Tag Archives: Thoreau

How to break through writer’s block

Thanks to former student Sam Moore’s request for advice, I too have something to post this evening: 

Two pieces of advice:

1. Sometimes it helps to stop working now and try later if you’re really not feeling it. But if the deadline is soon,

2. Just do a freewrite where you throw down onto the page or screen any and all words that come to mind, the closer to the assigned topic the better. Afterwards, go back and delete as much of the crap as possible, and turn the assignment in and hope to do better next time.

Thoreau had some advice I like in the “Conclusion” to Walden:

Having considered that in an imperfect work time is an ingredient, but into a perfect work time does not enter, he said to himself, It shall be perfect in all respects, though I should do nothing else in my life.

Or, in other words: If the quality of the work is the priority, then take all the time you need to make the work great. But if getting done on time is the priority, then do it without worrying so much about quality — it’s not the priority.


A book-publishing contract is not a ‘halo’: Publishing as a business deal

Laura Miller, in an article at Salon, uses the context of the Amazon-Hachette disagreement to make an important point to would-be authors about what it means to get one’s book published:

It helps to understand what’s happening here if we all stop thinking about a traditional book publishing contract as a halo of literary worthiness bestowed upon an author by entities invested with a sacred, ineffable authority. Actually, it’s a business deal. It signifies that a disinterested party (i.e., not your mom or spouse) believes enough in the book’s potential appeal that it is willing to put its own money into the project. Publishers don’t just supply professional services (editing, design, distribution, marketing); they are investors. Doesn’t mean they’re always right; publishers often aren’t. But publishing a book is always a gamble of sorts, and a traditional publisher has ponied up.

I’ll admit that, at times, I’ve thought that selling a book would be a kind of validation of my talent, my ideas, my worth as a human being on this planet. (Though I should know better, considering that back when I was a journalist, I had a lot of things published and/or broadcast, and doing so didn’t feel all that special. Well, sure, the first time was special, but after that, not so much.) But it helps me to remember that companies publish books to make money. What gets published is what somebody thinks will sell, and a lot of respected texts didn’t sell very well, including Thoreau’s Walden.

Still, I’ll also admit to, at times, entertaining the fantasy that someone would contact me with an offer to publish my brilliant texts. Why not? But I also don’t really try that hard to seek publication because, well, I find the act of writing far more rewarding that the act of seeing my name in print.

Nonfic: Fractal nonfiction, or What if digressions are the text?

When I tell people that I like writing nonfiction, I have a feeling that they may be thinking I like writing profiles or research-based articles or essays. Nonfiction is such a huge category, with such a non-descriptive name, that it’s nearly useless. All it says is “not fiction,” with is like describing all manner of living things as “not dead.”

Anyway, I sometimes describe the nonfiction that I like to write as “informal nonfiction,” in the sense that the texts I write nonfictionally tend to not end up resembling a formal structure. This is still vague. At the risk of overdefining (and thus limiting myself) here, I want to describe my nonfiction (for examples, see most of the texts listed under the “nonfiction” category to the right on the screen) as “fractal nonfiction.”

A quick definition of fractal: it’s a pattern that is self-similar at any level of magnification or “zoom.” Examples: A leafless tree is a fractal shape in that the same pattern of branching can be seen at the whole-tree level, at the branch level, at the stem level, etc. Another example is in a coastline: from an Earth-orbit view, a coastline looks fairly smooth, with maybe only major bays and peninsulas jutting into smooth lines. But as one’s perspective gets closer and closer to the coastline, say, flying over in an airplane, more irregular features appear. From a cliff above a coastline, one can see even more irregularities, such as individual boulders that make the coastline rough. Looking at an individual rock at the coastline, one may see a pattern that is mostly smooth but has some irregularities — similar to how the entire coastline looked from space. Presumably, as one could see down to pebble length, then the crystal level, and even the atomic level, there would be a similar pattern, and this is one way (of many) to define fractals.

Disclaimer: I’m not making the claim that there is a fractal pattern visible from zooming in from the whole-text level to paragraph to sentence to word to letter, etc. (although that idea seems intriguing) — I rather want to describe a form of writing nonfiction that, like a tree, starts in an arbitrary spot, branches off to associated ideas (not unlike following a hyperlink trail on a websearch), that may then also branch off. I’m describing texts that have no particular beginning or end, and thus are an analogue to a human life that may go in new directions but which also is continuous.

Or, another way to say this: What if digressions from  a topic aren’t digressions at all but are a new branch? It’s an assumption or presumption that a particular text has to be discrete and self-contained. An article about nesting habits of egrets shouldn’t also discuss the land-grant college system. Now, a personal essay might include such topics, under a larger unifying idea that the text is the writer putting down her experience on paper, and maybe her experience somehow does go from egrets to land-grant colleges. But unless these ideas are somehow transitioned between, the second topic might be considered a non sequitur, and an editor may tell the writer to stick to the topic at hand.

But, of course, real life sometimes does have non sequiturs — my dog often demands my attention while I write — and these may or may not be interesting. But my mind seems to function creatively by association. When I freewrite, the next thought may not have much to do with the previous thought, or if there is a connection, it’s not a meaningful one. One word or sense memory may bring to mind something that doesn’t seem meaningfully related, though there may be a connection that could be quite telling, from a psychological aspect, about the writer or about the text’s discussion.

I want to suggest that the digressive, branching “freewriting” process can be reflected in a text product that maintains this branching, and that this branching text that seems to have no clear beginning or end could be called “fractal nonfiction.”

Of course, ideas that come up during drafting or freewriting can be taken out of their freewriting context and shaped to fit into a traditional form (an academic essay, say, or an op-ed). Some may make the point that it is the writer’s job to impose order on his thoughts and turn the relative chaos of actual thought into a polite, familiar form that will be easily understood by a general reader. Art, of course, may contain or use artifice, and there is plenty that is artificial in an academic essay. For just one example, when I teach my high school sophomores to write a thesis statement about their experiences in a personal narrative essay, I am aware that determining and declaring the meaning of any experience is pretty artificial. Who can known what their experiences mean, especially before writing about them, and who sticks with one interpretation of an experience?

Even though I journal about many of my experiences, I don’t often  intentionally try to figure out what a particular event means. Usually, I have a feeling about an experience, and my first impulse is to say the experience itself means nothing — only my interpretation of the event can possibly have meaning, and my interpretation can easily be flawed, limited as it must be by my limited perspective, my subjectivity, my emotional/biochemical mindstate (at the time of the experience and at the time of the writing), my imperfect memory, etc. Now, I have written about experiences, but I find that my interpretations of those events may change significantly as they recur in my thinking and writing over the years.

So artifice can be useful at times, and it can even be interesting, but I find rawness to often be more interesting because of its rawness. Highly revised and edited texts can be beautiful and moving, etc., like a Bach organ composition (not sure why, but that’s what my mind is playing for me now. Speaking of this, aren’t most metaphors or similes spontaneously created by the mind? Whenever I’ve tried deliberately to make a metaphor or simile fit a situation, it’s horrible. I’m also sensing that I’m digressing right now, and I’m tempted to edit it, but it reminds me that I value spontaneity and honesty and that most of the particular statements I make about writing could boil down to “don’t plan it out–write in the moment”). But there’s also beauty, if one wishes to look, in bird songs and in the splash-and-gurgle sounds of a running stream and also in the rough draft of a song.

Taylor Mali’s poem “What Teachers Make” contains

I make them show all their work in math
and hide it on their final drafts in English.

which is a great line for a poem, but when I play his performance of that poem for my students, I wonder about the validity of that way of teaching. Why should writers hide their work? Mathematicians have to show their proofs; scientists have to show their process of discovery. Art is different, yes, but it doesn’t have to be any one particular way — that’s what I love about art. There can be works, like, say, “West Side Story,” that are wonderful for their artifice; but there can also be jam sessions and improvisations — so why not freewrites?

Thing about writing is, when we writers don’t show the process, it seems as if it sprung whole-born from our heads. It took me years to realize that that’s not the way most writers have ever worked. Yet, I will contradict here to say that the most-interesting ideas I have ever had have come to mind spontaneously, without my intention, as I wrote. It was effortless, though not without effort.

If I try to stay in control of my writing, of what I write, then I can only be as smart as I am, which process is limiting and also exhausting. But if I can let go of control and just see what happens — “How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?” then I can write things, create texts, that are smarter than I am. Also, that way of writing is way more fun.

Basically, I’m advocating here for letting the form be born at the same time as the content/message, if we even want to make that distinction. Thoreau’s “Walden” is a great book in spots, but it feels more polished, more dead, than his original journals. A piece of wood can only be polished once it’s been cut from the tree — the polishing would kill a growing tree by rubbing off that narrow growing edge — there’s a metaphor. Also this one: the tree grows outward, getting larger, from the outer layer of bark (I’m of course ignoring the outermost layer of bark, which is also dead — all metaphors are incorrect, of course), leaving behind the solid, but dead, cellulose that makes up the tree trunk. We grow as writers, leaving behind dead wood — so why not grow outwards, leaving the past writing behind as is, without needing to polish it. Grow outwards, branch, leave behind (to only-at-the-end-intentionally joining this metaphor up to the earlier one.

Of course, this freewrite is already over 1500 words — as the familiar idea goes, if I had more time, I’d make it shorter — and yet, that’s now how my brain works. I’m not editing for readers. There is no royal road to arriving at a new idea. I’m not making these texts easy for readers — I’m not intending these texts to be difficult to read, either — but these are not processed by editing to be easy to digest. But I guess I get tired of reading things that are too easy to read, that merely express an idea or an opinion, neatly and tidily. I guess I’m more interested now in how people come up with things, in how people think, (and by extension, in how they live), than in what are the contents of those thoughts. (And I just realize, after having written that sentence, that I don’t know if I was aware of that idea before. Just now, via writing, I’ve learned something new.) I often feel I’m aware of the range that most opinions fall within: in favor of some idea or proposal or work, for reasons A,B, and C; opposed to it, for reasons D,E, and F; in favor, but with caveats G and H; the contrarian finding something to like where most others do not; the ironic self-aware contrarian; “this reminds me of this other thing I’d rather write about”; etc.

Now I’m criticizing, and I don’t want to criticize, mostly because I don’t want to respond to or react to things; I’d rather mind my own ideas, my own path. But if criticizing can lead me to a new idea, a new perspective, it’s fine and fun.

Back to “easily digestible”: When a text’s structure is familiar (say, the five-paragraph essay of the standardized writing tests, or the average newspaper op-ed piece), the reader doesn’t even need to read all of it and may skip it. It’s so easily understood that the reader may not even engage with it — it’s something to take for granted.

So, I feel like wrapping this freewrite session up. Maybe all art works can be finished whenever the artist feels he/she is finished. And maybe I feel like writing these fractal freewrites now because, well, that’s where I feel I want to be now, and I may change later, but of course, we all only live now — we wake up to find ourselves, as any particular moment, being the particular people we are at that moment. I wake up now on the 3rd of February 2013 to find myself having certain things, being a specific age, having written nearly 2,000 in previous moments.