Bounty of writers’ insights

Sweet autumn clematis (link) reaches its full beauty in early September and then lasts. I have a few spots of it in the yard — over an arbor in the front, along both sides of the chimney, and climbing up the neighbor’s fence — and this summer it exceeded its usual proliferation while I wasn’t looking. Suddenly, it seemed to explode into my attention. One day I said to a member of my editorial staff, Grace Guterman, “Please, when you have a moment, go out in the yard and take some photos for me!” I wanted to preserve the lushness. She did.

Also this month I have noticed in the news a proliferation of commentary from writers on writing that surprised me in some way. So that I don’t lose these good finds, I’m going to catalog and excerpt below the three that made the greatest impression on me.

1. Brian Martin recommends that writers train like athletes. Excerpts from his article in Tomorrow’s Professor:

Write for 15 to 30 minutes every day. Yes, that’s it: the core requirement is daily writing, at least five days a week, preferably seven.

Coaches expect their athletes – swimmers, runners and so forth – to train daily. Junior athletes are expected to show up for training every day, at the same time. Swimmers put in the laps and runners put in the miles. This sort of training enables dedicated high school athletes to achieve times better than world champions a century ago.

So what were top athletes doing back then? Those were the days of amateurs, usually from the upper class with spare time and access to facilities, who trained when they felt like it, typically on weekends. Very gentlemanly. But their performances weren’t outstanding by today’s standards.

What about writing? Most academics seem to be operating like the gentleman athletes of the past. They wait until they feel like writing. That usually means when they have a big block of time, or are forced to meet a deadline.

Most academics learn binge-writing from doing assignments in high school or undergraduate years. Binging becomes increasingly dysfunctional as tasks become larger. Writing an essay overnight is possible, but completing a 300-page thesis requires planning and sustained work.

2. Michael Erard describes how the analytical writing he does in his day job affects the more creative writing he does at night, and he explains “priming” and how to counter it, in an essay for the New York Times:

What is the relationship between these two parts of a writing life?

At one level, mastering the requirements of a couple of genres and putting yourself in the heads of different types of readers builds powerful linguistic muscles.

This is a real phenomenon, described by psycholinguists, who call it “structural priming” or “syntactic persistence.” Basically, earlier patterns in what you say or read or write “prime” you to repeat them when you’re acting automatically.

Each time you sit down to write, you should cleanse your linguistic palate by reading some things that are vastly unlike what you’ve been writing. I like to page through Virginia Tufte’s “Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style,” which is a catalog of the flexibility of the English sentence. As a warm-up activity, you might try actively imitating a writing style different from your own. It’s hard to do and highly unpriming.

Also, it’s imperative that you shut off the Web and don’t look at e-mail while you’re writing. Each time you look at Facebook or Twitter, you get primed with another kind of language.

3. Junot Diaz tells reporter Sam Anderson, in a Q & A, how difficult and slow it was writing This Is How You Lose Her, Diaz’s new story collection, in a New York Times interview:

How did the writing go? Miserable. Miserable. The stories just wouldn’t come.

How many stories did you generate in total? I’ll tell you what, I can name the stories for “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” before “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” came. There’s a story called “Primo” that was supposed to be at the end of the book — that was a miserable botch. I spent six months on that, and it never came together. There was a story called “Santo Domingo Confidential” that was trying to be the final story, that I spent a year on. I must have written a hundred pages. It was another farrago of nonsense. I wrote a summer story where the kid gets sent to the Dominican Republic while his brother is dying of cancer; he gets sent because his mom can’t take care of him. It was a story I called “Confessions of a Teenage Sanky-Panky,” which was even worse than all the other ones put together. And that was another 50-page botch.

That must be tough. That’s why I never want to do this again. It’s like you spend 16 years chefing in the kitchen, and all that’s left is an amuse-bouche.

As a bonus item, I point your attention to the September series, Why American Students Can’t Write, in the Atlantic. Thanks is due to my sister, Emily, for alerting me to it. One provocative argument pits the teaching of creative, expressive writing against the teaching of analytical, academic writing and discusses outcomes for students.

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