Writing lessons learned (yet again)

I'm currently writing a final paper for my Chekhov class (which has been WONDERFUL). My teacher and I agreed that it would be a good exercise for me to dig really deep into a single story rather than try to survey a batch of stories to prove some conjecture or other. As a writer of fiction myself, I was more interested in reverse-engineering a story to see how Chekhov constructed it.

I chose a story we had not read called "On Official Business" (Garnett translation). On the surface, it's a story in which nothing happens except that people wind up as depressed and miserable as when they started. But on really picking the story apart to see how Chekhov wrote it -- the narrative techniques he uses, his deployment of imagery, sound, and repeated phrases -- well, it became a rather rich stew.

I thought, aha!, I will now be able to get this paper off my plate early and not have to worry about it late in the semester. Ha-ha! Not so! My first priority was to distribute a questionnaire to my neighborhood as part of my master's project, and the logistics of that proved surprisingly overwhelming. (As with almost all master's work, it isn't hard, it just takes lots of time.)

I started making notes per my favorite writing book, Thinking on Paper, and quickly had 8 pages. [1] Then I floundered around looking for some sort of structure that I could slot my ideas into, looking for headings that were "mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive," but found that approach just generated more text.

At this point (last night, in fact) I decided it was time to stem the flow and remind myself of some writing truths I picked up from here and there:

  • If everything's important, nothing's important. This is a staple of technical writing. I was trying to put everything I knew into this paper, all of my notes -- with the effect that the really big points were getting lost.
  • Kill your darlings. Faulkner's famous piece of writing advice. In my working life, whenever I've had trouble writing an article or column that I felt strongly about, deleting the text I loved best allowed the piece to fit neatly into its allotted word count and allowed the other ideas to fall naturally into place. I'm too in love with some of the points I'm making or the language I'm using.
  • Create a title, just to get started. A title creates a focus for ideas; fiction writers or poets may pick a toneword or image or piece of music that expresses the effect they're after and that helps them choose the words and images that will cluster around it. I re-read the Chekhov story again, started making more notes, and hit on the title" "Dreams and Reality in Chekhov's 'On Official Business'". It's helping me decide what to leave out, which is as important as what I put in.
  • Write more than you need. As the authors of Thinking on Paper say, use the words you have to attract the words you want. You're not under any obligation to use them.
  • The sooner I get the first draft done, the more fun I have. Rewriting is re-thinking, revising and editing is more fun than squeezing out that first draft. When I re-read what I wrote, new phrases, new ideas, better choices come unbidden to my head.
  • It's only supposed to be a 12-page paper, for crying out loud. But, I'd decided to let the paper be as long as it wants to be. I'm enjoying spending time on this project and discovering all the clues Chekhov put into the story. However, time and energy constraints -- and the patience of my professor -- should also be respected!

The blog Stupid Motivational Tricks has really smart, tough advice on the business of academic writing. One post very cogently said that you don't write a paper, you write for an hour. Just focus on this piece or this point for an hour or so, get that done, and then move to the next.

For this morning's writing session, I want to focus on the character Lzyhin and draw together some of the criticism related to his epiphany. In other writing sessions, I want to tackle the secondary characters, Chekhov's use of imagery and sound to create a netting that holds the story together, and the circularity of the story's beginning and ending. That's all way too much to write about in a short paper, even given 8 uninterrupted hours. But I can get each piece done and, as Jonathan Mayhew points out, even a mediocre week of writing ends in getting some writing done, and that's the bottom line.

[1] I created a PDF summarizing the book -- and other bits of writing advice -- in my first class at SILS in 2006. That historical provenance out of the way, here's a link to the PDF.


Examining the unlived life

Alex has a wonderful essay up this week on the unexamined life vs the unlived life. I recognized so much of myself in his description of his early college self. And i would say it's only been fairly recently that I've decided to bias myself towards action -- even fidgety action -- over excessive rumination. (Just look up what "brown study" means.)

I think had Alex pushed farther, he would have probably detected fear prompting the defensive thinking posture he (we) adopted. Fear of rejection, fear of not being good enough, fear of not being perfect, fear of not being loved. There are damn few Socrates in the world whose motivations are not based on fear; for the rest of us, I think we adopt that intellectual camouflage and hope for the best.

And I loved this description of one of the risks we run by overindulging our penchant for thinking over a livelier balance between thought and action:

Believing advice is the greatest help we can provide others who are suffering. It’s not. The greatest gift we can provide others who are suffering is encouragement—encouragement that draws its power from our having experienced similar sufferings that we’ve overcome ourselves.

Anyway, his post reminded me for some reason of this wonderful Alexander Theroux quote from his novel Laura Warholic:

I decided at one point in my life that I never wanted to be anything that would not allow me to be anything else I wanted to be ... I ended up being nothing that I can currently identify, which I suppose means I got my wish.


"The enemy"

Here’s a quote from Stephen Fry’s novel Making History, one of the few passages that struck me as admirable in that lamentably bad book.

If there is a word to describe our age, it must be Security, or to put it another way, Insecurity. From the neurotic insecurity of Freud, by the way of the insecurities of the Kaiser, the Fuhrer, Eisenhower, and Stalin, right up to the terrors of the citizens of the modern world –

THEY ARE OUT THERE

The enemy. They will break into your car, burgle your house, molest your children, consign you to hellfire, murder you for drug money, force you to face Mecca, infect your blood, outlaw your sexual preferences, erode your pension, pollute your beaches, censor your thoughts, steal your ideas, poison your air, threaten your values, use foul language on your television, destroy your security. Keep them away! Lock them out! Hide them from sight! Bury them!

(originally posted 2010-11-22, updated for micro.blog)

When actresses like Hathaway (and, to a lesser degree, actors like Gyllenhaal) decide to bare all, they inevitably justify the choice by saying it was integral to the character. Of course nudity is integral to the character; so is buying groceries and paying the bills, yet directors don’t feel compelled to show that stuff. There’s nothing remarkable about a character taking off her clothes to have sex—that’s how most of us do it. Conversely, a person’s refusal to undress during sex gives us a world of information about who he is (three words: Eliot Spitzer’s socks).

Career Fare

Attended a career fair for master's and PhD students yesterday. I haven't been to such a thing in a long time and it was personally instructive, even though it may not turn out to be professionally lucrative.

There were two facing rows of tables lining a long lobby, with tchotchkes and mini-candy bars available occasionally, big poster displays, modest table displays, handouts, and many young people dressed up and with up-to-date resumes.

As I wandered through, it reminded me of some speed-networking events I've been to, modeled on the speed-dating event. I methodically (which is what I am) walked down the east row of tables first, talked to a few people, judged within a few seconds whether they were interested in what I had to sell or whether I had a chance at all of impressing the company or organization rep, and then made my way down the west row of tables. Along the way, I eavesdropped, picked up literature (when did that sacred word become so devalued as to refer to company-shilling handout sheets?), and weighed whether it was worth it to me or to them for me to stand in line and make a pitch.

In truth, many of the vendors were after hard-science skills or hard-core qualitative research skills, and I have neither of those. I was surprised to find that I was able to talk to about 3 vendors who I think I could help and whose mission I felt meshed with my skills and background. I had gone in expecting not to stay long, and I was out within an hour. Still, I needed some event to get the ball rolling -- update the resume, clarify what I want, start calling on my network -- and this more than served that purpose.


More on panic and discomfort

Mark Z at ZhurnalyWiki paid me the great honor of referring to my panic post. He ended with this thought:

And of course there's my favorite strategy: try to identify what causes panic and avoid situations where it might arise.

Sensible (and I think a little tongue-in-cheek) advice, though I believe there is more to this issue and I fear I lack the articulateness and critical thought to tease out all the threads. Still, let's try.

I take banjo lessons and my teacher one day asked me why I was taking a particular song at such a slow speed. "It's the speed I'm most comfortable practicing at," I said.

His reply was a zen slap: "Your comfort is not our concern." He explained that if I continued practicing only at speeds that "felt good" then my improvement would proceed so slowly as to be invisible. Instead, it was better to crank up the metronome to faster-than-comfortable speeds, stress myself a little, and build up the muscles, resistance, experience, whatever, so that I could see improvement happen faster. Even if I go too fast and have to step back to a slower speed, I'd still be practicing at a more intense level than had I plodded along at "safe" speeds.

This is advice applicable to any activity where one may want to see progressive improvement: weight training, long-distance running (waves to Mark Z), scholastic work, leadership skills -- deliberately putting yourself in an uncomfortable place in measured doses so that one gains the skills to operate competently with a higher or more capacity. (One key, I think, is defining the "measured doses" -- you don't go from couch potato to marathoner in a day.)

But I should note that, on days when it's obvious that I'm feeling off or am easily irritated by my performance, my teacher backs off on that advice and will instead say, "Take it easy. Some days, you only need to go at speeds where you're comfortable. Don't beat yourself up." So the wisdom, I guess, is knowing the difference between challenging oneself and abusing oneself.

With banjo, I intentionally crank up the metronome past my comfort zone and stress myself to play faster so that I can encourage my mind to confront and solve the problems I'm facing with fingering and rhythms. I know why I am putting myself through this discomfort -- so I can play better. And when I practice a week later, the section that had previously given me so much trouble is now comfortably folded into my normal practice, causes less stress, and is now a building block to help me conquer more complicated material.

What's needed here is my own willingness to confront a shortcoming. With any sort of training of this nature, a teacher or mentor is helpful. They can provide methods or rituals or processes we can employ that, over time, help us break the challenging problem down into pieces that can be easily solved, thereby reducing the discomfort and anxiety to mere questions of technique and experience. For example, only tackle four bars of a new song at a time till you feel they're not unnatural under your fingers, then tackle the next four bars, then play all eight bars at a slow speed and then faster. Jog at an easy pace before you start sprinting. And so on. After a while, what seemed difficult or impossible is routine. One of the things my first coach noticed was that, once we get past a block or remove an unhelpful attitude or behavior, we find it hard to remember what our problem was to begin with or why we thought we had a problem at all. The new neural pathways that we've laid down bypass -- and maybe help us forget -- the pain we'd previously put ourselves through.

Now we edge from discomfort to panic. Deliberately putting oneself outside of one's comfort zone is one thing, but life often thrusts us without warning into situations over which we have no control. In my still-young life, for example, I've been dumped, laid off, endured and recovered from detached retinas (both eyes), and forced to confront my moral/emotional/intellectual/human shortcomings in many other ways. I read a quote (from Alanis Morrisette, of all people) that said we're all going to go through shit at one time or another, and we're all going to get through it, so it doesn't pay to worry about it. That's useful to keep in mind, I guess, but hard to pull from memory when you're in the throes of panic (particularly when you're in an emergency room). It's during the panic times -- particularly times of illness -- that I call on my meditation and yoga experiences to put my mind in a more helpful place that will help me endure what I'm going through, help channel my emotions so they don't fuel panic, help improve my resiliency. Many of these situations we cannot avoid, we can only face them as well as we can. If you have someone's hand to hold, even better.

But then, there is that class of panic that is irrational -- fear of bridges, fear of elevators, fear of your thesis advisor (!). It's not realistic to avoid bridges or elevators or your advisor all of the time. And it's at that point that you dip into the various books and stuff I pointed to in the panic post, or enlist a therapist or counselor who can help you confront that fear or help make it go away.

Looking back on my spring, my panic was alleviated by my being surrounded by very understanding people who were able to relive me of some responsibilities that were simply more than I could handle, provide needed advice and -- importantly -- perspective on the situation, and generally just let me jabber as I tried to make sense of this experience. (Actually, I think making sense of something comes with time and distance from the event; when I'm in the weeds, I just want to get through it and make the pain stop).

I could have stayed in the PhD program, well outside of my comfort zone, where I was experiencing myriad panics at all sorts of levels -- scholastically, logistically, with personal relationships -- told myself that I'm not supposed to be comfortable, reconciled myself to living with the frustration, and just gotten on with it. Several people I know did that. But there are problems with that mindset: I didn't know how to measure progress in any of these areas so I had no objective markers to show whether I was progressing or regressing. I didn't have any methods -- apart from brute application of time and energy -- to help me get through the different types of work I was called on to do. I felt stuck in the same place and didn't see my situation -- or myself in that situation -- improving.

But my biggest problem here was that I was never clear on why I was doing the PhD. And because I didn't know why I wanted the PhD, I couldn't understand why I had to suffer what I was suffering. If I had had a clear picture of the destination, I could have found a way to suffer through the journey.

Anyway -- some more jabbering on a topic that, were I to talk about it with everyone I know, would make even me bored. Best to talk about it here where I can get it out of my system and spare the ears of my dear friends.