It is remarkable how uniform and homogenous the style of writing is on Twitter, which is where media culture is defined. It seemingly hasn’t evolved in a decade. Condescending, sarcastic, amused that you would think to say something so dumb, endlessly superior, contemptuous of all sincere values except the one being used as a bludgeon in the fight at hand. Absurdist in an entirely prescriptive way, novel in a tired way, funny in a humorless way. All of it is a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy of a strange and highly mannered form of humor that flourished in an obscure offshoot of an internet forum which migrated to a bigger platform and metastasized into something called Weird Twitter, and was subsequently popularized and imitated so frequently it took over the forum completely. For reasons that elude me, it’s been the dominant style on the world’s most influential social network for going on a decade and appears often in published commentary as well.From Freddie deBoer’s writing guide “If You Absolutely Must”
I’m happier with this than I am with anything I’ve written in a while.
I’m really enjoying Betty Edwards’ Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. I’ve even done some of the exercises, and as far as I can tell, they are extremely effective. I get drawing in a way I never have before. (When I was fourteen or so, a friend told me that the key to drawing was to pretend that what you saw was a flat surface. At the time, I was convinced she was cheating — that real artists were constantly aware of 3D space, but as it turns out, she was right.)
Edwards’ main point is that we use our left brain (logical and verbal) to recognize objects around us without actually seeing them. To do this quickly, we catalogue objects according to certain traits and skip over the details. That’s fine for getting through life, but when we try to reproduce what you see on a piece of paper, we fall back those traits and communicate them symbolically. For example, a stick figure is recognizable as a person, but it doesn’t really look like a person at all. It’s a symbol.
Edwards teaches her students to turn off their left brains and look at objects without mentally categorizing them. (I posted one of her exercises here.) When they get into what she calls “R-mode” (right brain), they experience a sort of altered state of consciousness. Here’s how she describes some of its characteristics:
First, there is a seeming suspension of time. You are not aware of time in the sense of marking time. Second, you pay no attention to spoken words. You may hear the sounds of speech, but you do not decode the sounds into meaningful words. If someone speaks to you, it seems as thought it would take a great effort to cross back, think again in words, and answer. Furthermore, whatever you are doing seems immensely interesting. You are attentive and concentrated and feel “at one” with the thing you are concentrating on. You feel energized but calm, active without anxiety. You feel self-confident and capable of doing the task at hand. Your thinking is not in words but in images and, particularly while drawing, you thinking is “locked on” to the object you are perceiving. On leaving R-mode state, you do not feel tired, but refreshed.
My drawing ability is mediocre, but I do recognize what she’s describing. I’ve experienced it most often when editing video. I would become completely locked in and work for hours, barely moving. I’ve heard coders describe the same thing.
What I find most fascinating about this passage, though, is how it applies to writing. When I’m fully engaged in writing, I lose track of time. When someone talks to me, I pay no attention. (I have strong memories of my dad doing the same thing when I was a child.) I am attentive, concentrated, confident, and capable. The one thing that does not match up with my experience writing is that Edwards describes this state as “not thinking in words.” In fact, that’s one of the hallmarks of R-mode. You put aside verbal processing in order to see things “as they are.”
How is it possible that writing, which is by definition a verbal activity (you’d think), can shift someone into R-mode, which is partially defined by a lack of verbal processing? I don’t know, but, a few pages later, Edwards includes this quote from Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”:
In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is to surrender to them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing, you probably hunt about till you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning clear as one can through pictures or sensations.
I have never considered this, but I think Orwell is right. And it occurs to me that this is what poets do all the time. They consider pictures or sensations and, instead of using symbols (Edwards’ term) or the existing dialect (Orwell’s), they hunt for words that communicate as closely as possible what they are actually seeing or perceiving in the world around them.
Someone on Twitter (maybe Joss Whedon – remember him?) once wrote, “I love it when my friends go internet-silent for a while, then suddenly reappear with some new project just completed.” Well, I have no major accomplishments to reveal (yet…), but here are a couple of news items from the world of Broken Bow.
- I have essays coming out in two books this year. The first is called Wild Things and Castles in the Sky: A Guide to Choosing the Best Books for Children. I contributed an essay on YA fiction. The second is called Movies from the Mountaintop: 100+ Films that Express God, Explore Faith and Enlighten Church. The editor of this book stumbled across my review of Spotlight on Film Fisher and asked if he could include it.
- The third annual Psalm Tap Music Colloquium meets in Monroe, Louisiana, this June. Swing by if you can. As always, it is free.
Except when forced to do otherwise, I use Highland or Highland 2 to write screenplays. Recently, I’ve been using it for rough drafts of all documents because it’s fast and doesn’t have as many bells or whistles as, say, MS Word. I’m not sure I like it, though. It works for screenplays because you what you see in the document is more or less what you’ll see on the page.
Visualizing my writing on the page helps me imagine the reader, which helps me make small adjustments to clarify whatever I’m trying to get across. Articles and stories, however, look very different in the Editor than they do in the Preview.
Not being able to see the page makes me write faster, but less coherently. At some point in the writing process, I switch over to whatever word processor I’ll use to make the final adjustments. Lately, I’ve been making the switch sooner.
One of the last assignments I gave my eighth grade composition class was writing a short story. I only had two class periods to work with, so I handed them O. Henry’s “A Retrieved Reformation,” along with a sheet of questions, and we created a outline based on that story. The students then wrote their own stories, following the outline as closely as possible.
Here’s roughly what I said:
First, you need a character, which is “a person with a goal.” The goal can be as small as scratching an itch or as enormous as getting married.
Person + goal = character
Next, you to describe the world this character lives in—not necessarily a physical world, just the circumstances that surround the character (a busy city, a big family, a dead-end job, a spaceship).
Once you have a person with a goal living in a world, you need to describe something that prevents the character from achieving his goal. The character’s attempt to overcome his obstacle is called “conflict.”
Character + obstacle = conflict
If the character’s goal is scratching an itch, the obstacle might be that the itch is hard to reach. If he wants to get married, his girlfriend doesn’t.
In his attempt to overcome the obstacle, your character should meet a new obstacle, which creates new conflict. (Again, we’re following O. Henry here.) The itchy character runs all over the city looking for a back-scratcher, but all the stores are sold out. The would-be groom plans a romantic dinner, but his girlfriend gets food poisoning.
We limited ourselves to two conflicts, but a story can have many more than that. The key is that each conflict should either sprout directly from one of the character’s main goal(s) or flow from his attempts to overcome the previous obstacle.
At some point, it should appear that the character has failed at both of his goals. He’s at the end of his rope and nothing is solved. The last mayor bans back-scratchers and the itch just gets worse. The girlfriend is so sick she gets sent to the hospital and vows never to see him again.
Finally, to his surprise, the character meets one or both of his goals. (This is called resolution.) The more unexpected the success is, the better. Enraged, the itchy character grabs a “sold out” sign to smash it, only to realize its the perfect length to scratch his back. The romantic meets a cute paramedic who’s smitten with him.
Note that the most important conflict to resolve is the original one. It’s not necessary for the character to buy a back-scratcher. He just needs to get rid of his itch. It’s not necessary for the date to go well, only for the main character to find love.
The full recipe looks like this:
- Who is the main character (person + goal)?
- What world does he live in?
- What is stopping him from achieving his goal (conflict #1)?
- How does the character try to solve conflict #1? (This is goal #2)
- What is stopping him from achieving goal #2? (This is conflict #2)
- How does the character seem to fail at both goals?
- How does the character achieve one or both goals in the end?
The students that followed this structure closely ended up writing stories that, while not great, were compelling. We wanted to know what was going to happen next and we were satisfied by the ending. That’s more than we can say about most stories.
The funniest thing about this is that I tried to map this structure onto one of my own stories and realized I hadn’t given my main character a primary goal. As I’ve said before, teaching something is one of the best ways to learn.
No one can teach you to read like a writer. It can happen, of course. Once you’ve slaved over thousands and thousands of sentences, trying to get words to click, you develop an eye for quality, the same way a cinematographer recognizes good filmmaking and a contractor good craftsmanship. Ask a writer how to write a good sentence and the odds are he’ll rattle off a half-dozen that amaze him. (Francine Prose turned this into an entire book called Reading Like a Writer. You’ll notice it’s not called “How To Read Like a Writer.”)
I’m starting a new non-sequential series of newsletter issues called “What I Learned From…” I’m cross-posting them here so I can file them more easily. These will not be book reviews. I rarely put down a book these days ready to pass judgment on it (unless I’ve been asked to, of course). I usually jot a few notes to myself, mark the book as read, and move on. But every so often, I notice something a writer did well, something I want to remember. That’s what these issues are for.
Susan Howatch wrote a series of novels about the Church of England in the 20th century. My wife put the first one (Glittering Images) in my hands and promised me that the last one (Book 6) was more than worth reading all four thousand pages of the series. My wife’s taste in books is excellent, as you may know, so I read them all. She was right. The tangled threads of six books ultimately weave together into a satisfying final picture. (That was a very Howatchian sentence, by the way.)
Before you treat this as a recommendation, please note the following. These books are cheesy. If they had a soundtrack, it would be a cross between a 1940s Hollywood romance and the radio drama Suspense! They are scandalous. Sex is a major theme, especially the recurring question of how on earth an unmarried clergyman is supposed to remain celibate. They are also, at times, surprisingly insightful. I saw reflections of myself in more than one character, and I don’t just mean a passing characteristic. I mean the kind of characteristic that you’d need a bone-saw to remove. Oh, did I mention the books are theologically literate, at least in the Anglican tradition? Every chapter opens with a quote from a C of E luminary like Rowan Williams or Austin Farrer.
Alright, on to the writing. Howatch isn’t a great writer, but that doesn’t mean I can’t learn from her. From Howatch, I learned that sometimes it’s more accurate to tell rather than show, especially when writing in the first person. This sounds bizarre to those of us who are used to hearing the opposite. I’ve always thought “show, don’t tell” meant that you should describe physical sensations and movements instead of thoughts and emotions. A scene written like that might go something like this:
“Where you were last night?” my mother asked without looking up from her knitting.
My fingers tightened around my car keys. “Out with some friends,” I said.
“I hope you had fun.” The knitting needles clicked and clicked.
“Yep, we did.” The keys dug into my palm. “Good night, Mom.”
If Susan Howatch were to tackle this scene, it would look something like this:
“Where were you last night?” my mother asked innocently, never looking up from her knitting. I recognized the half-finished project in her lap. It was the same pattern as the blanket she had knitted for me when I was a child. This blanket was for my new niece, of course, but the significance of her choosing to work on this particular project at this particular time was not lost on me.
My fingers tightened around my car keys as I said carefully, “Out with some friends.” With any luck, she would believe the lie and ask no further questions. My heart sank as I saw that my words had merely confirmed her suspicions.
“I hope you had fun.” The knitting needles clicked reproachfully. They continued to click, like a miniature clock urging me to confess, confess! before it was too late. I longed to tell her everything, to absolve myself of the awful guilt which followed me everywhere and even now hung like a black cloud over the house. But something held me back. Grasping in my mind, I discovered it was the constant and unceasing danger that the truth presented to Cecilia. I could never tell. Never.
It was in that moment I knew I loved her.
I realized I hadn’t replied to my mother’s comment. I adopted my most casual tone and consciously relaxed my grip around the keys. “Yep, we did. Good night, Mom.”
Does the second attempt add anything to the scene that’s missing from the first attempt? Of course. We know that the mother has chosen her knitting carefully. We know that the narrator believes telling the truth would be dangerous. We meet someone named Cecilia. And we are much, much closer to the protagonist’s point of view. Attempt #2 may be overwritten (so many adverbs!), but it’s not unrealistic. We actually do observe, evaluate, and make choices when we’re in the middle of having a conversation with someone. We just do it instantaneously. Teasing out all of those thoughts and judgments can take pages and pages, but it can be very effective if done well. Attempt #1, on the other hand, tries to mimic real time, but that doesn’t make Attempt #2 less real.
So, the lesson: it’s sometimes good to tell, not show, especially if you’re writing in the first person, and commentary can slow scenes down to help you focus on the protagonist’s interior life.
Day after day, hour after hour, on this unyielding horizontal surface, marked by the gashes of hard labor and punctuated by such objects as books, paperclips, and a lamp, I, a red potato of humble origin, desirous of nothing more than a comfortable place to sleep and perhaps room to stretch out a tentative shoot or two, which may, Deo volente, someday grow to become fat and healthy tubers in their own right, after accruing much water and the nutrients necessary to prosperity, lie on my back and wait.
A vast country spreads out in front of me, brown and barren. Ahead, in the distance, a fat, dark line rests against the horizon. I walk for what feels like an entire day, though the sun never moves across the sky. It’s odd. Here, the sun operates as though on a switch, blinking on suddenly and darkening in the same way. My boots scuff the dirty ground, kicking up large flakes that float on the air before settling down behind me that marks my path. Eventually, I come to a collection of towers, hard as mountains and rising up out of the ground far beyond my head. The towers are the deep pink color of Himalayan salt. Several miles beyond them, a cliff rises out of the ground, a cliff of such immense proportions it’s hard to believe that this world has not been split in two.