Sunday, February 24, 2013

Being Your Own Best Reader

One of the hardest things I had to learn as a writer was to critically read my own work. It is difficult because seeing our thoughts manifest on a page, thoughts that are familiar and dazzling, is magical. Centuries after the invention of the alphabet and written language, humans still can be awe-struck by this human capacity to create the illusion of permanence.
Nevertheless, if we wish to share our language creations with others, we must be able to imagine how our audience will read our texts. And that is the frustrating quality of language, especially written language. It can never represent all the nuances of our experience. Neuropsychologists call this personalizing effect of experience our “qualia.” Even as I look out my study window at a brilliant white snow bank rolling down to a frozen lake, I can never adequately capture in language all the sensory inputs and neuronal responses that are shaping my moment in this time as past memories mingle with new impressions.
So should we even try?
Of course.
To share our thoughts as clearly as possible with others is one of the great challenges of writing, but it is also one of the motivations to write. Writing can meaningfully connect us to other humans. We are social creatures who exploit every way we are able to be part of the collective. To do so with writing means that we must step away from our thoughts on the page and put ourselves in the place of the other, to see what is not on the page even though we, as authors, can see it in the shadows.
So what are some ways this can be done? The approach I have found most effective is time. Writing something well in advance and then tucking it away to be read several days or weeks later is of great benefit. It gives space for my fascination to subside as the writing becomes estranged from the heartbeat of its creation.
Upon returning to the writing, there are small techniques I use to further make it feel unfamiliar. I read the work aloud to a real or imagined audience to make the recognition of ‘the other’ more concrete. At a textual level, I will develop a sentence outline of the piece if I am uncertain about the structure and want to follow the logic of my thinking. If it is a poem or story, I will sometimes try to draw a representation of the structure, everything from lines to spirals. Sometimes, I read the work backwards, checking each sentence to focus on my crafting. This process takes me outside the logic line of the writing and focuses on meaning at a syntactic level. And finally, I read through the entire piece, line by line or sentence by sentence, watching for extraneous or vague words, focusing on precise nouns and verbs, and questioning my adjectives and adverbs. It is the close reading that writing needs.
It is important to realize, however, that this process is never finished. If your work is published and you reread it a month or years later, you still will find sentences you mentally revise. One of the interesting things about writing a blog is that I have a sense of an immediate audience and the capacity to continually revise. It is a new way of thinking about my revision process, and I am not sure how this might be influencing my writing.
A number of years ago, after Peter Gzowski interviewed Alice Munro on CBC radio about her newest book of short stories, she read several passages and then promptly noted how she would revise some of what she had written. It was a revelation for me that famous authors continued to revise published work even after critical acclaim. That is the interesting thing about writing. Eventually we move on and write other things, and when we look back, we may cringe, but we may also see, perhaps with fondness, who we were and recognize that we are already somewhere else in our ever-emerging lives.

Sunday, February 3, 2013


During January, I challenged students each week with a different dimension of writing: close reading and its relationship to writing; crafting sentences and using punctuation; dialogue and description; and finally, the qualities of genre, beginning with memoir. When one of the students described the feeling of having too many things to focus on while trying to write a memoir, I knew things were working as I had hoped.
It may sound like I was gleeful about their confusion, but that is not the case. What the comment indicated to me was that they were discovering the real challenge of writing. Beyond having to formulate thoughts and shape ideas, writing is about employing a multitude of possibilities in the complex system of language, including drawing on numerous intertwined skills. By asking the students to focus on some of these skills to the exclusion of others, I raised their awareness of the complexity. But, like all creative and artistic forms, there are ways of practicing these skills so that over time, they do not need to be such a subject of focus and automaticity can take over.
Reflecting on that conversation in class took me back to my early graduate work when I was introduced to Ann Berthoff’s work and her description of the “allatonceness” of writing. (I won’t tell you how long it took me to figure out how to pronounce that word—but let me say that writing it as all-at-onceness would have helped greatly.) She says:
In composing, everything happens at once—or it doesn’t happen at all. We make new meanings by means of old ones; we discover what we want to say as we say it and tell ourselves what it is that we are saying; we continually identify relationships and how relationships relate to one another. And all the thinking and languaging is going on as we are trying to construct sentences and paragraphs. (1988, p. 61)
In the midst of this allatonceness, when we are asked to focus on a particular skill such as description, we may feel like we are learning to ride a bike again. “Focus on your balance, keep it going. Don’t forget to pedal. Watch out for that car!” What the concept of allatonceness does, however, is remind us of the need for ambiguity and tentativeness while we are writing. Berthoff, ever striving for evocative metaphors, calls this the “hinges of thought.”
Learning to writing is a matter of learning to tolerate ambiguity, of learning that the making of meaning is a dialectical process determined by perspective and context. Meanings change as we think about them; statements and events, significances and interpretations can mean different things to different people at different times. Meanings are not prebaked or set for all time; they are created, found, formed, and reformed. (1981, 71)
I was heartened to see this statement in my master’s thesis: “Not only do students need other ways of experiencing the allatonceness of writing, but they need to be pointed to particular things that might happen during the writing, so they can both recognize and use these opportunities” (Luce-Kapler, 1994). There I could see the roots of the pedagogy I use today in my teaching of writing. It was reassuring somehow that such a belief has sustained me all these years as I work with writers, the belief that we need to exist in a mindful ambiguity while we write, developing skills that can slide onto the page or the computer screen as we work the “hinges of thought.”
It was interesting going back to this old work; it offered an opportunity to measure the change in my scholarship. Twenty years ago it did not occur to me to follow up on the word allatonceness. I assumed that Berthoff had created it. This time, however, I was not content to leave it there. I did some further research and found that it is usually attributed to media scholar, Marshall McLuhan. He used the term to describe the process of mass communications being shared in unison across widespread communities, leading to his conception of the “global village.” It creates an interesting image when I shift from the global village to my writing process.
What a difference a developed scholarly practice makes—oh yes, and there was that little technological shift called “the internet” that helped too.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Why Scholarly Writers Should Learn to Write Dialogues

When I teach qualitative research methods, I often bring in Ernest Hemingway’s short story, Hills Like White Elephants. While it has some anachronisms in its language and gender attitudes, the piece is still a brilliant example of how writing well-crafted dialogue can tell the whole story—only 257 words of the 1465 are not dialogue as Hemingway powerfully establishes a scene between a man and a woman at a train station in Ebro, Spain. Readers recognize the tensions between them and the dilemma they are facing without these ever being spelled out.
I juxtapose Hemingway’s dialogue with a page of transcript from one of my research projects. While it is clear that these are real people speaking, the students are surprised at how this ‘real’ conversation sounds less ‘real’ than Hemingway’s characters. This activity opens the discussion for what evidence transcripts might offer a research article, but it also underscores the shortcomings of such transcriptions. We consider how the representation of data might require the same kind of skill that literary writers bring to their work.
The first response that some students bring to this discussion is a concern that I am suggesting that they ‘make things up’ in their research. Such an attitude is understandable given their years of schooling where teachers may have made black and white distinctions among genres such as highlighting the ‘untruth’ of fiction and the ‘truth’ of non-fiction. But characterizing the difference in such a way does not recognize the discernment that good researchers and writers bring to their work.
Hemingway imagines the scene between the individuals in his story, but there is no doubt he knows the place he is writing about and the dynamics between individuals—all real details. A researcher studying human interactions could have noticed many of the same features that Hemingway portrayed. Where the skills of the researcher and the writer come together is in the careful noticing and choosing of details that represent their insight, details that invite the reader into the scene to recognize, understand and then respond.
In qualitative research—especially narrative research—we talk about the importance of verisimilitude—something that gives the appearance of being real. It is no coincidence that this is a literary term. Most of us know that a story is not a recounting of something just as it happened; neither is a research article. Using well-recognized and accepted methods, the writer and the researcher use a process of interpreting and constructing an artifact that represents their thinking whether that is an imaginary scene in Ebro or a reporting of an exchange in a classroom. Only when we can offer our readers the specific language that shares our thinking can they then meaningfully respond.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Beautiful Sentencing

I want to write about the beauty of the sentence. In English, our basic sentence is what Ellen Voigt (2009) calls “the fundament” – a subject and a predicate. Or what we might call a noun/pronoun and a verb form. From there, things only become more interesting.
The woman walked. We know who (at least at a general level) and we know what she did. I could add an adjective—The old woman walked—and an adverb—The old woman walked slowly. But I think it best to avoid modifiers if you can choose more particular nouns and verbs. In this case, changing ‘walked slowly’ to ‘shuffled’ would revise the image immediately. The old woman shuffled. Instead of an adverb, I’ll use an adverbial phrase that tells you where she was: down the hospital hallway. I think you are getting the picture.
But now we can play with the sentence, the independent clause, by adding this dependent or subordinate clause: after her visitors went home. The clause alone does not make much sense. Hearing only that we might ask ‘after whose visitors went home’? But the clause really begins to establish a narrative when we add it to our independent clause: The old woman shuffled down the hospital hallway after her visitors went home.
The syntax of the sentence reveals relationships through its choice of clauses and helps to establish the rhythm of a voice. Readers, without being too conscious about it, can see the importance and connections among the words. A complex sentence—like the one above—shows the heart of the sentence and the underlying details that support it. In our example, the woman is the heart, but we understand her response through the dependent clause about the visitors. 
If we revise that sentence to be a compound construction, that is, two independent clauses joined, the relationship changes: The old woman shuffled down the hospital hallway and her visitors went home. The connection between these ideas now shifts. We have two independent actions—what the woman did and what her visitors did, actions that may or may not be causally related. We can speculate about the relationship between these events, but the possibilities are not as clear as with the complex sentence.
Sentences can become even more interesting if we create a larger arrangement of clauses and phrases, what is often called a hypotactic sentence (hypo meaning below, indicating that some phrases are dependent). Here is our sentence in a more ‘hypotactic’ form: The old woman shuffled down the hallway, an activity which she had performed daily for the past week, just as her visitors went home day after day, leaving her alone in a place that she no longer recognized. We begin to see some further causality among events; we can speculate who these visitors are and their relationship to the woman. We begin to predict what is happening to her.
I could play endlessly with this one sentence. For instance, I could make it paratactic—a sentence where all the phrases have equal weight; that is, they are all independent. The old woman shuffled down the hallway; she had performed this activity daily for the past week, and her visitors went home day after day; they left her alone in a place that she no longer recognized. Personally, I like the nuances available in the hypotactic structure, especially for narratives like this little one. Parataxis has its uses, though, particularly when we want our ideas to have equal weight.
It is important to recognize the distinction between simplicity in writing and the complexity of sentences. When I think of simplicity in writing, I do not mean that every sentence should be short; rather, the simplicity comes in the clarity of thinking and in the choice of language. In order to write meaningful complex sentences, you have to know the ideas you are trying to convey and recognize the relationships among them. This is why such sentences often need several rewrites so they are not ‘cluttered’ and the reader can understand your viewpoint. You also need to choose clear, direct words; that is, the best noun or verb to convey your meaning. Aim for the concrete and the evocative rather than the euphemistic and vague. A good illustration of this practice is in William Zinsser’s, On Writing Well, where he quotes from a government memo written in 1942 during the World War II. Zinsser follows this memo with President Roosevelt’s response:
Such preparations shall be made as will completely obscure all Federal buildings and non-Federal buildings occupied by the Federal government during an air raid for any period of time from visibility by reason of internal or external illumination.
“Tell them,” Roosevelt said, “that in buildings where they have to keep the work going to put something across the windows.”
                                                                        (Zinsser, 1988, p. 8)
I want to end this discussion about sentences with an excerpt from the opening of The Purchase, an award-winning novel by Linda Spalding. It beautifully shows the power of explicit language, varying sentence lengths (even sentence fragments), and the power of complex and compound sentences in relation:
Daniel looked over at the daughter who sat where a wife should sit. Cold sun with a hint of snow. The new wife rode behind him like a stranger while the younger children huddled together, coughing and clenching their teeth. The wind shook them and the wagon wounded the road with its weight and the river gullied along to one side in its heartless way. It moved east and north while Daniel and all he had in the world went steadily the other way, praying for fair game and tree limbs to stack up for shelter. “We should make camp while it’s light,” said the daughter, who was thirteen years old and holding the reins. But Daniel wasn’t listening. He heard a wheel grating and the river gullying. He heard his father – the memory of that lost, admonishing voice – but he did not hear his daughter, who admonished in much the same way.
. . . Indeed sentences are powerful allies if you learn to wield their potential.

Friday, December 21, 2012


Mindset: the established set of attitudes held by someone (MacBook Dictionary)
Mindset keeps popping up in my life lately. I blame mindset for everything: when I don’t agree with someone’s theoretical stance, it is their “mindset” that I point to; when I talk about how we can encourage good learning habits in students, I suggest that we have to develop their mindset.
One place where I don’t seem to be using the word enough, however, is with my writing. And it is here where mindset insidiously influences what I do. When I teach, I have no choice but to confront my set of attitudes—teaching happens at a required time, students respond to what happens in class, and external forces demand certain accountings of my practice. I continue to question and be aware. But, except for external deadlines or my annual report, I do not have to face my attitudes about writing.
Do I want to write? Of course I do. Do I think writing is important for my sense of self? Indeed I do. These are not the attitudes I am worried about. I worry more about my attitudes toward getting to that writing—a mindset that suggests I need time to really delve into a piece, that reminds me that I have so many other urgent issues demanding my attention, and that I don’t know what I will say so I should wait until I do. I am sure if you write (or are required to write), you will recognize these attitudes.
What troubles me about this mindset is how easily I let it happen and how easily I let it guide what gets written (or doesn’t). I have to work to change this mindset—and I do think it takes work. Just consider the two parts: mind/set. That sounds pretty stubborn and suggests effort is needed for change to happen.
My challenge, then, for the New Year is to listen to my set mind and interrupt its chatter. When I realize that I am not accomplishing my writing, I can ask why and then create conditions where it can occur. I can account for my practice and stay aware. It's time to move from mindset to mindshift.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Time for Writing

I have met very few people who tell me that they cannot wait to sit down to write. No matter how accomplished they are at this process, it seems that most people struggle to find the discipline needed to meet the blank page. I am the same. Once I sit down and if I persist beyond ten minutes or so, I usually can become absorbed in what I am doing. On the best days, I lose track of time altogether as I write and rewrite. It is that pleasurable absorption that keeps me returning to my laptop or journal. But it never seems to get easier.

The best approach for me has been to observe my habits of avoidance and then counteract those peccadilloes. For instance, if I am not sure what I want to write about, I set a timer on my laptop for thirty minutes or so and just begin to type ideas. The trick is to keep writing something, using that language to cajole my thinking, and keep typing no matter what. After a few minutes, my brain stops trying to talk me out of this foolishness and actually gets interested. Threads appear that point to where my writing should go.

Another thing my brain tries to suggest to me is get up and do something else just when I start writing. Is that not dust on the upper bookshelf? It needs to be taken care of! Is that the oven timer? Perhaps I should go check. So, I have learned to make a deal with my brain. If you want to get up and go somewhere, take the idea you are avoiding with you. Just walk around and think about it for a while--but not long. Set the timer. There's a theme here you see--my writing is like a hard-boiled egg. It needs timing to set properly.

Most of all, I try to think about my resistance as a bit humorous and something of a game. I like to imagine I am outside myself, watching the writer. I ask, "How am I go to play with this writer today?" This approach helps surprisingly. At least I don't get frustrated with my slothful ways. And why do I feel guilty about not writing anyway? (That's a whole other blog entry.)

But more seriously, I find it an interesting phenomenon that I struggle with the opportunity to engage in this creative work. I don't have trouble convincing myself to work in my flower garden or take my camera out in the field. What is it about writing that meets with resistance? Perhaps it is because we narrate ourselves and our experience that our writing becomes the heartbeat of our identity. Perhaps written language shapes us more definitively than other things we do in life--even more than spoken language.

In the meantime, I continue to choose humor over despair. And Margaret Atwood's tips for writing keep me smiling.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Denise Levertov's "The Secret"

I listened again to Denise Levertov's poem, "The Secret," on YouTube and realized why that poem continues to resonate with me. It so beautifully portrays that sense of wonder writers have when readers make strong connections to their words--and especially when those connections reveal interpretations they could never imagine. That is the power of writing--that ability to connect to others we may or may not know and stir memories of experiences about which we know nothing.

That is why it seems important to me that I also understand my relationship to my writing. If I try to write something exactly as it happened (whatever that means), then it suggests that I also feel I must and can control all interpretations of those words. That, of course, is impossible. Rather, I like to begin with the sense that I am writing personally but through the drafting process begin to see that the text is both me and not me. Like any creation of our making, writing becomes something apart from us. It carries the traces of our fingerprints and the images of our memories, but it also lives within the contexts of its genre, the traditions and practices to which it points, and the processes of dissemination. Even our writer's voice, although distinctive, is not isomorphic with our selves.

This kind of thinking tends to tangle me in knots as I try to describe what I sense about my work; we know so much more than we can articulate or even bring to conscious awareness. It is why I enjoy working in groups of writers, hearing back from those readers and seeing my writing in a way that all my self-reflection cannot muster.

It's been almost a month since the scholarly writing class ended . . . I miss our conversations and the writing, but I am determined to continue the blog. The busyness of March and April stopped me for awhile, but it has become a more public space for me to continue to think about these ideas, and I will continue with regular posts.