Category Archives: Education

The Method of Writing: Plan, plan, plan, or “back the fuck off”?

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The literary dawn on the lake of the mind. (Murte Lake, Wells Gray Provincial Park, BC.)

In October The Atlantic ran an awesome interview with Andre Dubus III.

I love Andre Dubus III. He’s got a cool name. He writes cool books (Dirty Love just came out this fall). He swears profusely, even in print, even in a 156-year-old magazine, because, well, he’s that fucking passionate about writing.

And in this interview he suggests all you plotters and planners and outliners really need to just back the fuck off. He’s talking to you, Ms. Writer with your note cards and your plot points and your summaries. These are his words. Back. The. Fuck. Off.

That outline you just did? That idea you had for the climax of your novel, for the clever resolution of the short story you’re going to email to some hip litmag? Throw it the fuck out and sit the fuck down. Then write, and see what comes.

You’re a blind woman, or man, or marsupial. Whatever. You’re feeling your way through a tunnel, and the point is you don’t know where you’re going. All you know is what your senses tell you about what’s right in front of you.

That, Dubus says, is all you need. Take note of whatever is mentally in front of you. You’re the ethnographer of your imagination. You’re wearing twill khaki shorts and the mosquitoes are bleeding you dry, and you’re just scribbling notes about whatever you observe in your immediate dream-surroundings.

You’re not composing a novel or devising a short story. You’re not even a writer. You’re just taking field notes from your subconscious.

So your job is to shut the fuck up. Just be quiet and wait for your subconscious to float an image. Your conscious mind is a security guard/stenographer. It waits for something to happen, then it takes note.

This is what Dubus says. He probably knows what he’s talking about, if The House of Sand and Fog or any of his five other well-regarded books are something to go by.

On this, he echoes the sentiments of other bestselling — though less “literary” — writers like Stephen King, who in his memoir On Writing also said he doesn’t plan. He just sits down and feels it out.

The downside of this approach is you end up having to chuck out prose by the boatload. But Dubus is simply too bad-ass to shed tears over spilt ink.

“I don’t care if I spent a year writing pages 1 through 96. If I feel some real energy on page 93, and I think that should be page 1? Those first 92 pages are fucking gone.”

Thrown in the fucking wastebasket. Ruthlessly recycled. He doesn’t care. He’s Andre Dubus IIIOne day he may wipe his ass with those 92 pages. It just depends if he buys environmentally friendly toilet paper or not.

All you planners out there, stop sucking your teeth while you contemplate the horrifying inefficiency of this approach. There are plenty of upsides we have yet to consider. Allow me to hold forth on them forthwith.

Well right off the bat, you save all the time of plotting and sketching. Plotting days become writing days.

So although you may have to throw more stuff out, you have way more stuff. You are word-rich. You no longer have any excuse not to write every day. You can’t say, “Well, I would write today, but I have to hammer out the twists in my story first.” If Dubus heard you say this he would politely tell you:  stop making excuses, sit the fuck down, and write.

It’s very passionate advice. The main question, though, is about quality. Because better quality is a potential upside here, though obviously not all high-quality writers approach their work this way.

Yet Dubus suggests  if you don’t write like this, your book or story or epic poem is going to sound contrived. It’ll come off as gimmicky, inorganic. You’ve got to let it develop naturally or it won’t have an authentic ring. The soul of art is born of uncertainty, he would claim.

It’s hard to settle this. We need some scientists in white coats to see which writers work like Dubus and King, and which ones plan out their writing in advance. Then they can get a bunch of participants to rate the work each group produces. Barring that, it’s just an assertion made in really fucking strong language.

I’ve tried both approaches, and I don’t know which is better. Planning in advance provides a lot of comfort as you move through the writing process. But maybe comfort isn’t really what you want as a writer. I must admit it does raise questions in the back of my mind about sounding contrived.

Proceeding with no plan, however, often seems to produce work that doesn’t go anywhere. Work I couldn’t imagine people want to read because it doesn’t present itself as a clear story. But I do find this work tends to be raw and engaging. Maybe I’ve just never given this freewheeling process enough time.

The point Dubus seems to make is that even your output is a colossal mess, eventually you’ll be able to tie pieces of it together into a coherent structure. The trick is to keep going, to write continuously so that you have enough raw material. So that you don’t care if you have to scrap pages 1-92.

I’d say that’s a tall order. But it’s also a brave way to work. And if Dubus’s books are anything to go by, it’s something worth going after.

How to Read A Book: A Student’s Guide to Non-Fiction

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University professors love to assign mounds of reading. Looking at the book lists for your classes and realizing it’s impossible to get through them  by term’s end is a sucky yet common experience. But it doesn’t have to be like that.

Why do they do this, though? Are they just a bunch of sadists in tweed coats? How could they possibly think students have time to read five books for one class? Don’t they know that means 25 books a term?

Here’s secret number one: your profs don’t even have time to do that much reading. Yes, they’re full-time in the learning game. But mostly they’re busy preparing lectures, grading, attending committee meetings,  answering emails, and watching cat videos on YouTube. Occasionally they do some research.

So if they can’t keep up with the readings — or least can’t afford to spend roughly 168 hours a week with their nose in a book — why do they assign so much to you? Are they all gathered by the departmental Xerox machine snickering into their walnut pipes about the suffering they’ve managed to inflicted on you?

Well the truth is they have a technique. And for some reason nine out of ten of them don’t think to share it.

It’s strange. Everyone gets instruction in writing via feedback on the papers they write. But little is taught about how to read a book.

But that all changes when you begin your doctorate. (Not that you need to get a PhD, that’s just where I learned this.)  Once you’ve been through four years of undergrad courses and two years of Master’s seminars and thesis writing, then — and only then! — will they bestow upon you the secret knowledge. [Cue awesome gong sound.] It’s the knowledge that would’ve saved you unending hours of pain muttering curses at wordy textbooks in hipster coffee shops. It’s the knowledge of how to read.

I don’t mean read-read. We all know how to do that. I mean how to rip the guts out of a 300-page non-fiction book in an hour. Yep, that’s often how long your professors spend on a book. One hour.

How in tarnation is that possible? It’s a technique born of necessity, but it works. In the course of a PhD program you’ll have to complete “comprehensive exams” that test you on the contents of 150-200 books. You’ve got one year to get that reading done. When you factor in weekends, holidays, sick time, and days you inevitably must devote to tasks other than reading, you might be left with 200 days in a year to work on that. Which means you’ve got to get through a book a day.

So you’ve got to get through that book quickly. Simple math precludes reading it cover-to-cover. There just isn’t enough time.

This, however, is a good thing. Because reading cover-to-cover often leads to drowning in details without seizing the book’s main point. Ever have that problem where you read a book and then some asks you what it was about? Uhh, it was, um, it’s was about like, uh, this guy. And he was, um, he was  the president, of like this country? Yeah, I think I’ll have to go back…

That’s what comes of passively reading front-to-back. Novels are a different animal and need to be read one word after another. They build suspense all the way through, and if you don’t follow the structure outlined by the writer, you’ll spoil the whole business.

But non-fiction is designed differently. Especially academic work. There’s no suspense. Any author worth his or her salt will expose the main ideas in the prologue or introduction, and will summarize them in the conclusion. This applies to the entire book and to each chapter. In other words all the key information is found at the extremities. So that’s where you should start.

Reading non-fiction is like eating pizza. You need to nibble on the edges and work your way in. Unless you want to get sauce all over your face.

I’m not saying you should ignore the deep dark interior of the work you’ve been assigned. I’m just suggesting you approach your reading in a different order. An ideal reading order might look like this:

  1. Read the prologue. This is usually only a couple of pages. By the end of this, you should already have heard about the book’s main ideas. Note them down.
  2. Read the conclusion. If it’s a long, read the last paragraph first. This is where the author should give the last word on what this book is really about and why it matters. And those are the things your professor wants you to know.
  3. Read the introduction. This will also lay out the book’s main questions and will suggest how the author intends to answer them.

If you’ve done this, you should have a clear idea of what the book is about. These are the  sections that reveal the high-level, conceptual elements of the work. The lack of detail in these chapters is a good thing. It allows you to zero in on what’s  important. Then, when it comes time for class discussion, written responses, mid-terms, or final papers, you know you’ll be on the mark. Your prof is far more likely to appreciate your  grasp on the book’s main point than your ability to cite random details.

From this point, you can delve deeper as time allows and as the nature of your course assignments require. Do this as follows:

  1. Identify the chapters you are going to examine. If the table of contents shows that the book is divided into parts, choose at least one from each part.
  2. Read the introduction and conclusion of each chapter you’ve chosen. From this you should be able to seize the essence of the chapter material.
  3. If you want to go further, identify all the chapter subsections. Read the introductory and concluding paragraphs of each one. Continue reading if necessary, or if the book is so good you actually want to.

Of course some books lack proper introductions and conclusions. These books suck to read. These books are chrono-monsters. They eat your time without mercy. The only way to heal the wounds they cause is by writing a critical-yet-polite email to the author:

Dear Evil Genius,
I’m interested in your ideas but I found your book inaccessible. Might you think of including more comprehensive introductions and conclusions in your future work?
Sincerely,
Some Frazzled Twenty-Year-Old
p.s. You owe me four hours.

To conclude, please don’t send this post to your angry professors when they discover you didn’t read all the material. No one likes a grouch in a tweed coat.

Anyway, I’m not advocating  you skip your readings. By all means, if you have the time, read every page. But start at the edges. That way, by the time you reach the steamy jargon-jungle at the book’s heart, when details supporting the book’s thesis are assailing you left and right, you might actually know what that thesis is.

At the very least, instead of showing up completely unprepared because you didn’t have time to read those three seminar papers front-to-back, you’ll have skimmed the intros and conclusions while busing to class. If you do it that way, who knows? You might even get more than a simple attendance mark out of the session.

If you do execute this “pizza reading” technique, make sure to perk your ears up on the last Sunday before final grades are due, right around midnight. Somewhere your professor will be madly marking your term paper, and you just might hear a soft noise. That, dear student, is the sound of happy tears falling on tweed.