Grenville - Writing From Start to Finish (2003)

highlights writing
23-02-18 00:30 (imported)

Source: Grenville, Kate. Writing from Start to Finish: a Six-Step Guide. Crows Nest, N.S.W.: Allen & Unwin, 2003.

Writing sounds simple—you start with an attention-grabbing first sentence, then you move on to some really interesting stuff in the middle, and then you bring it all together at the end. (v)
Start by letting your mind roam around the topic in a free-form way. You make notes and write little bits and pieces, exploring many different ways into the topic. (vi)
When you’ve got a good collection of these bits, you pick over them for what you might be able to use, and you start to put them in some kind of order. As you do this, more ideas will come. Gradually, this evolves into your finished piece of writing... that you never have to make ideas appear out of thin air. (vi)
Six Steps to Writing(vii):
  1. Research
  2. Choosing
  3. Outlining
  4. Drafting
  5. Revising
  6. Editing
Any piece of writing will be trying to do at least one of the following things:
  Entertain => *engages the readers feelings.*
  Inform — it tells the reader about something.
  Persuade — it tries to convince the reader of something.
In the real world these purposes overlap. But a good place to start writing is to ask: What is the basic thing I want this piece of writing to do? (1)
What is the task word in this assignment? (Am I being asked to discuss, describe or compare, or something else?) (7)
What is the limiting word or phrase? Is the assignment asking me to limit my piece to just one part of a larger subject? (7)
Is there a hidden agenda in this assignment? (Is it presented as an imaginative task, but also asks for information?) (7)
Ideas come from lots of places, but the one place they never, ever come from is a sheet of blank paper. (11)
Methods of getting words down on a page: making a list, making a cluster diagram, researching or independent investigation, and freewriting (11)
Ideas come from lots of places, but the one place they never, ever come from is a sheet of blank paper. (11)
There’s a lot of melodrama around the idea of writer’s block, but it’s not a terminal illness. It just means that you’ve come to the end of one path of ideas. That’s okay—you go off on.
Thinking that you have to write a masterpiece is a sure way to get writer’s block. None of the things we’ll do in Step One will look like a masterpiece. Don’t let that worry you. This isn’t the step where we write the masterpiece. This is the step where we think up a whole lot of ideas. Writing the masterpiece comes later. (13)
The thing is not to worry about whether you’ve got a chicken or an egg. You need both and it doesn’t matter which you start with. The place to start is to put down everything you already know or think about the topic. Once you get that in a line, you’ll see where to go next. PP Don’t worry yet about your theme or your structure. You’re not writing an essay yet—you’re just exploring. The more you explore, the more ideas you’ll get, and the more ideas you have, the better your essay will be. (28)
When you write an essay, you’re usually expected to find out what other people have already thought about the subject. Your own ideas are important too, but they should be built on a foundation of what’s gone before. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. (28)
Research is about getting some hard information on your subject: actual facts, actual figures. The sad thing about research is that usually only a small percentage of it ends up in your final draft. But like the hidden nine-tenths of an iceberg, it’s got to be there to hold up the bit you can see. (29)
Once you’ve found your source, you can’t just lift slabs of it and plonk them into your essay. You have to transform the information by putting it into your own words and shaping it for your own purposes. An essential first step in this process is taking notes. If you can summarize a piece of information in a short note, it means you’ve understood it and made it your own. Later, when you write it out in a sentence, it will be your own sentence, organized for your own purposes. (30)
‘MDE’ trick: find its Main idea, then its Details, then any Examples (31)
People often ‘take notes’ by highlighting or underlining the relevant parts of a book or article. This is certainly easier than making your own notes, but it’s not nearly as useful. The moment when you work out how to summarize an idea in your own words is the moment when that idea becomes yours. Just running a highlighter across someone else’s words doesn’t do that—the idea stays in their words, in their brain. It hasn’t been digested by you. (31)
Choosing Ideas
You might be thinking: ‘Why didn’t we just gather useful ideas in the first place?’ The reason is that useful ideas and useless ideas often come together in the same bundle. If you never let the useless ideas in, you’ll miss some of the useful ones too. (49)
The purpose of an essay, you’ll remember, is to persuade or inform or both. That means engaging the readers’ thoughts rather than their feelings. They might get some information from your essay or they might see information arranged to illustrate a general concept. Or they might be persuaded of a particular point of view about the topic. In this case the point of view will be supported by examples and other kinds of evidence. (57)
For an essay, then, we’ll apply the following three basic tests to all our ideas:
1. The information test
- Does this idea provide any facts about the subject (for example, a definition, a date, a statistic or background information)?
2. The concept test
- Could I use this to put forward a general concept about a subject (an opinion, a general truth or a summary)?
- Could I use this as part of a theory or an opinion about the subject (either my own or someone else’s)?
3. The evidence test
- Could I use this to support any information I present?
- Could I use this to support an opinion (point of view) or theory about the subject?
- Is it a concrete example of the idea I’m putting forward?
- Is it a quote from an authority on the subject, or some other kind of supporting material? (57)
Expanded version (64-66):
Apply the information test to it Ask yourself:Could I use this to clarify the terms of the assignment (a definition, explanation of words)?Could I use this to clarify the limitations of the assignment (narrowing it to a particular aspect)? Could I use this as a fact (a date, a name, a statistic)?Could I use this as general background information (historical overview, some sort of ‘the story so far...’)? If the answer to any of these is yes, choose it.
Apply the concept test to it
Ask yourself: Could I use this as part of a general concept about the subject (a general truth or broad idea)? Is this an opinion about the subject (either my own or someone else’s)? Could I use this as part of a theory about the subject? If the answer to any of these is yes, choose it.
Apply the evidence test to it
Ask yourself: Could I use this as an example of something to do with the assignment? Could I use this to support any idea or point of view about the assignment? Is this a quote from an authority or an established fact, or any kind of specific case in point? If the answer to any of these is yes, choose it. 3 What if this isn’t working? Ask yourself: Am I stuck because I’m not sure exactly what points I’ll make in my essay? (Solution: you don’t have to know that yet. Just choose anything that seems relevant to the assignment. Once you’ve chosen your ideas, then you can work out exactly how to use them.) Am I setting my standards for choosing unrealistically high? (Solution: lower them, just to get yourself started—even Einstein had to start somewhere.) Am I trying to find things that could be used just as they are? (Solution: recognize that these early ideas might have to be changed before you can use them.) Am I disappointed not to be choosing more ideas? (Solution: even if you only choose a couple of ideas from your list, that’s okay. You can build on them.)
Repeat this process with the other things you did in Step One
- the cluster diagram
- the research
- the freewriting
An outline is a working plan for a piece of writing. It’s a list of all the ideas that are going to be in the piece in the order they should go. Once you’ve got the outline planned, you can stop worrying about the structure and just concentrate on getting each sentence right. In order to make an outline, you need to know basically what you’re going to say in your piece—in other words, what your theme is. (69)
One way to find a theme is to think one up out of thin air, and then make all your ideas fit around it. Another way is to let the ideas point you to the theme—you follow your ideas, rather than direct them. As you do this, you’ll find that your ideas aren’t as haphazard as you thought. Some will turn out to be about the same thing. Some can be put into a sequence. Some might pair off into opposing groups. Out of these natural groupings, your theme will gradually emerge. This way, your theme is not just an abstract concept in a vacuum, which you need to then prop up with enough ideas to fill a few pages. Instead, your theme comes with all its supporting ideas automatically attached. (69)
One of the easiest ways to let your ideas form into patterns is to separate them, so you can physically shuffle them around. Writing each idea on a separate card or slip of paper can allow you to see connections between them that you’d never see otherwise. (69)
To do [inform or persuade], you’ll need to know what your theme is—the underlying argument or point of your essay. The first step towards this is to put each of your ideas on a separate card or slip of paper. That makes it much easier to find patterns in your ideas. As you look at the ideas on the cards, chances are you’ll start to notice that:
- some ideas go together, saying similar things
- some ideas contradict each other
- some ideas can be arranged into a sequence, each idea emerging out of the one before it (86)
Beginning/Introduction (86-87): Readers need all the help that writers can give them, so the introduction is where we tell them, briefly, what the essay will be about. Different essays need different kinds of introductions, but every introduction should have a ‘thesis statement’: a one-sentence statement of your basic idea. As well, an introduction may have one or more of these:
- an overview of the whole subject
- background to the particular issue you’re going to write about
- a definition or clarification of the main terms of the assignment
- an outline of the different points of view that can be taken about the assignment
- an outline of the particular point of view you plan to take in the essay
Middle/Development (87): This is where you develop, paragraph by paragraph, the points you want to make. A development might include:
- information—facts, figures, dates, data;
- examples—of whatever points you’re making;
- supporting material for your points—quotes, logical cause- and-effect workings, putting an idea into a larger context
End/Conclusion (87): You’ve said everything you want to say, but by this time your readers are in danger of forgetting where they were going in the first place, so you remind them. A conclusion might include:
- a recap of your main points, to jog the readers’ memories
- a summing-up that points out the larger significance or meaning of the main points
- a powerful image or quote that sums up the points you’ve been making
Making an Outline for an Essay (98-100):
What groups of ideas are here?
- If you’ve got ideas that point in different directions within the assignment, you might have to decide which to focus on.
- Or you may be able to organize the ideas into a ‘two-pronged’ essay
Get some index cards
- Normal sized index cards cut in half seem to be most user-friendly for this
- Write each idea on a separate card
- Just a word or two will do for each (enough to remind you of what the idea is). Think about your essay’s theme
- Look for ideas that go together, that contradict each other, or that form a sequence.
- From those patterns, see if a theme or argument seems to be emerging.
Pick out cards for a Beginning pile
Ask these questions about each card:
- Is this a general concept about the subject of the assignment?
- Does it give background information?
- Is it an opinion or theory about the subject?
- Could it be used to define or clarify the terms of the assignment? If the answer to any of these is yes, put those cards together.
Pick out cards for a Middle pile
Ask yourself:
- Could I use this to develop an argument or a sequence of ideas about the assignment?
- Could I use this as evidence for one point of view, or its opposite?
- Could I use this as an example? If the answer to any of these is yes, put those cards together in a second pile
Pick out cards for an End pile
Ask yourself:
- Does this summarise my approach to the assignment?
- Could I use it to draw a general conclusion?
- Could I use it to show the overall significance of the points I’ve made, and how they relate to the assignment? If the answer to any of these is yes, put those cards together.
Refine your outline
Ask yourself:
- Can I make a ‘theme’ or ‘summary’ card?
- Are the ideas in the Middle all pointing in the same direction (a one- pronged essay)? If so, arrange them in some logical order that relates to the assignment. - Are the ideas pointing in different directions, with arguments for and against, or about two different aspects of the topic (a two-pronged essay)?
- Are the cards in the Beginning in the best order? Generally you want to state your broad approach first, then refer to basic information background (such as definitions or generally agreed on ideas).
- Are the cards at the End in the best order? (You may not have any cards for your End yet...read on.)
Add to the outline
Ask yourself:
- Have I got big gaps that are making it hard to see an overall shape? (Solution: make temporary cards that approximately fill the gap: ‘find example’ or ‘think of counter-argument’.)
- Have I got plenty in one pile but nothing in another? (Solution: get whichever pile you have most cards for, into order. That will help you see where you go next, and you can make new cards as you see what’s needed.)
Not working?
Am I stuck because I can’t think of what my basic approach should be? (Solution: start with the Middle cards and think of how these ideas can address the assignment. If one point seems stronger than the others, see if you can think of others that build on it.)
- Am I stuck because my ideas don’t connect to each other? (Solution: find the strongest point—the one that best addresses the assignment. Then see how the other points might relate to it. They might give a different perspective, or a contradictory one, but if they connect in some way, you can use them to develop your response to the assignment.)
- Am I stuck because I haven’t got a Beginning or an End? (Solution: make two temporary cards: – on the first, write ‘This essay will show…’ and finish the sentence by summarising the information you’re going to put forward, the argument you’re going to make or the two points of view you’re going to discuss; – on the second, write ‘This essay has shown…’ and finish the sentence by recapping the information you will have given by the end of the essay, the argument you will have made, or by coming down in favour of one of the two points of view.)
One of the occupational diseases of writers is putting off the dreaded moment of actually starting to write. It’s natural to want to get it right first time, but that’s a big ask, so naturally you put it off some more. (105)
First drafts are the ones writers burn so no one can ever know how bad they were. (105)
Redrafting can seem like a chore, but you could also see it as a freedom. It means that this first draft can be as rough and ‘wrong’ as you like. It can also be (within reason) any length. In Step Five you’ll add or cut as you need to, to make it the right length, so you don’t need to worry about length at the moment. (105)
Writing is hard if you’re thinking, ‘Now I am writing my piece.’ That’s enough to give anyone the cold horrors. It’s a lot easier if you think, ‘Now I am writing a first draft of paragraph one. Now I am writing a first draft of paragraph two.’ (105)
Anything you can do to make a first draft not feel like the final draft will help. Writing by hand might make it easier to write those first, foolish sentences. Promising yourself that you’re not going to show this draft to a single living soul can help, too. But the very best trick I know to get going with a first draft is this: Don’t start at the beginning. (105)
This is the knowledge that our piece has to have a Great Opening Sentence—one that will grip the reader from the very first moment. Probably the hardest sentence in any piece of writing is the first one. (106)
No matter where you start and whatever the piece is about, you need to decide how the piece should be written—the best style for its purposes. Let’s take a minute to look into this idea of style. (106)
Style is a loose sort of concept that’s about how something is written rather than what is written. Choosing the best style for your piece is like deciding what to wear. (106)
If you want them to be convinced by you and believe what you’re saying, you’d choose a less personal narrator with more authority—the third person. You would probably use third person in an essay or a report because of its confident and objective feel. If you want to shift the emphasis of the sentence away from the person acting, or to the action itself, you might use the passive voice. For example, in a scientific report you might say, ‘A test tube was taken’ or ‘Four families were interviewed’. (109)
First Draft
For an essay, you’re trying to persuade or inform your reader. Therefore, you’ll want to choose a style that makes it as persuasive or informative as possible. You want to sound as if you know what you’re talking about, and that you have a considered, logical view of the assignment rather than an emotional response. Even for an essay in which you’re taking sides and putting forward an argument, you’ll be basing it on logic, not emotion. This sense of your authority is best achieved by a fairly formal and impersonal style. You would probably choose:
- reasonably formal words (not pompous ones, though);
- no slang or colloquial words;
- no highly emotional or prejudiced language;
- third-person or passive voice (no ‘I’);
- sentences that are grammatically correct and not overly simple (but not overly tangled, either). In a first draft, aim for these features if you can, but don’t get paralysed by them. It’s better to go back and fix them up later than not to be able to write a first draft at all because you’re too worried about getting it perfect. (122)
Building paragraphs
The idea now is to go through the items on your outline and write out each one as a new paragraph. (Some items may turn into more than one paragraph.)
In general, each paragraph in an essay should have these three elements:
- a topic sentence that acts like a headline, saying what the paragraph will be about;
- a development of this idea—where you insert the details about it;
- supporting material in the form of examples, evidence or quotes.
The topic sentence might also show where the paragraph fits with the one before it. You might show this with signal words like ‘First…’ ‘Second…’ ‘On the other hand…’ that guide the reader around your work.
Somewhere in each paragraph of the first draft, it’s a good idea to use the key word from the assignment, so that each idea is firmly shown to be relevant. This will seem very heavy-handed, but when you revise..., you can decide whether to delete a few uses of the key word to make your argument more subtle. (123)
Using your outline
As you write, you might see ways to improve or add to your outline. Change it, but make sure it’s still addressing the assignment and moving in a logical way from point to point. Don’t let yourself be drawn down paths that aren’t relevant to the assignment. (123)
Keeping the flow going
Postpone that intimidating GOS—Great Opening Sentence. Instead, use the one-line summary of your basic idea that you put at the head of your outline in Step Three. This sentence won’t appear inthe final essay—it’s probably pretty dull. You’ll think of a more interesting way to start the essay in Step Five. (123)
Plunge in and try not to stop until you’ve roughed-out the whole piece.
If you can’t think of the right word, put any word you can think of that is close to what you want to convey. If you’re desperate, you can always leave a blank. If you’ve forgotten a date or a name, leave a blank and come back to it later. Get spelling and grammar right if you can—but don’t let those things stop you. Don’t go back and fix things. Rough the whole thing out now and fix the details later. (123)
Getting stuck
The Beginning of an essay is often a hard place to start. It’s where the central issue of the essay is presented—whether it’s a body of information about a subject, or a particular argument. Sometimes it’s hard to write this before you’ve written the whole piece. If you’re finding this is the case, write the Middle first. Come back later when you can see what you’ve done and tackle the Beginning. (124)
How to end it
Ending an essay can be almost as hard as starting it. The pressure is on for that Great Final Sentence to be—well—great. Take the pressure off for now. Just draw together the points you’ve made in the best final paragraph you can. You’ll probably need more than one try before you get it exactly right—don’t spend too much time on it now. Don’t give this to a reader yet. It’s rough, and they might not be able to see past the roughness to the shape underneath. Revise it first, otherwise you might be unnecessarily discouraged. (124)
Revising literally means ‘re-seeing’. It is about fixing the bigger, structural problems and, if necessary, ‘re-seeing’ the whole shape of the piece. What this boils down to is finding places where you need to cut something out, places where you should add something, and places where you need to move or rearrange something. (137)
Revising doesn’t mean fixing surface problems such as grammar and spelling. That’s what’s called ‘editing’, and *[that's for the editing stage]*. (137)
There are two quite different things you have to do when revising. It’s tempting to try to do them both at the same time, but it’s quicker in the long run to do them one by one. The first thing is to find the problems. The second thing is to fix them. (137)
Coming to your own work fresh is one of the hardest things about writing. (137)
If you want to find problems before your readers do, you have to try to read it the way they will. That means reading it straight through without stopping, to get a feeling for the piece as a whole. Read it aloud if you can—it will sound quite different and you’ll hear where things should be changed. (137)
Don’t waste this read-through by stopping to fix things, but read with a pen in your hand. When you come to something that doesn’t quite feel right, put a squiggle in the margin beside it, then keep reading. Trust your gut feeling. If you feel that there’s something wrong—even if you don’t know what it is—your readers will too. (138)
If you’re working on a computer, I strongly recommend that you print it out (double-spaced) before you start revising. Things always look better on the screen—more like a finished product. But right now you don’t want them to look any better than they really are— you want to find problems, not hide them. (138)
The first time you read the piece through, think only about these questions: (138) - Have I repeated myself here or waffled on?
- Is there something missing here?
- Are parts of this in the wrong order?
After you’ve read the piece through, go back to each of the squiggles you made, and work out just why it didn’t sound right. (138)
- If you repeated something, you need to cut.
- If you’re missing something, you’ll need to add.
- If parts are in the wrong order, you’ll need to move things around.
Now it is time to replace your ‘summary’ sentence with a GOS. A GOS should get your reader interested, but not give too much away. A good GOS will often make the reader ask ‘Why?’—then they’ll read on, to find the answer to that question. (139)
There are two ways to come up with a GOS. One way is to find it. It may be embedded somewhere in your piece, already written—read through the piece, auditioning each sentence (or part of it) for a starring role as a GOS. Or you may find it somewhere else—a sentence in another piece of writing may suggest a GOS, or the sentence may be useable as a direct quote. (139)
The other way to produce a GOS is to write it. Approach this in the same way as you got ideas in Step One—let your mind think sideways and don’t reject any suggestions. Write down all the openers you can dream up, no matter how hopeless they seem. When you’ve got a page covered with attempts, circle the ones that seem most promising—or just a good phrase or word—and build on these. Assume that you’ll write many GOS attempts before you come up with a good one. (139)
A [Great Final Sentence] should leave the reader feeling that all the different threads of the piece have been drawn together in a satisfying way. A piece might end with a powerful final statement, or in a quiet way. In either case, the reader should feel sure this is the end—not just that there’s a page missing. As with the GOS, you may find your GFS hiding somewhere in what you’ve already written, or you may need to write one from scratch. Go about it in the same way as you did for the GOS. (139)
Other ways to revise
Sometimes cutting, adding or moving doesn’t quite do the trick. If that’s the case, put the draft away and simply tell someone (real or imaginary) what it’s about. Then tell them the contents of each paragraph, one by one. (You might start with words like ‘What I’m saying here is…’) Then write down what you’ve just heard yourself say. Those words will give you a clear, simply-worded version of your essay which you can then embellish with details from your written draft.

Revising ‘too much’
It’s easy to talk yourself out of the need to make changes. On a second reading some of the problems appear to melt away. You’ve got to remember, though, that most pieces don’t get a second reading.
Nevertheless, as you continue your revisions, you might decide you were right in an earlier version and you need to go back to that. It’s a good idea not to delete or throw away any parts of your earlier drafts—keep them somewhere, in case. (For computer work, make a copy before you start changing it.)
Don’t worry about ‘overworking’ a piece until you’ve revised it at least three times. An overworked essay is a rare and seldom- sighted creature.
Strange though it seems, revising can actually be the best part of writing. You’ve done the hard work—you’ve actually created an essay out of thin air. You don’t have to do that again. Now you can enjoy tinkering with it, adding here, cutting there—getting the whole thing as good as you can make it. (155)
If you were snatched away right now by aliens and never seen again, you’d still get a reasonable mark for your writing piece. It’s got plenty of ideas, they’re in the right order, and the whole thing flows without gaps or bulges. However, in the event of an alien abduction it would be comforting to know that you’d left a really superior piece of writing behind. The way to achieve this is through the last step of the writing process: editing. (167)
Basically ‘editing’ means making your piece as reader-friendly as possible by making the sentences flow in a clear, easy-to-read way. It also means bringing your piece of writing into line with accepted ways of using English: using the appropriate grammar for the purposes of the piece, appropriate punctuation and spelling, and appropriate paragraphing. (167)
Readers can be irritated and troubled by unconventional usage (I’ve had dozens of letters from readers about the fact that I don’t use inverted commas around dialogue in some of my novels). It’s your right to make up new ways to do things, but expect to pay a price for it. In the case of a school essay, this price might be a lower mark. (168)
As with revising, the first thing to do is to read the piece all the way through, looking for problems. Make a note of where you think there are problems, but don’t stop to fix them. Once you’ve found them all, you can go back and take your time fixing each one. If there’s even the slightest feeling in the back of your mind that something might not be quite right, don’t try to talk yourself out of that feeling. As writers, we all want our piece to be perfect, so we have a tendency to read it as if it is perfect, with a selective blindness for all its problems. For that reason, this is a good moment to ask someone else to look at it for you. To make a piece as user-friendly as possible, you need to check the piece for style, grammar and presentation. (168)
Questions to ask about style: (178-179)
- Have I used the style most appropriate to an essay? An essay should be written in a reasonably formal style. It should be in the third person or the passive voice. ‘I’ is generally not appropriate.
- Have I chosen the most appropriate words for this style? To achieve a formal style, individual words shouldn’t be slangy or too casual. You’ll be expected to use the proper technical terms where appropriate. On the other hand, your essay shouldn’t be overloaded with pompous or obscure words. If a simple word does the job, use it.
- Does the writing give the reader a smooth ride or a bumpy one? In a first draft it’s very easy to get yourself into long complicated sentences containing too many ideas. This is the time to simplify them. Even if a long complicated sentence is grammatically correct, it’s generally awkward and hard to read. Try it out loud—if it’s hard to get it right, or if it sounds clunky, rewrite it. It’s much better to have two or three straightforward sentences than a big baggy monster. On the other hand, the ‘See Spot run’ variety of sentence gets pretty mind-numbing after a while. If you have too many short, choppy sentences you may need to look at ways of connecting some of them, using words such as ‘although’, ‘in addition’, ‘on the other hand’… If all the sentences are constructed exactly the same way, you should look at ways of varying them.
Questions to ask about grammar: (180-181)
- Is this really a complete sentence?
If not, it’s a sentence fragment.
- Have I joined two complete sentences with only a comma between them?
If you have, it’s a run-on sentence (aka comma splice or fused sentence).
- Do my subjects agree with my verbs? This is called subject–verb agreement.
- Have I changed tense or person without meaning to?
This is where the writing starts in one tense but suddenly shifts into another tense (‘they do’ to ‘they did’, for example) or starts being about ‘he’ and slides into ‘I’ somewhere along the line. In an essay, you can decide whether to use the past tense or the present—whichever sounds most natural for your assignment. In the essay Tomorrow, When the War Began, I’ve used the present tense to describe the actions in the book. This is usual for an essay about literature—treating the story as if it’s happening in the present. A history essay would normally be in the past tense (naturally enough). - Is one bit of my sentence somehow attached to the wrong thing?
This may be a case of dangling modifier—sounds weird, and it is.
- Have I put enough commas in? Or too many? A comma’s basic purpose in life is to indicate to the reader that there should be a slight pause in the sentence. This might be to separate the items in a list or to show which parts of a sentence belong together which as you can see if you took the commas out of this sentence might otherwise be a problem (see page 200).
- Have I put apostrophes in the right places? Apostrophes are those little misplaced raised commas that occur in the middle of some words such as ‘they’re’ or ‘it’s’ (see page 201).
- If you've used colons and semicolons, have I used them properly?
A colon is ‘:’ and a semicolon is ‘;’. If you've used inverted commas and brackets, have I used them properly? You use inverted commas—‘quote marks’ when you’re quoting someone else’s words exactly. You also use them to talk about a word, not its meaning, as in the word ‘yellow’ begins with ‘y’, or if you use a word in an unusual sense.
- Have I put paragraph breaks in the best places?
The basic rule for paragraphs is that every new idea should have a new paragraph. If an idea is quite long, you might need to break it up into more than one paragraph. To do this, you’ll need to find the ‘sub-idea’, or a sense of the idea changing direction—that will be the point at which to make a paragraph break. As a very rough rule-of-thumb, if a paragraph is more than about eight lines long (typed), make it into two separate paragraphs. It will ‘lighten’ the texture of your writing and make it easier on your readers.
- Have I trusted the computer grammar checker too much? Computer grammar checkers are useful, particularly to identify problems you mightn’t have recognised. They’re good at finding run-on sentences (they might call them ‘comma splices’) and sentence fragments. However, you can’t just apply their suggestions in every case. For a start, computer grammar checkers seem to hate the passive voice—but the passive voice is useful in essays and other forms of non-fiction writing. Also, the computer doesn’t know what the purpose of your piece is, or who you’re writing it for—so its suggestion may not be the best in your particular case. Use the grammar checker, but use your own judgement, too.
Questions to ask about presentation (182-184)
- Is my spelling correct?
You’d think that using a computer spell checker would solve all spelling problems. However, if an incorrect spelling is in fact a legitimate word, the computer won’t always pick it up as a mistake. Be aware, also, that computer spell checkers may also suggest US spellings, which aren’t always the same as Australian ones, and they are very bad at names of people and places. If you’re not using a computer, go through your writing very carefully for spelling. If you have even the faintest shadow of doubt about the spelling of a word, look it up in a dictionary. There are certain words that all of us find hard—words like ‘accommodation’, ‘necessary’, ‘disappoint’—so if you get to a word that you know is often a problem, double-check it even if you think it’s right. Another reader can also be a big help in picking up spelling errors. If there are two perfectly good spellings of a word, choose one and use it consistently.
- Does my layout make my piece look good?
Layout means the way the text is arranged on the page. Layout makes a huge psychological difference to your reader. A piece that’s crammed tightly on the page with no space anywhere and few paragraph breaks can look dense and uninviting. A piece that’s irregular—different spacing on different parts, different amounts of indentation or different spacing between the lines—looks jerky and unsettling. Your layout should allow plenty of ‘air’ around the text, with generous margins all round. You should leave some space between the lines, too—not only for comments by the teacher, but also because your text is easier on the eye if there’s good separation between the lines. It’s just human nature to prefer something pleasant to deal with and—contrary to some opinions—teachers are, in fact, human. So make sure your piece of writing is as legible as you can make it. If it’s handwritten, write as clearly as you can and don’t let the writing get too small or too sloping. On a computer, stick to one of the standard text fonts (New York or Times New Roman, for example). Don’t use fancy fonts. Use 10- or 12-point type size. If your piece isn’t long enough, the teacher won’t be fooled by 16- point type. Human, yes. Entirely stupid—not usually.
- Does my title help the reader enter the essay?
Your essay may have a title: The Water Cycle. Or it may have a heading: Term 2 assignment: ‘What Were the Causes of World War I?’. Whatever the title is, it should tell the reader exactly what the writing task is.
- Have I acknowledged other people's contributions to my essay?
Most essay writers use other people’s work to some extent. Sometimes they use it as background reading. Sometimes they specifically use information someone else has gathered or insights someone else has had. Sometimes they actually quote someone else’s words. It’s very important to acknowledge this help, and say exactly where it comes from. This is partly simple gratitude, but it also means that other people can go and check your sources, to find out if, as you claim in your essay, Einstein really did say the earth was flat. You should acknowledge other people’s work in two ways: first, in a bibliography at the end of your essay. This is just a list of all the sources of information that you’ve used. List them alphabetically by author’s surname, with information in this order: author, title, publisher and place and date of publication (or the address of the website). As well as appearing in the bibliography, sources that you’ve used in a direct way should also be acknowledged in the essay itself—for example, ‘As Bloggs points out, Einstein was not always right.’ The titles of any books that you refer to should be in italics (if you’re using a computer) or underlined (if you’re writing by hand).
A complete sentence must have a subject (someone or something doing something in the sentence), and a full verb (showing an action or a state of being). Most sentences also have an object: something that the verb is being ‘done to’. (196)
Beware of sentences that start with an ‘ing’ word. Check that they are not sentence fragments. If they are, there are two ways to fix them: 1. Get a subject into the sentence and complete the verb: He was running for the bus. 2. Join this sentence fragment onto another complete sentence that gives it a subject and contains a full verb. Running for the bus, he tripped over. (197)
You might meet these under the name of comma splices or fused sentences. What these names mean is that several complete sentences have been stuck together without any properly certified joining devices. (197)
If you remember our discussion of complete sentences, you might have noticed that the subject and the verb agreed. In fact, one of the markers of a subject is that it controls the verb—or rather, the form that the verb will take. (198)
It’s easy to start a piece of writing in the past tense but find somewhere along the line that you’ve slid into the present tense— or the other way round. It’s also easy to start using ‘he’ but somewhere along the line start talking about ‘I’ instead. This is disorienting for a reader.
Sound weird, and dangling modifiers sound weird in writing, too. This is when you’ve got a sentence with several parts to it, and one of the parts ‘modifies’ another part but it’s in the wrong place. The modifying bit ‘dangles’ in space, attaching itself, in desperation, to anything nearby. (200)
A comma’s basic purpose in life is to indicate to the reader that there should be a slight pause in the sentence. Sometimes commas separate items in a list. The last two items of a list should already be separated by the word ‘and’, so you don’t need a comma there. (200)
Commas are handy to set off a little side-thought in a sentence— the same way a pair of brackets (parentheses) would. (If you want to get technical, these are called ‘parenthetical commas’.) (201)
The danger zone with commas is when you’ve got two complete sentences (see run-on sentences above), and you join them together with nothing more substantial than a comma. It’s like using sticky-tape to mend the fence. Something more substantial is a semicolon (;). (201)
A colon is ‘:’ and a semicolon is ‘;’. A semicolon is a legitimate joining device for two complete sentences, and therefore a ‘cure’ for a run-on sentence. (203)
You use inverted commas—‘quote marks’ with dialogue. Parentheses (commonly called ‘brackets’) are often handy, too, when you want to add a little bit extra to the main point and tack it onto the sentence. The question is, where does the punctuation go—inside the inverted commas or parentheses, or outside them? Generally, the rule is that the punctuation goes inside the inverted commas or the parentheses, if there’s a complete thought inside them. (203)
The basic rule for paragraphs is that every new idea or subject should have a new paragraph. This is not always as simple as it sounds because ideas tend to flow into each other. Follow the basic rule and when you feel your writing is taking a breath, or the idea is turning a corner, give it a new paragraph. In any case, don’t let your paragraphs get too long. A new paragraph gives your reader a chance to take a breath. As a very rough rule of thumb, if a paragraph is more than about eight or ten lines long (typed), try to find a place to cut into it and make it into two paragraphs. It will ‘lighten’ the look of your writing and make it easier on your readers. (204)
A pronoun is a word that stands in the place of a noun. Without pronouns, writing would get very repetitive (for example, you would have to use a character’s name every time you mentioned them, instead of the ‘he’ or ‘she’). What can happen with pronouns when you’re writing, though, is that the link between the noun and the pronoun can get broken, and then the reader isn’t clear what the pronoun is referring to. (204)

Gellner - The Psychoanalytic Movement (1985)

highlights psychoanalysis
23-02-17 15:26

Forward by José Brunner

Basically, there are biographical similarities between Gellner and Freud, both having come to London from Central Europe about 50 years apart. Gellner is a hardcore analytic sociologist, looking to construct a holitic view of world history. Gellner was against Wittgenstein, who was in vogue at Oxford, for his notion that outside language was a substantive force within culture.
His champions were the philosophers and social theorists who propounded the modern analytic, universalist world-view, such as Descartes, Hume, Kant and Weber. (xvi)
Any readiness to privilege a particular field of knowledge, source of information orcommunity of scientific practitioners, any willingness to diverge from the straight and narrow path of universal, factual truth and rational theorising, meant for him to give in to temptation and to betray thelegacy of the Enlightenment. (xvi)
Much of Gellner’s work was driven by the aim to expose the fallacies and dangers inherent in the various attempts to reenchant a world that had been disenchanted by the scientific mode of thought. For this reason, and under the influence of the empiricist philosopher of science Karl Popper, he devoted his attention not only to Wittgensteinian linguistic philosophy and hermeneutics, but also to Marxism, ethnomethodology and postmodernism. (xvi)
Freud warned that self-mastery could never be complete. Though one can hope to live with less suffering and repression, according to Freud no one will ever be completely without it. (xvii)
Freud’s discourse is marked by an irresolvable tension: on the one hand psychoanalysis aims at self-mastery and self-knowledge; on the other, it points to the mind’s uncontrollable and unknowable core, the un- conscious, and thus to the inevitable limits of self-mastery and self- knowledge. (xvii)
Throughout his work Freud makes clear – implicitly in the manner of his investigation and theorising and explicitly in some of his declarations – that for him science denotes a form of thinking that, though methodical, orderly and aiming at precision, always also involves metaphor, speculation, multidimensionality and, above all, a keen awareness of its lack of solace and its necessary imperfection. Science, he stated, ‘is not all-comprehensive, it is too incomplete and makes no claim to being self-contained and to the construction of systems’. Its evident incompleteness or imperfection was for Freud a crucial characteristic that differentiated science from philosophy and religion, whose illusory stability and coherence aimed to lull their believers into a misleading sense of security. (xviii)
They both argued that after the erosion of religion and feudal traditions the scientific mode of thought leaves modern humans no choice but to live in an indifferent, meaningless world. Nevertheless, neither of the two thinkers had any nostalgia for the cosy cocoons of faith and customary beliefs, nor did either of them assume that it could be possible to slip back into the protective, but also severely limiting shells of religious creeds and inherited social practices, once they have been broken by the liberating power of scientific thinking. (xviii - xix)
He judges psychoanalysis not by its founder’s self-understanding, but by what he perceives to be the logic of its claims, its effects on Western culture and its practical results, and he does so from an empiricist perspective. (xix)
Rather than regarding psychoanalysis as a discipline that extends the mantle of science over the unconscious, as Freud proclaimed, Gellner sees the Freudian notion of the unconscious as a device that displaces reason from its throne and provides an animist vision of the mind as a realm ruled by cunning demons. Rather than having founded a new community of scientists of the mind, Gellner castigates Freud for having established a Church-like secretive guild that self-righteously pretends to have privileged access to the truth, while in fact adhering to a naturalist religion. Finally, Gellner portrays psychoanalytic practice as authoritarian, providing mystical experiences and a secular form of pastoral care whose results cannot be falsified, rather than an empirically testable cure of mental ills. Gellner’s Freud is a man of vague promises, seductive theories and doubtful practices – but also of one genuine contribution: a theory of the unconscious, however problematic it may be. (xix)
The discrepancy between the subjective intentions underlying the psychoanalytic project of developing a scientific theory and therapeutic practice directed at the unconscious, and its objective – textual, practical, institutional – manifestations is the main reason for which The Psychoanalytic Movement was written. (xix - xx)
[Gellner's] animus is directed against modern, naturalist, scientifically sounding belief systems that are but religions in disguise, for their disguise makes them seductive and dangerous, tempting modern humans to seek refuge in their warm but delusory embrace. (xx)
Generally, Frederick Crews’ bellicose essay ‘The Unknown Freud’, published in November 1993 in the New York Review of Books, is considered the opening salvo in what came to be known as the Freud Wars: a highly charged polemic on the merits and shortcomings of psychoanalysis that for some time agitated the psychologically-minded in New York and London, and their intellectual peripheries. Crews thrashed Freud for having been a liar and fabricator rather than a theorist and therapist. A year later he did a follow-up with another, two-part essay, entitled ‘The Revenge of the Repressed’. The following years saw a series of works that were published by radical detractors of Freud. These debunking exercises were designed to show once and for all – but also again and again – that psychoanalysis was not only bunk, but also harmful. By associating in their titles Freud and psychoanalysis with exploitation, seduction, fraud, deceit, malignancy and victim blaming, these books paint a threatening picture of Freud and of psychoanalysis. (xxii - xxiii)
Though Gellner is an unrelenting critic of psychoanalysis, he does not accuse Freud of knowingly distorting the truth, that is, of lying and cheating. Though he depicts Freud as a thinker whose theories and practice contain unfalsifiable hypotheses, false promises and unwarranted conclusions, he does not, therefore, accuse Freud of being ‘endlessly calculating’, pour scorn on a ‘notably willful and opportunistic Freud’, or decry him as ‘fanatical, self-inflated, ruthless, myopic, yet intricately devious’, as Crews does in his essays. (xxiii)
Gellner was more sympathetic to Freud's mission, and provided a more sociologically oriented analysis of the popularity of psychoanalysis that the so-called Freud badgers would allow in the 1980s and 1990s. (xxii)
The Psychoanalytic Movement is a bilingual text. It uses the language of the social sciences as well as that of philosophy of science. In giving a socio-cultural account of the rise and role of psychoanalysis in the West, the book belongs in the company of social and cultural studies of Freud’s oeuvre or of psychoanalytic discourse in general. In criticising psychoanalysis for not living up to empiricist standards of science, Gellner joins many of Freud’s philosophical critics, from Popper to Grunbaum.
When one disentangles the two languages and examines each of them against their respective traditions, Gellner’s sociology of psychoanalysis and his anthropology of the consulting room are by far more original and creative than his empiricist critique of psychoanalysis as a science.
[Gellner] points out that psychoanalysis speaks in a causal, quasi-biological, libidinal or hydraulic language in order to portray the over- whelming power of instinctual drives active in our unconscious. At the same time it offers a hermeneutic or interpretive vocabulary that purports to decipher the cunning disguises and intricate stratagems of these dark forces and to enable communication with them. Gellner explains: ‘A purely hermeneutic psychoanalysis would not sound like science, confer no power, and few men would turn to it in distress; a purely physicalist or biological psychoanalysis would have been too much like a science, and no fun. But the plausible-sounding fusion of both is very different, and most attractive’. Discussion of the cause–meaning merger in psychoanalytic discourse has a long and somewhat tortuous history, though an almost exclusively philosophical one. Moreover, as a rule those commenting on the hermeneutics–science fusion have done so in order to stress the incompatibility of the two strands, investing much effort to separate them from each other and arguing that trying to have it both ways, as Freud did, was impossible and could only lead to confusion. Usually, the aim of such disentangling attempts by Freud’s interpreters and commentators from within and without the psychoanalytic community is to make one dimension dominant as representing the ‘true’ Freud in order to reconstruct his thought around it. Sometimes this is done to produce an improved version of psychoanalysis, such as when philosophers like Paul Ricoeur and Jürgen Habermas portray psychoanalysis as an unmasking hermeneutics in the tradition of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Sometimes the aim of this exercise is to discredit psychoanalysis and unmask its fallacies and errors, such as in Adolf Grunbaum’s reconstruction of psychoanalysis as a purely causal discipline. (xxvii - xxviii)
In order to benefit from the social status of science in Western societies, psychoanalysts presented their discipline for a long time as medical and scientific. But by now most commentators and practitioners in the field have come to accept that it is quite impossible to construct a satisfactory empirical testing ground on which one could isolate what is claimed to be efficacious in psychoanalytic therapy. (xxix)
Today only little is left of the hubris that characterised the psychoanalytic community in earlier decades, in which its members believed that Freud had found the only or best key to cure the mind. In the age of postmodernism and psychopharmaceutics, and in the wake of the Freud Wars, psychoanalysis is marked by a great deal of intellectual uncertainty and institutional proliferation. Some schools maintain a rigid conservatism, others have adopted a shallow eclecticism, some have turned psychoanalytic therapy into a narrative or poetic enterprise, others have moved into interpersonal, constructivist directions, some attempt to provide an empirical grounding for psychoanalytic claims, others try to combine psychoanalytic theory with neurobiology. (xxix)

Miller et al. - Tell It Slant (2005)

highlights writing
22-12-20 00:49

Miller, Brenda, and Suzanne Paola. Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction. McGraw-Hill, 2005.

When Emily Dickinson wrote, “Tell all the Truth but tell it Slant / Success in Circuit lies . . .” what did she mean by these lines? We think she meant that truth takes on many guises; the truth of art can be very different from the truth of day-to-day life. Her poems and letters, after all, reveal her deft observation of the outer world, but it is “slanted” through the poet’s distinctive vision. We chose her poem as both title and epigraph for this book because it so aptly describes the task of the creative nonfiction writer: to tell the truth, yes, but to become more than a mere transcriber of life’s factual experiences. (viii)
Every few years, National Public Radio checks in on a man who feels compelled to record every minute of his day in a diary. As you can imagine, the task is gargantuan and ultimately imprisons him. He becomes a slave to this recording act and can no longer function in the world. The transcription he leaves may be a comprehensive and “truthful” one, but it remains completely unreadable; after all, who cares to read reams and reams of such notes? What value do they hold apart from the author? In nonfiction, if we place a premium on fact, then this man’s diary would be the ultimate masterpiece. But in literature and art, we applaud style, meaning, and effect over the bare facts. We go to literature—and perhaps especially creative nonfiction literature— to learn not about the author, but about ourselves; we want to be moved in some way. That emotional resonance happens only through skillful use of artistic techniques. (viii)
Simply by choosing to write in this genre, and to present your work as non- fiction, you make an artistic statement. You’re saying that the work is rooted in the “real” world. Though the essay might contain some elements of fabrication, it is directly connected to you as the author behind the text. There is a truth to it that you want to claim as your own, a bond of trust between reader and writer. (ix)
At some point, every writer needs to decide how she wants to place herself in relationship to the reader; the choice of genre establishes that relationship and the rules of engagement. (ix)
This voice must be loud and interesting enough to be heard among the noise coming at us in everyday life. (ix)
"The essay is a haven for the private, idiosyncratic voice in an era of anonymous babble." - Scott Russell Sanders (ix)
This “idiosyncratic voice” uses all the literary devices available to fiction writers and poets—vivid images, scenes, metaphors, dialogue, satisfying rhythms of language, and so forth—while still remaining true to experience and the world. Or, as novelist and essayist Cynthia Ozick put it, “Like a poem, a genuine essay is made out of language and character and mood and temperament and pluck and chance.” (ix-x)
Imagination coupled with facts form this hybrid genre that is both so exciting and so challenging to write. (x)
But the minute creative nonfiction writers put pen to paper, they realize a truth both invigorating and disheartening: we are not the rote recorder of life experience. We are artists creating artifice. And as such, we have difficult choices to make every step of the way. (x)
Readers will want to read your work not because they wish to lend a sympathetic ear to a stranger, but because of the way your truth-filled stories may illuminate their own lives and perceptions of the world. (xi)
"Remember that the writers whom we call eternal or simply good and who intoxicate us have one common and very important characteristic: they get somewhere, and they summon you there, and you feel, not with your mind, but with your whole being, that they have a certain purpose and, like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, do not come and excite the imagination for nothing. He who desires nothing, hopes for nothing, and is afraid of nothing, cannot be an artist." -- Anton Chekhov, in a letter to Alexei Suvorin, Nov. 25, 1892 (1)
Memory itself could be called its own bit of creative nonfiction. We continually—often unconsciously—renovate our memories, shaping them into stories that bring coherence to chaos. Memory has been called the ultimate “mythmaker,” continually seeking meaning in the random and often unfathomable events in our lives. “A myth,” writes John Kotre, author of White Gloves: How We Create Ourselves Through Memory, “is not a falsehood but a comprehensive view of reality. It’s a story that speaks to the heart as well as the mind, seeking to generate conviction about what it thinks is true.” (4)
The first memory then becomes the starting point in our own narratives of the self... As writers, we naturally return again and again to these beginnings and scrutinize them. (4)
Virginia Woolf had her own term for such “shocks” of memory. She calls them “moments of being” and they become essential to our very sense of self. They are the times when we get jolted out of our everyday complacency to really see the world and all that it contains. This shock-receiving capacity is essential for the writer’s disposition. (5)
What are the pictures that rise up to the surface without your bidding? Take these as your cue. Pick up your pen, your net, your magnet, whatever it takes. Be on alert. This is where you begin. (5)
A metaphor is a way at getting at a truth that exists beyond the literal. By pin- pointing certain images as symbolic, writers can go deeper than surface truths and create essays that work on many levels at once. This is what writers are up to all the time, not only with memory but with the material of experience and the world. We resurrect the details to describe not only the surface appearance, but also to make intuitive connections, to articulate some truth that can- not be spoken of directly. (6)
The best material cannot be deciphered in an instant, with a fixed meaning that, once pinned down, remains immutable. No. As essayists, we want the rich stuff, the inscrutable images whose meaning is never clear at first, second, or third glance. (6)
As an adult—as a writer preserving this memory in language—I begin to create a metaphor that will infiltrate both my writing and my sense of self from here on out. (6)
Because memory is so firmly fixed in the body, it takes an object that appeals to the senses to dislodge memory and allow it to float freely into the mind or onto the page. These memories will have resonance precisely because they have not been forced into being by a mind insistent on fixed meanings. It is the body’s story and so one that resonates with a sense of an inadvertent truth revealed. (7)
By paying attention to the sensory gateways of the body, you also begin to write in a way that naturally embodies experience, making it tactile for the reader. Readers tend to care deeply only about those things they feel in the body at a visceral level. And so as a writer consider your vocation as that of a translator: one who renders the abstract into the concrete. We experience the world through our senses. We must translate that experience into the language of the senses as well. (7)
Though Helen Keller’s words are made more poignant by the fact that she was blind and deaf, we all have this innate connection to smell. Smell seems to travel to our brains directly, without logical or intellectual interference. Physiologically, we do apprehend smells more quickly than the other sensations, and the images aroused by smell act as beacons leading to our richest memories, our most private selves. Smell is so intimately tied up with breath, after all, a function of our bodies that works continually, day and night, keeping us alive. And so smell keys us into the memories that evoke the continual ebb and flow of experience. (8)
Though Helen Keller’s words are made more The bond between mother and child forms over the feeding of that child, either at the breast or at the bottle, the infant body held close, the eyes intent on the parent’s face. When you sit down to unburden yourself to a friend, you often do so over a meal prepared together in the kitchen, the two of you chopping vegetables or sipping wine as you articulate whatever troubles have come to haunt you. When these predicaments grow overwhelming, we turn to comfort food, meals that spark in us a memory of an idealized, secure childhood. When we are falling in love, we offer food as our first timid gesture toward intimacy. (8-9)
Sounds often go unnoticed. Because we cannot consciously cut off our hearing unless we plug our ears, we’ve learned to filter sounds, picking and choosing the ones that are important, becoming inured to the rest. But these sounds often make up a subliminal backdrop to our lives, and even the faintest echo can tug back moments from the past in their entirety. (9)
Music is not so subtle but rather acts as a blaring soundtrack to our emotional lives. Think about the bonds you formed with friends over common musical passions, the days spent listening to the same song over and over as you learned the mundane yet painful lessons of love. Sometimes you turned up that song as loud as you could so that it might communicate to the world—and to your deepest, deafest self—exactly the measure of your emotion. We often orchestrate our memories around the music that accompanied those pivotal eras of our lives. (10)
We are constantly aware of our bodies, of how they feel as they move through the world. Without this sense we become lost, disoriented in space and time. And the people who have affected us the most are the ones who have touched us in some way, who have reached beyond this barrier of skin and made contact with our small, isolated selves. Sometimes an essayist can focus on the tactile feel of objects as a way to explore deeper emotions or memories. (10)
How do you see the world? How do you see yourself? Even linguistically, our sense of sight seems so tied up in our perceptions, stance, opinions, personalities, and knowledge of the world. To see something often means to finally understand, to be enlightened, to have our vision cleared. What we choose to see—and not to see—often says more about us than anything else. PP When we “look back” in memory, we see those memories. Our minds have catalogued an inexhaustible storehouse of visual images. Now the trick is for you to render those images in writing. Pay attention to the smallest details: the way a tree limb cuts its jagged edge against a winter sky or the dull canary yellow of the bulldozer that leveled your favorite house on the street. Close your eyes to see these images more clearly. Trace the shape of your favorite toy or the outline of a beloved’s face. Turn up the lights in the living room. Go out walking under a full moon. Keep looking. (11)
Sometimes these photos and films can act not only as triggers for your memory—reminding you of the visual details of the experience—but they can also prompt you to delve more deeply below the surface. (12)
From the minute we arrive in the world, we’re put at the mercy of the people who care for us. And we might find the rest of our lives taken up with dual, contradictory impulses: to be an integral part of this clan and to be a separate individual, set apart. Our families, however they’re configured, provide our first mirrors, our first definitions of who we are. And they become our first objects of love, anger, and loyalty. No wonder so much creative nonfiction is written about family. How can we really get away from these people? How have they shaped who we are in the world? And how do our particular families reflect issues common to us all? PP The most important strategy for dealing with family is learning how you can approach the big issues by focusing on the smallest details. It’s often tempting, especially when you’re dealing with emotionally charged material, to try and encompass everything into one essay. Such a strategy will leave you, and your readers, numb and exhausted. Ask the small questions. Who was the family member to come last to the table? Who kept (and perhaps hid) a diary? Who had the most distinctive laugh? Sometimes these questions are the ones that lead to the biggest answers. (18)
When we’re writing about family, sometimes it’s helpful to think of ourselves as biographers, rather than autobiographers. This slight shift in perspective just might be enough to create the emotional distance necessary to begin shaping experience into literature on the page. It will also allow you to take a broader view of your subject that encompasses community, culture, and history. It will still be a subjective account—all biographies filter through the mind and emotional perspective of a writer—but it will be an account that has managed to take a wider view. (19)
If you were to take on the mantle of the biographer, how could you begin to see the members of your family differently? How can you combine the objectivity of a researcher with the subjectivity of the biographer? You’ll find that even if you haven’t written a full-fledged biography, you will have found fresh ways to conceptualize those people who are closest to you. (20)
When we write about family, we set ourselves up for a plethora of ethical, emotional, and technical issues that may hinder us from writing altogether. It’s one thing to write about your sister in your diary; it’s quite another to write about her in an essay published in a national magazine. And when we set out to write about family, we are naturally going to feel compelled to break long silences that may have kept the family together in the first place. (20)
This is not to say that you can’t or won’t take on the big issues. But they must arrive on the page less as issues and more as scenes, images, and metaphors that will evoke a strong response from the reader. (20)
While drafting your essay, you must instinctively drown out the voices that tell you not to write. Your mother, father, sisters, and brothers must all be banished from the room where you sit at your desk and call up potentially painful or embarrassing memories. But once you know you have an essay that is more for public consumption than private venting, you have some difficult decisions to make. How much of this is really your own story to tell? PP Writers deal with this dilemma in a variety of ways. Some merely remain in denial, convincing themselves that no one—least of all their families—will ever read their work. Some go to the opposite extreme, confessing to their families about their writing projects and asking permission to divulge certain stories and details, giving them complete veto power. (21)
Our responses to place are some of the most complex we’ll ever experience. Our sense of visual beauty, our psychological drive for comfort and familiarity in our environment, and our complex responses to loaded concepts such as “nature” and “home” embed place with layers of significance. Although fiction writers typically have the importance of location and setting driven into them, it is easy for nonfiction writers to forget that they, too, must be situated physically. (26)
Environments tend to function as informing elements that we take for granted and edit out of our stories until they act up. We who live here may notice that people become quieter and more lethargic during our gray, rainy winter months, bursting back into exuberant life when the sun returns. Nevertheless, it takes a certain amount of awareness to relate the way our lives unfold to the fact that we live here, in the maritime Northwest, rather than somewhere else. (27)
Nonfiction writers use place frequently as a primary subject. Even if you never do, however, the place where a story unfolds plays a vital role. In all the elements of setting a scene—character, dialogue, place, action—place can be the easiest one to overlook. (27-28)
This is home, the place where the complex person you are came into being. And understanding the concept of home and its physical character is key to understanding the many different individuals you’ll write about in your nonfiction. (28)
If we think of place as character, we should add that no “character” comes with as many preconceptions as nature. Drawing energy from early writers like Thoreau, American essayists have always had a particular affinity with nature writing. This country in its present national incarnation is new—the “new country” that creates by being in opposition to the “old country” of the preceding discussion. (29)
What does nature mean to you? For those with a nature-writing bent, it’s deceptively simple to wax rhapsodic about the cathedral beauty of old-growth forests or the piercing melodies of the thrush. In other words, we tend to approach nature writing first and foremost as description. While fine description is dandy, it tends to wear thin after a while. Even if your prose about the soft rosy beauty of the alpenglow is first rate, if you don’t move beyond that, readers are likely to want to put your writing down and go see for themselves. PP What holds readers in the works of writers like Berry and Thoreau is the sense of a human consciousness moving through nature, observing it, reacting to it, and ultimately being transformed by it. (30)
The question of how what you see before you embodies larger forces: an aspect of the human condition or the tenderness and toughness of a person you know. Use that larger element as a way into your essay. (31)
Typically, a writer sitting down to compose a nature essay such as Berry’s would “erase” that car motor from his or her record of this occasion, simply leave it out; it is tempting in nonfiction to pare down our experiences to those sights and sounds that make a unified whole. A passing mention of the noise as an anomaly—out of tone with the peaceful surroundings—would also be a natural move to make. It would be a far less important and less honest tack, though, than Berry’s turn, which was to discuss how these woods in the essay exist in uneasy, threatened relationship to the human-dominated world around them. (32)
In the context of travel, “place” begins to seem not so much the land itself, but every- thing and anything associated with the land: its people, animals, food, music, religion—all the things that make up life itself. (32)
Your task, as a good travel writer, is to both pay attention to the details of place—in all their glorious particularities, with all their good points and bad—and to render these details in a voice that is wholly your own. You must situate yourself as both participant and observer, always ready for the unexpected, but armed with the many lenses that enable you to interpret this world for your readers in a way they’ve never heard before. PP This mandate requires you to find a purpose for your writing above and beyond the travel experience itself. Otherwise, you will produce a piece of writing akin to those slide shows we all dread: the summons into a friend’s living room to view her pictures of last summer’s vacation. (33)
How do you shape or draft the work so that the experience becomes more than itself? How do you relinquish the role of the transcriber and take on the mantle of the artist? Critic Paul Fussell answers that question this way: “Successful travel writing mediates between two poles: the individual physical things it describes, on the one hand, and the larger theme that it is ‘about’ on the other. That is, the particular and the universal.” (33)
You will find that good travel writers avoid the pitfalls that lead to self- serving or clichéd writing. They not only have a heightened perception, a precise attention to language, and a facility with scene-making, but also a marked generosity innate in the writer’s stance, a perception that sees the foibles of the world and forgives them. In much of the beginning writing we see about travel, the writer falls into stereotypes about other tourists and the native people; he begins to either make fun of or put down the others he encounters on his travels. Such a stance not only becomes distasteful to the reader, but it betrays an insufficient maturity on the part of the writer to understand what is important and what is not. His attention to place becomes annoyingly myopic, and he becomes a whiner, complaining about “all those tourists” while munching on potato chips in line to the Sistine Chapel, his cameras slung about his neck. He is guilty of just what he is criticizing: the tourist mentality that sees only the surfaces and complains when the place fails to live up to expectations. PP The other pitfall in travel writing is for the voice to become too much like a guidebook, commenting heavily on the cleanliness of the bathrooms in a hotel in downtown Istanbul but missing the dawn light on the Blue Mosque. (34)
!: As with any good creative nonfiction, the self must be wholly present in the work, a voice that engages us to take this trip along with you, to stand at the windows and gaze out at what you, and only you, choose to show us. (35)
In the last decades nothing has changed faster than the environment. The world’s population has burgeoned, and technology has developed the ability to clear lands, pollute the air, and drive species to extinction in record time. Your life has witnessed the eclipse of hundreds of thousands of species, even if they passed out of this world without your awareness. (The current rate of species extinction is matched only by that of the age of the dinosaur’s demise, sixty-five million years ago.) Your life has also seen the destruction of much natural land and its replacement with man-made habitat, even if this fact too only barely crossed your consciousness. (35)
!: If you pay attention—if you notice the small changes that accumulate in the various places you inhabit—you become a witness. (35)
Though oftentimes invisible in our lives, spirituality seems to follow us every- where. From the moment we’re born, we’re initiated into a world that relies on many different rituals to guide us. Or, if we’re born into a family more secular, we become aware of ourselves in opposition to predominant modes of religious belief. Perhaps that is why we’ve lately noticed a renaissance in memoirs that use either religion or spirituality as a guiding narrative or metaphor. PP But the impulse to write spiritual autobiography has been around as long as human consciousness. The form keeps adapting to fit whatever culture and society demand of it. These works range from devotional narratives to science writing that finds spiritual fodder in the cells of the human body, but the basic structure usually wins out. These narratives tend to focus on moments of insight that lead the narrator in a new direction. By their very nature, many spiritual autobiographies appear to mimic or echo classic “con- version” stories found in religious texts: the protagonist is lost and then found, and the narratives hinge on precise moments of “turning,” either away or toward points of reference identified as God, Allah, Yahweh, the Great Spirit, and so on. PP These conversions may also work the opposite way, especially after defining events such as the Holocaust or the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The narrator moves from a place of religious or spiritual certainty to one that is more fragmented or full of doubt. PP We can call these moments “epiphanies” (sudden insights), but they don’t necessarily arrive with the bang the term suggests. They may be quiet moments, barely noticeable until the act of writing magnifies their significance. A turning point can be as subtle as Emily Dickinson’s “certain slant of light” into a room, or Virginia Woolf ’s contemplation of a dying moth in her study. (40-41)
Spirituality does not necessarily need to be contained in religions or places of worship. Nature writer John Muir, rather than turning away or toward an external spiritual figure or destination, includes spirituality in all of nature. (41)
As with any strong work of creative nonfiction, the successful spiritual autobiography hinges on discovery through the writing process itself. The writer does not set out to give us predetermined answers but instead allows us some insight into the questions that drive him. Spiritual autobiographies, in particular, “find interesting” the turns in the road and the roadside attractions; they do not necessarily follow a straight line but proceed more intuitively, meandering from point to point in a way that may seem digressive, but actually forms a clear path in retrospect. (41-42)
Once you set out to examine your own spiritual inclinations, you will find yourself with a new set of writing dilemmas. Spirituality can be an arena fraught with prefabricated rhetoric and tired clichés. As a writer, your challenge is to find a language and a form so personal that only you can give us this rendition of the spiritual life. You must remain aware of how your brand of spirituality has been depicted in the past and find a way to circumvent your reader’s expectations and resistance. How do you even begin to discuss spirituality without immediately using language that has lost its meaning from overuse? (42)
If you decide to write about spiritual experience—whether positive or negative—you will want to look closely at the physical elements that make up your spiritual life, whether those include incense in a church, chanting in a synagogue, or the odor of cedar on your daily walk. Beginning there, ask yourself how your sense of spirituality informs your life and the lives of those around you. (42-43)
When you set about to write your personal rendition of spirituality, look for the concrete things of the world that will help you find your own koan. What are the essential questions these objects trigger in you? These questions will help you move, as a writer, from the abstract to the concrete. PP Above all, maintain honesty—with yourself and your reader. If it has been said before, don’t say it. If you veer into platitude and cliché, veer right out of it again. If you find yourself mired in complaint, laugh your way out of it. Render the spiritual life with the same intuition and intelligence you bring to all your work. Find the details, the tone, the rhythms that will separate your voice from the choir’s. Sing a solo. Be brave. Really belt it out. (44)
Often writers find that the writing process itself grows akin to spiritual practice. It requires the same kind of patience, ritual, and faith. (44)
When we begin to see our writing in this kind of context, we can more easily maintain the patience and faith necessary for our work to be done. It’s a secular practice, available to anyone who feels compelled to put pen to paper. When you write this way, you are “living the questions now” and offering up possible pathways into the ineffable. (45)
As the preceding experience shows, each of us exists in both a private and a public way... We’re also pieces of history. We are the people who witnessed the turn of the millennium; we’re the first wave of the world’s citizens to see their lives transferred more and more onto computer chips. (48)
To look at what it means to exist and be human—and who we are as a species—we must look at history. That historical frame is one that may simply enrich your story. (48)
It’s important for you as a writer, particularly a nonfiction writer, to think through what is different and important in your world, and what historical events formed the canvas for the fine brushstrokes of your own life. You can easily check the highlights of particular dates and years by using resources like Historycentral.com on the Web or reference books such as The New York Times Book of Chronologies. (49)
Always keep in mind the extent to which history is the individual writ large, and the individual life is history writ small. Understanding what shapes how you perceive the world—and how you are perceived—is critical to using your own experiences to create strong nonfiction. (50)
With old glass-plate daguerreotypes—the earliest form of photography—if you tilt the plate just slightly, the image disappears and the photograph becomes a mirror, an apt metaphor for how the creative nonfiction writer can approach art. Through a close observation of particular paintings, sculptures, or photographs, you can reveal your own take on the world or find metaphors in line with your obsessions. At the same time, you will elucidate that artwork in such a way that the piece will forever after have a greater significance for your reader. (54)
The “I” remains a guiding force through- out the essay: ruminating, reflecting, and questioning his own fascination... As Tolstoy wrote, art is a language that communicates “soul to soul,” on a level that bypasses the intellect. As a writer turning your gaze to the rich, metaphorical world of art, you enter into this dialogue and add to our understanding of the world and ourselves. (55)