How to be a Great Writer

How to be a writer. Not just a writer; a great writer. Two easy steps.

  1. Sit on your butt.
  2. Write.

Beverages and music allowed.

That means you don’t dodishescheckemailmakecallsbalancethecheckbookpaybillsdochoreswatchtv or blog.

I’m writing this waiting for the tea to boil, so I’m claiming the beverage exception.

Don’t tell me how busy you are. It implies I’m not. I am. If you want it, you make the decisions you need to make.

But yes, sometimes you need to stop to clear your head, and yes, once you’ve written, trying to sell that writing kills your writing time. That’s truly the worst.

Tea’s done, time to stop.

P.S. Vinyl is better than CDs.

Kicking the Bucket in Academic Writing

I think that when students (at any level) are given a writing assignment, they sometimes think of the assignment as if it were a bucket. So a ten page paper is a bucket of a certain size and a twenty page paper is a bucket that’s exactly twice as big. In this way of thinking, academic writing consists of pouring words into a bucket until the bucket fills up, and writers get in trouble if they run out of words before the bucket is full — say, at page fifteen of a twenty-page paper.

I think that’s a painful way to think about writing, though. When we think this way about writing, we’re writing in order to meet a page requirement, not writing because we have something to say. I think it’s better to think of academic writing — or any kind of writing, really, even creative — as if it were a piece of architecture. We should think of our writing as if it were structured like a building. Bigger buildings have more rooms in them and are differently organized. And, bigger buildings with more rooms have more room for different functions, and these different rooms relate to one another sometimes in very specific ways.

So when we first get married, we might live in a one-room apartment. There’s a kitchen with a linoleum floor, a little metal border, and then carpet, and you’re in the living room. The bathroom connects in there somewhere. The couch folds out into a bed. But if you move into a bigger apartment, you might have a kitchen, living room, and a bedroom. A bit bigger, maybe a house, and you’ll have a living and a dining room, maybe a breakfast nook, maybe a study, and maybe a bathroom that opens up to the backyard if you have a pool.

Similarly, a two page paper might have an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. But a ten page paper might have an introduction, a literature review, a section of the body that reflects on the literature review, a section of the body that argues a new thesis out of the literature review, and a conclusion that develops the thesis in a more complex form and considers its significance. It might have subsections within each section that alternate evidence with reflection. It might have a section that addresses counterarguments and, as it does so, modifies its thesis. This paper would have many more rooms than a two page paper, and the paper is the length that it is because of the number of rooms that it has, not because it’s being written to meet a length requirement.

When we think this way about academic writing, we lose concern with page count and start being concerned instead with the size of our idea. How many different parts does our paper need in order to present, explain, support, and develop our main idea? My dissertation was 300 pages in a Word file when it was done. At the time, it felt like one continuous essay with section breaks. But really, when you consider the section breaks, it wasn’t 300 pages. It was six forty-five page(ish) chapters (with a 25ish page bibliography at the end plus front matter). Each of those chapters were usually broken down into three fifteen-page sections. And if you look closely, each of those sections were broken down into three to five page increments. So did I write a 300 page dissertation, or did I write 54 five-page papers — which could be further broken down into paragraphs serving different functions?

Since I had no specific page length in mind, I wrote to the size of my idea. Now of course we don’t want to write 300 pages when only twenty pages are due, but maybe we can think that part of planning and research is developing a ten, or twenty, or twenty-five page idea.

So the key to writing is not writing to fill up a bucket, but writing to develop an idea. In practice, writing to develop an idea might look like this:

  • first you have an idea,
  • then you think about its parts,
  • and you think about how its parts relate to one another,
  • and you think about what each part contains — what kind of evidence, reflection, or explanation is needed in each part.
  • Once you start writing, you rethink each part of the process as you go, as needed.
  • Once you’ve finished writing, you rethink each part of the written product in the light of its conclusion.

I think we can turn this idea around and let it guide how we think about reading too. Do authors put meaning into books the way we might put something into a bucket? In that case, authors put meaning into a book and readers take, hopefully, the same meaning out. Or did they create a structure of some kind, a patterned object, and our acts of reading involve different kinds of pattern recognition? I think the latter is a better approach. It helps us comprehend not only the parts and a central idea, but how the parts relate to one another. It also allows us to ask different questions about the same text, so that we can carry out different pattern recognition activities to draw different meanings from the text.

So I think the best thing we can do is kick the bucket in our academic reading and writing practices. The mind is more complex than an empty container.

Walter Benjamin on Writing

Walter BenjaminGreat stuff from Walter Benjamin on writing.

Progressive Geographies

This is wonderful – Walter Benjamin’s writing rules, taken from Sean Sturm’s blog. I’ve read this before, but only now does it really resonate. I may say more about why in a bit.

I. Anyone intending to embark on a major work should be lenient with themselves and, having completed a stint, deny themselves nothing that will not prejudice the next.

II. Talk about what you have written, by all means, but do not read from it while the work is in progress. Every gratification procured in this way will slacken your tempo. If this régime is followed, the growing desire to communicate will become in the end a motor for completion.

III. In your working conditions avoid everyday mediocrity. Semi-relaxation, to a background of insipid sounds, is degrading. On the other hand, accompaniment by an etude or a cacophony of voices can become as significant for work as…

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It’s Off…

Star_Wars_Logo.svgToday I let my kids watch Star Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. My son Penn (8) has lately become a Star Wars freak, largely and most lately due to Angry Birds Star Wars. If you don’t know what that is, don’t ask. He was talking about it so much I thought I’d just let him watch a movie. Not long afterwards, my six year old daughter Grace and Penn started arguing about the Force.

Yes, they are well on their way to Geekdom.

But in the course of the argument my daughter Grace comes up to me, looks me in the eye — demanding a real answer — and asks me if Star Wars is real. I say of course. She, of course, is Highly Doubtful, so asks Mom, who denies the whole thing, thus making Grace determined to extort the truth out of me. So she asks again, this time with raised eyebrows and a cocked head, as if to say, “You better get it right this time.” I let her down (i.e., stick to my guns), so she asked me to check on my computer.

I faithfully did, typing “IS STAR WARS REAL?” into my computer, finding wonderful sites about building lightsabers and about a planet with two suns — surely proof positive — but best of all I found a wonderful site titled “Star Wars — Fact NOT Fiction,” in which the author asserts that Star Wars is in fact true, and that the Force itself inspired Lucas to write the films.

Quite naturally, I think I’ve saved the day: “See?”

“I don’t believe your computer.”

At this moment by six year old is trying to type “IS STAR WARS REAL?” into Google on my desktop computer.

My son, bless him, is fully on my side.

On another note, I’ve been working on an essay for a forthcoming anthology on Kierkegaard and the Arts and have finally sent out of the first draft. The essay is a complicated machine: it has a lot of parts so can break easily. I’m genuinely looking forward to comments from the editor and the readers.

I paid a bit more conscious attention to the writing process this time around. When I write anything of any length I find that I often pick an album, artist, etc., and listen to nothing but that until I’ve finished writing. About fifteen years ago I listened to Abbey Road over and over again while writing a short story, and found out I wanted to write the characters on the album into the story. I had a lot of fun writing Polythene Pam, let me tell you, who, you guessed it, at one point came in through the bathroom window.

This time, I listened to Bob Dylan. Almost the entire discography. I have all of his studio albums except 1973’s Dylan, which was released by Columbia to fulfill contractual obligations with no involvement on Dylan’s part at all. It’s mostly outtakes, cover tunes. I still want it. But it was never rereleased on CD, so it’s hard to get.

So I listened to all of the studio albums from 1962’s Bob Dylan to this year’s Tempest, started them over again and then remembered The Bootleg Series, so listened to the nine volumes of those I had, then listened to the live albums, then Biograph, then started over again. Then I picked up the 30th anniversary concert album, and now I want the Amnesty International album that just came out.

Weirdly, I think Biograph is my favorite Dylan album, but after that, it gets harder. Probably Shot of Love, not just for the songs, but for what it’s meant to me. It was there when I needed it. I remember hating Dylan and the Dead when it came out (what a waste), but now I like it. I just wish it were longer. I’d never noticed the complex interplay of bass lines with acoustic guitar on Blood on the Tracks. Never could stand the countrified albums, but I’ve reconciled myself to them now and like his voice on them. He’d been in a bad motorcycle accident before the recording of Nashville Skyline and wasn’t able to smoke for six months or so and his voice came back. It’s a bit operatic — a bit like Roy Orbison’s — just not as strong.

It’s been interesting. It is indeed tempting to divide Dylan’s music up into “periods,” but I recall hearing him speak dismissively of critics who divided his work into periods. I think I can see why — he had elements of gospel and blues in those early folk albums, and once he picked something up he seemed to carry it with him. Anything can be brought back and nothing completely disappears. I can also see why people would divide his work up like that, though. There’s the first four folk albums, then folk-rock albums, one of them heavy on blues, then the country/folk albums leading up to Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and then the 70s folk rock albums, which were more rock than his forays into that back in the 60s. That’s followed by the gospel albums — an influence that extends at least all the way through Down in the Groove, maybe even into the 90s with Under the Red Sky, and then the return to folk. His music since Time Out of Mind seemed to change again. But that’s very artificial — none of these “periods” are that cut and dry. Everything he’s ever done stays around and waits to be reinvented again.

Then I found myself thinking about his desire to plug in after those first four folk albums, and I think I see why. Really — it’s just all about the music. Record companies kept him early on just because he was a great songwriter, you know. His first album sold so badly they almost dropped him, but they kept recording him to keep rights to his songs. Turns out they did see that much clearly, but no one could have seen just how much he would come to mean to American music. I think he plugged in because he wanted his music to expand. The purists — the “voice of our generation” people — hated it. They just wanted him to be a voice. But he’s always been about the music too, and his music had to open up and breathe.

Anyway, I think I see what music does for my writing process. I think forward as I write, and my ideas wind up mapped across the music too, so that when the songs or album comes back around so do my ideas. The organization of the writing becomes embedded in the organization of the music, so that I have to keep listening in the same order. If I tried to associate specific ideas with specific songs, of course I’d be missing the point. It’s more like data storage. The medium doesn’t matter, just that the data is kept in order.

I’m not done with Dylan yet. I’ve finished the first draft of the essay, but I think I’m going to give his albums another go-round.

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