Writing is Not Like…

For the past year or so, I’ve contemplated the ways that writing is like many other everyday tasks we undertake. In that time, I’ve reached for some unlikely comparisons. (See baseball, cooking, going on vacation.) As the year comes to a close, I’d like to reverse course and think about what writing isn’t like—besides badminton and motocross, of course.

photo by Bohman

photo by Bohman

Writing is not like magic.

They say everyone has a book in them, and this may well be true. But it’s not really a book until it’s on the outside, and that’s where the writing comes in. Having a good idea, feeling inspired, setting up your desk just-so: all of these can contribute to happy writing. But the only way to write is to write. Sit down and stare at the blank screen for a while and eventually begin.

At the end of every semester, I ask my undergraduate students to start a novel and think about outlining the whole book. Often they are surprised by how fast they shoot through their initial concept and into unknown territory, and how much the story they’ve imagined changes as they write. The writing process depends on thought and creativity, not muses, the right chair, or a killer concept. This stark fact may be why so many people you meet on airplanes have books that remain unwritten. There are no spells or potions; just deep thought, hard work, and the willingness to get it wrong before you get it right.Continue Reading

My Dog Made Me A Better Writer

is=Yup6aQQ-=up6RKKt-xxr=o-qpDPfX7RPfr=Uofrj7t=zrRfDUX-eQaQxg=r Two years ago next week, my dog died. I still miss him for many reasons, but what I miss the most is his companionship while I write.  It’s a strange thing to sit inside all day, not even on the phone or online, simply communing with the imaginary people in your head. But it’s a choice a dog can readily understand.  He never questioned my presence, my lack of motion, my seeming distraction. He accepted that important work can be done that is largely invisible and, perhaps, that this is some of the best work of all.

It’s perhaps a strange, contradictory desire to want companionship in a practice of a craft best pursued in isolation. But writers do seek companionship while writing, in myriad ways—through music, a favorite object, even an imagined or eventual reader.  I spent one winter listening to the same Bon Iver album over and over every time I sat down at my desk. Weird, yes, but as the notes of the first song rung out, I relaxed into my chair and felt welcome. I wouldn’t be alone at my desk as I began to pick out a story.   For a while, I was a member of the Writers’ Room of Boston, which provides quiet workspace for writers, no talking allowed. (The chalkboard in the bathroom is another story.) But still, being surrounded by others hard at work on their books, articles and other projects, even thought I could not talk to them, was both inspiring and cheering; the best of both worlds: companionship and quiet, community and contemplation.Continue Reading

Writing is Like Making Snowballs

Photo by redjar

Photo by redjar

It snowed today. It was supposed to snow, but only for a minute, and it was not supposed to stick.  Instead it snowed all day and as the sun went down at 4:30 (alas) the snow was still there on the lawn.  And while part of me is so not ready for the onset of sneaky snow days, another part was perversely pleased. It was an object lesson in waiting for things to add up.

For the past few months, I’ve been waiting for my writing to add up. I’ve written a short story, attempted a return to the beginnings of a novel, but have mostly been reading and casting about for my next project. Lately, one-off stories or essays don’t feel like enough. I’m looking for something bigger to wrap my arms around. It’s not writer’s block—I’m still writing—but I want my work to add up to something larger. I don’t want snowflakes. I want snowballs.

In writing, there’s a process of thought and accrual that happens before an idea is fully formed. It’s a largely invisible, idiosyncratic, highly disorganized process that I still haven’t figured out. Perhaps a surrender to the chaos of it is what’s necessary, even as I crave purpose and order. Continue Reading

Revising Like Alice(s)

Alice MunroeThere has been a flurry of praise for Alices lately—Munro for her much-deserved Nobel, McDermott for her highly-praised new novel Someone—and it has me thinking about why these two authors are having a cultural moment.

They write about women, often small domestic lives, the kind of characters and plots deemed deeply unsexy by literary tastemakers. They’re not churning out Big Important Books or doorstop-style great American you-know-whats. (Though if Charming Billy isn’t a great American you-know-whats, I don’t know what is.)

They’re going small, peering over shoulders, into hearts and minds, showing us what it means to be alive. Munro claimed her prize for short stories, hoping that readers would no longer see them as mere weigh stations on the road to a novel. McDermott writes longer, but her novels are still lithe and compact, an act of condensation and concentration. Both women intensify the ordinary, finding the meaning we all see in our lives.

The Alices perform this magic through precision of word, sentence, and story, and they achieve this breathtaking correctness, this fictional poetry, because they are brave enough to write shorter, to compress until every image resonates. In short, they are brave enough to revise. How else could they achieve such power? Cutting out, paring down, making essential: these daring acts are what make stories sing. But they’re often the hardest ones to perform.

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Punctuation I Have Known And Loved

by Leo Reynolds

by Leo Reynolds

Fall is correcting season for me, and while I try not to turn into the grammar police while I’m reading, I usually cannot resist the chance to amend errors. One of my all time favorites was an essay that suggested that two parties in disagreement solve their problem in a “civilized manor.”  I can picture it right now: the columns, the portico, the cucumber sandwiches. If such a place existed, surely Middle East peace would be achieved.

Beyond the homonym confusion wrought by spellcheck, the most glaring problem I notice—particularly among my creative writing students who are trying to wring original meaning from each sentence—is punctuation. They have no idea how to use most of it. Periods, sure. Exclamation points: irresistible. Anything more nuanced escapes them. And yes, I know you’re reading over this post again to judge my punctuation. And that’s my point. I think even many accomplished writers disagree over their usage. Here I consider the ways they seduce and confuse.

The sexy semicolon and its friend, the humble uninspiring period.

Let’s face it: periods are boring. Mere dots. How can they compare to the semicolon, shaped like a tadpole or a wagging puppy? My students sprinkle semicolons liberally when trying to sound more sophisticated and mysterious. As a result their writing ends up confused and ambiguous.

I constantly argue for the humble period. It’s emphatic and clear. It doesn’t stop you from writing long, flowery sentences filled with deep and meaningful thoughts that lead the reader into deep meditation on the meaning of human life. Periods are elegant. Chic, even. Sure, semicolons seduce with their shape and strangeness, and they have a place in prose. But not nearly as often as many writers would like. (For more on how to use a semicolon and hold your head up high, see this comic from The Oatmeal.)

By Leo Reynolds

By Leo Reynolds

What’s an em-dash?

I like to think of the em-dash as the literary equivalent of breaking the fourth wall. It’s when Michael Scott or Frances Underwood turns to the camera and addresses the audience, interrupting the scene unfolding behind him. According to the AP stylebook, it signals an “abrupt change,” or it can be used to indicate “a series within a phrase.”

One of the main problems with the em-dash, of course, is its name, which speaks to its length (the width of the letter m) and differentiates it from its shorter cousin the en-dash (the width of the letter n). All of this talk sounds very Guttenberg, very inside baseball for many of my student writers, who simply have a story to tell. There’s more than one kind of dash? Who knew?

Again, knowledge of this funky form of punctuation—the ability to break into any sentence and proclaim a tangential but related thought and attract attention while doing so because you’ve built the reader a little bridge to get to your island of insight—leads quickly to the neglect of the humble comma, which does yeoman’s work and is often the correct and necessary choice. But it’s also so much less intriguing. For more on the modern proliferation of em-dashes, see  Slate’s “The Case Against the Em-Dash.”

By Leo Reynolds

By Leo Reynolds

Upside down Questions and Exclamations

I never took Spanish but I was always jealous of that upside down question mark at the beginning of sentences. Turns out you can use an upside down exclamation point too. They serve to alert the reader in advance to the kind of sentence they are about to read, signposts pointing them in the right direction.

But I have to say I’m thankful that they don’t exist in English. My students love exclamation marks almost as much as Elaine Bennis and they enjoy, too, sprinkling in question marks where they don’t belong, in the name of some sort of punctuational variety or proof to me that their vast punctuational knowledge. Again and again, I tell them that dialogue written well, with specificity, does not require assistance from punctuation; the meaning is there.

Sadly, this semester, their nods were all disbelieving. Some even questioned me aloud. But then we read a passage in Ron Carlson’s wonderful book, Ron Carlson Writes a Story, in which he makes the exact same point. Angels sang. Light streamed through the windows. Insight was achieved.

Like the other punctuation mentioned here, these marks and points have their place. But less, when it comes to punctuation, is almost always more.

Of course, my students are not the only guilty parties here. When I revise my own work, or edit the work of my friends, I’m usually looking at language and story. Which means I’m overlooking punctuation. Though it shouldn’t be an idiosyncratic part of writing, it often is. I go through stretches where I find the semi-colon as irresistible as everyone else. Where I abuse the colon. Or over-use periods to the point of stiltedness.

As for my friends, nobody wants to be the grammar police. The punctuation police sounds even worse. But punctuation does matter. Like stage direction, it gives readers important clues to story. It allows them to pause, to drift for a moment, to contemplate what has come before. And why not let our writing have the benefit of the pauses we wish we all had in real life?

Writing Is Like Going Back to School


photo by manyhighways

So, if you don’t believe writing is like vacation, perhaps I can convince you it’s like going back to school? Whether we’re still in school or not, there’s a refocusing that comes each September, a back-to-real-life feeling that arrives with the yellow buses and cool Canadian air. We stop scanning the horizon for boats or mountain peaks or clouds, and look down at the work in front of us. We lose the dreamy distance of vacation and refocus on the necessities of the every day.

And this is like writing, how? If you think of vacation as the dreamy phase, when you’re brimming with ideas and feeling excitement expand in your chest from all the possibilities, think of back to school as revision; it’s time to turn on your critical eye and start shaping all those possibles into a particular.

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What Netflix Taught Me About Character Development

imgres-1I didn’t teach this summer so I was able to catch up on my cultural literacy—reading books and also binge-watching TV. Netflix is my dealer of choice, delivering whole seasons of House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, and Arrested Development. The feeling I get when I’m on these jags is a cross between eating too much candy and being immersed in a good beach read:  my eyes hurt, but I am spellbound. When the next episode appears right there on my screen, I can’t fight the urge to find out what will happen next.

This bingeing has also given me the chance to notice how the stories unspool over time (a short time, in my case); how the plot mechanisms fit together; and how the characters evolve over the course of the story. Something about being immersed in a world for a brief, intense period of time that forced me to see what the authors—in this case writers, directors, producers, and actors—were up to and how they went about accomplishing it.

Most of all I’ve been struck by the way these shows develop characters. It’s the way I invest in stories too. If I don’t care about the characters, I don’t care about the story (and often abandon it.) So instead of an essay on what I learned from my summer reading, here’s one on what I learned about character development from my summer watching.

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Betting on First Books

Photo courtesy Laura Loveday

Photo courtesy Laura Loveday

I thought it had been about three years since I sent my first novel out to agents.  Turns out it was six.  Like the rest of the world, publishing has changed since 2007. A lot. Fewer publishing houses, less money, more e-books, more blogs, more noise to cut through. My first agent, and first book, didn’t work out as I’d hoped, so it was time to search for agent number two. This time around, the first agent I queried asked for the manuscript. Two weeks later, she sent me a kind rejection, saying: “I’m not having the clarity of vision on how to champion this.”

I’ve since sent out the manuscript again, and a few agents are reading it, but this comment has lodged in my mind. I keep turning it over like a strange coin from a distant country, trying to understand its value. What I’ve gleaned from it (and yes, I am reading too much into it, but bear with me) is that agents are no longer just selling your book: they are pushing, preaching it, crusading for it. They are converting to it, then marrying it. So it stands to reason that they must know in their bones how to convince everyone else to take a chance.

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Writing Is Like Going on Vacation

Photo: Rutja76, CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Rutja76, CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Over the past few months I’ve compared writing to walking, mixing a drink, cooking, and baseball, and you’ve indulged my metaphorical ramblings. But writing is like going on vacation? No siree. Writing is work, hard work. Work that takes dedication and thought and effort. Lots of effort. I’d rather clean my bathtub grout with a toothbrush than figure out why my main character refuses to confront his brother for embezzling money from the restaurant. Pul-lease. Writing is hard. My head hurts just thinking about it.

But what if it isn’t? What if it’s like making a list, packing a bag, gassing up the car, and zooming away from your life for a while to visit parts unknown? What if it’s a free pass to try out things you’d never do?Continue Reading

Reading Aloud: It’s Not Just for Kids Anymore

Photo courtesy TOM81115

Photo courtesy TOM81115

As I wrote in my last post, I’ve been reading a lot of children’s books lately, out loud to my daughter. (She doesn’t seem to hear them when I read silently.) It’s made me more conscious of how words and sentences flow together and has helped me streamline my own, wordy prose. Another out-loud experience recently confirmed this insight for me. For the first time in a long time, I had to give a public reading, as part of the Massachusetts Cultural Council Commonwealth Reading series. It made me realize how much I gained when I read my work out loud, even to myself.

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