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.

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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.

K Is for Knowledge

My mind was drawing a blank on K. All the English words that should begin with K begin with C instead. I could fill a whole month with words: convention, collection, character, colon, critique, computer, creativity, chapter, capitalization, coda, classics, copyright . . .

All I could come up with for K were “kern” (a typographical term) and “knotty” (characteristic of prose that needs to be untangled), neither of which inspired me. “Knotty,” however, got me to thinking about words that begin with K but don’t sound like it. Up popped a granddaddy of writerly clichés: “Write what you know.” Aha! “Knowledge” begins with K!

dog coming down hill

Travvy on a mission

I’m more likely to write what I want to find out, but it’s true, things I know and things I’d forgotten I know keep showing up in my writing.

It’s also true that so far I’ve chosen to set my fiction on Martha’s Vineyard, partly because I know it pretty well and partly because I want to know it better.

Wolfie, the title character of the novel in progress, is based on Travvy, my Alaskan malamute, because Travvy has taught me a fair amount about dogs and dog training and what’s a writer to do with the interesting stuff she’s learned besides write about it?

But I don’t know how to rescue a sixth-grade girl who’s been incested by her stepfather, and I don’t know how the stepfather can look himself in the mirror having done what he’s almost certainly done. That’s part of what I’m trying to find out.

Ursula Le Guin’s essay collection Language of the Night was at hand because I’d quoted it in “J Is for Journey,” so I flipped through a couple of my favorite essays and came to this, in “Talking About Writing”:

I invite  you  to meditate on a pair of sisters, Emily and Charlotte. Their life experience was an isolated vcarage in a small, dreary English village, a couple of bad years at a girls’ school, another year or two in Brussels, which is surely the dullest city in all Europe, and a lot of housework. Out of that seething mass of raw, vital, brutal, gutsy Experiece they made two of the greatest novels ever written: Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.

This struck me with special force because I’d recently watched To Walk Invisible, Sally Wainwright’s wonderful film about the Brontë sisters, Emily, Charlotte, and Anne.

Le Guin goes on:

Now of course they were writing from experience; writing about what they knew, which is what people always tell you to do; but what was their experience? What was it they knew? Very little about ‘life.’ They knew their own souls, they knew their own minds and hearts; and it was not a knowledge lightly or easily gained.

A writer can learn plenty by doing research, whether this involves extensive reading or spending time in a place or interviewing lots of people. But to do justice to all this knowledge, she has to know her own soul, her own mind and heart. That’s what enables her to make sense of her research, to understand or create characters that are not like her at all.

Proofreading Poetry

Me and my IWD sign, which says “The common woman is as common as the best of bread / and will rise.” I am, you may have guessed, a regular bread baker. Photo by Albert Fischer.

I’ve been thinking about this because, you guessed it, I recently proofread a book-length collection of poems.

Prompted by the poster I made for an International Women’s Day rally on March 8, featuring a quote from one of Judy Grahn’s Common Woman poems, I’ve also been rereading Grahn’s early work, collected in The Work of a Common Woman (St. Martin’s, 1977). So I’ve got poetry on my mind.

A 250-page book of poetry contains many fewer words than a 250-page work of fiction or nonfiction, but this does not mean that you’ll get through it faster.  Not if you’re reading for pleasure, and certainly not if you’re proofreading. With poetry, the rules and conventions generally applied to prose  may apply — or they may not. It depends on the poems, and on the poet.

Poetry also offers some tools that prose does not, among them line breaks, stanza breaks, rhyme, and meter. (These techniques and variations thereof can come in very handy for prose writers and editors, by the way.) The work I was proofreading also includes several “concrete poems,” in which the very shape of the poem on the page reflects and/or influences its meaning. “Sneakers” was shaped like, you guessed it, a sneaker; “Monarchs” like a butterfly; “Kite” like a kite.

Errors are still errors, of course. When the name Tammy Faye Baker appeared in one poem, I added the absent k to “Baker” — checking the spelling online, of course, even though I was 99 percent sure I was right. Sometimes a word seemed to be missing or a verb didn’t agree with its subject. In a few cases, the title given in the table of contents differed somewhat from the title given in the text.

Often the matter was less clear-cut. English allows a tremendous amount of leeway in certain areas, notably hyphenation and punctuation, and that’s without even getting into the differences between British English (BrE) and American English (AmE). Dictionaries and style guides try to impose some order on the unruliness, but style guides and dictionaries differ and sometimes even contradict each other.

If you’ve been following Write Through It for a while, you know that I’ve got a running argument going with copyeditors, teachers, and everyone else who mistakes guidelines for “rules” and applies any of  them too rigidly. See Sturgis’s Law #9, “Guidelines are not godlines,” for details, or type “rules” into this blog’s search bar.

Imposing consistency makes good sense up to a point. For serial publications like newspapers or journals, consistency of style and design helps transform the work of multiple writers and editors into a coherent whole. But each poem is entitled to its own style and voice, depending on its content and the poet’s intent. Short poems and long poems, sonnets, villanelles, and poems in free verse, can happily coexist in the same collection.

What does this mean for the proofreader? For me it means second-guessing everything, especially matters of hyphenation and punctuation. Remember Sturgis’s Law #5? “Hyphens are responsible for at least 90 percent of all trips to the dictionary. Commas are responsible for at least 90 percent of all trips to the style guide.”

But dictionaries and style guides shouldn’t automatically override the preferences of a poet or careful prose writer. The styling of a word may affect how it’s heard, seen, or understood. When  I came upon “cast iron pot,” my first impulse was to insert a hyphen in “cast-iron,” and my second was No — wait. Omitting the hyphen does subtly call attention to the casting process; my hunch, though, based on context, was that this was not the poet’s intent. I flagged it for the poet’s attention when she reads the proofs.

Another one was “ground hog.” I can’t recall ever seeing “groundhog” spelled as two words, though it may well have been decades or centuries ago. However, in the first instance “ground hog” broke over a line, with “ground” at the end of one line and “hog” at the beginning of the next. In prose such an end-of-line break would be indicated with a hyphen, but this poet generally avoided using punctuation at the ends of lines, instead letting the line break itself do the work, except for sentence-ending periods. “Ground hog” recurred several times in the poem, so consistency within the poem was an issue. It was the poet’s call, so again I flagged this for her attention.

One last example: Reading aloud a poem whose every line rhymed with “to,” I was startled to encounter “slough,” a noun I’ve always pronounced to rhyme with “cow” (the verb rhymes with “huff”). When I looked it up, I learned that in most of the U.S. “slough” in the sense of “a deep place of mud or mire” (which was how it was being used here) is indeed generally pronounced like “slew.” The exception is New England, which is where I grew up and have lived most of my life. There, and in British English as well, “slough” often rhymes with “cow” in both its literal and figurative meanings. (For the latter, think “Slough of Despond.”)

All of the above probably makes proofreading poetry seem like a monumental pain in the butt, but for me it’s a valuable reminder that English is remarkably flexible and that many deviations from convention work just fine. At the same time, although I can usually suss out a writer’s preferences in a book-length work, I can’t know for sure whether an unconventional styling is intentional or not, so sometimes I’ll query rather than correct, knowing that the writer gets to review the edited manuscript or the proofs after I’m done with them.

The other thing is that while unconventional stylings may well add nuance to a word or phrase, they rarely interfere with comprehension. Copyeditors sometimes fall back on “Readers won’t understand . . .” to justify making a mechanical change. When it comes to style, this often isn’t true. My eye may startle at first at an unfamiliar styling or usage, but when the writer knows what she’s doing I get used to it pretty quickly.

The above examples come from Mary Hood’s All the Spectral Fractures: New and Selected Poems, forthcoming this fall from Shade Mountain Press. It’s a wonderful collection, and I highly recommend it. Established in 2014, Shade Mountain Press is committed to publishing literature by women. Since it’s young, I can say that I’ve read and heartily recommend all of their titles, which so far include three novels, a short-fiction anthology, and a single-author collection of short stories. All the Spectral Fractures is their first poetry book. I rarely mention by title the books that I work on, but Rosalie said it was OK so here it is.

Poems of Protest, Resistance, and Empowerment

From the editors at the Poetry Foundation. Here’s a wonderful list of poems to inspire us in dark times, and to remind us that writing well in these times is desperately important.

Why poetry is necessary and sought after during crises.

Source: Poems of Protest, Resistance, and Empowerment by The Editors | Poetry Foundation

The Poetics of Resistance

Like many other word people I’m looking for new ways to put my abilities to work in these trying times. The photos of poets in this blog post give me ideas and courage and faith.

Visitant

On Friday, January 20, 2017, I witnessed what will from here on out be known as a National Day of Patriotic Resistance, or, a poetry reading.

All throughout last Friday, I would peek at social media (I have to be on the Twitter and the Facebook for my job), observe the juxtaposition of the incoming/outgoing administrations, and then jump off again. Luckily, in the afternoon I was required to journey to the Bronx for work, which thoroughly distracted me for the afternoon. Then, when 5:00 rolled around, I traveled to Lower Manhattan to be among the poets.

When my friend, poet Jen Fitzgerald and other New York poet Terence Degnan announced a Day 1 poetry reading for the night of the inauguration, I knew that I would definitely be there. Poetry is the most honest of writing forms: Poets, I think, leave less of a barrier between themselves and the…

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The Drive to Connect

My work nook

My work nook. It’s considerably more cluttered than it was when I took this picture three years ago.

After I get dressed in the morning, I put on the teakettle, reheat whatever is left in yesterday’s teapot, light a candle or two, and sit down in my work chair. Before I pull the tool of the morning into my lap (either pen and paper or my laptop, depending on whether I’m first-drafting or revising; today it’s the laptop), I usually reach for my copy of The Writer’s Chapbook (I’ve got the 1989 edition), open it at random, and take whatever my eye falls on as my guide.

20170118-candles-mug

 

This morning I reached instead for Adrienne Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language, which happened to be sitting on top of The Writer’s Chapbook. If I had to list the most important books I’ve read in my life, Dream would be in the top five. I’m still reading and rereading it almost 40 years after I encountered it for the first time. You might guess this from the fact that my copy is in two pieces and the front and back covers are less than pristine. (The spine broke between the last two pages of “Natural Resources.” This is not a coincidence.)

This morning my eye lit on the second stanza of “Origins and History of Consciousness.”

No one lives in this room
without confronting the whiteness of the wall
behind the poems, planks of books,
photographs of dead heroines.
Without contemplating last and late
the true nature of poetry. The drive
to connect. The dream of a common language.

The stanza that gave the book its title. A stanza that acknowledges and even begins to respond to the questions I can barely ask out loud: What good is writing in this world where talk is cheap, lies are endemic, and so few people seem up to the challenging of actually listening? What can a writer do?

“Origins and History of Consciousness” blends writing and loving  in imagery that can’t be easily summarized. You can find the whole thing here. At the moment I can’t find the complete text of “Natural Resources” online. It’s a long poem, and everyone loves to quote the last stanza. The Dream of a Common Language is still in print, and all of it’s included in Collected Poems, 1950–2012, edited by Claudia Rankine and published last year.

“Berryman” by W. S. Merwin

So much insight here, and so many great lines (“. . . but he was deep / in tides of his own through which he sailed / chin sideways and head tilted like a tacking sloop”), but these are the ones that grabbed me hardest: “I asked how can you ever be sure / that what you write is really / any good at all and he said you can’t . . .”

hecatedemeter

2016-black-woman-writing-and-journal
Berryman
I will tell you what he told me
in the years just after the war
as we then called
the second world war
don’t lose your arrogance yet he said
you can do that when you’re older
lose it too soon and you may
merely replace it with vanity
just one time he suggested
changing the usual order
of the same words in a line of verse
why point out a thing twice
he suggested I pray to the Muse
get down on my knees and pray
right there in the corner and he
said he meant it literally
it was in the days before the beard
and the drink but he was deep
in tides of his own through which he sailed
chin sideways and head tilted like a tacking sloop
he was far older than the dates allowed for
much older than I…

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Van Morrison, John Lee Hooker : I Cover The Waterfont

This isn’t about writing exactly but it speaks to me so strongly as a writer that I think it might speak to you too. The Immortal Jukebox is one of my most favorite blogs.

The Immortal Jukebox

Often, when we tell the story of our own life, to ourselves, or to others, the narrative teems with incident. An action movie filled with high drama.

Now, reflecting on my own life I have come to realise that a more apt comparison would be one of the contemplative, steady gaze movies directed by Robert Bresson from France or Yasujiro Ozu from Japan.

The meaning is won, revealed, not through a hectic series of heroic events but powerfully accumulated through close attention to small details and patient meditation on the weathering, sometimes destructive, sometimes ennobling, passage of time.

Life is mainly waiting. Waiting. Waiting.

Waiting for what you want or need the most.

Waiting for your mother’s or father’s attention.

Waiting for the fabled excitement of love and romance and high passion to blow into your life like a hurricane.

Waiting for someone to recognise you as the one they…

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