Posts Tagged ‘writing’


To keep his errors down to a minimum, the internal Censor to whom a poet submits his work in progress should be a Censorate. It should include, for instance, a sensitive only child, a practical housewife, a logician, a monk, an irreverent buffoon and even, perhaps, hated by all the others and returning their dislike, a brutal, foul-mouthed drill sergeant who considers all poetry rubbish. — W. H. Auden (from “Writing” in The Dyer’s Hand) via my friend David Michael’s commonplace book.


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Looking for Lies

I had a teacher in grad school who taught me to look for lies in my writing. She had her students bring in ten published lies–found anywhere–to a class discussion. One of the lies I learned to find in my poems was the insistent happy ending. The too-tidy resolution. Also: the self-conscious adoption of various rhythmic or thematic trends. I learned to ask: is this true? what makes it true? what would make it truer? Often the answer is more research, more rewriting. Sometimes the answer is more living, more time. Sometimes the answer is prayer.

Rock Bottom Prayer

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If you’ve seen the second Toy Story movie, you’ll remember the ancient repairer of toys who sews Woody’s arm back on and who touches up the paint on his hair and the bottoms of his shoes. You’ll remember the funny glasses he puts on, fitted with multiple hinged lenses he can flip on or off at will. That pair of glasses is a useful metaphor when you want to improve a piece of writing. Viewing the work through different lenses will allow you to see the errors–not just typos or grammar mistakes, but also lazy pronouns that confuse the reader, subtle shifts away from the topic you’ve promised to explore, and tiny, outright lies.

A good editor switches lenses a lot. She’ll go microscopic, choosing one word to look for throughout a text–a word like “as,” for example, or all the verbs. Suddenly a problem will come into focus: the writer is relying too heavily on conditional clauses to open her sentences, or he’s pounding us with so many active verbs that we can’t catch our breath and want to quit reading. A good editor will also use a macroscopic view, holding the whole work in his hands and asking, so what? or what is the thrust of the argument here?

Like a three-dimensional, much-loved, artificially crafted cowboy doll, a piece of writing can be handled, ripped apart, and repaired. And like Woody, our writing needs a second pair of eyes to make it better.

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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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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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