Saturday, September 03, 2005

Writing—A Paradox on Paper

Saturday Writer

Before this project, I was Editorial Director for a textbook company. I got to be part of the team that reconceived and revised the writing program that I had been taught to write with when I was kid. Over time well-meaning editors and changes in teaching philosophy had done to that program what Americans do to sports cars—changed it to satisfy too many people until it didn’t go “Varoom, Varoom” anymore.

Who would have thought I would end up there? I had learned to write from these books and then taught writing from them. Now I would be making the books for kids and teachers who were where I used to be. I was living a bedtime story.

“Okay, big shot” was the thought that occurred to me. “You’ve done impressive things, but this involves a legacy.” I faced both a chance and a challenge. I’d need to apply my complete skill set, all that I’d ever done, to something much bigger than me. My role was keeper of the vision—to make sure that the idea became reality. We all took the quest very seriously. Here was our chance to tell kids why we write—not just the whats and hows.

For teachers to have those “when will I use this in real life?” answers, someone had to put reasons into words. That writing job fell to me. In order to write them, I had to describe them, give voice to something I did without thinking. What elusive intangibles underpinned writing? I wanted the list to be complete. Everyone agreed this task was best done away from the rush of a publishing office.

“Go home, think it through, you won’t get it done here,” the president said to me.

“Don’t forget to say that writing is more than speech written down,” reminded the copyeditor.

“I’m with you,” I replied. “Grammar is credibility.”

“Explain that the words may be yours, but they are not you,” said one first-year editor. “Too many people take feedback too personally.” She was so bright, so right. I reveled in her perspicacity.

“Say that grown-ups do book reports in meetings,” said our traffic manager.

“Speaking of which . . . ,” I teased.

The advice kept on coming. We all were invested in different ways. We wanted kids to know what we knew. I guess we were all thinking how it might have been had we had real ideas to discuss on hot school days at quarter to three. I went home, knowing I’d be glad when it was over.

I’d like to say that I’ve so much experience that the words flowed effortlessly. I’d like to say that, but writers owe readers honesty. The truth is I had to scour my life—as a person, a teacher, a manager, a writer—to find the meaning in why I write and from there, why all of us do and why we need to.

I thought for days. I read words of writers, musicians, and painters. I spent two days saturating in quotes about writing online, to call up my own imagery. I walked through the neighborhood and made friends with the historic trees around the corner. I stared at the lake until it went black under the sky. Then I stared at the sky for a while. I made lists and notations. I listened to music, like I’m listening to music now.

Even when I started writing, it took more days of walking, thinking, and listening to the same Peter Gabriel CD. Yet, what slowly evolved were eight principals of writing. A good sign—I called into the office and read down the list; no one had any to add. The first written was the third or the sixth. The list was still some sort of mush when those two came to be. I have no idea in which order the rest fell into place. I was soon flying with passion and hoping I was catching the details on the pad next to me. I didn’t want to lose a thought that belonged.

Yet most important was What is Writing?

Writing effectively is more than fluency, flexibility, and creativity paired with grammar, mechanics, syntax, and semantics. It is elegance and simplicity. It is revealing one’s thinking while thinking about how others will interpret that thought. Writing is problem solving and building. It’s expression and structure held in delicate balance to communicate artfully and with credibility.

The process of writing is a repeating, self-actualizing event. It is part technique, part talent, and part tedious drudgery. It is dynamically social, yet deeply individual. Fine writing requires personal investment to ring with the truth, yet detachment to stand up to critique. Writing is composing the music of language while singing in your own key. It is precision and persuasion. It is exactness and elaboration. It is the ultimate paradox on paper—an act of ego wrapped in self-doubt.

That is why even the best writers never claim mastery.

That is also why . . . we as writers should take ourselves seriously.

What is Writing?

I wrote the textbook definition . . . paradoxically.

Now, let’s talk about irony.

—me strauss Letting me be
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Some Articles on the Pre-writing Process
A Step-by-Step How-to on Freewriting
Techniques for Prewriting

19 comments:

St Helena said...

Interesting post.... the new textbook writing approach in SIngapore is to "keep it simple". So everything is dumbed down and with lots of colourful pictures and 40% less content for more emphasis on class discussions. I think the most important thing is still to impart as much knowledge as possible to the readers first, before they can begin to discuss anything intelligently. If not they'll just end up learning less.

I'll be reading your blog again

ME Strauss said...

St. helena,
Thank you.
I've only been to Singapore for only a short stay, but I found the people I met some of the most eloquent speakers of the English language. That might be why.

I'm glad you'll be back your comments are insightful

smiles,
Liz

Cheryl said...

To me, writing is a photograph. I may only have a polaroid camera, but I still want the lighting right, and to hide blemishes, tidy up etc, in case someone sees, and so I can look at it myself with pride, not embarrassment, whether its tucked in an album or up on the wall.
But its still a photo, a moment and a state of being, captured.
I am proud of myself now - I didnt know all that about you, but at least I know I can discern skill. :-)

ME Strauss said...

Hi Cheryl,
What a perfect analogy. It's true whatever we write captures a moment in time. I have wall plaque that says "We don't remember time. We remember moments."

Writing not only captures the moment we write about, but also who the writer is at the moment when we write.

I used say our best work is the one we just finished, and this work will be our best work next, by thte time we look two works back we will think that the first work wasn't very good.

Proof of growth.

smiles,
Liz

iamnasra said...

Well I was afraid to read my comments as if I do not spell check ...what ever I write it become useless ..Anyhow I thought I will drop you a line to tell how I liked your words:
The process of writing is a repeating, self-actualizing event. It is part technique, part talent, and part tedious drudgery. It is dynamically social, yet deeply individual. Fine writing requires personal investment to ring with the truth, yet detachment to stand up to critique. Writing is composing the music of language while singing in your own key. It is precision and persuasion. It is exactness and elaboration. It is the ultimate paradox on paper—an act of ego wrapped in self-doubt.

iamnasra said...

Writing not only captures the moment we write about, but also who the writer is at the moment when we write.

I love what you said over here I hope one day I will grow as a poetess..I hope this will be my guidline towards the direction Im heading

ME Strauss said...

Lamnasra,
Thank you for enjoying what I write. Feel free to quote me anytime. Know this. I'm hopeless at commas and have to go over everything I write five or six times to make sure I've caught all of the missing words.

Also know this, spelling is genetic. It's a visual skill that is passed down through your genes. It's been proven by research--take from the teacher in me.

You express yourself well. I think you can write. Use your spell checker and go for. Write your commments in Word and them past them in the comment box.

There are ways the days to do anything.

smiles,
Liz

Gone Away said...

I think the WBA was very fortunate that joined us, Liz. To have the benefit of your experience and knowledge is a huge feather in our cap. This sounds as though it will be a very informative and interesting series; we will all be measuring our writing against it, I suspect. Thank you for doing it.

ME Strauss said...

Thank you, Gone,
I'm flattered and made s little self-conscious by your praise. But so delighted that you think it's a good idea.

It seems silly of me to have so many resources sitting around me and not be putting them to use.

smiles,
Liz

melly said...

You just blew me away with this one :)
Great post.
Seems like you're up for any challenge thrown your way. I could hear the wheels turning while I was reading this.

ME Strauss said...

Ah Meely,
You've caught on to me. Thanks for your excitement and words of encouragment. Have you been to the WBA? It's going to be a series--every Saturday.

Hope to see you more often. You helped to inspire it after all.

smiles,
Liz

melly said...

Blush... thanks.
Haven't been to the WBA today, but will.

(It's my third, now fourth, now fifth, time with the word verification, I'm having real problems here. Pls don't laugh :).

dog1net said...

The word "composition" means "putting together." When we speak and write, we are putting words together to express our ideas. We compose sentences in this way, and we compose essays and stories by grouping sentences. Composing, then, is the means by which we explore and develop our use of language. It is, as Vygotsky observes, the means by which we discover the dialectical process between thought and word. It is, as Berthoff says,a continual process of forming by which we "make sense of our world."

Thus, by composing, we are compelled to deal not only with our conceptualizations of the world, but ultimately ourselves.

Most writing assignments given to high school and college students are insipid and vacuous--meaningless excercises that do not encourage students to explore larger possibilities.

It seems as if your book, however, intends to teach writing as it actually is done, that is, as an activity that allows students the freedom to explore and express their own thoughts, and in doing so, develop the skills necessary in working toward improvement and competence.
Scot

ME Strauss said...

Scot,
You say that so eloquently. I glad to have you around to keep me honest.

Yes, there is no writing that does involve critical thinking. I agree that's what the series says.

smiles,
Liz

ME Strauss said...

Melly,
Don't feel bad. I have to do it too. And the word verification sometimes takes me that long as well.

Anonymous said...

You're writing inspires me.

What project are you working on now?

ME Strauss said...

Well Anonymous,
There is this and two books and another book for kids and the post for Saturday and . . . a couple of people I'm coaching

Why do you ask? Want to pay me millions to do some writing for you?

smiles,
Liz

The Hungry Writer said...

Isn't the written word so beautiful. Yet, when one thinks of oral cultures, it must be all the more beautiful. Written word allows for reflection. I read this interesting book:
"Orality and Literacy"
--Walter J. Ong
Brilliant man. Brialliant thesis. Again, you have inspired me to think past everyday noise.

ME Strauss said...

Hi Lane,
What a lovely comment. Thank you.
I've not read that book, nor did I know about it. I'll have to check it out.

Yes I love words as you've probably already figured out.

It's going to be fun to have you around.

smiles,
Liz