Grind & Gristle

Month: November, 2014

How to write it right the first time

As much as we’d like to think so, we’re hardly coherent in our first attempts to articulate an idea or tell a story. Yet just imagine how nice it would be to speak and write fluently, clearly, and beautifully any time we tried. It’s in this that I would like to excel. Wouldn’t you?

…freewriting also brings a surface coherence to your writing and it does so immediately. You cannot write really incoherently if you write quickly. You may violate the rules of correctness, you may make mistakes in reasoning, you may write foolishness, you may change directions before you have said anything significant. That is, you may produce something like “Me and her we went down and saw the folks but wait that reminds me of the thing I was thinking about yester oh dam what am I really trying to say.” But you won’t produce syntactic chaos: language that is so jumbled that when you read it over you are frightened there is something the matter with you.
However, you wouldn’t be frightened if you looked more closely at how you actually produced that verbal soup. If you had movies of yourself you would see yourself starting four or five times and throwing each start away and thereby getting more and more jumbled in your mind; finally starting; stopping part way through the sentence to wonder if you are on the wrong track and thereby losing your syntactic thread. You would see yourself start writing again on a slightly different piece of syntax from the one you started with, then notice something really wrong and fix it and lose the thread again; so when you finally conclude your sentence, you are actually writing the conclusion of a different sentence from the ones you had been writing. Thus, the resulting sentence— whether incorrect or just impossibly awkward—is really fragments of three different syntactic impulses or sentences-in-the-head tied together with baling wire.

– Peter Elbow, Writing With Power

The wrong time to daydream

There was moment this morning, while I was copying out a book by hand, in which I suddenly felt completely mindless. I noticed I was daydreaming, and I suddenly became aware of the fact that I was just ‘going through the motions’, and not actually learning. It frightened me. The whole point of copying, of course, is to deliberately become a more skilled writer.  Yet even though deliberate practice is meant to be difficult, I’ve come to find this daily hour relaxing. Realizing that I was hardly even thinking scared me. If I’m not actively thinking and learning, what the heck am I getting out of this hour I spend every morning?

The takeaway question: Are there any activities in your life that have become mindless? Is there anything in which you’ve begun ‘going through the motions’ without realizing it?

Hard-to-find insights in long-form journalism

What if you only used books to solve very urgent practical problems, and otherwise you didn’t read? How would you read those books? Would you try to read them from cover to cover? Or would you skim the books for the information and insights that offer solutions? Wouldn’t you be more selective?

Do you feel bad for not reading the whole dictionary? If you’re like me, you crack it open with a very specific problem in mind: “What does this word mean?” You’re not looking for anything besides a particular definition, and you’re not easily distracted by all the other information on the page. You find your answer and get back to whatever you were doing.

Ideally this is how we -or rather, I – would use Google, but that’s not often the case. Links lead to links lead to more links, and by the time you remember what you were doing in the first place, you’ve lost a lot of time. Oftentimes it’s easier to click-through than it is to decide whether links are worth clicking at all. I wonder, can you go a whole day without falling for a hyperlink?

The dictionary is designed for easy referencing, as are books like How To Read A Book and How To Win Friends and Influence People. The authors have taken care to organize their ideas and label them in ways that help the reader find what’s needed. But what about insightful books that are written as long-form journalism? Influence and Malcolm Gladwell’s works come to mind. There are gems of insight in these, but you have to weed through the excess of storytelling to find them.  Since the authors haven’t provided or highlighted their books’ structures, you have to do it yourself.

How do you mark these books to make them easier to reference?

Do you forget to write what you mean?

When you drive, your main objective is to get from A to B. But when you’re a beginner, you fret the details. There are so many little things to remember… mirrors, gears, gas, and breaks, not to mention the other cars driving around. You’re nervous before you even turn the key. You tentatively back into the road, jerking your breaks when a car passes close by. Then you slow down too much before the intersection, even though there’s no stop sign. When you hit traffic, you’re overwhelmed. You forget your main objective, which is still just to get to B.

Before you get comfortable with all the little actions that make up a short drive, you’ll sweat every single one of them. You might even lose sight of your ultimate destination because you’re so anxious about the intervening steps. You’ll forget, when it comes down to it, that all you need to do is get from A to B without bumping into anything.

The same goes for writing. You’ve got your great idea, i.e. your destination. But you sit down to write and suddenly you’re overwhelmed by the complexity of the situation. “In order to get my point across, I’ve got to write words, then sentences, then paragraphs! I’ve got to use logic, rhetoric, and grammar, too!” If you haven’t been writing much, you’ll sweat. And if, like most, you begin your work at the top of a blank page, the situation can be really terrifying.

Before you begin, make sure you know where you want to go. What are you trying to say? What’s your destination? Keep this in mind as you go along. Take the most direct route, and try not to bump into anything. You’ll be fine.

Are sentences keeping you from writing?

One of the primary functions of imitation is its problem solving capacity. It makes use of experience – one’s own and that of others – to find solutions. Applied to writing, imitation means that we do not need to invent a new form every time we want to express an idea. Trial-and-error writing depends too much on reinventing the wheel. Much more efficient is to ask: How has this this problem been solved before? – Dana Gorrell

Picture this:

You’re taking a long, hot shower. All of a sudden you have an epiphany. A big idea has just surfaced out of the depths of your subconscious, and you want to write about it. You come up with a title for your piece on the spot and hurry to write it down before it slips your memory. You’re excited, and you’ve got high hopes for how this idea will pan out. All you need to do now is sit down and flesh it out on paper. Easy, right? Not really.

A few days after your epiphany you sit down with the intention to write. You start to struggle. You sit there staring down the page, fingers ready, brows furrowed. You write one sentence at a time, fretting for five minutes before you write the next. Maybe you string together half a sentence, but then… oh no, you lost it. There was no good way to finish it, so you delete it. Back to square one. You’re certain you have a great idea, but it’s simply impossible to spit it out. You’re stumbling over the words, so you continue to sit there scratching your head… thinking, but not writing.

We all have great ideas mulling about in our heads, but when it comes time to articulate those ideas – to speak or put them on paper – we struggle. Why? Why is it so much more difficult to actually write down our ideas than it is to think about them?

In my experience, it’s because I’m not comfortable writing sentences. I don’t think in sentences, let alone paragraphs. My mind flits from idea to idea, giving me the impression I’m thinking, yet when I sit down to write I realize there are no sentences. There’s no shape or form to the thoughts I have throughout the day. The struggle of writing is in giving shape to those thoughts: sorting them, arranging them, finding the words with which to say them. It’s hard to shove your ideas through the filter of syntax, and it’s even harder if you’ve trying to do it all yourself. Where can we look for help?

How about our favorite authors? Instead of deferring to our old teachers’ rules for proper writing, how would our favorite writers solve the problem? How would they express your idea? Hunt for sentences and passages that express ideas like yours. What makes them effective, beautiful, or compelling? Analyze their form. What structures do they use to express themselves? How many clauses do they use? What pronouns? Substitute your words in for theirs. This is the approach I’ve been taking recently, and it’s gotten me through the initial phase of writing – getting thoughts on paper – better than anything I’ve tried before. There’s an entire method of teaching composition through studying and imitating the masters, and I plan to write more about it. For now I’ll leave you with an analogy.

Do you know how classical musicians learn their craft? They don’t improvise in the beginning. Rather, they train themselves by imitating the masters who preceded them. They spend years studying and practicing pieces by classic composers until they know them by heart. Only then, if at all, do they make their own music. Likewise, renaissance painters developed their skills by apprenticing under and imitating the masters before them. Why not do the same with writing?