s hard to see your own work. But I can now see my un-admitted doubts when I began to submit what I probably was calling the third draft of my memoir.

Freckles sez, "Get help—don't be baaaad!".

Freckles sez, “Get help—don’t be baaaad!”

I’ve read that Philip Roth sent his novel drafts to five people, and I like to imagine who they were: three wickedly good fellow novelists; a sensible and erudite lay reader; and, what the heck, a Rabbi. Every writer needs a writing posse. At some point, however, your chief deputies can fail you if they too have read the work, or its pieces, so long that they’re blind to its faults. Plus, they want your and its success. I was fortunate that an editor, in a roundabout way, kindly directed me—actually he bluntly called my book “plodding”—to obtain the services of a developmental editor.

So after I got professional help I began writing a new version that truly was new, the fourth draft, and about a year later I had it, another baby whale, the manuscript having returned again to its original length of 500 pages. Eventually I cut it to a svelte 360, and broke up a chapter on my father and dispersed him throughout the book. Where he should have been all along—as an MFA mentor had mentioned the better part of a decade before. I went through the book a couple more times, smoothing sentences, looking at persona, and clarifying timeline.

Finally I knew my memoir was ready, and thankfully hadn’t burned too many bridges with my early efforts. That’s the problem with submitting a book before it’s ready, not just initial rejection but permanent rejection. It’s natural for neophytes to think, “This may need some work, but they’ll see it’s a diamond in the rough. They’ll want to work with me.” Nope. Not unless you are named Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie. There are too many other manuscripts that are ready, clamoring for editors’ and publishers’ attentions. They’ll cross you off and move on.

Now, finally bearing a book contract, here I am, this putative font of wisdom who’s really just trying to advise himself. Trying to codify what I fear I’ll forget. And while I hunger for another project, for that addictive immersive quest for authenticity that puts you in a new zone, at the same time I must fear it. Or something. I think it’s fear of failure that produces resistance, but I’m not sure. I seem to wish I could skip the struggle, the time, it takes to enter fully a project. As if on cue, I stumbled the other day across this:

I realized that this was going to take time and patience, which I didn’t have much of. It took me only 15, 20 years to develop some patience, and it was a struggle. It was the same with my reading. I had the desire to learn, but I didn’t have the patience. I wanted to tear that page up, because I didn’t have the patience to even contemplate those words. I was in a hurry to run away from the suffering that was required to sit still.—Harvey Keitel

So start, slowly. Time is going to pass anyway. Night is falling. Accept suffering, but try to enjoy the process. Because it’s all process on the writer’s way, the writer’s path.

This and the previous three posts have run, in slightly different form, as a single guest post at Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour.

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Filed under editing, memoir, MY LIFE, revision

A life sentence

Verlyn Klinkenborg on the “genre of the sentence.”

One by one, each sentence takes the stage.

It says the very thing it comes into existence to say.

Then it leaves the stage.

It doesn’t help the next one up or the previous one

down.

It doesn’t wave to its friends in the audience

Or pause to be acknowledged or applauded.

It doesn’t talk about what it’s saying.

It simply says its piece and leaves the stage.

Several Short Sentences About Writing

The Sentence Man: Let each sentence carry a small quantity of information. Variation in the length and structure of sentences creates music.

Six years ago, in August 2006, during a writers’ gathering at Goucher College, Baltimore, I was dispatched to fetch Verlyn Klinkenborg from his hotel. He was silent, riding in my van. Then on campus he took the stage and began speaking on “The Genre of the Sentence.” No deferential joke or aw shucks warmup. He stared into the dim auditorium and lobbed oracular commandments: “Don’t believe what others believe”; “Look for gaps between sentences, paragraphs.”

He disdained sentence fragments, semicolons, and transitions. Oh, and workshopping. Was it my imagination that the hall’s temperature dropped ten degrees? He resembled a dyspeptic owl. Across the top row of seats, perched like crows, the teachers glared down at him. In between them and him, the students, fresh from their workshops, perked up. What’s with this guy?

“I had been thinking about writing about nonfiction,” he said. “I have written several hundred short sentences about writing, now a book. I’m very pragmatic. How do you get the work done, make the sentences? What do you think about when you make sentences?”

I might have read Making Hay by then. I hadn’t yet gotten to two of his later books, now among my favorite works, his collection of New York Times columns The Rural Life and his novel Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptile. The latter is written from the point of view of a turtle owned by Gilbert White, the eighteenth-century British naturalist and minister. White had such a captive tortoise, an object of his study and speculation. Timothy is a feat of research (Klinkenborg studied White’s journals), imagination, and prose style.

The precepts Klinkenborg aired that form the core of his new book:

• “Writing is thinking. It is hard. You must learn to think yourself. Go think.  The more you do, you can remember what you thought about. Writers fail as writers because they fail to think. The literature that’s great is a product of thought and choices.”

• “Notice what interests you. Most people have no idea. Care about what you care about. Being a writer is a perpetual act of self-authorization. Authority is ultimately something the reader holds. But vital.”

• “The sentence is the basis of your art. Think, make sentences, and revise. Rhythm is everything, first and last. Talking is natural, writing is not. It takes years of work. ‘Flow’ is not real and leads to loss of confidence. It is hard work and does not flow. Write short sentences. Let each sentence carry a small quantity of information. See Orwell: Write so clearly you can see what you have not said.”

• “You need a technical knowledge of grammar and syntax. Your writing is your responsibility. You are your first and only editor. You are responsible for etymology. You will need to look up nearly every word for a while. Proofread a piece with a paper under each line. Have someone read your piece to you.”

• “Chronology is a trap. It’s not natural; our own interior world is not chronological. Always resist chronology. Narrative is very hard. Very rare, even in novels. Be the narrator. Endings are not hard. Readers—all people—are used to endings.”

• “Writing is to offer your testimony on the nature of existence. It’s a moral act. Cleverness is its own punishment. Your job is to testify.”

I’ve returned to these notes and others I took that day. Some of his statements mystify—“The architecture of neutral space is larger for a whole book”; or, actually, “Don’t believe what others believe”—but mostly I find his notions inspiring or at least bracing.

Klinkenborg writes and offers rules of thumb in the vast “plain” writing tradition named by Annie Dillard in Living by Fiction (reviewed): prose like a pane of glass to see the world clearly; the writer submissive to the world and his subject. Plain writing has carried the day for now. “Fine” writers, more rhetorical, draw attention to themselves. A recent virtuoso fine performance—dare I say clever?—is [sic]: A Memoir, by Joshua Cody. Most people work in the middle, observes Dillard.

Not Verlyn Klinkenborg. Not so much. Like Dillard he’s a plain stylist working the edge of the continuum.

Like everyone, he universalizes what works for him. He’s polished his crotchets into smooth hard pebbles. Unlike everyone, he’s a thinker, a noticer, and a maker of  successful sentences.

Sometimes, not often enough, I ask myself, WWVD?

Next: Klinkenborg’s spare declarative chops.

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Filed under craft, technique, Dillard—Saint Annie, editing, narrative, syntax, working method

The creator’s dilemma

For the businessperson you love . . .

I used to consider the use of test audiences as Exhibit A that movies are an inferior art form—talk about lowest common denominator! plus there’s no such thing as art by committee!—then it occurred to me that I and most writers do the equivalent. All our friends’ reactions, our workshopping at conferences, our submissions to editors and agents, and our use of prose doctors of various kinds amounts to exactly the same thing, a big fat test audience.

The movie folks’ practice is so much more efficient and focused. After all, each reader offers a writer advice that falls neatly into three categories: brilliant, maybe, and crazy. Getting all one’s test readers together at once would allow you to parse the categories faster and see what’s what. Okay, I admit it, the flashback in Chapter Two doesn’t work. Of course, what writers do is more like if the movie people had only other moviemakers in the audience, not a carefully chosen demographic of actual civilian watchers. Does writing, as a superior art form, need to be vetted by a guild before it’s offered to civilians? Probably. I think every art is first vetted by practitioners.

A collaborative art like film is vetted intensely during the making itself. Plus the script, the invisible heart of the visual spectacle, was surely doctored by a guild of writers, directors, and producers. I tend to envy the more collaborative art forms, especially drama and film, because they look like such fun compared to sitting alone in a room typing. Then this week I happened to read the recent story in The New York Times Magazine by Joel Lovell about writer-director Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me). Lonergan’s purported new masterpiece, the film Margaret, has been hung up and was almost destroyed by interference in the editing room by one of its impatient financiers. Love the devil you know . . .

But regarding fruitful collaboration, one of the interesting stories in Imagine: How Creativity Works, by Jonah Lehrer, concerns an academic study of great musicals. It turns out that the smash hits during some golden period being studied were made by regular collaborators—creative teams, in effect, but which included a few outsiders with fresh approaches. The latter was key: unchanging teams couldn’t produce a Broadway hit any more than rookie teams could.

Related to this, Lehrer makes an obvious but true and always interesting point about writing, specifically revision: 

Although we live in a world that worships insiders, it turns out that gathering such expertise takes a toll on creativity. To struggle at anything is to become too familiar with it, memorizing details and internalizing flaws. It doesn’t matter whether you’re designing a city park or a shoot-‘em-up video game, whether you’re choreographing a ballet or a business conference: you must constantly try to forget what you already know.

This is one of the central challenges of writing. A writer has to read his sentences again and again. (Such are the inefficiencies of editing.) The problem with this process is that he very quickly loses the ability to see his prose as a reader and not as the writer. He knows exactly what he is trying to say, but that’s because he’s the one saying it. In order to construct a clear sentence or a coherent narrative, he needs to edit as if he knows nothing, as if he’s never seen these words before.

This is an outsider problem—the writer must become an outsider to his own work. When he escapes from the privileged position of author, he can suddenly see all those imprecise clauses and unnecessary flourishes; he can feel the weak parts of the story and the slow spots in the prose. That’s why the novelist Zadie Smith, in an essay on the craft of writing, stresses the importance of putting aside one’s prose and allowing the passage of time to work its amnesiac magic.

The weakness of Imagine, by the way, is the flip side of its strength, that it’s a collection of brilliant New Yorker magazine articles smooshed together into a book. Each story has its characters, its scenes, and its focus on the same topic, creativity, but there’s no overall cohesion, no narrative building across the book. I can see why such books are bestsellers—inherently interesting, short, digestible, surprising bits, with a self-improvement vibe—paint your room blue to be more creative!—and I enjoyed parts of it but found it very forgettable.

And yet, to be honest, I was trying to raid Imagine personally, and there’s a lot in it that I imagine businesspeople might make good use of. Such as the importance of water cooler talk, and therefore of office design; of bringing in outsiders with left-field ideas; of forgetting brainstorming meetings in favor of those in which new ideas are entertained, yes, but critically. The last like a short version of the long, slow bruising writers endure as they share their drafts.

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Filed under editing, film/photography, journalism, narrative, NOTED, REVIEW, revision, working method

Revising, from the top

Belle the Revision Dog supervises all edits. Shown: typical summer habitus.

Last summer, in Italy, I stood gaping before Michelangelo’s David and reflexively took a photo—no flash, but forgetting that all tourists’ photos of him are banned—and got chastised. Supposedly Michelangelo said he made the immortal statue by just chipping away what didn’t look like David. I’ve thought of writing as having to first create a block of marble, then pounding it into a narrative. Which must be an evident metaphor, because Bill Roorbach mentioned it in his blog’s recent advice post in trying to answer my question about how to cut my book.

Standing amidst the slag I’ve already jettisoned, I am too close now to the shaped narrative to see what else should go. And I don’t want to put the book in a drawer for ten years. I’m long-winded, as readers of this blog know, but in theory I understand the power of concision.

My impulsive forbidden photo

One of the reasons To Kill a Mockingbird is a perfect movie—aside from brilliant casting, score, and narration—is that Horton Foote compressed the novel’s three years into one, focusing on Boo Radley, the racial incident, and the trial. The novel drags a bit for me, and I read it most successfully as an atmospheric memoir, which it appears to be, except for Harper Lee’s inspired fictionalized use of a real racial incident for the dramatic core of her book. When the movie was edited Gregory Peck insisted the children be trimmed further, and the director excised the thread of Jem’s and Scout’s relationship with Mrs. Dubose. She ends up just a mean old lady on a porch, and the spotlight shines more strongly on Peck and the trial. I think Peck was right, whatever his motives, but of course today we’d watch every outtake if we could. (I’m an instant expert from reading the recent biography of Lee, Mockingbird, plus watching the DVD’s commentaries.)

As I try to cut my memoir, at least I’ve seen a new way in, thanks to a friend’s reading. She showed me that while I’ve written a rather chronological story, my memoir may need to open with something out of sequence. This is common, of course. Recently I saw Lidia Yuknavitch do it in her edgy memoir The Chronology of Water. For Yuknavitch, a competitive swimmer, water is a metaphor for the flowing, non-chronological nature of memory. Actually hers is a chronological unfolding overall, too, beginning with her traumatic girlhood in her dysfunctional family, but it opens with the stillbirth of her daughter. Yet the way she writes, what she focuses on and how she tells it, her very syntax, de-emphasizes her story’s chronological spine. (Thanks to Cynthia Newberry Martin at Catching Days for calling attention to The Chronology of Water.)

Several weeks ago I lugged my manuscript to my friend Candyce Canzoneri for feedback. It had grown in my latest rewrite by 220 pages, to 520. Candy is a writer with a wonderful sense of humor, and reading my doorstopper took someone with a blithe spirit. She gave me her response to the first act right away: pretty good, except the first chapter’s opening is all wrong. It was about the fifth or so version of  that chapter.

But I knew she was right. The entire chapter wasn’t bad, she said, but the first five or so pages describing me and my family finding a farm in Appalachia didn’t work. I got readers imprinted on that farm, and we didn’t end up with it. Readers are like goslings: they imprint on first things. What appears and moves out first.

Yuknavitch's edgy memoir

The opening had virtues I hated to lose: it was a long, vivid, rolling scene—therefore inherently dramatic and engaging and experiential—and smoothly introduced the cast of characters and a smidgen of background. But Candy said, “I’m not sure yet where it should start, but not there.” She found what she sought in chapter seven. “That Bromfield stuff,” she said. “Start with that.”

She was right again, though reworking the passage has been a challenge. The Bromfield stuff, about the influence on me as a kid of Ohio novelist and agrarian writer Louis Bromfield, was interlocked with references to material readers had learned about earlier. And yet I saw that leading with Bromfield solved so many more problems than it caused. It’s a passage with a lot of heat—though it’s mostly expository—and shows why a child of the suburbs wanted to farm. In short, a teenager growing up in a Florida beach town, pining for the loss of his family’s Georgia farm when he was six, stumbles across reprints of postwar Malabar Farm and Pleasant Valley, two of the most romantic books ever written about agriculture. It was like pouring gasoline on a pile of parched driftwood and striking a match. And I realize only now how much Bromfield’s romantic prose underlies my own attempts at describing the lovely Appalachian landscape of southeastern Ohio.

Pleasant Valley is a memoir about Bromfield’s return to northeastern Ohio from France in 1938. Having fled the Nazis, the writer, by then a famous and Pulitzer-winning novelist, sought refuge in the purchase of farms totaling about 1,000 acres. The book opens with a scene of Bromfield, his wife, and his literary manager driving into a hushed snowy valley, where the writer imagines the dreamy summer landscape he’d known as a child:

What I saw was a spring stream in summer, flowing through pastures of bluegrass and white clover and bordered by willows. Here and there in the meanderings of the stream there were deep holes where in the clear water you see the shiners and the bluegills, the sunfish and the big red horse-suckers and now and then a fine small-mouthed bass. On a hot day you could strip off your clothes and slip into one of those deep holes and lie there in the cool water among the bluegills and crawfish, letting the cool water pour over you while the minnows nibbled at your toes. And when you climbed out to dry in the hot sun and dress yourself, you trampled on mint and its cool fragrance scented all the warm air about you. . . .

And I saw the old mills, high, unpainted, silver-gray with the weathering of a hundred years, the big lofts smelling of wheat and corn and outside the churning millrace where fat, big carp and suckers lay in the deep water to feed on the spilled grain and mash.

In such broad brushstrokes Bromfield painted the lost world of his boyhood. I was his perfect reader. Curled up in an overstuffed chair in our house a block from the beach, I learned of America’s true paradise: Ohio. Oh, the irony. Well, here I am in Ohio today. Without him I wouldn’t have accepted a fellowship to Ohio State—just so I could visit Malabar Farm, now a state park—and wouldn’t have met my future wife without him.

Bromfield’s work occasioned some memorable, if terse, talks with my depressive father, who in the wake of his farming dreams was making his way as an executive at Kennedy Space Center. When I showed Dad those cheap mass market paperbacks I’d found in the mall bookstore—color covers of dewy pastures and freshly turned loamy soil— he pointed out the originals in his library. His hardcover versions, bound in black cloth, were embossed with a red Harper & Brothers logo showing a torch being passed from one hand to another.

Revising is hard work

I’m not happy that two thirds of my first chapter is now expository rather than scenic. Yet I know I went overboard with scenes in the last rewrite—one of the reasons the book is so long; scenes take more pages than summary. I was in good voice when I started writing almost six years ago, and the Bromfield passages, generated early, retain some of that sunny spirit. I was unselfconsciously expository, and very confident, having nary a clue about the depth of my ignorance about writing a book. Thank goodness.

And now, thanks to Candy’s keen eye, I’ve found a new opening and knocked the book back to 450 pages. And counting . . .

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Filed under editing, memoir, MY LIFE, revision, scene, structure, working method

Getting words down & revising them

I can’t remember how I came across a wonderful vimeo video on  Writer Unboxed  by Yuvi Zalkow on his breakthrough in revising his born-dead novel. Zalkow describes himself on vimeo in his “failed writer series” as a “writer, storyteller, novelist, shame-ridden schmo, maker of online presentations about my failures (and occasional successes) as a writer.”

I can relate, having just had a great essay (trust me!) fail to win two contests and get rejected even as a submission. That’s what I get for composing my humble thank-yous in advance, albeit inwardly . . .

Zalkow’s followup video on managing his time (and expectations) as a writer is really good, too. He talks about making the best of what little time he has. This was a topic Bill Roorbach and Dave Gessner covered well recently, Bill in “Finding Time to Write” and “Thank Your Editor” and Dave in “The Value of Momentum” over at Bill & Dave’s Cocktail Hour.

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Agent Betsy Lerner on editing, structure

The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers by Betsy Lerner. Riverhead, 304 pages

I suggest you stalk your demons. The more popular culture and the media fail to present the real pathos of our human struggle, the more opportunity there is for writers. If you have been unable to make your work count or stick, you must grab them by the neck and face them down. And whatever you do, don’t censor yourself. There’s always time and editors for that.—Betsy Lerner

Before she was a high-powered literary agent and a funny, earthy blogger, Betsy Lerner was an MFA student (poetry) who made herself a career as an acquisitions editor for several big New York publishing houses. Her entertaining The Forest for the Trees is about the psyche of writers—their peculiarities, hangups, and self-destructive practices—and about the publishing process: especially how editors see things and how they work.

Some excerpts from Lerner’s insights on the editing stage:

Only the writer knows if his editor edits. The best editor is a sensitive reader who is thinking with a pencil in her hand, questioning word choice, syntax, and tense. An editor is someone who probes the writer with insightful questions, who smooths transitions or suggests them where none exist. A good editor knows when the three pages at the beginning of a chapter are throat-clearing. Start here, she’ll mark in the margin. This is where your book begins. And she’ll know when you should stop, spare your reader being hit over the head as if your point were a two-by-four.

Before an editor can cut a paragraph or a page, she must establish trust. This is best accomplished by showing the writer what works, taking time to pepper the manuscripts with appreciation: lovely phrase, great word, nice transition. An editor builds trust with an author through careful attention to his pages. Suggesting that a writer delete his words is excruciating for some, and the excision must be made with delicacy. Sometimes this means the use of lightly penciled queries in the margins: awk? right word? believable? trans? rep? Or course, what the editor really means is: totally awkward, terrible word, completely unbelievable, how the hell do you expect the reader to make a transition when you haven’t, and this is so damn repetitive I feel like killing myself.

The best editors call attention to those parts of the book that have been bothering the writer, if only on an unconscious level. Almost every book I have ever worked on needed help with the pacing and structure. The challenge of sustaining a certain pace and rhythm throughout an entire book can be staggering, and most writers are too involved with the details to see where the story flags.

Not all writers have an innate sense of structure. As a young editor, I used to think that those who couldn’t structure their books were somehow inferior to “real” writers or people with “natural” ability. I imagined that skill in the handling of time was akin to having an innate sense of rhythm in music, and that you either had it or you didn’t. I’ve since revised that notion, having worked with brilliant authors over the years who committed all kinds of time crimes and didn’t see the structure their own sentences and paragraphs suggested. I have also worked with writers who were flummoxed when it came to connecting two scenes or collapsing a week’s events into a day to advance the narrative more swiftly. . . .

A good editor—whether for fiction or nonfiction—crouches like a coach on the edge of the track, his stopwatch grasped tightly in hand, clocking a writer’s progress as each sentence strides toward the finish. Sometimes merely breaking a long paragraph in two can take a few seconds off a writer’s time. Sometimes breaking apart a long chapter can give a feeling of movement and breadth. A writer can use paragraphs and space breaks the way a poet uses stanzas, each one setting forth a new beginning, signaling to the reader that we are going through another door. . . .

Any writer doing work of real interest is by necessity going out on a limb, taking chances with either the content or the style of his material. Does the limb hold? Will the writer wish, months or years from now, that someone had stayed his hand?

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Review: Memoirs by James Michener

March is still monochrome along Alum Creek, Westerville, Ohio

Sharing this small immense world

A guest post by Olga Khotiashova

Pilgrimage: A Memoir of Poland and Rome; The World Is My Home: A Memoir

Reading The World is My Home by James Michener was a rare case when I read a memoir not being acquainted with the other works of a writer. Well, not exactly. I had already read his Pilgrimage: A Memoir of Poland and Rome and was hooked. As I had known a lot about Poland, it was kind of a validity test, and Michener passed it 100%. I anticipated it would be like some Hollywood movies—interesting for those who knew nothing about the country and ridiculous for those who loved it—but it was not. Moreover, I was pleased to find almost complete coincidence with my views and evaluation of the events.

It was surprising to know that in 1970 to 1980 Michener was a senior member of America’s Board for International Broadcasting—two radio stations in Munich which broadcast to the countries behind the Iron Curtain. I thought of my grandfather who was born the same year as James Michener, 1907, was brought up in a small village in the western part of Russia, graduated from the university, worked as a teacher, and participated in combat during World War II. There are so many similarities in the biographies of these two noble men, I thought, and probably, when my grandfather went for a walk in the fields on summer evenings and switched on his pocket radio to listen to Radio Liberty, it was James Michener who directed the broadcasting.

The second part of Pilgrimage is about Michener’s meetings with Pope John Paul II which began when the latter was known as Karol Wojtyla. To give a glimpse of this book I will just quote one sentence showing the Pope’s attitude to the restoration of political and religious freedoms in Central and Eastern Europe: “He did not gloat over the collapse of communism; he gave thanks.”

So I borrowed The World is my Home from the library eager to know more about James A. Michener, a person and a writer, first-hand. And I was not disappointed.

Structure and language. The book is thoroughly structured. It is not the boring chronological list of meetings and events, not at all. As a regarded storyteller, Michener presented the story of his life in fourteen chapters, each one addressed to some major concept that affected him. He develops the main idea, gives captivating supportive examples, spices everything with gentle humor, and it seems we can see him smiling congenially looking at us, readers, enjoying his book. I was also impressed how meticulously the writer dealt with the language. When he said that he took editing seriously, he really meant it.  Each word matters and serves the writer’s goal. Some sentences are short and austere, and sometimes, especially when Michener writes about art and nature, he lets his emotions free and produces wonderful paragraphs:

And then, because you are in the part of the earth where, because of the bulge near the equator, the sun rises and sets with a tremendous crush, to see it suddenly explode into red brilliance, big enough to devour the world. And then to see ahead, its crest inflamed by the sun, the dim outline of the island you have been seeking, and to watch it slowly, magically rise from the sea until it becomes whole, a home for people, a resting place for birds.

Isn’t it beautiful? And what a nice balance between the informational and emotional richness!

Wise and honest. The World is my Home creates the image of the author as a wholesome person with positive attitude who had been studying all life long, was loyal to his country and achieved a lot—an almost chrestomathic example of the American dream come true. It does not feel tedious or didactic, though. It feels like you have a conversation with a wise, frank and supportive friend who wants to share his experience and help you avoid common mistakes.

I came through remarkably unscathed, delighted with the world as I had found it, and always prepared to face gladly the next encounter it offered.

In his memoir James Michener reflects on eternal questions everybody faces at some point like profession, health, and politics. Sometimes I stopped reading, tried to compare his views with my experience and often came to the conclusion, “Yes, it’s settled now.” The book was published in 1991. What a pity I did not come across it that time!

Second opinion. The title, The World is My Home, assumes that the author was interested in people, nature, culture and politics all over the world. “The converse must also be true,” I thought. So I translated one chapter, “Travel,” into Russian and emailed it to my friends back in Russia to get their opinion.

The first response arrived almost immediately. My friend wrote, “Reading your translation, I felt the romanticism of James Michener, his optimism, zeal for traveling. It is clear that the book was written by an aged person, however, he managed to preserve through all those years the young fervor and interest for everything new.”

It took a while until I got the second response. “You know what,” my friend wrote, “as I had read that book, a passion for traveling overcame me, so I grabbed my daughter, jumped into the car, and we drove as far away as to Sardinia, Italy. It was awesome—both the book and the journey”.

One deficiency. So far, it sounds like the book is perfect, educating and captivating simultaneously—a unique combination. It definitely is. The only flaw I want to mention is that at some point a déjà vu like feeling struck me, “It seems I’ve already read that same paragraph!” Yes, a couple of paragraphs were moved to The World is My Home exactly as they appeared in Pilgrimage. I also noticed a few cases of minor benign autoplagiarism in other Michener’s nonfiction later. Well, those were always solid meaningful paragraphs, and there was nothing wrong in repeating them. Moreover, it was kind of a funny practical counterweight­—each good phrase should be utilized as much as possible—to Michener’s romanticism.

If I were asked to characterize The World is My Home in one phrase, I would say, “Job well done, life honestly lived.” When I finished reading the book, I reread selected pages with great enjoyment; I was delighted translating “Travel” into Russian and sharing it with my friends; I have read several books by James Michener since then, both fiction and nonfiction; all of them were worth reading but The World is My Home is the one most memorable.

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Filed under editing, memoir, REVIEW, structure, style, travel writing

Obit for a copy desk

The Winston-Salem Journal was one of several fine newspapers in North Carolina. A friend who used to work there sent me a link to Tommy Tomlinson’s blog post that includes a video about the management of that newspaper deciding to kill its in-house copy desk. The video is moving and sad, the story unbelievable. For now, apparently, the pared-down copy desk has a sort of reprieve. Outsourcing still looms.

Two things once restrained media companies’ legendary greed: the competition, which forced investments and standards; and the fact that they made so much money they could afford to have professional standards, if not pride. They still make money, just not bucketfuls, but, with the collapse of other print organs, they can gut newspapering’s evolved support network almost without shame. I loved newspapers before I worked in them and cannot help but see these as dark days for our republic.

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A novel on memory, story & alibi

A colleague here at Otterbein University, Noam Shpancer, a psychologist, has just hit the big time at age fifty-one with his first novel, The Good Psychologist. Early reviews are positive to raves: Kirkus gave it a starred notice, Alan Cheuse reviewed it on NPR, and the Boston Globe called it “extraordinary” and “a rare gift.” Bought by Henry Holt at an auction conducted by Noam’s agent, the story is about a therapist who’s treating a stripper with stage fright. And it’s about the psychologist’s own complicated love life. Another plot concerns the therapist’s night class at a college where he’s an adjunct instructor trying to change the way students think about thought, emotions, and memory.

The good psychologist deals with story and identity, he announces. And he who deals with story and identity deals with memory. All your events and experiences, all your insights and history, all that is bound and wrapped into your notion of I—it all depends on memory. That’s why it is important to know something about memory processes. Most people know nothing about memory, and if they have any idea, then it is usually wrong. Your own understanding of memory, we may therefore assume, is faulty, and our job is to correct it. He waves his chalk in front of them. . . .

You, the psychologist says, looking over the room, may believe that memory is but a video recording that is documenting the days of our lives as they happen and storing them in the brain’s archives. This is a common assumption and an intuitive metaphor, not lacking in elegance: the brain is a library in which the tales of our times are bound and housed; a beautiful metaphor, but, alas, erroneous and misleading. Memory is not a storage place but a story we tell ourselves in retrospect. As such it is made of storytelling materials: embroidery and forgery, perplexity and urgency, revelation and darkness. He steps forward with practiced theatricality.

 

Israel edition

 

A stripper did show up years ago seeking Noam’s help for her sudden fear of exposure, he says, but she never returned. Her problem intrigued him. He began to imagine a psychologist with such a client, a psychologist with his own problems, and to think about the man’s quirky students and his pontificating before them. Noam says he wanted three narrative threads and piled up notes and ideas about each before beginning to write. He wrote 1,000 words a day and finished in five months. (Noam also blogs: His “Insight Therapy” is hosted by Psychology Today.)

He wrote the first draft in Hebrew, his native language—he grew up on a kibbutz in Israel and didn’t learn English until he was sixteen—and sold the novel first in Israel. His agent was having a drink with an American agent and mentioned this novel “that might do well in America.” One thing led to another. A play based on the book is being prepared in Israel, and there’s talk of a movie in America.

“It’s all serendipity,” Noam says. “I don’t think of myself as a Writer. My ego isn’t based on this. I have two more novels I want to write. I had a good life and was

 

2nd Israel edition

 

happy.” He adds, “I read mostly poetry, and I write some. I’m a visual person. Instead of reading a novel I’ll go to a museum or watch a movie. . . . This novel is an indie movie.”

He seems a natural writer. I devoured The Good Psychologist in three sittings, admiring its spare language and exposition—“I believe less is more,” Noam says—and was intrigued by the inner life of the psychologist and by the book’s interwoven structure. It’s a literary novel that moves almost as fast as a summer beach book, which is probably why it’s also been sold in Italy, Germany, and Great Britain. As a memoirist I twigged to the enigmatic psychologist’s thoughts on memory and inner narratives.

. . . [N]ow we choose to meet the client with humility and purpose, to try to understand her story. Alas, here we should be beware, because the client will always begin with her alibi, not her story, even though her very presence in your office is evidence that her alibi has been ineffective. We do what we know. And people know their alibi much better than their story; since one’s alibi has daily uses while one’s story—who wants it? Moreover the client’s story, because it is human, contains painful elements, territories of failure and disaster. Naturally she will seek to distance herself from those and keep away others as well, for self-protection, or out of compassion or good manners. And that’s the job of the alibi: to deny, to distract and conceal and in doing so make life more bearable for the client and those around her. So your eventual work in therapy will be to walk the client from alibi to story; from the headline to the event itself. But first, the client’s alibi also allows them to test you.

Test what? the pink-haired girl asks.

Two things: whether you’ll buy the alibi, in which case you’re useless, and whether, if you refuse to buy it, you’ll resent the client for offering it, in which case you’re dangerous.

You’re cynical, Jennifer says.

Not necessarily. Perhaps clear-eyed. The first thing your client says is always a lie in essence, always impure. And this is not to condemn the client. Distorting and hiding the truth are, after all, essential life skills. Thus digging for truth in the context of therapy does not involve rejecting the lie, tarnishing the lie, or getting rid of it, but rather a deeper acceptance and understanding that includes the lie. Therapy is not a journey from lie to truth, from darkness to light, but an attempt to find the right balance between them. That’s why it’s important to grasp the value of the lie and its uses. . . .

The lie, it turns out, is not a bug in our software but a feature of our hardware. And the good psychologist can get to know it, learn its ways.

Of course the Zen-like psychologist seems rather passive in his own life—can he use his knowledge to save the stripper and himself?

The editing process sparked differences between the Israeli and American editions. Noam was amused by his Israeli editor, who said readers would wonder

 

U.K. & Commonwealth edition

 

why the man wasn’t talking to his mother; the editor also found the students oddly passive, maybe stupid. “These are Midwestern students,” Noam laughs. But he made them more complex and contentious, and gave the psychologist a backstory—with parents, albeit dead. His New York editor made him condense the psychologist’s lectures that Noam knew Israeli audiences would savor. “But then she wanted me to change the ending,” Noam says. “She said Americans like resolution. I said, ‘I’ll do anything you want, but not that.’ The ending is the best I can do.”

I hope Hollywood makes a movie of The Good Psychologist—and wonder if I’ll recognize the story at all once the stars and their agents, the scriptwriters and the director, are through. But I suspect Noam, regardless, will just shrug and smile.

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Filed under audience, braids, threads, design, editing, fiction, memoir, NOTED, REVIEW, working method

Lessons from writing my memoir . . .

Five years ago I began writing a memoir about my experiences farming in Appalachian Ohio. My official start was September 1, as I recall, but I was gearing up at this time of year, in late August, when the common Midwestern wildflowers are blooming. Right now, you can see flowering together in fertile meadows and damp unkempt roadsides: purple ironweed, saffron goldenrod, yellow daisies, and, above it all, the airy mauve bursts of Joe Pye weed. Shade trees look dusty and faded; their heavy foliage sags, their branches storm-wracked. The other day, looking out my window at the parched lawn, I saw a spatter of yellow leaves twirling above the grass. It was elegiac. I know we’re supposed to love the back-to-school frenzy, but I don’t. And I’ve always hated the end of summer. I couldn’t help but reflect.

Years ago, an author of many books said to me during an interview, “It’s not that I’m talented or hard working, but I can sit there hour after hour. A lot of people can’t do it. They’re smart, talented but just can’t.” I learned to my relief that I could do that, sit there, usually five days a week though often six and sometimes seven. Longer breaks are dangerous: for each day away it takes a day to get back in—vacations can derail a book. My optimum keyboard stint seems to be three hours. If writing is going well, my brains are mush after three; if the writing is hard, I’ve suffered enough. I yearn to be a four-hour man, though. I treasure the memory of one inspired day when I put in eleven hours (I’ve since cut that chapter). I also discovered how much I enjoy solitude. And how, if I did have a whole day, I could pass it happily writing, reading, editing. Such productive bliss is addicting. The day passes in a blur. But, on a really hard day, three hours takes an eternity. Better to switch to editing.

Early on, about that first November, there came a day when I hit a problem I hadn’t faced and didn’t understand—now I see it was dramatizing a particular event, bringing it to life, when I had some memories but some gaps and too few images. I had a little meltdown. I thought I couldn’t write the book, and sent Kathy a despairing email, which she wisely ignored. Then, later in the winter, I ran to my desk each morning to write another chapter. So the average day during initial composition was pretty good. I learned that my page-production speed was about one sheet an hour. Three pages for three hours. Getting four pages a day was, and would be, heaven. But, as someone pointed out, if you faithfully write only a page a day, in a year you’ve piled up 365 pages—a book.

It took me a year and a half to finish, but my first manuscript draft was 500 pages. My goal had been 300; it took work to pare it down. Which reminds me of a rule of thumb I learned in book publishing for estimating the length of a book from its typed or printed-out manuscript pages: Take the number of printed pages and multiply them by .887. So 300 pages x .887 = a 263-page book, which is a nice, optimum-upper length for most publishers. This formula is based on a book with a 6 x 9 size and typical design format.

Five years. If I had a manuscript three and a half years ago, what gives? Well, I’ve rewritten, polished, and cut every sentence, paragraph, and passage many times. And now I’m on my fourth whole-book rewrite. Not to be defensive, but I like Annie Dillard’s rule of thumb: for someone not a genius, it takes two to ten years to write a publishable book. That’s an average of six years, which is what I’m on track for, with luck. I know people who have done it in much less, but if they write more than one book I suspect Dillard’s average will apply. A screenwriter I know said he was almost ruined for life by his first play, which poured out of him right after he got his MFA; it won an award and was produced in London; it’s never gone that way again. And a full-time writer of popular young adult novels told me that after she’d been writing for years a “gift” book just flowed out of her. She said it would have destroyed her if it had been her first book because the others aren’t ever that easy.

I could have shaved years off my process if I only knew then what I know now. I was fifty when I started, and although I’d been an “award-winning journalist,” as they say, and a magazine writer, gardening columnist, occasional essayist, book reviewer, and book publisher, I hadn’t written a book. It’s true that the only thing that teaches you how to write a book is to write one. Reading helps, but mostly the reading you do while you are writing. On the plus side, I had desire, a pretty good story, notes and ideas, and a strong voice. But I didn’t fully understand dramatic structures, especially classical three-act structure. Trying to figure out how to cut my monster by 200 pages, I read Philip Gerard’s useful Writing a Book that Makes a Difference, which indicates that after your second-act climax, a dramatic narrative should wrap up quickly because its audience is dying to find out what happens in the final act.

I happened to watch the 1953 western Shane that summer and saw it was a beautiful example of classical three-act structure. A mysterious stranger, Shane, played by Alan Ladd, gets hired by a sodbuster, and the bad guys, cattlemen, immediately show up to threaten them—first act climax. In the long second act, Shane befriends the sodbuster’s son and demonstrates his shooting prowess, and when the thugs kill a hapless farmer Shane pummels the sodbuster to prevent his trying to seek revenge, then heads off to fight them himself—boom, big second act climax. In the short third act, Shane rides into town for the showdown, kills the hired gunslinger, played with reptilian menance by Jack Palance, is wounded himself and fades into the hills, to die or to rise again. The climaxes flow from each other, and with a certain rhythm.

I saw that after my second act climax—I get badly injured on the farm—essentially I started the story over again and took my sweet time getting to that third act resolution. As if Shane, instead of going after the gunslinger who’d just murdered, had dawdled and diddled around on the farm, perfecting his plowing.

My next major lesson was realizing that I didn’t grasp the importance and the power of dramatized presentation—scenes—to convey experience. Like many a rookie writer, I leaned too hard on summary—and, let me tell you, scenes are infinitely more powerful, and much harder to write. Yep, show don’t tell. Also I wasn’t driving enough narrative threads through the entire book; I did that with the development of the protagonist, me, and with the book’s villain, but not with many other themes. I tended to write each chapter almost as a stand-alone essay. In Chapter Ten, say, I’d introduce a character and dispose of him in a big event, when the reader should have met him in Chapter Two. It’s amazing how readers love you for having them remember what you told them. They’ve seen a character in action, made their own judgment about him, and then, hey, here he is again! Like life. But now I sometimes feel I’m planting little timed-release land mines for readers, and that’s difficult when the first mentions feel thin, as if they’re just being done to set up a payoff. I sit and stare, trying to figure out what’s interesting in a first meeting or a minor event and where it might fit just so in the narrative chronology. Finally, if I can’t solve the puzzle, the subconscious will pitch in to help—after I’ve sufficiently suffered.

In addition to nailing down the balance between scene and summary, the memoirist must reflect. This has been another late and more subtle tweak, this differentiating between the writer now, at his desk, who’s telling the story and sometimes musing on it, versus the character in the story—the narrator’s earlier self—who doesn’t know what’s going to happen or even, sometimes, what is happening. Not wanting to kill narrative drama, I had too little reflection. Memoirs vary widely in their balance among scene, summary, and reflection, but especially in the amount and the nature of the writer’s reflecting upon meaning.

Five years. I tell myself that I must learn to love process because, like life, writing a book is process. I’d never have believed when I started that I could rework for four or five years what took me a year and a half to write. “That’s the fun part,” a writer said, implying ease. It’s true that the raw material is mostly now available, but I’ve found the last two rewrites hard work. Seemingly harder than initial creation—my ignorance was indeed bliss—but it’s getting difficult to remember. I’m more aware of narrative techniques, and more in command of them, but more challenged. Such strong, humble tools still twist in my clumsy hands. I now fully subscribe to the truism that writing is rewriting, though I think an experienced book writer could have done it in half the time or less, in three drafts.

But oh, my sentences! After two years they were better, more fluent and varied. Yet I’ve discovered that I desire them lyrical, every one poetic, and sustaining lyricism has been impossible for me in this long narrative. And to strain for it risks purple prose. So I feel at some level a plodding failure. Sometimes I go to an admired book just to see how plain most of the sentences are—not what I remembered at all—but then I notice their rhythm, their flow. Thankfully I’ve also learned how much I love making, and remaking, sentences. How much difference one or two sentences more, or less, can make in a paragraph. How you see that a passage wasn’t as clunky as you’d feared, but that another wasn’t as soaring. How in time you can hardly tell inspiration apart from perseverance.

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Filed under braids, threads, design, Dillard—Saint Annie, discovery, editing, film/photography, flow, memoir, MY LIFE, scene, structure, syntax, working method