Monthly Archives: January 2010

What I Know About Writing

Don’t mistake editing for writing.  The domain of one is creation, the other efficacy.  One deals in foment, the other in grooming.  Writing is a great glacier thawing, and editing is building channels that, hundreds and hundreds of miles from the source, bring water to taps.

Editors write and writers edit, but the writer sees more than he or she can manage and struggles to enclose it in a single frame.  An editor who aspires to writing has to stretch a tiny canvas too small for a frame. The writer’s images bloom full and rich, and the editor’s are super attenuated, thin, stylized, and arch. Both might be beautiful, but one for its color and life and the other for its design. An editor knows words and syntax. A writer knows words and syntax count for little.

Thus, when an editor writes, the game is generation—how to make an observation into more than itself.  Wordplay, metaphor, and imagery take the stage, and plot stalls.  If the editor can’t find a subject, at least the writing will be clever and plain.  Occasionally it may even rise to something lyrical.  Effective editing can make a basic idea—an obvious idea—moving.  Still, the magic of editing is the cheapest sort, impressive from only the audience’s angle. It’s artifice they must agree to accept.

Meanwhile, a writer invades dreams, rendering tone and color without translation. A writer sucks the dream into his or her mind.  The editor can barely draw a breath.  Writing isn’t always messy, but when it is, the mess is a nest’s lumpy perfection.  It’s no-other-way-would-do, organic serendipity.  If the writing is neat, it’s crystal, a lattice nature makes by aligning charges.

A shrewd editor is a subtle Dr. Frankenstein who assembles parts so skillfully the borrowing can seem new.  Everything compiled has been used before, but the editor hides the stitches. And it’s all stitches. The parts may be no grander than a well-turned phrase or arresting image, but the editor draws them tight, nearly to impossibility.

Good writers don’t need editors, but sometimes one appears, bag of tools in hand, ready to play amanuensis. “Let me help,” the editor says and hopes blind and brutal effort will put him in the work.  But the editor’s labor nearly always detracts.  What’s made clearer also becomes thinner.  What remains is a less robust and complex version, no longer confusing perhaps, but also no longer art. The editor may take credit for changing cacophony into an aria, but the aria loses its opera.

The writer wants to sing, so does the editor.  But the editor never forgets the audience and awaits applause.  He extends his work only when timing demands and cuts words to avoid threatening patience.  He searches for a nifty place to finish—not true resolution.  He wants out.

And, above all else, an editor is doomed to know he isn’t a writer, doomed to see the difference between fastidious prose and brilliance.  He knows his place, and all too well.


Filed under Art, Doubt, Envy, Essays, Genius, Laments, life, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Writing


Hear me read?

A cat lives in a photographer’s shop I pass on the way to work.  Appropriately black and white, it sits in the window amid perfect couples, wind-blown and airbrushed glamour shots, and vintage sepia made bright again.  She watches me as I watch her, wearing an expression common to cats, indifference bordering on disgust.

The shop is home, and the cat is there all the time.  No matter what time of day, she appears alert to the exact moment I’ll walk by and sits ready to stare me past her storefront.  Sometimes I don’t see her at first.  Then, camouflaged like a porcelain knick-knack among antique frames, she surprises me by turning her head in cold recognition.

I’m a not a cat person.  This cat gives me the creeps.  Nonetheless, sympathy binds us.  Our lives are not so different really.  I’m constrained by my daily round trip and she by the walls of her owner’s business. She has her one perspective on the outer world, and I have my one set of eyes.  The cat looks out from the detritus of her inner life, the sanitized and staged memories of the photographer. My memories are mine—and I hope less chintzy—but we spy the world from what we know.

Recently, I’ve been staying late at the school where I work.  By the time I’ve finished, all my colleagues are gone.  Some of the night shift may be trading anecdotes at the reception desk, and one or two stragglers might sit in the vestibule waiting to be picked-up by late parents, but the school is otherwise empty.  No one hears me sigh out all the laborious hours or sees me swaddling myself to face Chicago January.  Just out of the door, I start thinking about the cat, anticipating her at her guard post watching.

Up until the other day, she has been my last goodnight, a face to greet my regular retreat.  But on a particularly windy, cold, and wet evening I walked past her shop to find her not awake or alert but curled in a black and white circle like a stole, her face altogether hidden.

I thought of stopping to rap on the window.  It didn’t seem fair she should sleep when I was still awake.  More than that though, a melancholy overtook me—I wondered what her sleeping meant, not just to me but to us, we watchers between our inner and outer lives. I felt unsettled, as if that cat’s sleep somehow made the world strange.

The literature I teach tells me mortality is humanity’s driving thought and obsession, but I rarely feel that.  I did then.  I pictured a time my wife, my kids, my mom, my brothers and sisters, my friends, and my colleagues might be sleeping.  I might be sleeping.  The photographs will still sit on the shelves, the world will still be outside the window, but who will bridge them?  What will those images mean to those who stay?  Can they mean as much?

All the way home the cat remained asleep in my imagination, and I returned with a different spirit.  Everyone got a hug. I got a hug. We live.

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Filed under Doubt, Essays, Haiti, Home Life, Hope, life, Meditations, Teaching, Thoughts

The Mitty Life

I rarely remember dreams.  My brain atomizes everything before I wake.  The imagery and action dissolves, and the swirl of the morning whisks it away.  But I remember daydreams—perhaps because they’re such a big part of my life.

Psychologists say we spend one-third to one-half of our time daydreaming.  My days are too full to imagine five to eight hours of reverie, but I might find bliss in that life.  I might enjoy it too much.

Daydreaming is supposed to be mental rehearsal, practice for encounters you’ll have later or a chance to shuffle and reshuffle what you want to say.  Some people believe we should harness the power of daydreams to conceive and create a better life.  For me, they are mostly fantasy, meetings I wish could happen and phrases I know I’ll never speak.

James Thurber’s Walter Mitty imagined life as a pilot, surgeon, and assassin. My mental sorties are never so dramatic, but just as impractical.  My daydreams return to crossroads and take the other way, moving to other cities, pursuing other careers, befriending other people, arriving at other intersections altogether.  “If I could go back knowing what I do now,” they begin, “I might now be more abstemious, wise, warm, and sane.”

The other day, when I should have been grading my 32nd paper, I started my own school in a brownstone in a Philadelphia.  Downstairs, the living room holds a giant seminar table, and at its center sits a bowl of fruit, a carafe of coffee, a pitcher of orange juice, a plate of bagels and cream cheese.  The students arrive one by one, each shouldering a heavy backpack or satchel but smiling, anxious to begin.  Upstairs, another student toils at work he’s started early.  His typing is loud enough to be heard downstairs, and when he drifts down for our morning meeting, we tease him about his work habits.  Then the seven of us—“How can you really educate more than seven people at a time?” I often daydream—we begin to eat and discuss the day’s business.  My partner (and also my best friend) teaches science and math. I teach history and English.  But really the subject headings don’t matter because we all teach everything, so we take turns interrogating the students about their projects and progress.  They are earnest and bright and say so much that demonstrates how far they’ve traveled in our care.  When we send most of them upstairs, they groan playfully.  The two who remain fish work from their laptops and move to sit beside us.

They are visibly grateful for all the personal attention we give them, and their parents pay us very well.

Sometimes I worry sighing over what might have been steals oxygen from my real life. Contemplating revisions suggests I’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere and am all wrong. Yet I don’t feel a failure in my daydreams. Quite the contrary.  When I’m too busy to daydream, troubles gather in tight knots nothing teases apart. Maybe I can’t find hope without practicing impossibilities.

I probably don’t need to say how far the brownstone is from my actual school. I hear Pollyannas telling me the scene is a vision of a life I ought to lead, but to me building something practical between them isn’t the point.  Planning like that isn’t even interesting enough for a daydream.

What I want from daydreams is relief, thoughts to drift through the bars of here and now, visits refreshing enough to get me back to work.


Filed under Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Hope, life, Meditations, Teaching, Thoughts, Work

Teaching Interpretation

“Interesting,” the student begins, “But did the writer mean to do that?”

I’ve heard the question thousands of times in thousands of forms… some not so deferential. Students are naturally skeptical about which insights belong to the teacher and which to the author, and, understandably, they want to know… how much of writing is intentional and how much is discovered?

Last year, we invited Joe Meno to our school and, in anticipation of his visit, read a few of his short stories. Class discussions revealed all sorts of interesting connections between his imagery and themes, between dialogue and the particular fate that befell characters, between phrasing and meaning. Subtle distinctions all.  However, when a student asked Meno, “What do you think about when you’re writing?  Do you plan?” the author said, in effect, “I let the story tell itself. I don’t plan at all.”

A few minutes later, he’d explain how important revision was to his writing, all the hours and millions of choices that go into making a story exactly what you want it to be.  By then, however, the damage was done.

Back in class, students wanted to talk. Some took Mr. Meno’s answer in stride.  Whether he intended what we’d discovered or not, they said, it didn’t negate our thinking or make our careful reading any less valuable, admirable, or fun for us. I heard the comparison I’ve heard so many times—a work of art is like a child. Once it goes into the world, it’s on its own, no longer the parents’ charge.

They were defending me, trying to reassure me I still had a job.  But other students said, “See? I told you we over-read everything,” and meant, “See? English is bullshit.”  My most defensive students crowed with vindication.  They’d been saying, “If I don’t see it, it can’t be there,” and “reading should be pleasurable. It shouldn’t require resourcefulness or insight.” Now they had proof.

I was just as defensive, only in a different way. I wanted to believe Mr. Meno was disingenuous and was playing the classmate I knew in high school who told me he never studied a minute for the AP European History tests. He thought greater virtue came from success—or greater protection from failure—if he hadn’t really tried.  Truth was, he studied as much as I did (a lot)… he was just cooler.

Mr. Meno, however, was being honest.  I couldn’t explain his answer away so easily. My own writing experience helped me picture the method he described, sitting down with little more than a clever phrase, a curious moment, or echoing anecdote.  I could imagine an unphrased question I wanted to answer that still can’t be phrased after pages and pages of composition.  Anyone who’s done any writing knows we write to think just as much as we think to write.

Yet, what do you tell young writers who rely exclusively on serendipity, who look for any excuse not to revise, rethink, or refine work?  How do you convince them writing can be work—and that good writers don’t mind the work?  How do you help them balance the accidental and intentional yin and yang of creativity?

In the months since Mr. Meno’s visit, I’ve been rethinking the way I approach interpretation. Though Joe Meno’s stories may seem unrestrained and unstrained, I suspect he plays AND plans. He may be open to possibilities as he composes but would be foolish not to take advantage of happy accidents as well. Revision creates that pull to focus, develop, and enhance what the subconscious churns up.  And Meno, like any author, must at least sense when an image, metaphor, or line of dialogue is right.  Even if authors don’t know why, even if they leave it to readers to explain their choices, the words and phrases they allow to remain have been approved, ratified as what some subconscious or conscious part of them wanted, intended.

I’m teaching creative writing this semester and am finding more comfort in this answer.  Talking about choices instead of intentions may be semantics but, discussing what authors say instead of asserting what they are trying to say is more relaxing.  If a writer can’t know his or her intent fully, a reader has to guess too.  It’s only fair.  I don’t want to stir up anyone’s defensiveness (theirs or mine) by providing “solutions” anymore.  I’d rather address why this word, line, or sentence seems right, how it contributes to the pleasure of interpretation.

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Filed under Art, Doubt, Education, Essays, Fiction, Fiction writing, High School Teaching, life, Meditations, Teaching, Thoughts, Work, Writing

After This

I’m teaching creative writing this term and will ask my class to write a short short story (less than 750 words).  I’ve never felt fiction was my particular gift, but I wanted to try the task before I assigned.  This piece is a sketch, really…

Tom drew three superheroes in the margins of his math book.  An asterisk emblazoned the upper left of Footnote Man’s chest—toxic waste granted him the power to offer background information. Columns and rows covered the unitard of his friend Categorizer, who magically knew the proper place for everything.  In the background, drawn lightly in pencil, stood The Grey Metaphor.  One arm outstretched and pointing, he explained a murky issue in an equally murky way.

Tom smiled. He was staying in the school library as long as he could, worried he’d arrive home to find his mother getting drunk instead of snoozing on the couch.  The librarian would throw him out about five and then he’d dawdle.  Maybe he’d take the bus several stops too far.  If his mother was awake, that’d be his excuse—he’d absent-mindedly looked up and discovered himself well past home. He hadn’t used that story.

But his twenty pages of Huck Finn were read.  He filled the blanks of a worksheet on Jacksonian democracy.  He completed problems 7-31, odd.  He had nothing else to do but draw not-so-superheroes.

The librarian woke him from his reverie. “Tom?”

“I know.”

He stacked his books before sliding them into his backpack.  He never locked eyes with Ms. Coulter.  Their eyes were similar magnetic poles, repellent, slippery.

She said, “Wait, Ms. Davis and I will be here for a half-hour or so. It’s just that…”

Tom recognized a question forming in her tone, concern brewing. He needed a getaway.

“No, I’ve got to go, actually,” he said, “My mom’s probably outside already.”

“Where’s your jacket?  It’s cold out.”

“In my locker.  I’ll grab it.”

November waited outside.  It fit Tom’s heroic code that he go without a coat.  Last year’s didn’t fit, but he’d borrowed as many stray fives as he dared from his mother’s purse.  Just out the door, the wind whipped up Tom’s pants’ legs, and he flinched.

A stranger Tom knew stood in the bus shelter. He remembered him because he was about his father’s height and build.  Tom could ask his dad for a coat, but since the remarriage and new baby, his father’s promises seemed more half-hearted. And Tom didn’t want to nag.  Tom’s dad paid for Catholic school, and his biggest promise—college—loomed. Tom replayed a scene he’d imagined many times, his dad glancing over acceptance letters and praising Tom for bearing up so well. Almost two weeks had passed since he’d spoken to his dad. Tom’s cell phone was dead, and he hadn’t told him yet.  Climbing on the bus after his bus buddy, he resolved to go to his room and call his dad as soon as he got home.

Usually, Tom walked in and turned off the TV to rouse his mother. They’d sleepwalk through a frozen food dinner.  He’d set the table, bringing forks from a drawer beside the unused stove.  Last night when he’d shuffled through the drawer, his mother held her head and groaned. A divider once kept the silverware apart, but that’d been lost in a move.

She didn’t like work. He didn’t like school. They found little else to talk about.  Occasionally, she smiled and patted his hand as they sat silently, and he smiled back. He believed he was past blaming himself for how she was and consoled himself with being gone soon, but sometimes he worried.

And his stomach ached, as if the furnace burning there used its fuel and still raged, baking its sides to a red, pulsing glow. At the thought, he doubled.  His father’s doppelganger looked up from his crossword and began to form a question with his eyes before returning to work.

He was fourteen when his mother took him to a diner to tell him his father was having an affair and had moved out. Tom couldn’t watch his mother crying, so all he remembered were shuffling salt and pepper shakers as he rolled them around in his two hands, placing one and then the other ahead. She blamed his dad. His dad blamed his mom. Tom wanted out most of all.

Tom closed his eyes, and the city’s lights crossed through his eyelids.  He pictured the room he’d dreamed for himself, books spread out over his bedcover in a neat rainbow.  In this scene, he laughed over something his invented roommate said. As always, the still was of a time after this.

He looked up to see his corner bus stop fly past.


Filed under Doubt, Education, Experiments, Fiction, Fiction writing, High School Teaching, life, Parenting, Teaching, Thoughts, Writing