A few years ago, I set off on a journey to the heart of Christian contemplation, both in practice and with studies. I began doing Centering Prayer, a form of meditation rooted in monasticism and the teachings of the mystics, and reading works from the mystical margins of Christian tradition—St. John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, Theresa of Avila, Bonaventure, the Patristic fathers—and sharing all this with an international contemplative community. It’s been thrilling. The work transforms me from the inside out, and will have a profound on my writing, teaching, and living for years to come.
Because I love and trust language so much, the hardest part about these past years has been my inability to talk about what I’m learning. I put down a book or return from a symposium feeling like my internal furniture has been rearranged, but I can’t say how, or why, or what. I’m a blubbering fool. (more…)
Here’s a law of physics that every preschooler knows: To have fun on the seesaw (or I should say teeter-totter now that I’m a Minnesotan), you need two people. Movement, balance, and those joyous bumps all depend on having weight at both ends.
This is true for so much else as well! A good conversation needs two people with different opinions and a willingness to listen. A healthy relationship needs tension as well as commonality. A productive solution to any problem addresses multiple aspects of that problem. The truth itself is never singular but always sitting right in the center of paradox.
As you’ve probably guessed, I’m pondering our public rhetoric, especially around the upcoming election and in response to ongoing, systemic racism in our country. (more…)
I write about love because I tell stories; and it is impossible, I believe, to tell any kind of powerful or valuable or meaningful story without writing about love. And, too, I have found that it is impossible to write a story without love. The writer must love her characters, must open her heart to them, give the whole of herself to them, in order for those characters to give themselves back to her.
–Kate Dicamillo, “Characters who Love Again”
Today I’m pondering love’s role in the making of literature. Love is a basic ingredient, like water in a soup. Without water, you have no soup.
Before there’s any hope of writing well or of an audience appreciating your work, you must love writing itself. You must love being alone, tending the wondrous workings of your own mind and heart. You must love questions. You must passionately love the way silent stirrings inside you take form when given language. You must adore words. You must open your being to the many ways words change you.
Before there’s any chance of rendering your material with accuracy and interest, you must love it. You must love people, in all their grit and grime and brokenness and inconsistency. You must be willing to look as directly as you can at what is, and not shy from representing this truth to others. You must love the truth.
If Kate Dicamillo is right and it’s impossible to tell any kind of meaningful story without writing about love, love itself must be our centerpiece—desire for it, lack of it, how it malfunctions, how it transforms, why we deny it, how it surprises, where it originates, how it ends… Isn’t this the stuff of literature?
To connect well with readers you must love connecting. You must love the intimacy of entering another’s story, and you must love welcoming others into your own story.
All this makes me wonder: Couldn’t learning to write well, then, be an exercise in learning to love well? Or the reverse: Mightn’t learning to love well benefit our work? Is it possible that writing instructors have been misdirected, giving our attention to teaching craft when in fact we should be working through the craft on the human heart? Or is it possible that craft itself is our means for learning to love?
“Look,” writes Brian Doyle. “I don’t know much, but I know these things uncontrovertibly and inarguably: One: stories matter waaaaay more than we know. Two: all stories are, in some form, prayers. Three: love is the story and the prayer that matters the most.”
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew
I’m a great proponent of the triage method of revising: Take care of the big problems first and gradually work your way down to the details of language. This is a great policy—in the abstract. If there’s such a thing as a time-saver, prioritizing is it. And generally writers DO pay more attention to word choice, sentence structure, rhythm and sound the closer they get to publication.
But in reality writers, to varying degrees, can’t help but pay attention to language from the start. On one extreme are writers who must perfect each sentence before continuing to the next. While this method works for some, I wouldn’t recommend it as it poses far too many opportunities for a new writer to get stuck. Most of us grow attached to sentences we’ve polished and this attachment interferes with our ability to remain flexible and open-minded. It’s hard to fundamentally restructure an entire book or to lop off a chapter that took you six months to write when all the sentences are beautiful.
On the other extreme are blessedly sloppy drafters who spew out text, trusting that revision will tighten their prose. I know writers who, when unable to conjure up the right word, insert asterisks instead. Preserving the flow of ideas is too important; the right word can arrive later. When we’re not attached to particular words, it’s easier to play with the large elements that form a work—structure, character, themes, plot, voice…
Most writers fall between these two extremes. We try to stay loose but can’t help but consider our word choices. Luckily, language is quirky; just as a strong working title can give direction to a draft, the right word can also unlock material. An accurate description can reveal to the writer a character’s nature or the truth about a memory. Precision in word choice can expose new ideas worth exploring. There are benefits to occasionally slowing or even stopping one’s “flow” to deliberate over language.
We don’t always know which words or sentences are worthy of careful construction early on and which are distractions from the hard work of composing. Only much later will we discover which passages are germane—which is why it’s always wise to keep a repository for cut passages. Generally, though, staying alert to our motives keeps us on track. Is a particular quest for accurate language motivated by genuine questions about the content? If so, our work with language reveals the heartbeat and is worth pursuing early on. Is our struggle with language about presenting material to the reader? If so, consider tackling this work later. Better find the core of your story first and then polish the surface.
When tweaking language during the final stages of revision, strive for clarity first. Language is meant to communicate. Sound, rhythm, pacing, word choice, sentence structure, punctuation, paragraphing—all stylistic choices—should convey the content rather than call attention to themselves. Take Strunk and White’s advice: “The beginner should approach style warily, realizing that it is an expression of self, and should turn resolutely away from all devices that are popularly believed to indicate style—all mannerisms, tricks, adornments. The approach to style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity.”
But within the scope of clear language are many choices, and fine writers opt for words that show as well as tell. Let’s look at a passage from Patricia Hampl’s I Could Tell You Stories:
When I am the reader, not the writer, I too fall into the lovely illusion that the words before me which read so inevitably, must also have been written exactly as they appear, rhythm and cadence, language and syntax, the powerful waves of the sentences laying themselves on the smooth beach of the page one after another faultlessly.
But here I sit before a yellow legal pad, and the long page of the preceding two paragraphs is a jumble of crossed-out lines, false starts, confused order. A mess. The mess of my mind trying to find out what it wants to say. This is a writer’s frantic, grabby mind, not the poised mind of a reader waiting to be edified or entertained.
These paragraphs feel effortless, unpretentious, and perfectly clear. But look carefully at Hampl’s choices. In the long, undulating sentence about reading, she pairs “rhythm and cadence” and “language and syntax,” simulating “powerful waves” of sentences. In the paragraph about writing, she omits the “and” in her list: “crossed-out lines, false starts, confused order.” She follows this with two incomplete sentences, giving her readers a visceral experience of stopping and starting. The word “grabby” is colloquial, tactile, and low-brow. Her language shows as well as tells.
Whether readers are conscious of these choices is irrelevant. Readers feel language; we have bodily responses with or without consciousness. Writers succeed when every aspect of their work serves the work’s heartbeat.
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew