V Is for Voice

There’s a lot of gobbledygook out there about “voice.” Novice writers in particular worry about finding their voice, and about not finding it, and about not knowing whether they’ve found it or not.

Some copyeditors worry about interfering with the author’s voice, often without being too clear on what an author’s voice is, what a particular author’s voice sounds like, and when it’s OK to mess with it.

I get nervous when editors talk about “preserving the author’s voice.” There’s often a condescending tinge to it, as if “preserving the author’s voice” means putting up with sloppy writing. It doesn’t. It does, however, require a certain flexibility on the editor’s part. It may mean bending “rules” that aren’t rules at all, like “never split an infinitive” or putting a comma where the Chicago Manual of Style says you don’t need one.

Is there a voice in there?

Time to cut through the obfuscation and mystification. Your writer’s voice isn’t something you find, like the prize at the end of a treasure hunt or the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It’s something you develop on the journey.

If you’re writing in English, you start with pretty much the same rules and conventions as everybody else. The way you use, abuse, ignore, and stretch those rules and conventions will be influenced by the things you choose to write about, the audience(s) you’re writing for, your traveling companions, the places you pass through and sojourn in, and so on and on.

Think about it: Our speaking voices are flexible. We can whisper or we can shout. The foul-mouthed among us can clean up our language when we’re in polite company or interviewing for a job. Our writing voices can be likewise.

In some kinds of writing, the writer’s individual voice takes a back seat. News reporting, technical writing, scientific writing, the writing in textbooks and legal documents: these don’t generally show much personality. They’re not supposed to. They’re supposed to communicate clearly and, often, concisely. The writers write and the editors edit with this in mind. It takes tremendous skill to do this well.

The late Travvy had no trouble finding his voice. Here he’s talking to a tractor.

Note, however, that some lawyers and academics write novels, journalists write memoirs, business people write poetry, and scientists write essays for the popular press. The novels don’t sound like legal briefs, the memoirs don’t sound like front-page news stories, the poems don’t sound like annual reports, and the newspaper op-eds don’t sound like scientific papers, even though they’re written by the same person.

Even though the writers are almost certainly applying the skills they’ve developed in one milieu to the writing they’re doing in another.

These writers have flexible voices that can be adapted to different kinds of writing. Flexibility is especially important for fiction writers and writers of “creative nonfiction” — which seems to mean by definition nonfiction that encourages a distinctive authorial voice. Characters speak in different voices, and all those voices come out of the writer’s head.

If you write a lot, you will develop your own style. All the choices you make — about words, sentence structure, punctuation, and paragraphs, and especially about how to put them together — become your style, your voice. If you keep writing — and reading! don’t forget reading! — it’ll evolve, depending on what you’re writing about. Trust me on this. It will happen.

U Is for Undo

My possibilities for U didn’t inspire me at all — usage? uniformity? — then this morning while Tam Lin and I were out walking, “undo” popped into my head. (This is why W is going to be for Walking. Coming up soon! Watch this space.)

My next thought was “Doesn’t undo begin with Z?”

Muwahahaha. If you’re a Windows user who writes and/or edits for a living, you are almost certainly on a first-name basis with CTRL+Z, the keyboard command that will undo most of the awful things you just did. No, it will not bring back the document you accidentally trashed before you’d saved it, but after you’ve done that once, you’ll probably remember to name and save new files as soon as you create them, and tell your PC to automatically back up your work at regular intervals.

If you decide that the awful thing you just undid isn’t so awful after all, CTRL+Y will bring it back. I don’t use CTRL+Y nearly as often as I use CTRL+Z. That probably says more about me than I want generally known, but there it is.

Aside for Mac users: The Mac equivalent is COMMAND+Z. To undo your undo, it’s COMMAND+SHIFT+Z. I can’t verify this at home, but you can if you’ve got a Mac.

CTRL+Z is so much easier than its analog predecessors: erasers, Wite-Out, correction tape, etc. With those methods, undoing your undo was pretty much out of the question. And don’t get me started on correcting a master stencil in the heyday of mimeograph. In case you’re wondering why I wax rhapsodic about CTRL+Z.

If you use Track Changes — as I do when I’m editing, all the time, but not so often when I’m writing — it’s easy to flip back and forth between the original version and whatever you did to it. Even so, CTRL+Z saves my butt on a regular basis.

But really, people, this isn’t just about a handy keyboard shortcut. It’s a reminder that — at least until something’s published, and maybe even then — you can change it, rethink it, revise it.

CTRL+Z is a reminder that you’ve always got an escape hatch, a safety net. Feel free to take risks. Don’t worry about looking stupid to yourself 10 minutes later. You can always undo it.

And if you decide you had it right the first time, you can undo your undo.

Tam waits for me to get done with whatever I’m doing.

T Is for Theater

From the mid-1980s to the end of the ’90s I was variously involved in local theater, as stage manager, actor, and lead theater reviewer for one of the two local weeklies. (No, I never reviewed a show I was involved in.) What I learned during those years continues to affect my writing to this day. Here are some of the ways.

Of all the things I’ve ever written, one of my most favorites is a monologue: “The Assistant Stage Manager Addresses Her Broom After a Performance of Macbeth.” Guess where that came from? It’s all in iambic pentameter, which isn’t all that hard to write when you’re living with Shakespeare day in, day out. I loved performing it and did so “off book,” meaning from memory, without a script. (See “R Is for Readings” for more about giving readings.)

During that period I also wrote three one-act plays, all of which were produced at least once. Spend enough time around theater and it may become one of the languages you speak. I haven’t attempted any plays since, in part because the once-vital local theater scene dwindled and in part because I went on to other things. But my theater experience continues to affect how I write.

Me (right) in rehearsal, spring 1994, Vineyard Playhouse

When writing fiction, I often feel as though I’m watching the scene play out onstage. Early in a play’s rehearsal period, one of the stage manager’s most important jobs is to record the director’s instructions to the actors in what becomes the prompt script. This includes not only the entire text of dialogue and stage directions but how the actors move on the stage and all the light, sound, and music cues. For the rest of the rehearsal period it’s the ultimate arbiter of what cast and crew are supposed to be doing — until the director makes changes, of course.

How the actors move onstage is called blocking — and that’s exactly what I often do when writing a scene. I’m both the director giving directions and the stage manager writing it all down. My characters are my actors. I watch them, prompt them, and sometimes even become them. I also listen to them, because often they tell me what I need to know.

One benefit of this is that it keeps my attention on what my characters are doing, and how they look doing it, as well as what they are saying. In my writers’ group, a common comment when dialogue goes on too long uninterrupted is “More body language!” Characters reveal themselves in what they do and how they move as well as what they say.

What they say (or don’t say) is crucial too, of course, and theater is an ongoing master class in dialogue. Sometimes a reader will complain that a stretch of dialogue goes on too long. To this I respond that full-length plays are virtually all dialogue. We can be riveted for two hours by people talking. As I wrote some years ago in a blog post “Monologue About Dialogue,” the challenge is to create dialogue that’s not only realistic but riveting — “dialogue that develops characters, moves the plot along, and gives the reader a break from one narrative paragraph after another.” You can learn plenty about this from both reading plays and watching them performed.

Sometimes dialogue does go on too long. Theater experience comes in handy here too. Imagine the dialogue being played out onstage. Would you be riveted, or would you start fidgeting, flip through your program, or even think of walking out? Novelist-screenwriter Thomas McGuane called the lengthy, un-riveting sort of writing “dead air,” and he drew on theater and his screenwriting experience to get the point across: “After you’ve written screenplays for a while, you’re not as willing to leave these warm-ups in there, those pencil sharpenings and refillings of the whiskey glasses and those sorts of trivialities. You’re more conscious of dead time. Playwrights are even tougher on themselves in this regard. Twenty mediocre pages hardly hurt even a short novel but ten dead minutes will insure that a play won’t get out of New Haven.”

A poet I once workshopped with called this dead time “soft ice”: it doesn’t bear weight. You’ll probably have plenty of dead air and soft ice in your early drafts. In revising, you recognize it and either punch it up or throw it out.

Finally, one more lesson from my involvement in community theater: Less is (often) more. Local actors in the late 20th century were lucky to have as a dialect and accents coach the late Dr. Louise Gurren, a retired professor of linguistics who’d been an avid theater buff all her life. When we actors were cast as a character who was southern or English or Russian or Australian, we went to her to learn how to sound the part. Her method went like this: First she’d teach the accent as authentically as possible. Once we had that down, she’d point out that if we spoke that way, the audience would have a hard time understanding what we were saying. So she’d then teach us to “back off” enough so that we sounded authentic but were still comprehensible to a general audience.

Excruciating accuracy is a must if you’re conducting an experiment or reporting a news story, but on the stage and in fiction it can get in the way. Conveying a character’s accent, dialect, or use of slang can become parody if overdone, and parody can come across as insulting. So try taking Dr. Gurren’s advice: write as authentically as possible the first time around, then back off enough that the accent, dialect, or slang doesn’t call attention to itself.

S Is for Style

Over the years of working with English as an editor and writer I’ve learned to be careful of the words “right” and “wrong.” When asked if something is right or not, I often begin with “It depends” — on your intended audience, on context, on which side of “the pond” (aka the Atlantic Ocean) you’re on, and so on.

We talk about the “rules of grammar” as if they’re hard, fast, and uncompromising, but they aren’t. Even the basic ones have their exceptions. Take “subject-verb agreement.” The subject should always agree with its verb in number, right? Most of the time, yes, but some nouns can be singular or plural depending on how they’re being used. Some examples: couple and family take a singular verb when referring to the unit, but a plural verb when its members are being emphasized.

The same principle applies to majority and many other words denoting groups of persons, places, or things: is it referring to the group as a whole or to its constituent parts? (Tip: Is it preceded by the definite article the or the indefinite a(n)?

  • The majority has voted to replace the bridge.
  • A majority (of participants or whatever) are coming to the party.
Arbiters of style, in hardcopy

Which brings me around to style. Style is far more flexible than grammar, and for this very reason publications, publishers, and academic disciplines adopt distinctive styles. These are often based on one of the major style guides. Most U.S. publishers use the Chicago Manual of Style, often with their own additions and exceptions. Most U.S. newspapers and periodicals start with the AP Stylebook. (AP stands for Associated Press, a nonprofit news agency that dates back to the mid-19th century.) Other common styles include MLA (Modern Language Association), which is especially popular in the humanities, and APA (American Psychological Association), widely used in the social sciences.

I’m on a first-name basis with Chicago, having been using it since 1979, and I have a nodding acquaintance with AP. A significant difference between the two is in how they handle numbers. Chicago generally spells out numbers through one hundred. AP spells out one through nine but uses figures for 10 and up. Another is in the use of italics: Chicago employs them in a variety of ways, notably for titles of books, films, and other full-length works. AP style doesn’t use them at all. Before the digital age, italics couldn’t be transmitted “over the wires,” so AP style developed without them (and without boldface, for the same reason).

Unsurprisingly, Chicago, MLA, and APA styles devote a lot of attention to citations. All three are widely used by academics, whose writing is based on previously published work or unpublished work that can be found in manuscript collections. (Chicago began as the style guide of the University of Chicago Press. Though it’s widely used by trade publishers and even fiction writers, its scholarly origins are obvious in the chapters devoted to quotations and citation style.)

It’s no surprise either that AP devotes virtually no attention to footnotes, endnotes, and bibliographies. Reporters may quote from public documents, but their primary sources are interviews and public statements. They may have recorded backup, or they may rely on notes scribbled the old way in a notebook.

So what does this mean to you? The top two lessons I’ve learned over the years as a writer and editor are (1) right and wrong, correct and incorrect, are shiftier than one learns in school, and (2) nevertheless, rules and conventions are important. The better you know them, the more command you’ll have over your writing — which is a big plus when you decide to stretch, bend, or break them.

For U.S. writers of general nonfiction, creative nonfiction (e.g., memoir), and fiction, the Chicago Manual of Style is a good place to start. No, you don’t need to read it straight through. (I never have, and there are a couple of chapters that I’ve rarely ever looked at.) The further you get from scholarly nonfiction, the more flexible you should be about applying its recommendations. As I keep saying, these are guidelines, not godlines.

When I’m working, I usually have three dictionaries — Merriam-Webster’s, American Heritage, and Oxford/UK — open in my browser, along with the Chicago Manual of Style. I subscribe to the AP Stylebook and consult it from time to time. This reminds me continually that even “the authorities” differ. For colloquialisms and current slang, Google is only a click away.

I just realized that I haven’t said a thing about style sheets. Fortunately I wrote about them at some length a few years ago: “What’s a Style Sheet?” Short version: A style sheet is for keeping track of all the style choices one makes when copyediting a manuscript. It includes general choices about the styling of, e.g., numbers and the use of quote marks and italics. It also includes words, dozens of words: unusual words, words that aren’t in the dictionary, words for which there is more than one spelling. In biographies and history books, the list of personal names might be as long as the word list. When I turn in the completed copyediting job, my style sheet goes with it. When I receive a proofreading job, I get the copyeditor’s style sheet too.

For writers, keeping a style sheet is a handy way to maintain consistency, especially in a novel or other book-length work. It can also remind you to check the spelling of names and places. Publishers don’t encourage authors to submit style sheets with their manuscripts, but I wish they did.

R Is for Reading(s)

When I blogged A to Z in 2017, R was for Readers. That’s worth a look if you’ve got an extra moment. I was reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s Words Are My Matter at the time. The two lines I quoted from her are worth repeating (virtually everything Le Guin wrote is worth repeating, and rereading):

“A story or poem may reveal truths to me as I write it. I don’t put them there. I find them in the story as I work.”

After comparing “well-made writing” to a “well-made clay pot,” which people put to different uses, and into which they put different things: “What my reader gets out of my pot is what she needs, and she knows her needs better than I do.”

Le Guin sees readers as active participants in what a work means. It differs from person to person, and it definitely differs over time. I’m currently taking an online seminar on William Faulkner, a writer who’s intimidated the hell out of me for over four decades, even though he died in 1962, when I was 11 years old and had never heard of him. We just finished three sessions on The Sound and the Fury, published in 1929. What I take out of that novel now is not what I would have taken out of it when I was in college, if I’d managed to get through it, which I didn’t.

Anyway, back to “active participants.” You’ll never meet the overwhelming majority of people who read your published work. Hell, William Faulkner was long dead before I was ready to read his work, and Shakespeare was much, much longer dead before he became required reading for high school students.

Musicians and theater actors, on the other hand, regularly get to have contact with their audiences. If they perform in a stadium or a huge theater, the contact won’t be one-on-one, but they’ll still get to feel how the audience is responding to what they do. If it’s in a much smaller venue, like a coffeehouse, audience members and performers may get to meet face to face after the show.

Poets and writers can have this experience too. In the age of Covid-19, face-to-face opportunities are almost non-existent, but we had them before, and they will come back. Public libraries often host readings by local writers. If you’re lucky enough to have a coffeehouse or similar venue nearby, check them out. They may already have a spoken-word series or be willing to start one.

If no public space is available, how about a house reading? Musicians of the sort who don’t require massive equipment do house concerts: these take place in private homes with living rooms large enough to accommodate 20 or 30 people (when social distancing is not required). The seating is cozy and not always on chairs.

How do you get people to come? If the venue is small, like your or a friend’s living room, word-of-mouth is the best way to start: friends, friends of friends, family members, fellow writers . . . A double bill with a writer friend or a musician will greatly increase, maybe even double, your circle of possible attendees.

Combining a reading with a potluck can make a reading more enticing to those who’ve never been to a reading or who have had less-than-wonderful experiences at the ones they’ve attended. I first read my work in public at a potluck-reading organized by the writers’ group I was part of at the time. The place was packed, and it was a great experience for all, especially those of us who’d never read in public before.

While Covid is still with us, you might be able to pull off a Zoom reading.

Unfortunately, if you’ve been to many readings yourself, you’ve probably been to some awful ones. What makes a reading awful? The two biggest reasons:

  • The reader(s) go on much too long.
  • The reader(s) are mediocre performers.

The first problem is easy to fix: Don’t go on too long. Forty-five minutes is plenty long enough for a set of prose or poetry if the writer or poet has some experience as a performer. No more than two sets in an evening, please, and make sure there’s a 15- or 20-minute intermission between them. If there are several readers on the program, 10 minutes max is a good guideline. If there’s a more experienced and/or better-known reader involved, that person can have a full set, with the other (probably earlier) set divvied up among three or four writers.

This segues neatly into how not to be a mediocre performer:

  • Time your reading. With practice you’ll be able to guesstimate how long it takes you to read, say, a page of prose, but a guesstimate is no substitute for actual timing.
  • Note the word practice. Musicians, dancers, and other performers know they have to practice. Plenty of writers don’t get this. Performing — which is to say communicating to an audience — isn’t the same as writing. Some writers are natural performers. Others aren’t. Whether you are or not — practice. Draft a friend or two to give you feedback: too fast? too slow? fuzzy enunciation? etc.
  • Come to your piece the way an actor comes to a script: as if someone else wrote it. A theater director told me this long ago, and it may be the most important advice I ever got. Memorizing lines for a play, an actor says them over and over and over again. She isn’t just imprinting them in memory; she’s trying out different ways of saying them, different phrasing, different tones, different emphases. By the way, I generally recommend not memorizing whatever you’re going to read, not unless you’ve got some performing experience under your belt. You do, however, want to know your work well enough that you don’t have to keep your eyes glued to the printed page or the laptop screen.

You’ll probably find that giving readings affects your writing. You’ll start writing with your ear as well as your eye; you may develop the habit (if you haven’t already) of reading everything you write aloud. Maybe it’ll whet your appetite for theater: you may want to experiment with staging, or start writing monologues or other pieces that are meant to be performed, and not just by you. In that case, go ahead and memorize your work so you can perform unencumbered by your “script.”

 

Q Is for Quotes

“Quotes” is short for either “quotations” or “quotation marks.” They are related, so we’ll deal with both of them here. While we’re at it, we might say a few things about dialogue, even though it begins with d, not q.

So: quotations. A quotation consists of words — one word, a few words, or many words — from a source other than you. For writers of academic nonfiction, these sources are often published or unpublished written works. The source for each quote has to be noted, in fairly excruciating detail, in a footnote or endnote. Then the works and manuscript collections (etc.) consulted must be listed in a bibliography or reference list. (Aside: These are not the same thing, but we’re not going into the differences here. If you’re interested, leave a comment or consult the Chicago Manual of Style.)

Working journalists — reporters on the ground — also rely on quotations from other sources, but their sources are often living breathing real people. These days they may be able to record what their sources say, but this is not always possible. In the not-too-distant past it was almost never possible. Reporters scribbled notes in their notebooks and then, often under deadline pressure, reconstructed their notes into a quote that was then attributed to a source. (You begin to understand one reason why sources often choose to be quoted “off the record”?)

Plenty of essential nonfiction these days is written by journalists who’ve done their initial research on the ground and then been able to step back from day-to-day deadline pressure, explore the connections among the stories they’ve reported, and provide context for them. I recently read an excellent example of this: Seyward Darby’s Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism.

Isabel Wilkerson’s brilliant Warmth of Other Suns began as on-the-ground reporting and grew into an indispensable, Pulitzer Prize–winning work of U.S. history, and one that has had and continues to have profound effects on how we USians understand our past.

Whether written by academics or by journalists like Darby and Wilkerson, these books depend for their credibility on their sources, whether manuscripts or published works or interviews or works in other media. Hence the importance of citations: it should be possible for readers to verify both the accuracy of those sources and the author’s care in quoting them. The overwhelming majority of readers won’t do this, of course, but the knowledge that there’s a paper trail that could be followed tends to inspire confidence.

Writers of what’s often called “creative nonfiction” (note the use of quotation marks there, eh?) use quotations too, but they generally aren’t held to the same standard as academics and journalists. The author of a memoir may use quotation marks in recounting dialogue recollected from childhood, but the savvy reader will probably assume that the conversation has been reconstructed from memory and is therefore, at best, inexact.

I worry, though, about less savvy readers, and about those to whom the quotes are attributed (if they’re still alive, which they often aren’t), and about everyone close enough to the situation to have their own memories of the people involved. I’m old school enough to expect that in nonfiction quotation marks indicate at least an attempt to replicate a conversation or speech as it happened — unless, of course, the author has noted that memory is notoriously tricky and s/he has taken liberties in reconstructing remembered dialogue. Some authors do indeed note this. On the other hand, a few years ago I copyedited a memoir in which the (experienced, much-published) author noted in an afterword that two of the relatives in his story had been invented out of whole cloth. One of them had been my favorite character, and she didn’t even exist? I was shocked. I felt betrayed.

In my opinion, recreating imperfectly recalled dialogue, even inventing it to show how a particular situation developed, is OK if and only if you level with readers about what you’re up to. Once you start inventing characters, however, you’re writing fiction. Call it a fictionalized memoir if you wish, but please don’t pass it off as a memoir.

Fiction writers use dialogue to reveal character and the relationships among characters, and to move the plot along. Fictional dialogue isn’t sourced with footnotes or endnotes, but good writers are often listening for what their characters say, trying to get it right.

So it’s not surprising that, in English at least, quotations and dialogue are punctuated in pretty much the same way. In American English (AmE), double quote marks are used for both, and quotes within quotes are set off with single quotation marks. British English (BrE) does the reverse — single, then double — although British newspapers often follow the U.S. style. Other languages may treat quotations and dialogue differently. French, for instance, uses guillemets (« and ») for the former and em dashes (—) to introduce the latter.

In AmE, commas and periods go inside the close quote: So do question marks and exclamation points if they’re part of the quote. If they’re not, as sometimes happens if you’ve got a quote within a quote, they may go outside the single close quote and inside the double close quote. Like this: “Do you believe,” said Georgia, “that she really said ‘I’ll be here by six’?”

BrE puts commas and periods (known in BrE as full stops) outside the quote marks unless they’re part of the quotation. As an AmE editor who occasionally edits in BrE, I can manage this pretty well, but I look stuff up a lot more in BrE than I do in AmE (and in AmE I look up stuff a lot) and no way am I going to try to explain it here.

Quotation marks are like HTML: An open quote has to be paired with a close quote. This goes for both double and single quotes. The big exception is that when you have a quote, such as a speech, that goes on continuously for more than one paragraph, each paragraph has to begin with an open quote but the only close quote you need is at the very end. I emphasize that continuously because these lengthy quotations can’t be interrupted by “he said” or “she wrote” or anything else. Once they’re interrupted, they’re no longer continuous.

Got that?

Just do me a favor, please, and don’t be inventing characters from your past and calling what you’re writing a memoir. Thank you.

P Is for Place

The title of my novel, The Mud of the Place, comes from its epigraph, by the late writer-poet-activist Grace Paley (1922–2007): “If your feet aren’t in the mud of a place, you’d better watch where your mouth is.”

It appeared in a 1994 issue of The New Yorker — not in a major feature but in an announcement of Paley’s forthcoming reading at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. I think it leapt out at me, knowing I would throw my arms around it and love it forever.

I live on Martha’s Vineyard, a place that many people write and talk about but few who don’t live here get anywhere close to right. In August 1993, a year before I spotted that quote, we’d had a crash course in how wrong journalists with time on their hands could get it: then-president Bill Clinton and his family had vacationed on the Vineyard for the first time. Sensibly enough, they only occasionally ventured out in public with their formidable entourage of staff, Secret Service, and press.

This left the hordes — the regional and national press corps — with lots of downtime. They fanned out across the island, looking for “local color.” What they didn’t get was that in August most “locals” don’t spend a lot of time on beaches and in restaurants. They’re working two or three jobs and trying to keep their families together.

I was features editor at the Martha’s Vineyard Times, which turned out to be a target for the journalistic feeding frenzy: it was just around the corner from the ferry dock, easy to reach by car (though not so easy to park), and wouldn’t you expect the local newspaper to have its finger on the pulse? I’ll never forget the Hunter Thompson type who blew in looking like he’d spent the last month in the Australian Outback and breathlessly announced that he’d just jetted in from London, having heard rumors that Princess Diana was on the island, and had we heard anything?

I embraced Grace Paley’s warning as a challenge: my feet were in the mud of this particular place, so maybe I should try to write a novel about it? I was deep down convinced that I couldn’t write anything longer than 40 pages, so it took a while, but I managed. It’s not the whole truth, nowhere close, but I like to think it’s got truth in it.

So, yes indeed, place is important to me, and not just this particular place. Whether I’m writing fiction or nonfiction, if I don’t have a strong sense of the place where a scene is set, that scene usually won’t come to life. That goes for real-life places and places I imagine into existence. As a reader, I’ve found that the passages that stay with me longest and most vividly are usually the ones with the strongest sense of place.

There’s more to evoking a place than just getting the details right, although if you get details wrong, readers who know the place well will let you know, and if you get them wrong enough, they may stop trusting you. Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, you’ll be doing more than just describing a place: you’ll be showing events that happened there, or a character’s memories or other associations with it.

If you’re trying to get a better feel for a place, imagine yourself (or your fictional character, or your nonfictional subject) coming upon it for the first time. Or leaving it for the last time. You might wind up with the beginning of a whole new story.

Dirt road from somewhere to somewhere else

O Is for Order

One of the marvels of English is its flexibility about word order. Subject-verb-object is standard, but multiple variations are possible. However, the further you stray from the standard, the more important it is to pay attention to what the words may be doing behind your back. When I copyedit the work of competent writers, many of my edits are due to the ambiguity, confusion, or even outright hilarity created by a misplaced modifier.

Here’s a simple example of how the placement of a single word can change the meaning of a sentence. In this case it’s “only,” a handy four-letter word whose very versatility can cause trouble. Note that when it comes to placing adjectives and adverbs, proximity matters. We generally associate adjectives with the nearest noun or pronoun, adverbs with the nearest verb or adjective.

Only she would eat coffee ice cream for breakfast.
No one else would eat coffee ice cream for breakfast.

She would eat only coffee ice cream for breakfast.
Cereal and scrambled eggs wouldn’t do. It had to be coffee ice cream.

She would eat coffee ice cream only for breakfast.
She wouldn’t eat coffee ice cream for lunch or supper or any other meal.

In oral communication, a speaker’s intonation — emphasizing she or coffee, for example — will often make the meaning clear, no matter where the “only” goes — “She would only eat coffee ice cream for breakfast” or “Only she would eat coffee ice cream for breakfast” — but readers of a printed text can’t hear what the writer intended. It’s tempting to rely on italics or boldface or ALL CAPS to signal emphasis, but such devices lose their impact with overuse. With experience we learn to let the placement of the words and phrases do most of the work.

This includes, I should add, paying attention not only the proximity of modifiers to the words they modify but also to the rhythm of the language, including where the stresses fall in multisyllabic words. Poets do this. Prose writers should too, and good ones do, consciously or by “feel.” I’ll sometimes choose one synonym over another because it sounds better. I urge writers to read sentences aloud while they’re working, even at the first-draft stage. This is too big a subject to be covered here, but here’s a crash course if you’re interested.

Google “misplaced modifier” and you’ll find plenty of examples, along the lines of “He served cake to the children on paper plates.” Were the children really on paper plates? No: it was the cake. Make it “He served the children cake on paper plates.” Misplaced modifiers are easier to catch in other people’s writing. Knowing what you meant to say makes it harder to see that this isn’t what the words say, or that the words could be taken in more than one way. This happens even to those of us who are editors as well as writers. I’m best at catching my own goofs if I let a day, or at least a few hours, go by before I revisit something I’ve just finished.

Where you place a dialogue tag — said or asked or one of their many alternatives — can help convey how your character is saying whatever s/he’s saying and where s/he pauses to breathe or think. Like punctuation marks, dialogue tags shape the way your sentences are read. I went into this in some detail a few years back. If you want to read more, check out “‘Tag!’ She Scowled.”

And while we’re at it, I blogged about word order even longer ago, in “Location!” Check that out too if you like.

The more attention you pay to the order and placement of words and phrases, the more possibilities you’ll discover in the language you use. And, as I never get tired of saying, do read your writing out loud when you’re working on it. Some things are easier to hear than to see. In my writers’ group, some members occasionally ask other members to read their work aloud. If you have the opportunity to do this, take advantage of it!

N Is for Negative Capability

I was thinking that N might be for Narrative, but then I read the “N Is for Narrative” I posted during the 2017 A to Z Challenge in this blog and thought No way could I surpass that.

I’ve had thoughts like that recently when rereading stuff I wrote 40 years ago. Has it all been downhill from there? I can’t help wondering. At the same time, I see in those long-ago essays and poems strong traces of who and where I was at the time, what I was reading, what my friends and I were talking about, what I thought was so important I was moved to write about it. Moral of story: Write it now. Don’t put it off.

So Narrative was out. The obvious alternatives, to my mind anyway, were Names and Negative. I could say a few things about names, but the thought didn’t inspire me. “Negative” felt, well, too negative. Not that learning to deal with “no” isn’t crucial for writers. The “no” coming from within can shut us down completely. The “no” coming from publishers, publications, and workshops or courses we were dying to get into can be devastating.

I didn’t want to write about that either. Not now, anyway.

Mulling over “negative,” “negativity,” and “negation” on my walk this morning, I recalled a workshop leader, a poet, talking about “negative capability.” The phrase came from John Keats, but I didn’t remember what it meant. So I looked it up.

The Poetry Foundation includes “negative capability” in its “Glossary of Poetic Terms,” calling it “a theory first articulated by John Keats about the artist’s access to truth without the pressure and framework of logic or science.” The entry goes on: “Contemplating his own craft and the art of others, especially William Shakespeare, in one of his famous letters to relatives Keats supposed that a great thinker is ‘capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’”

The Wikipedia entry is more enlightening. First it gives the phrase in fuller context: “I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Then it notes, one, that this was the only time Keats used the phrase, and two, that the letter in which it appeared didn’t circulate widely until after Keats’s death (in 1821, of TB, in Rome, at the age of 25).

Aha, think I. All we really have is Keats’s definition: “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” All the rest is commentary, some by Keats in his short lifetime and even more in the ensuing three centuries by subsequent scholars, critics, poets, and the like. It must be OK to push all the talk about “beauty is truth and truth, beauty” (from Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”), about art vs. science and intuition vs. reason, to one side and just focus on what Keats wrote in that letter:

“. . . when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

Turn that “man” into “poet” or “writer” or “artist,” or “scientist” or “philosopher,” for that matter, and you’ve got it. It’s about being open to what flows into your mind, or what flows through your fingers when you’re freewriting. It may not be fact or reason you’re tempted to reach out after — more likely it’ll be undone dishes or unmade phone calls or the terror of the blank page. The blank page is where it starts.

Negative capability. Openness. Being ready for anything.

M Is for Memoir

You don’t need a dictionary to tell you that “memoir” is closely related to “memory,” and you don’t need a best-seller list to tell you that memoirs — some of them, at least — are wildly popular. Put that together with the well-worn advice to “write what you know” — what do you know better than your own life, and who knows it better than you? — and hey, why not write a memoir?

Why not indeed?

If you’ve given it a try, you’ve probably discovered that it’s harder than it looks. The challenges inherent in other kinds of writing don’t disappear when you’ve taken your own life as your subject. Structure. Focus. Transitions. Laying down one sentence after another till you get to where you’re going — wherever that is.

You’ll almost certainly discover that some significant incidents in your life didn’t happen when you thought they did, or even where you thought they did. If you consult others who were around at the time — not a bad idea, if they’re still around and if you can do it in reasonable safety both to you and to them — you might find that they didn’t happen the way you remember them either. Others may remember them differently. This doesn’t mean that you’ve got it wrong, only that your version is one of several that may duplicate, complement, or even contradict each other.

Think of what goes down in a courtroom. Witnesses see the same event from different perspectives. They hear the same words spoken but come away with different interpretations, depending on what they know of the speaker and how they remember what was said.

Writing a memoir, you’re not only the eyewitness, you’re the attorney for both prosecution and defense, as well as the judge and jury. It’s not an adversarial process exactly, but be prepared to ask yourself questions that make you uncomfortable.

I didn’t set out to write a memoir, but that seems to be what I’m doing. Memoirs are often written by people who’ve done great things, or taken part in momentous events, or had extraordinary things happen to them. None of these things apply to me.

One of my very first T-shirts, from the campaign to ratify the Massachusetts Equal Rights Amendment, 1976

Well, OK, I have taken part in momentous and otherwise interesting events but usually on the peripheries. And in 1976, the year I turned 25, I started collecting T-shirts from those events. Except that I wasn’t collecting them the way collectors collect things. I was mainly adding to my wardrobe. T-shirts were colorful and cheap. They said something about me that I was pleased to have said.

At some point, maybe when I counted my T-shirts and realized I had over a hundred of them, I said “No more T-shirts.” I said it several times more over the years. When I counted my T-shirts this past winter, I had 190 so you know how that went.

For my 50th birthday party in June 2001 I hung 25 or 30 of my shirts up in the living room. People liked them. They asked questions. I told stories about where I’d got them. That was probably where I first thought that I could do more with my T-shirts than wear them.

But it was almost 20 years before, earlier this year, I launched The T-Shirt Chronicles, a memoir disguised as a blog or maybe a blog disguised as a memoir. I’m 10 posts in and I still haven’t got out of the 1970s. Come check it out and follow if you’re so inclined.

A couple dozen T-shirts hanging on two clotheslines
A selection from the collection