Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Writing about Writing

I. Reading about Writing

Do all writers get pleasure from reading about writing? I sure do.

Sometimes I enjoy writers' writing about writing more than I enjoy their main work. That's the case with Samuel R. Delany [who kindly left a comment on this post, 12-3-08].
After going to hear him a few weekends ago, I picked up some of his books. His sci-fi leaves me cold (as most sci-fi does); but I'm crowing as I read his collection About Writing (Wesleyan, 2005), which offers such nuggets as this:

"Don't let a copy [of any manuscript], hard or electronic, get six inches away from your keyboard without containing your name and address, snail mail and e-mail."

Then he tells stories about what can happen to ms with addresses (miracles) and without (doom), and they grab me more than all his world building.

Like other tortures and pleasures, there are only a limited number of things to say about the mechanics of writing, but we seem to like repeating them. I always get a buzz from the classic "Keep it simple," for instance, which can be expressed and elaborated upon in a surprising number of ways, including this graphic revision of Thoreau's oft quoted advice:
"Simplify, simplify, simplify !"

So, I love the stuff, but I was thinking today, does reading about writing help writers write? Did it help me?
I don't know.
Does reading The Joy of Sex make people better lovers? Maybe a little...? Maybe it's the very willingness to read it in the first place that marks a difference?

Mostly, though, I've always read these books for fun, not to learn to write. I like to hear how other people think about writing, their stories about how they became a writer.
For me the key to writing with clarity wasn't learning mechanical skills, though those help. The key was in my psyche. I became a better writer when I began to think about the reader on the other end.
That didn't happen for a long time.

II. Writing for Myself

Throughout my teens and twenties, I didn't see writing as a craft to be learned. I wrote all the time, but I didn't write for readers, even when I wrote letters, even when I wrote papers. Publication didn't interest me. My life was painful, and pain is fertile ground for narcissism. I wrote to figure myself out. I wrote for me.

I admired authors who wrote close to the bone, but I didn't try to write like them. My own writing was messy, rambling, repetitive, but I never edited it and I avoided and resented any advice on how to clean it up. When your words are your blood, you don't erase them.

Writing that saves your life is worth everything. But it's not necessarily good writing. Mine wasn't.

III. Writing for Others

Slowly, slowly I started to get bored with writing for myself, the way you start to get bored with being sick in bed and know you must be getting well (hopefully). With a lot of uncertainty, I began to write for other people.

My first publication came in my thirties, after I joined the Catholic Church--an article about sign-language interpreters at Mass. It wasn't bad, but I didn't know how to write for others. I fell back on the pedantic style, and it showed: "Author Reads Theology for Fun." Well, nothing wrong with that. "And Thinks You Should Too."

I was afraid of them, the others. Criticism terrified me. Terrified sick, like when you have to present an oral report to your junior high classmates. After a few brave articles I noticed, with relief, most people hardly cared about what I wrote at all.

Liberated a little from fear, I took a couple writing classes. They were pretty useless, but, like reading The Joy of Sex, taking them signified that at least I'd noticed other people were involved. Turns out my fellow writers/readers weren't any better than I was, and that was cheering.

I finally learned writing mechanics when I got a job around my fortieth birthday proofreading and copy editing. Trying to clean up other people's bad writing--that was a far better teacher than any writing instruction.

IV. Just the Facts, Ma'am

Out of that job, I started to write kids' geography books. All of a sudden I cared like crazy about the readers. I remembered my indignation in grade school, writing reports using just these sorts of books, copying out lists of imports and exports that the author didn't explain. Here was my chance to do something about that: I could tell kids that bauxite is the main ingredient in aluminum.

It was hard work. In only 17,000 words, the books cover the history, culture, landscape, economics, and sociology of places where people have lived for thousands of years. Every word mattered.

Even in high school I'd agreed with Strunk & White that clarity and concision made for good writing, but I'd never tried to achieve it. When I did, not surprisingly, I was bad at it.
Here's the opening line of my first book:
"The Republic of Turkey was born in 1923 and is a fairly new nation, still forging its identity out of a rich and complicated past."

Not criminal, but too much baklava for a twelve year old. Worse, I could have used some of that space to write about murder weapons of the sultans instead of wasting it on this tourist brochure lingo.

V. The Active Voice

Because I cared, I kept trying. It was hard, not just the writing but the pain I ran smack into, mostly researching troubled African nations (Zimbabwe, Congo, Sudan). Now I wasn't writing for myself, and I wasn't writing about myself. It wasn't my blood, but it was my species. I raged to my colleagues about our inhumanity, and I loved best the ones who grieved with me. But the one who helped the most was the editor who went through my manuscript and circled every single passive construction.

I wrote these books, mostly at home on contract, for four years. I got good at it and I got tired of it, the limitations of writing to a formula.
Last fall I quit.
My final book was on Tanzania. Here's the opening line:
"Tanzania is a large country in East Africa."

I'm very proud of that sentence: I wrote it for the reader.


Matt_J said...

This good, thanks!
I may show it to my students in Scientific Writing.

Chip Delany said...

Years ago when I was in elementary school, my older cousin Boyd, then a medical student, told me that, as well as an fine anatomist, the author of *Gray's Anatomy*, Henry Gray, had also been a brilliant prose stylest, which was another reason his great book had endured. From memory, Boyd quoted to me, "The femur is the longest, strongest bone in the human body," and commented: "There's nothing you can do to improve that sentence." It *is* beautiful in its economy; I've never forgotten it. I think "Tanzania is a large country in East Africa" is in the same ball park, and I'll always remember it as a smilar example of clear expression.
It's a sentence to be proud of.
Best wishes--
Samuel R. Delany

Jennifer said...

*looks at previous comments*



In fandom circles, I often hear people saying they "write for themselves." "I never think of my audience, I write just to make myself happy." Which is nifty as far as it goes, self-expression is a valid thing. But there is a quick tendency to consider "writing for others" to be the same thing as "pandering," which it doesn't have to be at all. I think the difference between the two lies in how much one values and cares about the topic being written as well as the audience. Because you cared so intensely about the countries you were trying to explain, it was totally natural (inevitable!) to care deeply about your audience. You become the bridge between the two, and the connection between the kids and the country was what was paramount, not the connection between the kids and your personal style of writing. It's selfless writing--maybe in a more Eastern than Western sense, not "altruistic" per se but where the writer becomes more transparent. My favorite writers tend to be like that...

fresca said...

MATT: Thanks! You bet, drill it into those students: Eschew the passive voice. Drill, baby, drill!

CHIP: Oh honorable guest, thank you for your wonderful comment! I've been spinning about with glee that my sentence is in the same ball park as the "longest strongest bone"... It's nice to be on the same planet with people who care about these things. Thanks.

JENN: Yeah, of course it's fine to "write for yourself"--it truly did save my life (along with Star Trek, Bruce Springsteen, etc.)--just don't expect anyone else to want to read it.

Yes, too, to being transparent. I wrote that "the key was in my psyche"--but I almost wrote "the key was in the window."
Do you know that line? It's what Allan Ginsberg records his crazy mother wrote to him shortly before she died--from his poem "Kaddish."
Anyway, I thought just that--that I had become a window pane in the best of my writing.
I would like to be that even when I'm writing for and about myself too...
There's a trick!

bink said...

Ohhh...I was going to write about how wonderful your post is...and it is wonderful...but then I saw my verification word down below. "cretchab"...only it's broken up so it reads more like "cret-chab". I don't know why, but this word that seems at first glance about grabbing crabs really caught my fancy. It also seems like one of those words you see in a thought bubble in a comic. Cret-chab! right up there with Boom! and Pow! Say it outloud--Cret-chab! Cret-chab!--it must be my graphic novel mind.

You are a wonderful writer...can you use cret-chab in a sentence?

Rudyinparis said...

Whoever thought the sentence "Tanzania is a large country in East Africa" would ever make me feel like I could very well start crying?

momo said...

your post + comments= joys of the internets!

capcha: crymob

deanna said...

Adding my happiness for you in a great post with super comments. When my kids were young, we'd spend afternoons at the library, where I hung out in the writing books aisle, browsing. A library card cost too much, so I'd read and jot notes (and then I bought used copies of William Zinsser, Strunk and White, and others). And yes, some writers were better at the writing books than their own stories. And some books and classes gave me nothing very practical, but most of them fueled a fire that's still burning. :o)

fresca said...

BINK: I fail. It must be the comic-book artist in you that sees the potential. (I'm so glad I know you!)

Astronave often gets good comments (thanks!), and I've sometimes wanted to pull them out of the comments section and into a post, but decided part of the fun of blogs is uncovering their chewy/creamy centers.

Sometimes they're hollow centers though ...I notice some famous people's blogs get tons of comments, but they're mostly of the "yeah, me too" type.

Manfred Allseasons said...


I've not missed Salinger posting, have I?

Blogs are marvelous, arent they? Suddenly, in a group of friends, appears the author you happen to be talking about. This doesnt happen down the pub, but in blogland, its possible....

fresca said...

No, no, Salinger and I write on e-mail.

Blog ARE marvelous! I forget that you never know who's reading you. This was a nice reminder, as opposed to the occasional nutter, much more the sort from the local.