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On Writing

Self-reflective writing deceives the writer more than the reader. A hazard, I freely admit, but one worth risking if only to generate dialogue, including a healthy chat with oneself. Writing about writing, I find, typically inspires writing-readers to write, and that is my self-assigned and immodest aim.

By training and trade, I am an educator and a writer. Below are rough and incomplete comments on my writing process. I set out to describe what I do as a writer, mostly as a form of therapy. (Self-reflection, bordering on self-deceit.) This process will not resonate with everyone, and perhaps with only very few. So be it. I ask that you receive this not as critically as you might read argument or invective, but as charitably as you might hear a confession. Without further ado,

Introduction

I cannot in good conscience write an essay about essays. How would one who needs to learn already know how to read the essay? One should not write about essays in essay form, except perhaps for an advanced audience. (But then who’s to judge advancement?)

An essay about how to write an essay is doomed. (Notice the structure of The Elements of Style.) Here I assume a connection between reading and writing that risks raising the ire of education theorists. How can one learn something from nothing? How can one learn to write from reading? I don’t imagine I’ll settle any points once and for all. I simply wish to proceed with the assumption that one doesn’t really know how to read an essay if one does not know how to write an essay. (“Really” hides the details of an argument I choose not to make. This is an assumption, and probably the weakest link in all that I’m about to say. One must start somewhere, and I choose this spot. Those who neglect noting such a choice risk smacking of pedantry.)

I won’t presume the skill I aim to teach.

Some lessons don’t lend themselves to essay. We don’t learn to play piano or tennis by argument. We learn those, in some sense, epigrammatically. Instructions take the form do this, and a student notices the movements distinguishing this from that, then tries to emulate those movements. Writing is much the same. Example: choose active verbs. Now, notice how I choose active verbs and how others choose active verbs. Try to choose your own verbs as others would. In this, we learn to follow rules, which we all must learn. (Warning: we learn the rules of writing, but writing is not a rule-based activity. Compare: we learn the rules of grammar, but in those rules, we learn nothing of composition. We learn the rules of composition, but in those rules, we learn nothing of conveyance.)

When I was a student, I resisted the familiar wisdom that one must know the rules before one breaks the rules. I thought: why not just break them now? As it turns out, Wisdom stands firm against the vanity of a neophyte a hundredth Wisdom’s age. It always will.

For this, I have chosen aphorisms, or remarks. Of course, the reader might imagine my remarks contain all he should know. But no. The arrangement of the remarks is at least as important as their content, and this is its own lesson in composition.

Especially early in a writing career, you discard most of your output. It simply isn’t any good. Though early in a writing career, you’ll think it’s good. “Self-Evaluation” is a hard-fought skill, and there’s no curriculum to teach it. (It cannot be taught in a term or probably over the course of a whole degree program. It simply takes too long.)

How many words are in a library? How long, all told, would it have taken to write those words? Now consider your project, on a shelf. An insignificant speck. Can you accept that? Do you know why you write? (Do you know why they wrote? Is this where they dreamed of being, on a shelf? (Lesson: Avoid magical thinking. Your best result is to be one in a million, on a shelf. Ignored.))

To write about writing is to do philosophy. To write (in general) can take a wide range of forms. To write about writing isn’t simply to write a how-to. There aren’t clear steps to take – contrary to presentations in some elementary school-texts. (It’s just not that easy, though it becomes easier over time.) It’s not a recipe, a list of ingredients and instructions to employ this and that technique in this and that order. Writing is not a science – not a law-governed activity.

As far as I can tell, and it’s been said too many times to be anything less than cliché, you just can’t teach this stuff. But too often when writers say that, their essays devolve into condescending self-awareness, which comes off as little more than youthful nihilism. I’m too old to conjure such snarky tricks. So, though I claim this can’t be taught, I still aim to say something substantial about what it’s like to learn to write.

“Youthful nihilism” and “condescending self-awareness.” It seems to me that meta-commentary on one’s own work is little more than a safety net. (Am I guilty of it here? Probably.) The safety net resembles the safety in self-deprecation – in pre-emptive insult. Who can say something worse about me than me? Self-deprecation is insulation, but it’s insulation at the expense of existence. You become your projected perception of yourself; you deny others the chance to judge. That is nihilism. It’s born of fear, of depression, of self-agnosticism. First lesson to a writer: learn to self-assert.

Learning to write is as easy as learning a lifestyle, which is to say, it’s not easy at all. Lifestyle comes by immersion. It’s beyond hard work, and it’s why so many implore young writers to write daily – not simply for the sake of practice, but to live the life.

Inquisitors and scientists live rich lives. Steinbeck was not a desk and office kind of writer. He explored and learned and involved himself in the world, then he scribed those experiences. Those experiences were his writing. My feeling is that too many young writers operate under the misapprehension that sitting and writing is all the daily practice they need. Stand up, get outside, and recognise that as writing.

Writing is not simply applying pen to paper. Writing is also finding space for words. Finding their location, their place, and learning how to apply them ferociously when appropriate – or delicately before their ferocity overwhelms the reader. One learns this balance outside of books and outside the process of scribing words. A balanced life leads to balanced writing.

I resist giving the common advice to read voraciously if you want to write well, as it’s equally as valuable to advise would-be cooks to simply eat as much as possible. There’s much more to a healthy writer’s diet than books.

I think of myself as a writer, a generalist with words. I have certain specialties of course. All writers do. But my vocation, generally, is assembling words, and not only into books. Many great authors had writing jobs that were not book jobs. Orwell and Twain reported. Vonnegut sold cars – and what a verbal occupation that is!

The point is simple: there are lots of ways to practice with words, which is what a writer needs to do in order to improve his craft. The sort of practice I advocate is interactive. Reading – solely – won’t get you that.

Too many writers write like books rather than like people. Stilted. Forced. They sound like people I would never choose to talk to, and why would I choose to read them? (A comment on “voice”.)

Your techniques for wrestling with the pace at which you generate ideas become your style.

As a starting writer, definitely write towards an audience, but be aware that you are your starting audience. Write for yourself. When you are satisfied, you are done. Then find readers. See who will put up with you. Who is willing to suffer this relationship? Do what you must to maintain a healthy relationship. Don’t talk down to your readers. Don’t cheat on them. But don’t let them walk all over you. If your readers are abusive, escape! Don’t let your audience imprison you.

Most people will never hear of you. Most will never read you twice. Savor and cultivate loyal readers. Leave them feeling something – good or shocked or dazzled. Leave your scent on their collars and they will inhale you all day long and dream of the next intimate encounter.

Readers are dreamers just like you. Connect with them. Give them their dreams through your words and they will value you for it and reward you with love. They might even leave a couple dollars on the nightstand.

How does one teach this? One does not. Learn the mechanics of it: grammar, structure, vocabulary, active verbs, choose interesting subjects and good punctuation, and so on. And then get it in your head that writers live. Get out from behind the desk and books and soak up the world in all its bloody detail and come back and scribe what you’ve found.

One must immediately wonder: how do you study a technique that deliberately resists codification? Well, I started by studying the formal structure of arguments. Philosophy, logic, and my specialty, critical thinking. Formalising is an important tool in my kit. It takes a lot of tools to shape a piece in such a way that it doesn’t resemble others – that it doesn’t feel derivative. Choose your tools and learn to use them well.

One danger of any writing about writing: pronouncement versus preference. How does one make this distinction clear, as one must.

Writing corresponds to personal moods. Like a method actor, a writer must enter a frame of mind. Part of a writer’s skill is to develop ways to do so.

I.     On Words

One develops word choice via reading, appreciating, conversing, singing, writing and sharing. Certain sounds and tones will seem inappropriate to the ear. E.g., the word “thus” takes a tone I never want to take, and, to my ear, interrupts the flow of a sentence. Why not rearrange with “so”, etc.

I write prose to be read aloud, and so I choose words that sound good (to me) in the ear. If you don’t like my writing, we likely don’t share sonic tastes. No harm. All composers have their detractors.

No word is off limits, but many won’t fit just right here or there. Developing a sense of fit is essential for good writing – not only grammar and definition, but sonic fit as well. This kind of detail means at least as much as definition – in fact, I’d rather hear the right sound than read the right word. (Definitions will change long before the sense of resolution and closure that accompany good cadence.)

Word choice develops within the context of what you write as well. No hard and fast rules will apply. Word choice is not an algorithm. The tone of your writing helps pick out just the right words as much as your sonic tastes. (Poe developed The Raven algorithmically, but don’t measure yourself that way. And don’t measure yourself by me either. The patient does not become the therapist by the time he’s cured.)

There is no perfect word. If language never changed, then there might be perfect words, though even under those conditions I’d be skeptical. Language changes with use; a writer’s use of a word alters a readers understanding of that word, which means words change as you read them. (Words change as you write them as well.) The point of writing is to elicit a change in the reader (what that change is varies from writer to writer and project to project.)

Readers are moving targets by virtue of being readers.

There is abstract writing as much as there is abstract painting. Words are representational – not concrete. They can be colour and shape all at once.

Don’t try to say everything. (Compare painting / portrait.) Leave words out – as many as you can. It signals the reader that you’ve left space, and moreover, that you need the reader as much as he needs you. There is nothing in the words but what readers put there, and so the writer must preserve a space for the reader.

Would you say this word in real life? If no, then don’t say it in print. Nobody will believe you. Worse: they will think you are putting on airs, and that will turn the reader against you. (We are all guilty.)

Are you narrating your story or telling your story? The one is detached, the other is intimate. Tell your story.

A few notes on words:

Envy is not jealousy.

“If” signals a condition followed by a consequence. “Whether” signals an option. “I don’t know whether I should ride my bicycle” should be preferred to “I don’t know if I should ride my bicycle.” (As a writer, this level of precision should thrill you rather than annoy you.)

“Comprised of” simply does not work, ever, under any circumstances, because of the meaning of the word “comprise”. “Composed of” works, because of the meaning of the word “compose”.

I might lose my will to live, but I never lose my shall to live. “Will” and “shall” differ.

II.     On Sentences

Aphoristic writing lulls readers into thinking they can extract remarks from their context, and that on their own they retain sense. Remarks are not extractable from their context. Flow matters.

Can a critic extract one remark and launch a critique entirely circumscribed by that remark? No. Good critique must be as sensitive to its context as that which it critiques. (Doesn’t that last sentence sound extractable? It isn’t.) In this sense, good critique stands as its own complete work – not dependent on that which it critiques, but contributing to a broader conversation.

(Compare and contrast lists. The ultimate in disavowal of context.)

The writer’s struggle is to linearize distinctly non-linear experiences. Characters and narrators realize things, and realization is the sort of thing that happens in a flash. Reading does not happen in a flash. That is the essential tension that separates reader from writer, and with which the writer must first grapple. For my part, I use punctuation and cadence to convey the pace of ideas and occurrences.

A sentence is the smallest linguistic unit with cadence. Exploit this.

If you write a line and you think to yourself: that’s a standout line, then cross it out. Stories stand out, not lines. Don’t force your reader. Let the story do the work. There will be great lines in it, but their greatness is not up to you.

Length of sentence can convey complexity of a thought. A long sentence is a complex thought that happens in a flash. Short sentences develop a rhythm and can suggest quiet between thoughts.

Variety is key.

“Sentences express singular thoughts.” But what counts as a singular thought varies widely from person to person and from literature to literature. Often, whole arcs occur to a writer in a flash — is that a singular thought? From the perspective of the writer, yes. But surely the writer cannot express an entire arc in a sentence; that is not the point of a sentence.

Sometimes sentences break complex thoughts into manageable chunks. If writing were algorithmic, then we could derive well-formed expressions of the concept of a chunk, for example. (Some try such things without first wondering about the extent to which writing might be algorithmic; it is not. Full stop.) Sometimes the most manageable chunk, or the size of the unit that does the best justice to the thought, will be quite large. Sometimes small. Your task as writer is to develop a feeling for your own thought patterns and how best to express them publicly. (This is why conversation is equally as valuable as reading, when it comes to training as a writer.)

Singular thoughts combine to complex thoughts, which advance a story (or argument, or narrative.)

Adjectives interrupt sentences.

A “hook” is a sentence. Sometimes your hook might be a series of sentences, sometimes a whole paragraph, but for the purposes of describing a hook, treat it as a single sentence.

Hook your reader with specifics, activity, drama. A first sentence does not set a scene; rather the writer builds a scene around the first sentence. I imagine staring in the middle of things, though not in the middle of the story, as expressed by “in medias res.” I imagine starting in the middle of a specific action or description, then build around that initial impression.

Your first sentence is your inspiration. Treat it accordingly.

III.     On Paragraphs

All of the remarks here are paragraphs. This is how I construct paragraphs.

Paragraphs express complex thoughts. Complex thoughts advance a story (or argument, or narrative.) For me, editing often takes the form of arranging paragraphs. I arrange my thoughts, so to speak. The arrangement should give the thoughts a flow, a feeling, a reason to work together.

Paragraphs should feel complete.

IV.     On Structure

A section, scene, or chapter should start with a hook and end in a resolution. By “resolution” I do not necessarily mean resolution of a conflict. Choruses and overtures resolve. Good writing will follow similar patterns. Importantly: the start and the finish should be related, or connected in some way.

In some genres, such as mystery or suspense, a scene ends at the edge of a cliff. Use this only when appropriate. Do not overuse any technique.

These notes are reminders to myself. They are reminders I can use. As I write them, I wonder: why make them public? But why make any writing public, for that matter.

A section might be a collection of scenes. Many of my essays take triptych form, where I present related scenes adjacent to one another. Their relationship is often unstated, but often suggested by the essay’s title.

(This is not a pronouncement. This is a description of a structural technique.)

V.     On Writing

The act of writing is an act of creation combined with an act of affirmation.

As a writer, my primary motivation is structure. Structure is as much storytelling as it is its own story.

Often my essays take a triptych form, and not usually on purpose. I write episodes, then arrange those episodes into stories or arguments or scenes. The arrangement – the structure – is my art. My words decorate the frame, and that is another art form in itself. But I pride myself on structure, first and foremost.

Yet I am not rigid. I do not have plans or formulae. I open myself to influences, such as sculpture and painting and music and dress, and I let them shape my impressions – restructure them if you will – then I transcribe those impressions in that shape and step back and regard their beauty and their flaws. I do not aim for beauty. I am for completion, for closure, for resolution.

Readers’ temptations are often to find sources and interpretations. “Oh, this is like _____.” Or “I’ve read a similar piece by _____.” Or “The tone reminds me of the story _____.” Often my work will be compared to something I’ve not read – especially because my influences are primarily philosophy and punk rock. Most of my work blends something like Wittgenstein with something like Motörhead. I get my tone from Twain, E. B. White, and Cormac McCarthy – especially their honesty. I don’t care for snark and bite; I find them terribly unrefined, over-simplified, safe. I prefer prose with an edge. Bold. Risky. Confident.

There’s safety in familiar structures, and I reckon that’s why so many readers try to read familiar structures into all they read. Art viewers are guilty of the same. This is why revolution is so damned difficult. Even when a structure is fresh, it’ll be homogenised into common terms and into the familiar. To penetrate the text, in a critic’s eyes, is to defeat it – to defeat the writer at his own game – to occupy a superior position. And too many readers read competitively. Too many readers haven’t the confidence to allow a writer to be great. (Philosophers are actually trained to be this way. It is a shame.)

If you forget that you are reading, then I have succeeded. You will have been transported beyond the medium. The writing, and hence the writer, will have been rendered transparent. He will have disappeared.

At the same time, the purpose of my rhetorical flourish is to break back into the reader’s consciousness. In this way, my writings oscillate between visible and invisible, and my readers play the roles of actor and narrator, who converge and diverge in a constant cycle. To me, that’s good storytelling. (And of course I think it’s “good.” That’s why I do it.)

Everything is a work in progress. The writer must recognise when to stop trying to perfect his words. Good sentences are not themselves perfect; they suggest perfection; perfection is in the reader’s voice, not the writer’s.

VI.     On Technique

Epigrammatic writing captures the rewriting that characterises writing. (Writing is re-writing.)

When do you compose? Always. Composition becomes a natural act, like shifting gears in a car. That’s what practice gets you – effortlessness in this or that area, so that you can pay attention to other areas. (Effort might shift, but there is always effort.)

One stops to transcribe; thinking is writing.

Pen to paper is as close to the thought as you can get, because of the physicality of the act. Typing handwritten writing is transcription.

(Can one write without the physical act? Can one type directly and call that writing? It cannot produce the same results, for the words are mediated differently.)

Handwriting is a kind of filtering or processing. What happens without the filter?

Typing into a computer differs from typing on paper with a typewriter. The difference is commitment – commitment in your head before you let the idea out.

The physical act of writing guides acts of composition. The medium you choose to record your words affects the results. To write this way is to compose this way. To write this other way is to compose this other way.

In writing, there’s a lot of sitting still, because that’s one way we think.

In writing, there’s a lot of moving around, because that’s one way we think.

(Why hand write those last two sentences? Isn’t it a waste of time? Ah, but if productivity and efficiency seem paramount to good writing, the game is already lost.)

Writing is a horribly inefficient process. Don’t try to change that fact.

On building confidence as a writer: How does one build confidence in any activity? Positive evaluations, meeting goals (do you have writing goals?), enjoying one’s own work.

Positive evaluations are big. You need to find just the right readers – themselves confident enough to criticise but charitable enough to find the good. And there’s always good. (Finding the good is often more difficult than finding the bad.)

(Editing is far more than a grammatical exercise. Find an editor who understands this (and note, there are many different kinds of editors.))

Writing is thinking, and thinking is more than deduction and criticism. Thinking is as much creating and construction. So to think and write better, one needs strategies to develop creation and construction skills.

But beware of deification of structure and logic and process. Beware of the words “the creative process” – as if there’s one. As if a singular description might capture the ever-shifting dynamic of improvement. (Strategies for improving change as one improves.)

Can you describe your style of dress? If no, why not? Are you not a character worthy of competent description? (A comment on confidence.)

Exercise: describe yourself as you would describe a character in a story. Have yourself enter a scene, and make the scene relevant to who you are. (Can you answer “who are you”? You should be able to, more competently than any other character. NB: know thyself.)

I shouldn’t need to give exercises. If you can’t find exercises in the narrative, then you’re not prepared to undertake them anyway. (A harsh comment.)

The writer is one part of a team. He needs a reader (audience) (because he is a performer); he needs an editor (a conscience) (because he cannot see all his own actions in the world.) He needs a world, because that is the source of his words, ideas, passions. (There is no private language.)

Writing is a projection of the world (as self) into the world. That is to say, writing is art – too often underestimated by its audience, but overestimated by its creator.

There is no writing in isolation, which is why I cannot grasp why so many try to lock themselves away to write. If a crowded room distracts you from your own thoughts, best to strengthen those thoughts before you bother trying to write. The writer is a thinker, first and foremost.

The writer needs to know himself and in so knowing must learn how many selves are out there in the world. For as much effort as the writer puts in, everyone else can do the same, and the sum of that effort is unfathomably big. Your part is very very very small.

This lesson in modesty cannot be underestimated, and cannot be taken lightly.

Use your time wisely and engage with words in many forms – actors, singers, preachers, and teachers. Not just writers. (If I were to name my three biggest influences: Motörhead, Sergio Leone, and Cormac McCarthy. They work together very well, and though they might seem utterly unlike anything I produce, their iconoclasm, street smarts, and punk rock ethos underlie all I do. They embrace their own styles without apology, and with tremendous confidence.)

Get a good pen – not expensive, necessarily. But one that suits you. Mine is the Sharpie Fine Point. It’s ideal for my hands and for the texture I enjoy while adding ink to paper. Get a good notebook too. Mine: spiral bound so it can fold back on itself, poly cover because it’s going to get banged around pretty good, always black and especially the spiral because colours distract me peripherally. You must stick to the page when you write.

Do not ever under any circumstances type directly into a computer at a desk in a room and dare to call that “writing.” The environment and the activity are too sterile. Let the world guide you. Trust me: it will show.

Eschew productivity. If you’re worried about how much you produce, you’re doomed. The flip side of this rule: embrace patience.

“Practice” amounts to much more than sitting and writing, and this simple fact is the origin of so much “writer’s block.” Why can’t I sit down at my desk and write genius ideas? Am I blocked? No! If you sit to write, you’re doing it wrong.

Choosing interesting topics is choosing interesting locations in which to engage interesting people on their own terms and their own turf. When you sit and scribe, words should flow from your pen with vigor, with immediacy – nigh desperation. Style develops through such actions. (One can spot a sit and type-writer an hour away. Forced. Rambling. Afraid to delete – afraid that another sentence might not be forthcoming and it was so damned hard to get this one out!)

The greatest writers write like people and assemble writings into books. Too many writers write like books and try to edit the books into people. That’s backwards. Edit your life and your words will follow. Doing so also gets you to face your fears: you must stop hiding before you start writing.

Let go of false modesty. You’re an artist for a reason. Embrace that reason. That reason is you think you’re good.

It’s a mistake as a reader and as a writer to think you can only take out of a sentence what’s put in. Nothing can be entirely as expected or designed, except by God, and he hasn’t published a book in a good long time.

Sure, some writing – maybe even most writing – goes no deeper than the surface. Some writers might even subversively intend this, but intention isn’t a wholly personal thing. Intention and interaction are shades of the same color, and what does one interact with if not the world?

Write a scene. Then, write about your written scene. Do a short book report on your written scene. In so doing, you will discover what you didn’t know you wrote. Now, replace most of that scene with a sentence or two of realisation from that book report. (This is how to make your writing more concise, and how to add morals to your stories without coming off as heavy-handed.)

If it’s all narration, it’s pedantic. If it’s all action, it’s journalistic. When in doubt, err on the side of action. That is, trust your reader – and remember! You are your first reader; trust yourself.

To exist between narration and action is to be an outsider. Saul Bellow says: “To be modern is to be mobile, forever en route, with few local attachments anywhere, cosmopolitan, not particularly disturbed to be an outsider in temporary quarters.” This is the writer. Inside the action for a time, then outside to scribe the experience – to re-express what’s gone on and to suggest what’s yet to come. No wonder writers find comfort with one another above all others – if only they’d let go of suspicion and guarded jealousy from time to time.