Joyce Carol Oates

I just finished reading A Widow’s Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates, one of America’s most talented and versatile writers. A Widow’s Story, describing the death of her husband in 2008 and the severe depression that followed, is very different from her previous books (she’s most famous for her fiction) – intimate and painfully honest.

Oates’s sadness over the loss of Ray, her husband, takes over her life. She is so depressed that everyday tasks are are overwhelming. A Widow’s Story plunges you into the grief and despair she is experiencing, and it also says a lot about this gifted couple and their relationship.

The Smiths’ marriage (she uses “Oates” only for her writing career) was both loving and quirky. Her husband never read her published writings! (Few of her students at Princeton had read her work either. I’m flabbergasted.)

Nor did she ever read a novel that Ray had started before he met her and never finished. Late in the book she finally began reading it, and she imagined what she would have said to Ray if she’d had the opportunity. The manuscript gave her insight into pieces of him she had ever known – his imagination and his past, for example.

What fascinates me is that the professional-writer part of her brain kicked in at the same time. Of one episode in the novel that’s clearly related to his past, she says that it couldn’t have been published: “Not that it’s too raw or unintegrated with the plot – revising and recasting could have remedied this – but rather, the material is just too personal.”

How extraordinary! Here’s a woman who’s almost paralyzed with grief, encountering her lost husband on a new level – and her writer’s brain instantly switches into analytic mode, with thoughts about “revising” and “recasting.”

Writing well requires a different kind of thinking, and that means learning to write isn’t just about acquiring skills and techniques. You need a new kind of brain, and that requires willingness to endure a confusing period when things just aren’t going to make sense.

The bad news is that it’s hard to learn how to write well. The good news is that even when you think all is lost – as Oates did – the ability to write stays with you. Oates was so grief-stricken that she couldn’t open mail or listen to phone messages from friends who were worried about her. But nothing could stop her from thinking like a writer.

Joyce Carol Oates

                Joyce Carol Oates

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Improving a Sentence

Here’s a sentence I read a few days ago in a newsletter about literature. Read it yourself and see if something seems awkward to you:

Many biographers debate whether Leonard could or should have gone the next step for his wife by replacing the ineffectual bromides, milk diets and rest cures she got from a dozen doctors with psychoanalysis.

Here’s what bothers me: It sounds as if she got the ineffective cures from doctors afflicted with psychoanalysis. Of course if you think about it for a moment, you realize that’s not what the writer meant. The sentence is trying to say that Virginia Woolf (Leonard’s wife) should have been treated with psychoanalysis rather than “the ineffectual bromides, milk diets and rest cures she got from a dozen doctors.”

There’s a simple guideline that tells you why this sentence is awkward: It breaks up words that should go together: “replacing with psychoanalysis.” Here’s one way to improve the sentence:

Many biographers debate whether Leonard could or should have gone the next step for his wife by rejecting the ineffectual bromides, milk diets and rest cures she got from a dozen doctors and replacing them with psychoanalysis.

Before we go on (I think the sentence still needs improvement), I’d like to explain why there’s no comma after “a dozen doctors” (she got from a dozen doctors and replacing them with psychoanalysis). There’s no need for fancy grammatical terminology. Just zoom in on the word and. Is it followed by a sentence? (There’s an easy way to tell: Does it start with a person, place, or thing?)

replacing them with psychoanalysis

No. So there’s no comma because replacing isn’t a person, place, or thing. (Click here and look at Comma Rule 2.) 

Let’s go back to the improved sentence, which still isn’t good enough, in my opinion. There’s too much information to be crammed into one sentence. I especially dislike “could or should have” – it hints at a big issue and deserves its own sentence. Here’s my revision:

Many biographers debate whether Leonard should have insisted on psychoanalysis instead of  the ineffectual bromides, milk diets and rest cures she got from a dozen doctors. It’s a complicated question because….

I didn’t complete the sentence because I don’t know why Leonard might not have been able to try psychoanalysis for Virginia. Perhaps no competent practitioner was available. Or Virginia might have resisted the idea. Or there might have been some other problem that I haven’t thought of.

I hope I’ve made my point. Sometimes clumsy writing conceals a gap in the writer’s understanding. Fixing a bad sentence isn’t always a matter of shifting a few words or inserting some new punctuation.   Sometimes you have to rethink what you’ve written or go back to the library.

Virginia Woolf 2

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Down with Serenity

There are words I’d like to outlaw, at least temporarily. Respective is one. You could show me a hundred sentences containing the word respective, and in most of them it would be a meaningless and unnecessary word. I think we’d all be better off if we stopped using the word respective.

OK – maybe you agree with me about respective. But I want to write about another word I dislike, and so far I’ve never met anyone who sees it the way I do: Serenity. The Serenity Prayer is a wonderful bit of wisdom that has benefited many people, including me. The idea that there are things I can’t change, and I just need to let them go, is a lesson I’m still trying to learn.

So what’s wrong with the word serenity, and what does it have to do with writing? The answer to both questions is a lot. First, attaining serenity is an unrealistic goal much of the time. Humans just aren’t wired for serenity. We’re agitated, uneasy, frustrated, obsessed…anything but serene. What happens next is that we start beating ourselves over the head because we’re feeling lousy (even if there’s a perfectly good reason for the way we’re feeling).

On to writing. If you happen to be feeling serene today, and you decide to write about it, your piece is probably going to be…dull.

Good writing is edgy, provocative, and unpredictable. It’s personal. Serenity, by contrast, strips away all the callouses and rawness that make us human. You lose your voice and your individuality – the very qualities I look for when I read. I want your piece to sound as if only you could have written it.

So if you’re sitting on a cloud and dispensing wisdom, congratulations! You’ve attained a rare level of spiritual development. But you’re not going to be very interesting until something (or someone) bumps you off that cloud and makes you struggle to refind your balance.

That’s what I want to read about.

equilibrium

 

 

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The Comma Queen

The New Yorker magazine (which features writing so good that it sometimes gives me chills) has a new video feature: Veteran copyeditor Mary Norris, aka the Comma Queen, is offering insights into the thinking processes she uses when she works on a New Yorker article. You can view the kick-off video at this link: http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-comma-queen-series-premiere

Sigh. The video full of grammatical jargon. Why? Why? Why? After more than 30 years as an English professor, I can tell you that most students never really get a handle on what subjects and predicates are. They have no idea what an independent clause is. Mind you, I’m not complaining about my students. What I’m complaining about are English teachers and editors who can’t find a more straightforward way of talking about language.

Here’s an example from the video. Mary’s question: Is the comma after sixteen necessary?

Her mother, Rachel Faucette, the daughter of an Englishwoman and a Frenchman, inherited her father’s Nevis plantation at sixteen, and was married off, very young, to Johann Michael Lavien, an older Danish man with aspirations to be a planter.

In the video, Norris patiently explains that inherited…and was married off is a compound predicate and therefore should not be interrupted with a comma.

That’s great if you’re an English major and can instantly identify a compound predicate. But what if it’s been, say, 40 years since you sat in an English class and you can’t remember?

Here’s how I would talk about this sentence: Zoom in on the word and. Ask yourself if there’s a new sentence right after it. (It’s easy to tell: See if it starts with a person, place, or thing.)

and was married off

Is there a sentence after and? Nope. (If it read she was married off you’d have a sentence and need the comma.)

Quick. Simple.

While we’re at it…I started this post by praising the writing in The New Yorker. But I don’t like the sentence we’re talking about today: There’s too much information.

Rachel Faucette:

  • was someone’s mother
  • was the daughter of an Englishwoman and a Frenchman
  • inherited his Nevis plantation when she was sixteen
  • married Johann Michael Lavien
  • was young when she married

Oh, and there are three more pieces of information: Her husband was older and Danish, and he aspired to be a planter.

You’re going to cram all of that into one sentence? Why? Why? Why?

The_New_Yorker_wordmark 2

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Getting It Right

I can’t stop thinking about an article I read on LinkedIn Pulse yesterday. It’s about resumes – not a stimulating topic. I was going to skip it, and then I decided to read it anyway. I occasionally conduct workshops about resumes, and I’m always looking for fresh material.

And then I got excited about what I was reading The writer says that she automatically stops reading resumes that have faults like these: capitalizing random words, punctuating bullet points inconsistently, ignoring parallel structure, and switching tenses unnecessarily. Bravo!

And yet I find myself wondering if she’s wrong in her breezy dismissal of the offending resumes. Even many professional writers don’t get parallel structure right, for heaven’s sake. If we denied jobs to everyone who committed the sins she mentioned, hardly anyone would be employed. I used to know a Harvard graduate who was a professional writer – a wonderful one – even though he never learned how to use a semicolon. (He had a secretary who was a punctuation whiz.)

On the other hand – none of the sins listed in the resume article are difficult to eradicate. Why do intelligent people keep committing them – and on  resumes, of all things – documents that serve as the first step towards a job?

Yesterday I also read – enraptured – a New Yorker article about copyediting – meticulous copyediting. The feeling I had while I was reading must be akin to what mountain climbers experience when they reach a high altitude and someone hooks them up to an oxygen mask: Suddenly I feel alive again.

I think that “alive” feeling I had is the key to something terribly important that has nothing to do with the usual things that people say about English usage (“Good writing showcases your professionalism,” “Proper usage makes your writing easier to understand,” etc.)

Those things are true. But I think something else is going on here. I think you can classify people into two categories – those who have a passion for life, and those who have settled into “This is what life has dealt me, and I’m learning to accept it.” I also think the categories are fluid – I’ve spent time in both of them.

And I’m thinking about people who hire me as an editor and keep sending me work with the same mistakes. I would place them in Category 2, and I’d never hire them for a job.

Recently someone resent me a piece I’d corrected six months ago, with all her original mistakes still there. I know someone else who keeps ignoring my pleas to put some warmth into his professional correspondence, for heaven’s sake. (Incredibly, he works in one of the caring professions.)

What kind of person sends out a resume with with inconsistent punctuation and messy sentences – a Category 1 or a Category 2?

checkmark

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Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant

Last week I caught a few minutes of novelist Anne Tyler’s appearance on the Diane Rehm Show. Tyler impressed me – she was warm, honest, and funny. I especially liked her reason for not putting her family members into her novels. That would be unkind, she said, and anyway she doesn’t like to write about things she’s actually experienced. She’d rather explore what it would be like to live a different life.

Soon after that I headed for the library to borrow Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, which Tyler said was her favorite of the novels she’d written. It’s a hugely successful book, and Diane Rehm devoted a whole show to talking about it a few months ago.

Alas, I hated the novel. The only reason I finished it is that my book club is going to be meeting in two weeks, and I needed a book to talk about.

I realize that nobody’s going to be impressed that I disliked a bestselling book that garnered more than 140 favorable reviews on Amazon.com – along with favorable comments in The New York Times, Newsweek, and other publications. But I think my reasons for disliking it are worth a look – especially if you, reading this, aspire to become a writer. So here goes!

1.  I don’t think Tyler ever heard of the venerable “Show, don’t tell” rule for writers. The novel begins with a long narration that tells the story of Pearl’s life up to the time that her marriage gets into trouble. We don’t see her life – we’re told about it. 

For example, one day Pearl receives a check from her estranged husband. Soon after that she decides to get a job. We don’t see the events that motivated her decision, and we don’t know what she was feeling. Much of the book is written that way – big chunks of exposition. Here’s what writers are supposed to do: Invent situations that reveal character.

2. The book gets off to a slow start. I almost quit reading. Bad again. Here’s an example of how it should feel to read a book: Last year I was thrilled to discover a John Grisham novel that I hadn’t read. I brought it home from the library and plunged in. After the first chapter I realized I’d already read it. But by then I was so involved with the unfolding story that I read it straight through all over again. (Advice to writers: Read Grisham and try to pace your work the way he does.)

3.  The characters aren’t likable.

4.  The characters don’t make sense. Pearl seems decent, albeit boring, and it was a shock to discover that her children thought she was abusive. Pearl later acknowledges that she was harsh sometimes and attributes it to the stress of single motherhood. What stress? What was she struggling with? What was she feeling? We never see it.

5.  Interesting vignettes appear from time to time – and then get dropped. Anne’s son has some emotional problems. Did they ever get resolved? We don’t know.

6.  I didn’t care about any of the characters.

I work with members of a writing group who endlessly hear me beg them to work their material. It’s not enough to come up with a story and interesting characters. You need a point of view. You need to create experiences not only for your characters, but for your readers. They should feel tension, anger, relief, and joy. They need to be surprised, worried, and exultant. I felt none of that in Tyler’s book.

Why did so many people post positive reviews of this novel? I don’t know. Maybe I missed something. Maybe I’m not as astute as I think I am.

Or maybe (and I think this is the real reason) they don’t know what it’s like to read a novel that is so engaging that you can hardly put it down to cook dinner or take the laundry out of the dryer. You don’t want to go to bed before you finish it, even though the print is so blurry that you can hardly make out the words.

If you’re a writer, that’s what you need to strive for.

Homesick 2

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Is Writer’s Block Real?

Writer’s block – the inability to push ahead on a writing project – is a common complaint in a writer’s group I facilitate. It’s also a phenomenon I know very well from firsthand experience.

It’s also something I’ve decided doesn’t really exist.

I think “writer’s block” is a catchall name (and not a useful one) for a broad spectrum of writing problems. Over the years I’ve discovered that if I can come up with a more specific description for what the block feels like, I can usually devise a cure that will help me finish the task and meet my deadline.

So here’s a list of reasons why I sometimes come down with a condition I’m going to call “avoiding-writing-itis”:

1.  I don’t have anything interesting to say about the topic.

2.  I don’t have anything interesting to say about the topic.

3.  I don’t have anything interesting to say about the topic.

4.  I don’t have anything interesting to say about the topic.

OK, I think I’ve made my point.

Sitting down to write when I have nothing to say is like sending an engraved invitation to the Writing Block gods. Freeze my brain! Put the whammy on my computer keyboard! I’m doomed to spend a miserable hour, or afternoon, or week staring at the computer screen and typing drivel that I’ll delete the next morning.

A few moments ago I assured you that the remedy for “avoiding-writing-itis” (or “writer’s block” or whatever you want to call it) will automatically appear once you identify what’s really going on. Here are some tricks for finding content that have worked for me:

1.  Read up on the topic, or read something that will serve as a model for my writing task. I don’t worry if I seem to be spending an inordinate amount of time leafing through essays and articles: Reading is the golden road to becoming a better writer. All good writers are avid readers.

2.  Write badly. I often play a little game with myself called “I’m not really going to write today.” I buy big packages of legal pads and fat rollerball pens expressly for that purpose. And I always save the rambling thoughts that I come up with – often I find solid gold there later on.

3.  Refuse to be sidetracked. When I was writing my doctoral dissertation, I did not do housework for a year. (Luckily my husband was as eager as I was for me to finish the damn thing and did not complain – not even once.) I remember typing the last sentence on the last page and then getting up to look for a spray bottle of 409 so that I could – at long last – clean the countertops.

4.  Transform yourself into an interesting person. Watch other people – and yourself – for unexpected reactions to ordinary ideas and events. Do you ever puzzle about things that other people seem to take for granted? Do you know any out-of-the-box thinkers you could learn from and imitate? Originality is the biggest enemy of avoiding-writing-itis because an unusual take on an ordinary subject automatically gives you something interesting to say.

By now you’re probably wondering what triggered today’s blog – or perhaps you’ve already figured it out: I am having the schizophrenic experience of wanting to finish a current writing project because I’m having so much fun with it – and dragging my feet (well, my fingers) over a couple of other projects that I really, really don’t want to tackle.

It’s always the same. Sigh. (The project that’s so much fun was a finger-dragger for a long time too.)

What’s the solution? Read, read, and read some more – get out a pad of paper and a fat pen and start freewriting – reread my notes to see if I can find an unusual angle.

Most important: Don’t even think about grabbing a broom or dustcloth until I can start to feel the writing energy bubbling inside me.   

Cement Block ok

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Seabiscuit and Hamlet

When I was a college freshman, I saw Richard Burton play Hamlet on Broadway, and I was never the same again: Burton opened the door to a larger and more exciting world than I ever dreamed existed.

Some 20 years later I read an essay about Hamlet by Lawrence Danson in the university library at USF, and once again my life changed – but this time there was a closing down (or so I thought). I knew I would never write anything that daring, brilliant, and exhilarating. I remember wondering how Danson was able to go on with his life after finishing that essay. How do you go to, say, Walgreen’s to buy razor blades when you’ve just realized that you’re absolutely, unarguably…brilliant?

What I couldn’t see back then was the gift Danson had given me: Something to aim for, along with clues about how to go about achieving it. After all, I had his essay in front of me, and I could pick it up any time I wanted to take another look at it.

A couple of weeks ago I reread the essay (it’s from his book Tragic Alphabet: Shakespeare’s Drama of Language) as inspiration for a current writing project. It helped me untangle a few knots and plot a course for what I was trying to do. (I also tracked down Danson’s email and wrote him a grateful letter – and immediately received a lovely reply.)

But enough about me. I am trying to work my way up to an important point that doesn’t receive enough emphasis from writing teachers: If you want to write better, find a model of good writing – and learn from it.

The years I spent reading James Hillman’s books taught me lessons about a) supporting a point and b) making an idea sound exciting that I never heard in a conventional writing class. Danson did that for me again.

And here’s what I’m excited about right now: I just came across the same idea in a magazine article (“Unbreakable” by Wil S. Hylton, NY Times Magazine, 12/21/2014). For some years now I’ve been hearing about Laura Hillenbrand, an American author who’s written two gangbuster bestsellers: Seabiscuit: An American Legend and Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption about hero Louis Zamperini. Here’s what I read in the article about her:

Hillenbrand’s approach has already begun to influence leading writers. The author Daniel James Brown has spent more than six months on The Times’s paperback list for his book about the 1936 U.S. Olympic rowing team, The Boys in the Boat. Over the past four months, he and Hillenbrand have held the top two positions nearly every week. Brown told me that even before he began writing his book, he had Hillenbrand’s in mind.

“When I first started The Boys in the Boat — I mean, the day after I decided to write the book — I had an old paperback copy of Seabiscuit, and we were going on a vacation,” he recalled. “So I threw it in my suitcase, and I spent the whole vacation dissecting it. I put notes on every page in the book, just studying all the writerly decisions she had made: why she started this scene this way and that scene that way, and the language choices in how she developed the setting.” Brown told me that his notes in Seabiscuit even influenced his reporting. “One of the things I wrote down in the margins of the book was that I needed to do this or I needed to do that,” he said. “I went into the whole research project with a list of guidelines, which were drawn from this close study of Seabiscuit. ”

You’ll never hear a better piece of advice about writing.

Seabiscuit ok

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Autumn in Florida

Charlie and I moved to Florida 40 years ago. When I talk to people who live in northern states, they sometimes ask how I can stand to live in a place with no seasons. Doesn’t it get monotonous? This time of year, when trees are displaying their gorgeous autumn foliage, is especially likely to evoke pitying looks. Charlie and I are missing out on all that beauty!

The truth is that we’re not – and there’s a point to be made about writing here. If you take the time to look, there’s fall color everywhere, even in Central Florida (where the thermometer hit 90 degrees again today – sigh).

Goldenrain trees, which display golden leaves and red blossoms in the fall, are the most spectacular example of fall color – but there are many others. Florida maples turn crimson in the fall, and Virginia creepers and crape myrtles display multi-colored leaves. And those are just a few examples of the beautiful colors we see every autumn.

A writer’s goal (your goal!) is to make your experience become the reader’s experience. I revel in Florida’s trees and shrubs at this time of year, and I want you, reading this, to catch a hint of that beauty. If you’re a Floridian, go out and look for it! If not, maybe you’ll feel a little less sorry for me as you watch the breathtaking display in your own village or town.

Good writers endlessly turn their minds (and eyes and ears – all the senses) both outward and inward in the quest for topics to write about.

Here’s another example. Last week I went to a writing club meeting at the prison where I volunteer. The inmates were talking about fall and the changes it brings, even in a prison where there aren’t many trees to enjoy. One inmate said he loves fall and winter because the shortened days mean he can be outdoors after dark. In the summer, inmates are locked into their dorms for the night before the sun goes down. But in the fall, they go to the chow hall for their evening meal in the dark. While they’re standing in line, they can look up at the night sky.

By the time he’d finished talking, everything looked different to me: The night sky, the stars, the moon – and the freedom to go outside anytime I want and contemplate the world around me.

Making things look different – encouraging you to notice that the green leaves on a Virginia creeper have turned scarlet and gold, or the sky is full of stars tonight – is what writers do.

What do you see, feel, hear, think that’s different? You need to write about it.

Virginia Creeper in Autumn

Virginia Creeper in Autumn

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