Archive for July, 2009

Randomness Helps

I first encountered the power of randomness in Natalie Goldberg’s seminal Writing Down the Bones.  This book taught me to put pen on paper and write freely for ten minutes or twenty minutes, refusing to correct or judge what emerges, refusing to stop moving my pen even if it is writing gibberish. If you really practice this, you’ll be amazed at what comes out.  I used to go to the park with my friend Jeannie, sit down on the grass, open our notebooks, shout “go!” and write for twenty minutes. When the time was up we would read out loud what we’d written, then do it again. Beautiful, beautiful writing came out of this exercise–and terrible, terrible writing as well.

Often what triggered the shift from terrible to beautiful was the sudden interruption of a train of thought by something unexpected, seemingly random: a memory of a long-forgotten dream; a glimpse caught of the unusual person sitting in the next booth; a word like “squash;” an impulsive shift to writing in all caps.  Much later, this discipline of welcoming randomness helped me write a poem like this:

At Sea


You are sleeping now and I am struggling to fold

your itty-bitty laundry: tiny shirts that slip

through my hands like little fish with

silvery snaps for eyes and funny stiff collars attached

–which on a fish might serve for navigation

or propulsion, but on you?


Years ago I stood on a dock and watched the sea

come billowing toward me.  I thought,

God is shaking out the bedclothes.

Now you are sleeping in your crib

and I am the god

and my great clumsy paws cannot fold

these little shirts nor keep them

from sailing away.


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It’s a good habit to step back and look for the personal ruts you will inevitably develop in your writing.  One of mine is writing strings of three:  three phrases, three examples, three synoyms in a row to emphasize a point.  (See how I did it just now?)  I like the feel of three beats or breaths: it’s complete and yet pleasingly off-balance.  When I do it too often, though, the writing gets tired, and so does the reader. It’s a good habit to discover your habits and break them. 

But! As I write this advice, I keep thinking of pieces of writing I admire which employ this habit of threes.  And I admire them so much that I want to share them with you! So here are three texts that use threes. 

Thomas Lux:

Your baby grows a tooth, then two,

and four, and five, then she wants some meat

directly from the bone. It’s all


over: she’ll learn some words, she’ll fall

in love with cretins, dolts, a sweet

talker on his way to jail. And you,


your wife, get old, flyblown, and rue

nothing.  You did, you loved, your feet

are sore. It’s dusk. Your daughter’s tall.


Women of Troy,

They looked now toward the ships, uncertainly,

with animosity, half in unhappy love

of landscapes there before them, half still bound

to fated realms calling them onward–and

the goddess on strong wings went up the sky

traversing a great rainbow under clouds.

Now truly wrought upon by signs and wonder,

wrought to a frenzy, all cried out together, 

snatching up fire from hearths, despoiling altars,

taking dry foliage, brush, and brands to throw.

And Vulcan, god of fire, unbridled raged

through rowing thwarts and oars and piney hulls.

Ron Hansen, Mariette in Ecstasy:

Children stare in the grocery as if they know ghostly stories about me, and I hear the hushed talk when I hobble by or lose the hold in my hands, but Christ reminds me, as he did in my greatest distress, that he loves me more, now that I am despised, than when I was so richly admired in the past.

And Christ still sends me roses. We try to be formed and held and kept by him, but instead he offers us freedom. And now when I try to know his will, his kindness floods me, his great love overwhelms me, and I hear him whisper, Surprise me.

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I can’t write about writing without quoting Annie Dillard.

One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time.  Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.  The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now.  Something more will arise for later, something better.  These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water.  Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive.  Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you.  You open your safe and find ashes.”

This is from Dillard’s book The Writing Life, a slim volume I am happy not to have had to live without.  The above words are good advice for life in general, of course, and are not new.  Carpe diem, Just Do It, the parable of the buried talent–it’s in the present that life happens. 

So what makes this hard to grab hold of in the act of writing?  Why is getting words down on paper or screen–any words–often the hardest part of the process?  Dillard suggests it’s an impulse to hoard: we fear we have only a limited number of words.  I think it’s also the impulse to cling to the known, the safe.  It’s as if we’re standing on a ledge in the wall of a great cliff or cave.  Hard rock supports our back and feet.  The blank page is the void in front of us; to put words on it is to leap off.  Leap off.

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The Sock

One of the best ways to improve a piece of writing is to look at how it’s organized.  Like the government, like your dresser drawers, like the fleeting hours of your day, writing functions better when its parts–words and sentences and paragraphs–adhere to a clear structure.  A muddled piece of writing can take a great leap forward when you locate in the mass of sentences you’ve tossed on paper the best beginning, best ending, and best connections between them. 

Years of looking at writing both student and professional have yielded this truth: your best beginning is never in the sentences you wrote first.  The sentences you wrote first are almost always rather weak: a warmup.  Often it’s best to discard them.  Often you can find a gem of an opener buried in the middle of your draft, and sometimes at the very end.  Nothing pleases me as an editor more than plunging my hand deep into a text, pulling it inside out like a sock and saying, “What about starting it this way?”

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If you spend much time consciously wearing the funny hat called, “I am a writer,” you will soon–hopefully–learn that writing well has as much to do with successfully ignoring yourself as it does with putting grand thoughts into words.  You must find the chutzpah to speak and at the same time muster the humility to scrutinize what’s being spoken.  Is it true?  Is it memorable?  Is it worth keeping?  Good writers ruthlessly slash any words that don’t meet these standards.

It can be tricky, this balancing act of the ego.  Too much chutzpah and you’ll miss the mistakes; too much humility and your words–perfect but puny–may miss saying anything at all.

Sometimes, I can find the balance my writing needs by closing my eyes.  Like Luke Skywalker, tracking the orb with his light saber while blindfolded, I can sometimes reach what I’m aiming for by removing the sense that is both too literal and too slow.  It’s just weird enough to write or type with one’s eyes closed that one’s words can escape some of their conventional straitjackets.  Try it–then open your eyes and slash it all down to the one amazing sentence you would never have written in the safety of daylight.

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One of my favorite writers on writing is Peter Elbow.  He says this:

Encourage conflicts or contradictions in your thinking.  We are usually taught to avoid them; and we cooperate in this teaching because it is confusing or frustrating to hold two conflicting ideas at the same time.  It feels like a dead end or a trap but really it is the most fruitful situation to be in.  Unless you can get yourself into a contradiction, you may be stuck with no power to have any thoughts other than the ones you are already thinking.

I am one of those people who were taught to avoid conflict and to root out contradictions in my thought, my words, and in the words of anyone around me with whom I didn’t immediately agree.  So when I started seriously learning to write, I had to find ways to nourish a new habit of fruitful contrariness.  How?  Journal like crazy.

If engaging contradictions is in fact a requirement for the production of strong, interesting language, and if argument makes you feel trapped or stalled, then you need a place to write where you can hyperventilate in private.  In the pages or on the screen of your journal, no one is watching you or grading you or paying you or refusing to pay you for what you are writing.  You are free to look like an idiot while you learn to argue with yourself and with ideas:

You might start by writing a page of sentences starting with “I think.”  Then write an equal number of rejoinders: how do you know? what about this? what if that? and the ultimate argumentative conjunction, BUT…

But you do not have to be so formal about it.  The very act of pushing pen across paper will generate contradictions.  All you have to do is give yourself permission to welcome them.

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