Writing About Writing

There are almost as many books about writing as there are writers who have published books. Well, maybe not quite that many books on writing but there are a lot of them.

Here are three that are on my shelf.

Stephen King has sold more than 350 million books. Obviously, he knows how to write what sells, but does that mean he can tell you how to write? I had my doubts when someone recommended and handed this book to me. It very pleasantly surprised me.

There are real insights into the creative process. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft has some of his life story mixed in with what he has learned. I like the section on his editing process. It also has a good reading list if you want to go deeper.

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (also available as an audiobook) is also about writing and about being a writer. The two things are inextricably connected.

Readers of the book often say they like her acceptance of “sh@#ty first drafts” in order to get to “good second drafts and terrific third drafts.” This book is often humorous but it takes writing very seriously.

I read the book first 25 years ago after having been writing for much longer but still not allowing myself to feel like I was a Writer.

The odd title is explained in this way: “Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”

That is good general advice about doing many things – weeding the garden, cleaning out the garage, hiking a long trail, writing a poem.

If a more stern approach is needed to get you writing, then On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction might be a better choice. Non-fiction is sometimes viewed as “more serious” than fiction or poetry. That is not true, but William Zinsser’s approach is more instruction manual. It is rarely funny – even in a chapter about writing humor. (I discovered in a college course on humor that humor is not comedy and often not funny in the sense of laughter.

I’m making this book sound too stern. Zinsser is a writer, editor and teacher and all three show in the book. He began as a newspaper writer, went on to magazines and has written books on baseball, music, travel, and those and other genres are covered, including people, places, science, technology, business, sports, the arts and memoir.

I read this book before using it as a text in teaching a writing course. It is probably consider a classic by now, much like The Elements of Style which was standard book to have on the syllabus fifty years ago.

If there is any of the writer’s life that he mixes with writing, it might be that he feels that “clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other.”

The best advice to become a better writer is still two simple things: read widely and often, especially in the genre you want to write; stop reading and start writing.

In Our Own Secret Annex

Annelies
Annelies in her school photograph, 1941

Anne Frank’s diary was first published in English in 1952 and is known as Diary of a Young Girl. The first edition was first published in Dutch in 1947, under the title Het Achterhuis. which is translated as “the house behind,” “the annex” or “the secret annex.”

I read the book when I was between 13 and 14 which was the same age that she was writing it. It was only recently that I discovered that Anne Frank had two versions of her story.  The first version is her spontaneous journal entries. The second version is a revised version by Anne herself started when she was thinking about her writing being published.

I did the same thing myself in my own teenaged-years journals. I changed how I wrote though my initial idea of “publication” was it being found by my family and then later by a wife or my children. At 13, I know even thought about being a famous writer one day and having my biographers reading it.

I also think that we all have our secret annexes where we sometimes hide. And some of us write there and write about there.

Anne was her nickname. Annelies was her birth name. I like that name better than Anne.  Annelies Marie Frank was born June 12, 1929, and when I saw her birthday on the almanac last Saturday I decided to get a copy of that revised diary if I can and (re)read it this week.

We know that after the war, Anne’s father, Otto Frank, was given the diary, along with some other papers, which had been left behind when the family was taken to concentration camps in 1944.

He said that at first, he couldn’t bear to read it. When he finally read it, he believed that Anne wrote it with the intent of trying to publish it one day and he worked at getting it into print. We know he edited it himself combining parts of the two versions together.

Though it is a perennially read book, 16 American publishers rejected the English translation before Doubleday picked it up in 1952.

There are now a number of newer editions with parts restored and annotated versions.

At 13, I think I had a crush on Annalies. It may have been that I wanted to save her. Anne probably died of typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. To add to that sadness, it was about two weeks before the camps were liberated in spring 1945.

I wrote on another blog about a poem by Andrew Motion (“Anne Frank Huis“) that was written immediately after his visit to the Anne Frank museum/house (huis) in Amsterdam. I finally got to Amsterdam in 2019 and I had mixed feeling about visiting the Secret Annex. I read online that it is very small and very spare. It didn’t feel like it would be similar to when I visited writers’ homes before. It felt like it would be sad. The poem set me thinking about how houses are “haunted” by those who lived in them. Not in a ghost or poltergeist way, but supernatural in the dictionary sense of “relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe.”

It turned out that we couldn’t get tickets for the time that we would be there, so the universe decided for me. My wife and I did walk by the place. They call it a house but they lived in rooms above her father’s place of business attached to a warehouse. The front doors were painted a very somber black. I think Annalies would prefer that we read the words she wanted us to read rather than visit a place she never wanted to be.

ane frank house door

The Lost Practice of Writing Letters

envelope
Image by LwcyD from Pixabay

I wrote last weekend about writing a letter to your future self. I didn’t mention then that the inspiration for that was my seventh-grade English teacher who had us write letters to ourselves. She told us that she would send them to us when we were seniors in high school. So, the idea was to write to the person you thought you would be in five years.

She never sent the letters when we were seniors. She left our junior high and probably tossed our letters. I seemed to be the only one who even remembered that we had written the letters. I can’t recall now anything I put in my letter. I wish I could. I wish I had gotten my letter back. My 17-year-old self would have liked to have seen what my 13-year-old self was thinking about the future that had become the present.

Writing letters seems so old-fashioned today. I had students that were amazed that there were entire books of letters that authors, artists, statesmen, or historical figures had written.

vincent's signatureI showed my students a book of Vincent van Gogh’s letters. He wrote often to his brothers, especially Theo, and his sisters, other artists and friends from home. It is estimated he wrote more than 2000 letters and about half survive. Theo kept Vincent’s letters carefully stored. Vincent often discarded letters.

It is estimated that Thomas Jefferson had written 18,624 letters in his lifetime.

I also had my students write letters to famous people and I amassed a pile of celebrity addresses and copies of the responses they received which I displayed in my classroom. This was in the days before email was common and mostly in the pre-Internet days, so finding addresses and information required more difficult research than it would now.

When my students received glossy 8×10 photos with actual autographs and real letters from the people they wrote to, it was exciting. Some of my students got unusual responses because they wrote clever letters or wrote to people who probably didn’t get tons of mail. There was an autographed tennis ball, an Olympic swimmer’s cap, a few DVDs, signed copies of books, several hand-drawn cartoons and comic book panels, and an animation cel. One student asked Donald Trump to autograph a crisp dollar bill so that it would be worth “more than a dollar.” He did in that odd bold scrawl that became familiar to us during his Presidency and included a copy of his Art of the Deal book.  One student asked an author to record answers to her questions on the cassette tape she sent with the questions. She did. One boy asked a TV weatherman some questions about getting into the business and got a call from him at home.

I encouraged students to write to the contemporary authors that we read in class. We even wrote letters to Juliet after we read Shakespeare’s play about her star-crossed love – and we got answers from her. (Read my post about that to learn how)

They learned a lot about how to write letters. And by that, I don’t mean just the format of a business and friendly letter. For example, they learned that writing to the biggest star of the top-rated TV show probably would only get you a small photo with a printed “autograph.” But a clever letter to a minor character or the writer or director of that same show might get you a personal response or more. The student who got tickets and an invitation to visit the Saturday Night Live show backstage didn’t ask for that – which is probably why he got it.

We learn how to communicate in many ways – both about the mediums to communicate and the forms those communications can take. The email, the Facebook message, the tweet, tagging someone in a photograph, the text message, the phone call, the note slipped into your locker or left on your desk in school or at the office, the card from the store and the handmade card, the poem, the mix CD or playlist of songs, the note with the flowers, the Post-It note left by the little gift on the kitchen table, the message put in your lunch bag and a letter sent from many miles – or many years – away.

After my mother died, I found a box of letters written to her. Some were from my father who had died many years earlier. Some were from me, written when I was away from home as a child on vacation with relatives, and from me at college. They are priceless pieces of the past. I have a postcard reply from author John Updike. I have a letter from astronaut John Glenn I wrote in fifth grade when I thought I might become an astronaut too. I have all the letters to authors and actors and celebrities that I wrote each year when my students were doing that assignment. One from Mr. Fred Rogers is something I treasure.

I find it sad that letter writing seems to be a lost form of communication. When was the last time you received or wrote an actual letter to someone by hand, on paper, that was mailed? Probably, too long ago.

Journaling By Hand

“To me, typing is like work. Writing with a pen is like playing.
And you can write on planes when they’re taking off and landing.”
– Neil Gaiman

journals
Journals over the years in various forms of degrading handwriting.

Though I spend a lot of time on a computer writing in places like this site, my journaling has never moved away from a bound blank book and a pen.

There have always been writers who opposed new technologies. I know pretty big-time writers today who avoid email, computers, social media and having their own website. But all of those things are essential somewhere down the line even if you start with a pencil and a legal pad.

One of my favorite writers,  John Updike, said word processing made producing text “almost too easy.” In a letter to his editor at The New Yorker, Updike wrote, “I’ve bought a word processor and we’re slowly coming to an understanding. It’s quick as the devil, but has very little imagination, and no small talk.”

I’ve been down some parallel paths in past posts: writing by hand in general, my lousy typing, and the reported death of handwriting, but here I’m focusing on journaling.

I came across this book online –  The Yellow Wall-Paper Sanity Journal: What to Do In Your Own Four Walls
by Sara Barkat. It’s an illustrated journal (based on the earlier The Yellow Wall-Paper: A Graphic Novel.

All I need to journal is a blank book (sometimes lined, some years not) but if you need some inspiration and prompts, including some poetry prompts and instructions for several form poems like the villanelle, pantoum, catalog, and limerick.

I also read an article about the benefits of writing by hand. The benefits might be greatest for those of us who spend most days in front of a screen reading and writing.

Some of the benefits are surely for your brain and creativity, but your eyes will benefit from the rest.

Regions of the brain associated with learning were more active when subjects completed a task by hand instead of on a keyboard. As Updike noted, there are benefits to slowing down when you are writing and allowing some thinking along the way.

Writing by hand could promote “deep encoding” in a way that typing does not. I’ve read that before including a study that compared students who took notes by hand with those who took notes on laptops. Researchers found that the students using laptops tended to write down what the professor said word for word, while those who took notes by hand were more likely to listen to what was being said, analyzing it for important content and “processing information and reframing it in their own words.” When asked conceptual questions about the lecture, students who had taken notes by hand were better able to answer than those who had typed their notes.

So fast typing is a blessing and a curse. Maybe I’m prejudiced because I never learned to type. I am still a two-finger typist and although I am pretty fast, it’s pretty slow.

I moved about 25 years ago from writing my poetry on paper to composing directly to the computer. I changed my writing. The older poems always ended up being typed anyway and seeing them in a printed fashion helped me.  I also began to revise more because it was easier and neater to do. For a time, I saved multiple versions and drafts,. I don’t do that anymore. Too many pieces of paper and second thoughts about what I wrote.

While there will always be things you want to write quickly, there are others that can benefit from the time it takes to write them out by hand.

It would be daunting to try to type up my twelve volumes of journals. (I’ll leave that to some graduate students working for my biographer.) But I actually enjoy looking at my old journals – the changing handwriting, marginalia, occasional illustrations, bad teen years spelling and grammar, and the predictions that 99 out of 100 times turned out to be wrong. Ah, youthful optimism…

Okay, this post is finished. I ran Grammarly on it, revised and now I’ll click the schedule button and send it on its way. Then, I’ll make a cup of tea and take out my current journal and write about mid-December 2020.

Prose and Poetry

If I could have made a comfortable living doing something that I really enjoy, it would be as a poet. I don’t regret having spent a lifetime teaching. I think it was why I was put on the planet. And poets can’t really make a living at just that. Most of them teach or do some other job along with the writing. I suppose there are exceptions, like Billy Collins.

In thinking about this essay, Collins’ poem, “The Revenant,” came to mind. It is in the voice of a dog that was put to sleep addressing an owner that he really did not like. The poem concludes with:

dog typing…and that is all you need to know about this place
except what you already supposed
and are glad it did not happen sooner –
that everyone here can read and write,
the dogs in poetry, the cats and all the others in prose.

As much as I enjoy writing poetry, I write more prose. My wife and I are finishing writing an article for an academic journal this weekend. I regret having taken on the assignment. It does feel like an “assignment” from my student days as it involved a lot of research, notes, citation, and all of that.  It’s not enjoyable.

While writing the article, I came across mention of a book by John McPhee that I haven’t read. I am an admirer of McPhee’s writing. I read his The Pine Barrens when it was published and I was a new English teacher. I know that very unique part of New Jersey well and I learned a lot from the book. I used passages as examples of good creative non-fiction.

McPhee is prolific. He has spent nearly six decades as a staff writer at The New Yorker and published many books and I haven’t kept up with his output of prose.

The book I saw that caught my attention as I was writing this week is part memoir, part instruction manual.  Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process is about his creative process.

The process was part of my difficulty writing the academic article in collaboration with my wife. Our writing processes are very different. She is a thorough researcher. She had pages and pages of notecards and handwritten drafts and printouts of online articles spread across the dining room table, chairs and floor. I would be crippled when faced with all that.

When I research a topic, I immediately start typing a rough draft and noting my references. I rarely make notes on paper anymore.

Academic prose is usually not what you would call “creative non-fiction” that has McPhee’s kind of narrative structure, but that structure, as he has written, is “meant to be about as visible as someone’s bones.” I consider much of what I write online to be closer to the creative side of prose though it almost always involves research and even references.

We sent off the article to the editor this weekend. We don’t know what her response will be. Our first full draft was 24,000 words and our maximum needed to be 14,000. For me, revision is mostly paring down. That’s mostly because my process is to put things on the page without editing along the way.

The other book I stumbled on this past week that seemed relevant to my writing was Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction which is by Tracy Kidder and his longtime editor, Richard Todd.

I haven’t read this book either but both of these books are on the list for after that article goes to print. I’m curious to read about their thoughts on being edited and editing. “You have to learn how to be edited,” Kidder writes. Todd kindly concedes that, for an editor, the “surest way to harm a piece of writing is to impose one’s own style on it.”

With prose, I am pretty obliging to being edited (by my wife or a journal editor). If they think a section needs to be pared down or deleted, I usually don’t put up a fight.  That is not the case with poetry.  I appreciate an editor catching a mistake or suggesting a better word, but I don’t take kindly to deletions or major changes.

T.S. Eliot’s publisher, Robert Giroux, asked the poet “if he agreed with the definition that most editors are failed writers.” Eliot replied, “Perhaps, but so are most writers.” I had that Eliot exchange in a little frame above my desk for a few years.  I took it down. I don’t need to be reminded.

 

Journaling

I’m hearing a good number of people upon reflecting on all the extra free time they have while staying home during the pandemic. A few seem to be accomplishing a lot, but at least as many of them are a bit ashamedly saying that they are accomplishing less.

I’m still writing but I have come to realize that as the weeks crawl by that I am writing less. Let me amend that: I am writing less for the world.

I write on 9 different sites and I keep a calendar of those posts so that I remember to keep them updated and so that I don’t post too much on any one day. For most of 2019, I averaged 12 posts per week. At a glance, I can see that I have been decreasing that number for the past two months. But the writing that has increased is my personal writing in my journals.

 

“In the journal, I do not just express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself.” —Susan Sontag

I wrote here recently about things being solved by walking (solvitur ambulando)   and I guess I think of those journals as a way that things might be solved by writing (solvitur scriptures?).

I’m not alone in my journaling. I saw an article about people doing gratitude exercises in order to avoid negative thought spirals, anxiety and depression.

Gratitude journaling is one of those practices. Journals can be daily but just have to be regular enough to keep your focus. A gratitude journal focuses on the good in your life and is a record of the things you appreciate which is most difficult to write and most important to write on days when you can’t find the light.

I haven’t gone fully gratitude in my journaling. In fact, I started a new journal in January and by March I was using a section of it as a timeline of the pandemic.  My journals have always been a record to aid my memory. I record the joy and the pain, the big events and the small moments I’m afraid I will forget.

I’m rarely at a loss for something to write, but if you need inspiration there are people who offer that too.

I discovered that Suleika Jaouad had started a 100-day project called The Isolation Journals. She emails a daily prompt at 5 a.m. I always read them though I don’t always write based on them.

In the updates, Suleika lists some quotes about journaling and diaries.

“It is an odd idea for someone like me to keep a diary; not only because I have never done so before, but because it seems to me that neither I—nor for that matter anyone else—will be interested in the unbosomings of a thirteen-year-old school girl.” —Anne Frank

“The diary is an art form just as much as the novel or the play. The diary simply requires a greater canvas; it is a chronological tapestry which, in its ensemble, or at whatever point it is abandoned, reveals a form and language as exacting as other literary forms.” —Henry Miller

“The diary taught me that it is in the moments of emotional crisis that human beings reveal themselves most accurately. I learned to choose the heightened moments because they are the moments of revelation.” —Anaïs Nin

I have decades of journals, but I have never kept a diary. I don’t record every day and a diary always seemed to me to be about more emotional things than what I write in my journals.

“If you read someone else’s diary, you get what you deserve.”  ― David Sedaris

The day 55 prompt was meta: “Write a journal entry about why you journal. Are there certain stories or forms you gravitate toward? People or places you prefer to leave out? Do you imagine anyone reading your entries? Do you notice a difference between journaling with prompts and without? As a private practice or one you share with others?”

My answers are complicated.

My regular journaling habit has not changed much in isolation, other than recording the news of the pandemic changes.

 

I have a garden journal to record my plantings, blooms, harvests, the seasons, first buds, frosts, pests, diseases, care, and cultivation tips. That journal is pandemic-free.

I have a travel journal with my trips and family vacations with dates, places, hotel rooms, restaurants, weather, attractions, and fellow travelers. This journal is sheltering at home. I had put post-it notes in it with some notes on two vacations we had booked for 2020 (France and St. John) that have been postponed until 2021.

I have kept several dream journals to record dreams that I actually remember upon waking. Reading that journal is very strange. I rarely recall even writing about the dream weeks later. It’s almost like someone else wrote down those dreams. I haven’t had any isolation or virus dreams that I have recalled, but I have heard that others (particularly children) have been having odd dreams.

I have a ledger book where I keep many lists: the best films I saw each year, book read, records of my sleep patterns, medications, herbs and vitamins I have tried, medical records, poetry submissions, and many other smaller pieces of my life. I have always been a listmaker.

“For any writer who wants to keep a journal, be alive to everything, not just to what you’re feeling, but also to your pets, to flowers, to what you’re reading.”  ― May Sarton

I have image journals that began as collages made of things that interested me. They covered periods of my life – college, work, marriage, parenthood – and in the past decade they have been recorded month to month. Pages contain photos, advertising, ticket stubs, newspaper headlines, patterns, scenes, maps and anything that reflects on the month.

I know that I record all of this to aid my own memory, but I have always known that part of me believes I am recording all of it for others. I don’t know who they will be or when they will read those words but I know they are listening when I write.

film collage
One of my collages of film stills from my undergraduate days shows what I was watching – including a French cinema course.