Tag Archives: editing

Nonfic: Efficient stories

An AVClub article had this statement — “The New World unfolds less in acts than in movements” — and reading that statement prompted in my mind a thought not about the movie but about my own concept of writing: that a piece of writing doesn’t have to follow conventions like having acts, but further, it doesn’t need to be efficient. That may not be the best word for this vague notion that I’m trying to put into words, but here’s trying:

Last weekend, I posted about taking out, editing out, the dull parts of any text. This week, I’ve noticed myself telling anecdotes about recent experiences, and I notice that my telling of these anecdotes has gotten more efficient. To be specific, lately I’ve been writing down (in my pocket-pages) particular things I’ve overheard while at the school where I teach, and in order for these statements to be sensible when I read them later, or when I read these to others, I write also some explanation of the context in which the statement was made.  I realize that I’ve gotten pretty efficient in telling what needs to be told to convey a story, and not telling more.  This efficiency may have come through the practice of repeatedly telling stories, but it wasn’t particularly intentional — I haven’t been sitting around and editing-down my stories.

But the stories have gotten slim and efficiently told, for the purpose, I suppose, of communicating to others (my future self and any people I’d later read these to) why I found these statements particularly note-worthy. In order to communicate effectively, I want to tell spare stories — almost more like jokes, these brief anecdotes, where certain information must be related upfront so the punchline (the overheard quote) produces the same reaction in my listeners as the reaction I had on first overhearing the statement.

But I’ve also been thinking that with this efficiency of storytelling, I may be getting too efficient. I may be turning these overheard bits into performable material, and I’m not sure that’s a great thing, in the sense that I may become likely to start to see much of my experience as material ready for shaping into anecdotes.

The danger here, and this is where the quote from the AVClub article comes in, is that a story structure becomes a way of seeing the world. (Maybe this is overstating this phenomenon a bit, but I’m pushing through here.) In a sense, I was glad to be reminded, when I read the quote, that interpretations of reality, interpretations of one’s experience, are necessarily leaving things out, and maybe that’s worth remembering. I mentioned in the previous post about editing “dull” things out — but since my brain tends to do that anyway (in daily living and also in storytelling), maybe it’s also worth remembering that we don’t have to be editing our experience at all. We don’t really even have to be remembering it. If I edit out those parts which don’t contribute to the particular story I’m telling, that may improve the story itself, but there’s nothing inherently boring which any moment of experience, of course.

I assigned my creative writing students to go do a nonfiction freewriting while they were in some public place (like a restaurant, mall, library, park, etc.) where they could watch and listen to others. One student did his freewriting in a quiet school study hall, and the text he produced described such mundane things as how other students swung their legs as they did other things or nothing at all. No particular act or statement that was profound or amusing made it into his prose, and yet, the student had created a sorta wonderful record of study-hall boringness, mundanity. He had noticed routine things, and somehow this led to a document that was interesting to read. It was a record of what that student had noticed as he was desperately searching for exciting things to notice.

If we’re only looking for grand events, or easily quoted overheard speech, we are only looking for those moments when our conscious experience matches our mental models of what an amusing story is  — when, of course, we could also be noticing experiences that are not so easily told as stories, those experiences that could challenge these existing models, too. Movies don’t have to be structured in three acts, and my stories don’t always have to be efficient or amusing.

Not that all of my stories I tell to students and friends need to be amusing, but that tends to be my default. If I were a cable channel, I’d be more like Comedy Central than I would be Bravo or Food Network or NatGeo. But I’ve found myself getting bored lately with Hollywood movies whose story outlines are overly familiar to me. I understand that Hollywood too wants to tell stories efficiently to as big an audience as possible, but I guess I just want to see different kinds of stories, different ways of thinking about experience, which thinking will lead me to having different experiences. Instead of just asking commercial storytellers to come up with new story-forms to amuse me, I could come up with some of my own. And I could check out The New World, which I haven’t seen yet but which, the AVClub article pointed out, did try some of these new ideas.

Nonfic: Editing to Remove Context

A lot of stories begin and end.

This has bothered me for a while. The reality I live in tends to be pretty continuous, so that after one experience ends, another begins — in fact, it may even be hard to tell when an experience began and ended until long after the experience, when I start to tell stories about it.

So part of what I like about writing my journals has been that I wrote them every day and while I did tell some stories, I told them as a part of other things that were ongoing, etc. My journals were continuous in that they were not split into distinct stories.

This presented problems for my editing of them (as I’ve written about in a previous post). I’ve often thought of editing a work as choosing the best things from an earlier draft and combining them into a final draft. But Friday it occurred to me that maybe what editing could be is the stripping away of context from a particular story to make that story stand out, alone and complete in itself. Maybe taking things out of context is part of what makes artworks interesting. Some of my photos look way more interesting once I’ve forgotten both when I took the picture and where. A picture of a tree in a meadow could be of some distant, lovely land — maybe it’s in the Swiss Alps! — when I’ve forgotten that the tree was just in my backyard in Illinois.

And maybe that’s a way to look at a text, too. Maybe instead of taking the best moments out of the larger text, I could look at taking out the duller moments. Both approaches might result in similar texts, but both are different process approaches.

Further, maybe instead of looking at my life, my conscious experience, as continuous and seeing time-fragmented texts as being false, maybe I could see my experience as interesting moments surrounded by (encased by?) dull moments. Well, that doesn’t sound appetizing, exactly. But it reminds me that in some ways, forgetting context makes certain moments stand out more. It’s tough to tell what is important in life as I live it, but afterwards (in memory, and also in my journal texts written years ago), certain moments stand out as being more momentous because they were pulled out of context. In fact, I used to write my journals in the evening so I could record the days events before I forgot them, but now I write the following morning, and I find that what I tend to remember isn’t everything but is the more interesting stuff. I don’t want to have moment-my-moment transcripts of my life — there’d be no meaning there. Perhaps meaning is given to an experience, to a story (or other artwork), as context is pulled away.

We experience a world that is continuous, in that we have to pass through (or above) all the territory from Denver to Chicago in order to move from Denver to Chicago, and also, we have to live the entire travel time of the trip, whether the travel time is determined by slow driving or fast flying. There’s no skipping Kansas. We might sleep through parts of the trip, parts of our lives, I suppose, but then we’re not doing anything else, mentally, either (unless we’re having a dream that then affects us after we wake up).  That art (edited movies, stories we intuitively edit as we tell them, etc.) allows us to skip over places and times can be easy to forget. Taking photos, stories, and statements out of context can alter how we and others understand them, of course, but then perhaps taking these things out of context can also give us new perspectives from which to view our surroundings and our lives. If I forget that my backyard is “just my backyard” and start to think that it is as pretty as the photos I’ve seen of the Swiss Alps, then I may start to appreciate the beauty of my own backyard.

Nonfic: My Journal of 8 November 2009

Here is a journal entry I’m posting here as an example to use in discussing the difficulties of editing journals (see previous post). As I typed this, I edited out sections that discuss my family members and work colleagues (so as to maintain the quality of my private and professional relationships). I made spellings and punctuation more conventional. Underlined words were underlined in the original handwritten version. I have annotated, using square [] brackets and italics, some of the references here, while using parentheses and curved {} brackets to represent parenthetical material in the original document. I have generally not edited out excess words, or words I write sometimes as the written equivalent of the verbal “um.” There are more discussion notes of the editing process at the bottom of this post.

Be forewarned: This journal entry will likely be confusing and self-indulgent. But then, that’s kinda why I’m posting it, as an example. P.S.: My wife wants me to note that the stickers on the above-pictured journal were a one-time stickering; I’m not as keenly into fantasy as the above would indicate.

Sunday 8 Nov. 2009 6:52 a.m.

Here we are. I hauled 4 loads of gravel up to my parking spot yesterday – 5 tubs went on the ground; 3 of the finer stuff, more like sand (so it was sorted in the washout in the quarry [the small quarry on the farm where I lived near several family members]), went into plastic feed bags to save for the winter – for traction on the ice.

And what else? We [my wife, M., and I] went to 3 Sisters Cafe [Byron, Illinois] for latte and I got a bagel and M had soup and something and we looked at and de-entropied the Byronopoly game and I thought of some new rules to make the game a little different – factor in inflation, varying paychecks (around “Go”) – M said something like, you’re making me be creative. In the evening , after gravel, after Chinese food in Oregon [Illinois] and groceries and drugs in Byron Felcker, and after we cleaned up the bedroom –  got all the clothes off the floor, piled some clothes to give away, M was reading a romance book she found and she kept debating – well, changing her mind, on whether she had read this book or not – at first, yes, then no – it’s not a book she has read before but it’s a related story featuring similar or, no, the same, characters

I paused writing now to kill some flies – it’s that time of year when flies and orange ladybugs and box elder bugs (though I haven’t seen as many of those as the others) move inside. So, it was a nice day – I was wearing shorts and Crocs in the afternoon—

and so here we are. We [my wife and I] had a little argument about the apartment –… [leaving out details of spousal argument]

Ah, well – but we made a list of things to change, incl. bedroom, and maybe we need to tackle the issue of kitchen space – maybe today we’ll get this table out of here – it just takes up too much space – and eat at the built-in [table].

well, and later last night, I got my plastic locker box out of closet – the one in which I keep my college correspondence – (back before email, back when people still wrote letters – maybe I could resurrect that – but it’s so much easier to do email – well , D___’s the only one [of my friends or relatives] who lives distant enough for that –

[missing are 2 paragraphs in which I talk about my interactions with a colleague]

After lunch at 3 Sisters, quasi-lunch, M and I drove around a big, looking at houses – and they’re rebuilding that house in Auker Estates that burned down this summer – and we drove thru that Deer Run (or Deer-something) [“Fawn Ridge”] place north of Mill Rd – and I started talking about money, how houses need to come down in price, who can afford that 200-300K house? and M said, don’t go down that road. I thought she meant Mill Rd., but she meant the metaphorical road of that “houses are too expensive” idea/opinion. [Here, handwriting ink color changes from black to pink.] Let’s use some color – the last journal’s pages were too thin for Sharpies – and here we are. Sam [my dog] wants to go outside but I need to check on [my uncle-neighbor’s] dogs’ breakfast progress first – nope, Chesty’s still in Chesty house. I wondered this morning why Sam & Chesty both have chest blazes of white – is that a typical spot for white on a dog? I mean, if they have a color splash, it’ll be there rather than elsewhere? …

Well, a thought last night, 2 actually: stop criticizing what others do – and just do your own! – I’m referring here to my habit of thinking TV news should be different, or if only more books were that way … [here was description of some family members entering my grandparents’ house downstairs of our upstairs apartment]  … it’s a habit I have, particularly when tired or depressed, to blame other things for not being different or better – as if that would make me feel better if TV programs were better. But I felt pretty good yesterday and I thought, just do what you what to do, what you want to make — ignore the rest. You don’t all the people to read your books or want the things you want – truth doesn’t get voted on, not does possibility —

[Here was a paragraph about my wife telling me something that worried me.]

Fiction: I’m thinking what fiction means – and how long it has to be – but I hadn’t thought of the 6-word stories til yesterday – I think we saw a sign for something, and M said the Hemingway story: “For sale: Baby shoes, never used,” which, I’ll grant, is pretty efficient – 3 characters are implied (baby, shoe owner, and whoever is forcing the sale – maybe) and there’s both the unmet expectations of the baby and also there’s the economic hardship  —

Lots of times I’ll have a great writing session and tell myself, you don’t need to watch TV because your own ideas are good and you don’t need those tired old mass-media notions back in your head – and yes, it probably is true that you could benefit from not having those other ideas in your mind, and yet, eh, it’s not a big deal – life goes on – you wouldn’t want to be confined to your own ideas your whole life. I will have some time to grade essays Monday during STAR/collaboration time, because half the dept. is going to a “co-teacher” meeting and [a certain colleague] in the STAR (“room,” but that’s in the name – STudent Achievement Room – suggesting there is not student achievement tin other rooms?)

But I should do some grading today … so as to not be overly rushed. I need some time-pressure to end my procrastination, but then I hate to be stressed and rushed – stressed by rush.

That Johnson quote about nobody but a fool writes w/o getting paid – well, he’s at one end of the “Why I Write” [side note: “Why a person writes”] spectrum, and I’d be at the other: money’s OK, but to the extent that money comes from writing what others want, and I write what I want, I’m pretty far from Johnson –

[There’s an arrow drawn from the paragraph about short fiction above to here:] Short fiction: maybe, well, clearly, if you have only a few words, it’s not the same as a fleshed-out story (and my teen students tend to not like the ambiguity of so many modern stories – maybe liking ambiguity is a sign of mental/emotional maturity – that’s why teens and 20-somethings can get so hepped-up rebellious – they know “The One True Way,” they are pretty sure about that  — willing to sacrifice others to get their goal – I was like that, to some extent – for example, in my pro-organic [foods] fervor – I’m still pro-organic, but I don’t have the fervor –

But, fiction: something happens. So maybe the shortest possible fiction would be a verb: “Die!” or “F__ you” or “Marry me” – maybe something has to happen – tho it doesn’t have to always be a wedding or a murder – it can be little things, and it doesn’t have to be human – it can be the story of an animal (the book “Wild Season”), or [Aldo] Leopold’s story of an atom cycling thru the ecology – maybe you can even have fiction where the thing that happens is as minor – but neat, perhaps – as time passing (as common but as special as time passing) – I guess I don’t, for me personally, I am not that interested in getting caught up in all the human drama – I’m really not wanting to read about someone’s grief, after a tragedy, or how the cops found the killer – and yet, if you tell the story of a fish dying, or whatever, fish don’t have narratives – only human CSness [consciousness] does, so far as we know –

Well, I was just outside talking to [my grandmother, P] as she did her chicken chores (some chickens were so thirsty – their waterer had gone dry – that they were drinking out of a leaf-and-water-filled plastic sled – P. saw it and expressed pity for them – but it reminds me that once you keep some animals caged/penned so they can’t escape, they rely on you to bring them all they need – whereas, with Sam, I give him water outside most days, but I also figure Sam can, if he’s loose, find his own water – drinking from the goldfish pond if nothing else, which he does

[another excised paragraph about my family]

going from writing (my ideas ) to reading or watching TV , getting some other ideas {this morning, I didn’t watch TV, but I did read about Wes Anderson in New Yorker – but then we started doing cleaning & sorting/moving stuff in kitchen}

[note in the margin of last page] don’t criticize other bands/musicians – sometimes I’ll hear a new song or group and compare them to something that came before – eh, but why bother?

noonish: M. also said yesterday that … [people M. knew through her work] are only 36 – our age, and they have [children] and M. said so many people out here [in rural Illinois] marry young because they don’t see other plans or goals for their lives.

NOTES: So, clearly, I’ve cut paragraphs dealing with my family members and with my professional colleagues. I did this partly to avoid even the potential of hurting the feelings of these people, but also because I’m concerned about others losing control of their own narratives, as it were. It’s been awkward for me to hear how I’m described in others’ stories, so I want to avoid that problem here. My wife is in here because our lives are too entwined for her (or me) to get our our narratives.

The typing of this journal: I realized that typing this journal was tedious, and that alone is a good reason not to publish these journals —  typing as I write anew is more enjoyable. But also, I realized that this journal is already one interpretation of what was on the paper. As mentioned at the top of this post, I have tried to standardize punctuation, abbreviations, etc., but also I’ve corrected things that seemed to be accidentally omitted or wrongly spelled (and I may have included new typos). This is standard for editing handwritten work. A more difficult aspect, perhaps, was in making more linear the annotations and marginal notes I often put in the journals. Also, things have been lost — the colors of the ink, and the flourish and size and other characteristics of the handwriting, which could perhaps contain some information pertinent to textual analysis. So try as I might, this typed version is already one level removed from what I wrote in 2009; this version is part 2009 Matt, part 2012 Matt (I’m thinking here of lab techs working with a DNA sample that may have been contaminated by their handling of it).

Content of the journal: Sometimes I may enjoy things in my journals, such as my use of “de-entropied” in my description of organizing a game. I’m concerned, though, that it’d be very easy for my writing to become too precious if I edited together the parts where I found myself amusing. Frankly, I don’t want to turn myself into a character, no matter what kind of character that would be. Some readers might find parts of the above journal interesting, but I don’t think I can be the editor who puts together those things. It’d get sickening after a while.

There are also lots of details of daily living that are kinda interesting — how my dog wanted out but I had to check on the neighbor’s dogs first — and yet, these daily events do not themselves justify a reader’s effort, I don’t think.

There are some ideas — about fiction, etc. — but these weren’t breakthrough insights. Some journals have new ideas; some don’t. But even those that do, I’m not sure that what I find mind-opening would feel the same to others.

Sometimes the journal entry repeats certain things (like above, that we ate lunch at 3 Sisters cafe). Sometimes I think these things can be interestingly recursive rather than merely repetitive. But perhaps not.

I guess I think there can be value in the naturalness, the unguardedness, of one’s journaling voice, but as I said in previous post, that unguardedness goes away if the writer writes with the knowledge that the journal may be published.

But I’ll stop self-analyzing at this point. I’d appreciate hearing if any readers find value in such a writing, and if any, where.

Nonfic: Revising and journals

Here’s a post I’ve been thinking about since receiving this comment from lucewriter on this post about the role my journals play in my writing life:

It seems that revision is a large part of writing and it doesn’t sound like you revise your journals. So are they shapeless and in need of revision to be an enjoyable piece for the reader to engage with? Or do they manage to come out in a form you think the reader would like to read in some quantity?

I have a short answer–that I don’t revise my journals, and I don’t publish them–and I have a longer answer that I’ve been working out for, well, most of the 20 years that I’ve been writing journals.

First, I want to step back and say that revision itself seems easy and obvious, until it doesn’t. In the academic-essay-writing classes I teach, I have tried to stop using the word “revision” in favor of “editing” and “proofreading.” In these classes, I show students models of the type of essay I want them to produce. In a sense, this is a bit of write-by-number, and it seems a shame to teach this way, and yet, there are a lot of instances (standardized tests and most composition classes, for two) where students are expected to be able to produce these works. So while I sometimes have my students freewrite to find a topic, we mostly just find the words needed to fill in the blanks of the model (for example, find 3 reasons to support your argument).

In my creative writing classes, revision is different; there, I tend to promote the idea of revision as re-envisioning, seeing things anew, by taking the most-interesting aspect of a freewrite and doing a rewrite, or several, until the writer comes up with something he/she likes. (For an example of this with poetry, see this post.) Yet, I’m not always sure that revision is necessary. I play with a creative text until I like and/or am surprised by what I’ve written, and sometimes that happens on the first draft (as with this story, which had only a few minor changes as I typed the handwritten first draft to the posted version. These changes I made based simply on my taste — what seemed to be more interesting or have higher quality —  at the time of typing). I want my poems and my stories to have a sense of moving forward, of not stopping to explain and examine — but that’s the type of writing I like to do in my journals.

The only things I’ve published from my many journals have been tiny excerpts earlier on this blog. I’ve long thought that, since I’m writing these things and they’re interesting to me, that they ought to be interesting to others, too. I’ve long been inspired by the story I heard, from a source I no longer remember, of Thoreau polishing his journals into Walden.

But I’m not sure anymore that’s what I want to do. Partly, I’ve been stymied by not knowing how I’d want to present the journals as published work. The journal texts include some descriptions of events and experiences, but also my thoughts and interpretations of these experiences, along with my attempts to understand, through theorizing, sundry ideas. They are texts, made of words, and so they are ostensibly readable by anyone (who can decipher my handwriting). But they are a unique sort of text, written to myself more than they are written to anyone else. It seems difficult to excerpt parts of them out of their original contexts. They include many references to things I’d have to explain to readers (other than my family members, and even then).

There’s no unity of purpose to a journal text, nothing holding it together except that the words are the output of one person’s consciousness. There’s no sense of progress toward any larger goal, no conclusion of an argument or of a narrative — that is, there’s no particular reason for anybody who doesn’t know me to want to read them. If the three purposes of nonfiction, broadly speaking, are to inform, persuade, or entertain an audience (as we high school writing teachers generalize), then the journals do none of these.

I’m writing these just to write them — I don’t even read them myself most of the time. When I do go back, I generally am looking to see details of my life at the time of the writing. When I’m writing, I’m fulfilling my somewhat-obsessive need to record the daily aspects of my life before I forget them, and I’m also writing down my thoughts as a way of working through them. As I said in the previous post, sometimes I learn things about myself and about the world as I write.

I’m not conscious of anyone else reading them, and if I thought others would read them, I would not be able to be as open as I am–I’d be much more concerned about whether what I was writing would be accessible to and interesting for others to read. The caveat here is that I am conscious of my closest family members potentially reading these journals, and so I am careful not to gripe about my loved ones too much. That’s an important point: rather than indulging in excesses of criticism or self-pity or self-justification, my journal-writing tends to be aware of when it’s becoming indulgent, when I’m writing things that don’t even interest me. It’s this sense of honesty-to-self  (for lack of better term) I have as I write journals (which sense I don’t have when I write fiction or poetry) that gives each day’s journal-text its characteristic integrity-to-the-moment, its integrity as an image/record of my mind, my consciousness, at the time of writing. There’s no purpose of me-in-regards-to-others, no attempt to establish a persona (of informer, arguer, or entertainer) for the reader. And this lack of persona, which is a kind of self-protection, is why I can’t publish the journals. If I knew I were going to publish, that would change how I would write them.

Short-story-long, then, I think I cannot revise the journals. At most, I can use the ideas therein as ideas for new writings (in this blog perhaps), and I can continue to learn and grow as a writer and a person by the practice of journal-writing. I suspect that these difficulties named above are why so many of others’ journals that have been published have been edited by someone other than the writer, and often, after the writer has died. Those, like Thoreau, who have published their journals have often had to adapt them into memoir or argument, and this, it seems to me, would be more tedious than just writing the public document anew.

But in the name of boldness, in the name of challenging myself to go a bit beyond my comfort zone, I will publish in the next post a journal entry from three years ago. I suspect that text will be confusing and will look self-indulgent to readers. It will look raw and blunt. It has changed already from the handwritten text because I have had to interpret it in order to type it. But once I put it up there, I can use it as an example to talk about why journal texts are so weird.

A Day-After Addition: After thinking about this issue some more as I journaled this morning, I had the clarity of this insight/explanation: Writing the journals helps me to let go of memories and ideas so that I can clear my mind and have new thoughts. In a way, the act of journaling is what helps me; the written journals are almost a byproduct of this, rather than the goal.

And the journals that I have written have value because they are written in time, soon after the events described occurred. I am not as interested in stories told from experience long after that experience took place, and so that’s another reason I’m not very interested in revising my journals.