Tag Archives: Donald M. Murray

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

Make a scene

The big shocker this winter: making scenes is hard. At least it’s a lot more work to give readers an experience than to pound out summary. The payoff’s obvious—the reader gets to immerse in another life—and scenes may even help me cut swaths of fat exposition from my memoir. All this is clarifying, and my writing feels more like conscious craft these days. Always in this latest revision, I’m trying to bring more showing to the foreground and less recapping. Scenes are defined by action—something’s happening before our eyes—and usually include dialogue, a strong point of view, and are highly visual.

Donald M. Murray has a great example of the power of visual details in The Craft of Revision, Fifth Edition:


A parent always wants to protect a child and never, no matter how irrational it is, stops feeling guilty if a child is killed or dies from an illness, feeling there must have been something the parent could have done.



Remember me not

when I was kept from you

in the waiting room, not

when I sat in an office signing

your dying, not

when I pushed you on the swing

higher than you had ever flown

and you looked back as I grew small,

certain I would always be able

to save you.

In Murray’s poem about his daughter’s death, in a flashback we see what he saw—her glance back—that revealed her confidence in him. We understand, without being told, that the memory, surely always poignant, now haunts him because he let her down. He couldn’t save her. Since we see this, we understand his emotions, his feeling of loss and guilt—even that he betrayed her trust. That such a short, spare piece can stir empathy and convey so much is astonishing.

Perhaps in a longer scene, and surely in a narrative made of scenes, the writer might move readers to feel an emotion as well as to empathize. Just explaining won’t hack it, because the two techniques trigger completely different areas of the brain, explains Jordan E. Rosenfeld in Make a Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story one Scene at a Time. Visual scenes of unfolding action stimulate the brain’s visual cortex—our mind’s eye—and allow readers to participate. In contrast, exposition affects the inner ear. “While the eye allows the reader to become emotionally involved, and activates the heart and the viscera, the inner ear seems to be linked more closely to the function of sound,” writes Rosenfeld. Voice is important, she allows, but explaining can make readers feel bored, like they’re “sitting passively by and receiving a lecture.”

Here’s part of a scene from Alice Munro’s story “Royal Beatings”:

“All right,” he says, meaning that’s enough, more than enough, this part is over, things can proceed. He starts to loosen his belt.

Flo has stopped anyway. She has the same difficulty Rose does, a difficulty in believing that what you know must happen really will happen, then there comes a time when you can’t draw back. . . .

At the first or maybe the second crack of pain, she draws back. She will not accept it. She runs around the room, she tries to get to the door. Her father blocks her off. Not an ounce of courage, or of stoicism in her, it would seem. She runs, she screams, she implores. Her father is after her, cracking the belt at her when he can, then abandoning it and using his hands. Bang over the ear, bang over the other ear. Back and forth, her head ringing. Bang in the face. Up against the wall and bang in the face. He shakes her and hits her against the wall, he kicks her legs. She is incoherent, insane, shrieking: Forgive me, Oh please, forgive me! Not yet, he throws her down.

Saying “My father beat me” lets us know a fact but doesn’t help us imagine the experience. With our intellects, we can understand only the tip of the iceberg. So making scenes is the technique of choice when the writer is asking for readers’ emotional understanding. Here’s a scene from near the end of Bernard Cooper’s memoir essay “Winner Take Nothing”:

After loading the boxes into my car, I came back inside the kitchen to say goodbye. “I have something for you,” my father said. He beamed at me and stepped aside. Atop the counter, a pink bakery box yawned open to reveal an enormous cake, its circumference studded with ripe strawberries. Slivered almonds, toasted gold, had been evenly pressed into a mortar of white frosting, every spare surface dotted with florets. In the center was written, in goopy blue script, Papa loves Bernard. For a second, I thought there’d been some mistake. I’d never called my father Papa. Dad, yes. Pop, perhaps. The nickname didn’t mesh with the life I knew. If the years of silence between us had an inverse, that cloying, layered cake was it.

Back to Donald M. Murray, who says in Crafting a Life in Essay, Story, Poem that the light went on for him about this fundamental building block when someone told him, supposedly quoting Joseph Conrad, to write narrative in “scenes of confrontation.” In the above example, conflict suffuses Cooper’s scene.

Lest we get too simplistic about the components of scene, Alice LaPlante observes in her excellent textbook The Making of a Story that all scenes blend telling and showing. There’s much more telling than is recognized, she says, because technically only three things constitute showing: dialogue; actions; and basic objective descriptions of objects or settings that a reader would see if he were there. She’s a little strict about this, but is making a point to strike at the sanctimony of those who advocate pure scene-by-scene construction. The depiction of viewpoint, so basic to voice and usually intrinsic to scene, is telling.

Writers fall somewhere on a continuum of showing vs. telling, their particular mix defining their style, says LaPlante, who prints a scene from Jane Smiley’s novel A Thousand Acres that’s mostly shown; another passage from Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News leans more heavily on relaying point of view; and the opening scene of Flannery O’Connor’s famous story “Everything that Rises Must Converge” uses telling and showing equally for rich texture and satisfying point-of-view lines like, “Everything that gave her pleasure was small and depressed him.”

But try to show the important stuff, LaPlante emphasizes. Use exposition (she calls it narration) to fill gaps (which, she shows, arise constantly within scenes) and to set up a scene. “Ideally,” she writes, “these two elements of writing are organically intertwined.” Recognize that “often we can tell something more efficiently, elegantly, beautifully, or subtly” than by dramatizing it.

So this matter is complex, but the writer’s gut seems a good guide. The important lesson I’ve taken is to use scenes of unfolding experience involving action and conflict whenever possible, whatever their mix of two very different modes of writing. Yeah, it’s basically the timeless advice “Show, don’t tell,” if tell isn’t taken too literally.

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Filed under emotion, memoir, scene

Revise, then polish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Why narrative is necessary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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