X Is for Xanadu

The options for words beginning with X are so limited — even though X can stand for anything — that it’s tempting to go for a word that sounds like it begins with X: eXperience, eXpertise, eXpression, eXpurgate, eXcuses, and so on and on and on. Readers, I considered it.

On the brink of April, with the Blogging A to Z Challenge in mind, I had started an A-to-Z list in Onelook. At first there were several blank lines, but they filled in pretty quickly so by mid-month it looked like the screenshot at left. The options I actually decided to blog about are in bold.

With the end of the month, and the end of the alphabet, drawing relentlessly closer, eXperience and eXpertise were the best I could come up with.

Then, while I was out walking the other day, what should come to mind but Xanadu. (I’m not kidding about the power of walking, people — and when it’s eXacerbated by the power of deadlines you’re talking about potentially major magic.)

Once upon a time I knew most of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan” by heart. The first five lines are as clear in my memory as ever, and the rest of it is so familiar as I reread it.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
    Down to a sunless sea. 

I also remember how fascinated I was by the imagery when I read it for the first time, in English class my senior year of high school. A history buff with a more than passing acquaintance with the Middle East, I knew that Kubla Khan was Genghis Khan’s grandson but that was about it. I went looking for more about the River Alph (which doesn’t exist in our world) and demon-lovers (which may or may not exist) and Mount Abora (which doesn’t exist, but Coleridge may have meant Mount Amara, which does) and, of course, Xanadu itself (Kubla Khan’s summer palace). And that got me to marveling at how the poet had created such a vivid picture of the forest, the chasm, the “mighty fountain,” while making it clear that this “sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice” was a more than physical place.

The vision, I learned, had come to Coleridge in a dream — some commentators thought he might have been under the influence of opium — so of course I also learned about the “person on business from Porlock” who famously interrupted the poet while he was transcribing his dream onto paper.

Was this person from Porlock real, or had Coleridge hit an internal wall, a failure of nerve or of imagination? We’ll never know, and in any case this Porlockian intruder has taken on a life of his own. We’ve all been interrupted at our creative labors by an infinite variety of Porlocks. Porlock may come in person, or by phone, or text, or email, or private message. We’ve all probably gone to the door or phone or computer when no one was there, maybe hoping that someone was?

For me “Kubla Khan” is complete as is. It may not represent Coleridge’s whole dream, just as he couldn’t “revive within” himself the “symphony and song” of that Abyssian maid and her dulcimer, but it doesn’t have to. How often does a poem, a story, an essay, a novel, do everything we hoped and imagined it would when we started? Rarely, at least in my experience. But we wrap it up, send it out — and go on to the next.

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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.

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!

K Is for Knowledge

You’ve probably heard it so often, repeated with such authority, that you’re ready to throttle the next person who says it: Write what you know.

Likely you’ve also heard, or even yourself said, the common rejoinder, which goes something like That’s crap. Haven’t you ever heard of research?

Well, of course. What we know is fluid, expanding and deepening even without any conscious effort on our part. For writers, research is ongoing. We read, we listen, we travel to a new place, we walk down a street we’ve walked down many times before, noticing some things for the first time.

My hunch is that Write what you know surfaced at least in part as a response to the notion that one could only be a real writer if one had had certain experiences. The requisite experiences — being in combat, for instance — were almost invariably skewed male. At a women’s writing workshop in the late 1980s, a bunch of us got to talking about this. We couldn’t help noticing that experiences common to women, from childbirth to housework to caregiving, weren’t considered worthy subjects for serious literature.

One of us remarked, half-facetiously, that “the only suitable subjects for academic poetry were bullfighting and war,” whereupon several of us set out to write about bullfighting, which, need I say, none of us had ever done. My contribution grew into “The Bullfight Sonnets,” which was published by Sinister Wisdom in 1988. It includes these lines:

. . . Novelists extol
the crowd, the sun, the blood, the kill, the role
of manhood challenged and found worthy. I
am less enthralled. Instead, I wonder why
cerebral critics desperately admire
heroes who hold their shit when under fire.

Can you tell we had Ernest Hemingway on the brain? Not so much Hemingway, however, as the “cerebral critics,” English teachers, and others who held Hemingway’s spare style up as the pinnacle of literary excellence. At the time, writing about New York, published in New York, and taken up by an audience of New York–based literati was also elevated a step or two above “regional” writing. Take that, Willa Cather, Flannery O’Connor, and Eudora Welty.

I think that the English-language “canon” has gotten more regional, more international, and a lot less white since then. Nevertheless, I continue to take Write what you know as encouragement to start wherever we are, in place, time, and subject matter. Themes of universal — or at least widespread — concern can be reached from anywhere.

One of my favorite axioms is Your writing will teach you what you need to know.

A corollary to that is Your readers will teach you what you need to know more about.

I live on Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of New England that you have probably heard of whether you’ve been here or not because it gets written about a lot, by journalists, novelists, poets, and others. Most of them don’t live here year-round, or haven’t lived here long. It’s not hard to tell which of these writers have been listening to the place and the people in it and which either didn’t take the time or just don’t know what they don’t know.

It really is OK to write about places where you haven’t spent much time and people with lives and backgrounds very different from yours. Hell, historians and historical-fiction writers regularly write about times where they’ve never been, and plenty of them do it very well. (On the other hand, if we’ve never been there either, who are we to tell them that they’ve got it wrong?) Research is required for sure, but it can only get us so far: there’s more to recreating a place or time than avoiding anachronisms and getting the street names right. Imagination and empathy are also necessary, along with an awareness that no matter how much we know, there’s always a lot that we don’t.

I Is for Imagery

I loved high school English, but after all those in-depth discussions of Shakespeare, Hemingway, Austen, Fitzgerald, and the rest, I went out into the world with some wrong ideas about writing.

I thought images, symbols, and metaphors were like booby traps. Writers embedded them in their stories in order to razzle-dazzle sophisticated readers, and to trick high school students. Why was there a green light at the end of Jay Gatsby’s dock? Why, to drive us crazy, of course.

My English teacher senior year was aware of the problem. She’d ask what an author was trying to do in a particular passage and then, usually after a minute of nervous silence from the class, add, “This is not a trick question.” We didn’t believe her.

For many years, I wrote mostly nonfiction. Nonfiction, I mistakenly thought, was safe from images, symbols, and metaphors. When I started dabbling in poetry, I knew I was in trouble. Poetry is all about images, symbols, and metaphors, isn’t it?

I am not a gardener, but I do have a little garden. It’s in an old dinghy.

Before long, though, I got it: Images, symbols, and metaphors grow out of the writing. They’re gifts, like sprouts in the spring garden. (Look, look! A simile!) The gardener can nourish them and help them grow, or she can decide the row is too crowded and yank some of the seedlings out. (Metaphor!)

A writer I once workshopped with relayed something she’d heard from a poet she knew: “To be a writer, you have to know one thing well.”

The thing you know well is the soil from which your images, symbols, and metaphors grow. Of course there can be more than one thing, and you can always learn more.

When the garden gets too crowded, it’s hard to see what’s going on.

Any story or poem or essay is bound to have lots of images in it. This is fine. Gardens contain lots of plants, don’t they? All sorts of plants. At the same time, if you’ve got too many flowers growing in a limited space, your readers won’t know where to look. They may miss something that you want them to notice. Keep that in mind when you get down to revising your work.

One last thing to keep in mind: Many, many common expressions are metaphors that have long since come adrift from their literal meanings. This can get writers into trouble. Take the phrase “rein in,” as in “rein in one’s ambition.” I sometimes see “reign in” even in the work of pretty good writers. “Rein in” comes from horsemanship. If you keep horses, reins, and bridles in mind, you won’t write “reign” for “rein.” (Come to think of it, I don’t believe I’ve ever come across a reference to “unbridaled passion.” It has possibilities, doesn’t it.)

Metaphors and images can be effectively mixed and matched. They can complement each other or create dissonance. If you use them with care and know where they came from, you won’t inadvertently come up with doozies like “He’s a wolf in cheap clothing” — which also has possibilities, but seriously, you don’t want to do it by mistake, do you?

For a crash course in metaphors, see this post by Richard Nordquist, a retired English professor who is very good at explaining things.

Flash Fiction

The  A to Z Challenge has been keeping me very  busy in my Martha’s Vineyard blog, From the Seasonally Occupied Territories, but directly or indirectly I’m blogging about writing, so I hope some of y’all are dropping by from time to time.

For the challenge I’ve been rereading some of the poetry I wrote in the 1980s, especially in the years after I moved to the Vineyard. Gradually my lines got longer and longer and turned into one-act plays, short stories, and eventually a novel. Still, I have to admit that some of that poetry is pretty good, and also that writing short and concise, often in meter and rhyme, had lasting and beneficial effects on my prose.

So lately a guy joined my writers’ group who’s writing flash fiction. Although, or more likely because, I tend to write long, I’m very tempted to give it a try.

And just now I discovered that Spry magazine’s blog is doing an “ABCs of Flash Fiction” series. Clearly the muses are trying to give me a message! They’re only up to D so far. If you’re interested, here’s where it starts.

Dash Away, All

Dashes and hyphens are so often considered together that when I got to the end of “Sturgis’s Law #10,” I knew something was missing. After all, the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) devotes several pages to dashes, and so do many other style guides. Surely I should devote at least a few words to the subject?

But I’d already gone on too long (blog posts that top 1,000 words make me nervous), and besides, nowhere in Sturgis’s Laws are dashes even mentioned. (That may change in the future.)

Meanwhile — let’s talk about dashes.

In U.S. usage, dashes come in two sizes. The em dash ( — ) is so called because it’s generally the length of one m. The shorter en dash (which, surprise surprise, is the length of an n) is the one that gets mixed up with hyphens.

As my typographer friends point out, a dash is a dash. How it’s styled — em or en, with or without space before and after — is a typographical decision. In British English (BrE) the kind of dash that indicates a break or sets off parenthetical remarks (as in the previous sentence) is generally rendered by an en dash with a space on either side, like this: How it’s styled – em or en, with or without space before and after – is a typographical decision.

  • To create an em dash on a PC: Alt+0151 (use the number pad) or ALT+CTRL+minus key (the latter works in Word but not in WordPress). Using AutoCorrect, you can also tell Word to automatically convert two hyphens (which is how we indicated em dashes back in typewriter days) to an em dash. I don’t allow Word to AutoCorrect anything, but you may be more tolerant than I.
  • To create an en dash on a PC: ALT+0150 or CTRL+minus key (see above)
  • To create an em dash on a Mac: Option+Shift+minus
  • To create an en dash on a Mac: Option+minus

In this blog and in my own writing, I insert a space on either side of my em dashes. This is to avoid bad end-of-line breaks. Word processors may treat “styled—em” in the sample sentence as one word and keep it all on one line, which may lead to an unsightly gap in the line preceding. The shorter dash seems to be coming into its own in ebooks, and with good reason: ebooks can be read on devices with relatively narrow lines, and in a narrow line a full em dash can look huge.

Em dashes generally herald a break of some kind. In dialogue, they are commonly used to indicate in interruption: “But I was about to say—” Frankie began before Sal cut her off. (Dialogue that trails off is generally indicated by an ellipsis. For more about this see “Of Dots and Dashes.”)

In non-dialogue, they can signal a change of subject or an aside. When the aside occurs in the middle of a sentence, it becomes more or less a parenthetical and is set off by em dashes. Why not use parentheses in such cases? You can use parens in such cases. For me an aside set off by parens is more peripheral — expendable, even — than one set off by dashes.

Em dashes are big. They call attention to themselves. Flip through a book — on paper or on screen — and chances are your eye will be drawn to the em dashes. If a writer is overusing em dashes, it’s often the first thing I notice when skimming through a manuscript. So use them sparingly. Like just about everything else in writing, they lose their power when overused.

Emily Dickinson is noted for her extravagant use of dashes, but she could get away with it because (1) she was a poet, (2) her poetry was brilliant, and (3) she was writing in the 19th century, before the Chicago Manual of Style was invented. Long after she died, one of her editors got into big trouble for taming her dashes into commas. If you’re adding Dickinson’s collected poems to your library, make sure the edition you choose has the dashes.

En dashes are somewhat specialized, and different styles have different takes on when to use them. In the social sciences, for instance, an en dash is often used to indicate that a compound comprises two words of equal weight, e.g., “I’m a writer–editor.” Chicago does not recommend this, and neither do I. Here’s my reasoning: The difference in length between a – and a – is not huge. When you’re reading along, you may not notice it at all — unless of course you’re a copyeditor like me. If it is important to know that the two halves of a compound are of equal weight, I would not depend on an en dash alone to get that across. However, if you’re in a field that follows this style, you should too.

Here are the most common uses of en dashes, per Chicago:

  • To signify through in number ranges: pages 3–17; the years 1941–1945. The range can be open-ended: my dog Travvy (2008–).  Figures and tables in nonfiction books are often given numbers like 2-5 and 3-17. The hyphen denotes that this is NOT a range; the first number is generally that of the chapter and the second that of the particular figure or table. The distinction comes in handy in footnotes and endnotes, where page ranges run rampant and table and figure numbers are sometimes concealed among them. By the way, It’s a faux-pas to use the dash when the range is preceded by from: She lived in France from 1978 to 1982, not “from 1978–1982.”
  • To signify to in destinations, votes, or scores: the Boston–Washington train; my team won, 99–92; the vote was 5–4.
  • To form compounds when one element is itself an open compound: the post–World War II baby boom; the New York–Boston rivalry. This is to avoid reading the former as post-world and the latter as York-Boston. Editors sometimes differ on which open compounds have to stay open and which can be hyphenated when attached to prefix, suffix, or another word. Proper nouns generally stay open, but when the New-York Historical Society was founded in 1804 another style prevailed, and its official name is so styled to this very day. Chicago 16, section 6.80, recommends country music–influenced lyrics, but I see nothing wrong with country-music-influenced lyrics.

All clear now? Dash away, dash away, dash away, all. And I really should come up with a dashing Sturgis’s Law . . .

Bogged Down in Detail

Almost three years ago, in “Details, Details,” I noted, “Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, poetry or plays, details help bring your stories to life. (They can also weigh your story down. We can talk about that some other time.)”

“Some other time” has finally arrived, and strange but true, this is a book I’m reading for pleasure, not a manuscript I’m critiquing or editing. After its publication in 2008, it become a New York Times best-seller and an Oprah Book Club selection. All of which suggests that it was pretty well edited and very well liked, or at least that a lot of people bought it.

I’m actually liking it myself: I’m about two-thirds of the way through and I plan to keep going. But still — the details!

At first I was impressed. Truth to tell, I still am. A rain-washed street, the noises each stair in an old farmhouse makes as a boy walks down them, an old tractor engine rumbling to life — all these and many more sights and sounds are exquisitely observed and vividly described.

Especially impressive to me is the detail devoted to the raising and training of dogs. I know enough about dogs and dog training to recognize the author’s expertise. The title character is my novel in progress is a dog; his behavior and training play a significant role in the story. My own treatment of the subject suddenly seemed pale and rushed by comparison. Maybe I should put in more details?

At some point, though, the exquisitely observed and vividly described objects and interactions began to slow me down. Even the parts about dogs. Get on with it, I’d think. I can visualize in detail the peeling paint and the rusty latch — what’s happening on the other side of the door?

With an ebook or an old-fashioned print book, I could have skimmed past the in-depth descriptions and gotten on with the story, but I’m listening to this novel on CDs as I run errands in my car. With an audiobook you can’t skip ahead with any precision. So I listen even when I’m itching to fast-forward.

I wondered if the author was also a poet. In poetry image and detail are in the foreground. They’re meant to be savored. They’re important in fiction and memoir too, but if you spend too much time savoring the imagery and detail in a 580-page (or 18-CD) novel, you’ll never get through it. As far as I can tell, this author isn’t also a poet.

Interestingly enough, despite his minute attention to small details, the author skates right over some of the big ones, like how does a 14-year-old who’s never been away from home manage to survive for weeks in the very deep forest?

Naturally, being an editor by trade, I wonder what I would have said if this book had come to me as an unpublished manuscript for critiquing. I would have been impressed as hell by the writing, but I’m pretty sure I would have flagged numerous places where the narrative bogged down or where stitches got dropped and weren’t picked up again. Obviously the book did spectacularly well in its current form — and, as usual, I don’t know what it looked like, or how long it was, when it was first submitted to agent or publisher.

I intend to keep reading, or listening, to the end, so neither the wealth of detail nor the dropped stitches nor the long meandering detour away from (what I think is) the main narrative has stopped me. The importance of dogs to the story is a big motivator for me, and I’m intrigued by the brief glimpses of magical-realist techniques in the author’s style. When I finish, I’ll read some reviews and comments to see what other readers had to say.

The book, by the way, is The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski.

W Is for Write

There’s a verb for you.

By writing the writer spins a thread of written words from some mysterious place in her brain.

Your writing will teach you what you need to know.

Maybe what you most need to know is whether you’re a writer or not, a real writer. Writers wonder about this a lot, especially writers who don’t make a living writing or aspire to make a living or even part of a living from writing. Also writers who can’t point to books — ideally several books — that have their name on the cover, or a sheaf of clippings with their byline at the top.

Writers are ingenious at coming up with reasons they’re not real writers. Do nurses and carpenters and cooks and teachers keep coming up with reasons that they’re not real nurses and carpenters, cooks and teachers?

I blogged about this a while back, in “What Makes a Real Writer?” I don’t have a whole lot to add to that, and once again I’d refer all worried writers everywhere to Marge Piercy’s classic poem “For the Young Who Want To.”

For me the key is, was, and always will be “The real writer is one / who really writes.” But read the whole thing anyway.

These days I’m not all that worried about whether I’m a writer or not. Whatever else I am, I’m someone who can write well, who has writing in her toolkit, well honed and ready for action. I see myriad ways out there that this particular skill can be useful, from telling stories to reporting or analyzing news to blogging to trying to keep political discussions on social media reasonably focused and civil.

Writing is important, whether you call yourself a writer or not.

It’s a rare writer who can do all the things that writers collectively can do, but it’s an equally rare writer who can do only one thing.

Another Piercy classic is “To Be of Use.” You can probably infer the gist from the title alone, but again — read the whole thing. Here’s the stanza that grabbed me by both hands this time through:

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

 

In the world these days we’ve got fires to put out and fires to keep going and fires to rekindle from scratch. Writing can do all these things.

Write.

Write.

Write.

R Is for Readers

Writers may write in solitude, but there’s nearly always at least one other person in the room. Maybe we see them. Maybe we don’t. Maybe we see them but try to ignore their existence. Maybe they’re in our own head.

Readers.

Editors are test readers of writing that hasn’t gone out into the world yet. Our job is to help prepare the writing for its debut. We’re hired because we’re adept in the ways of spelling, punctuation, grammar, usage, structure, and so on, but on the other hand we’re supposed to be professionally stupid: if the writing isn’t clear enough, if gaps and inconsistencies exist in the sentences and paragraphs we’re reading, we aren’t supposed to fill them in from what we already know. The writing is supposed to do the work.

This is fine as far as it goes, but sometimes editors forget that despite our expertise and the fact that we’re getting paid, we can’t speak for all readers. If an editor tells you that “readers won’t like it if you . . .” listen carefully but keep the salt handy: you may need it. Editors should be able to explain our reservations about a word or a plot twist or a character’s motivation without hiding behind an anonymous, unverifiable mass of readers.

readers at outdoor café

One of the big highs of my writing life was when my Mud of the Place was featured by the several Books Afoot groups who traveled to Martha’s Vineyard in 2013 and 2014.

Readers can and often do take very different things away from the same passage, the same poem, the same essay, the same story. At my very first writers’ workshop (the 1984 Feminist Women’s Writing Workshop, Aurora, New York), day after day I listened as 18 of us disagreed, often passionately, about whether a line “worked” and whether a character’s action made sense or not and whether a particular description was effective or not. It was thrilling to see readers so engaged with each other’s work, but also a little unsettling: no matter how capable and careful we writers are with our writing, we can’t control how “readers” are going to read it.

This is a big reason I advise writers to find or create themselves a writers’ group — and to develop the skill and courage to give other writers their honest readings of a work in progress. This may be the greatest gift one writer can give another.

I just came to “Teasing Myself Out of Thought” in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000–2016 (Easthampton, MA: Small Beer Press, 2016), and what do you know, it articulates eloquently and clearly some of what I’m feeling my way toward here.

“Most writing is indeed a means to an end,” she writes — but not all of it. Not her own stories and poems. They’re not trying to get a point across: “What the story or the poem means to you — its ‘message’ to you — may be entirely different from what it means to me.”

She compares “a well-made piece of writing” to “a well-made clay pot”: the pot is put to different uses and filled with different things by people who didn’t make it. What she’s suggesting, I think (maybe because I agree with her), is that readers participate actively in the creation of what the story or poem means. Readers are “free to use the work in ways the author never intended. Think of how we read Sophocles or Euripides.”  What readers and playgoers have discovered in the Greek tragedies has evolved considerably over the last 3,000 years, and it’s a good guess that Sophocles and Euripides didn’t embed all those things in their works.

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

If this reminds you of “J Is for Journey,” it does me too. And notice where that particular blog post started.

And finally this: “What my reader gets out of my pot is what she needs, and she knows her needs better than I do.”

That’s a pretty amazing and generous statement, and one editors might consider occasionally, especially when we’re editing works that aren’t simply means to an end.