Category Archives: Musings on Writing

The Stowaway and the Captain

Two books written on the history and people of New England, Sarah Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates and Elyssa East’s Dogtown, bear comparison in approach and style.  Both Vowell and East conducted extensive research on their chosen subjects.  Both authors write from their own first-person perspective and include themselves as characters, and both use their own unique voices as writers to add nuance to the narrative.  Where their approaches diverge is most notable in the methods they choose to interject themselves into their stories.

Vowell’s subjects, John Winthrop and his Puritan compatriots, are a bunch I’d read about in textbooks, but with whom I’d felt no connection.  The settlers of colonial America are often projected as stuffy and flat in history books, and Vowell takes it upon herself to try to flesh these wooden characters into something relatable to the modern reader.  To this end, she tends to focus on people instead of events, eschewing a linear timeline for a more meandering one, at times sacrificing the continuity of the narrative as a result.  Her method is to offer commentary and anecdotes to liken the trials and tribulations of these founding leaders of Massachusetts and Rhode Island to something the reader can personally conceptualize.  Her results are mixed.

Where Vowell succeeds is in her portraits of Winthrop and other characters for which she seems to have affection.  While she remains aware of the rigidity of their stentorian way of life, she finds the humanity in characters such as Winthrop; she pays particular homage to his sense of justice and compassion as he banishes Philips Radcliffe, but allows him to linger in the town until the harsh winter has passed (Vowell 78).  She also offers an insightful vindication of the devout and misunderstood Roger Williams:

Williams’s greatness lies in his refusal to keep his head down in a society that prizes nothing  more than harmony and groupthink.  He cares more about truth than popularity or respect or personal safety.  And while his pursuit of truth leads him to some eccentric…applications of the Ten Commandments, his quest also leads him to some equally eccentric beliefs about racial equality, self-determination and religious liberty…I find him hard to like, but easy to love. (127)

In this one passage she characterizes Williams masterfully, demonstrating her skill in deconstructing his character and accurately capturing the pith of his philosophy.  It is this ability to crystallize that makes her commentary strong, and it manifests also in her analysis of the Pequot War.  This section stands also as a high mark; her description of the convoluted events and players in a war involving the settlers, the Pequot and their rivals the Mohegans and Narragansett, plays out with the intrigue of a war drama.

There are instances, however, even in her strongest passages, in which her commentary interrupts the narrative awkwardly.  Comparing the buildup to the violent and reprehensible Pequot War to a skateboarder breaking his board in a tantrum (Vowell 172), or likening the hallowed Algonquin term Manitou to the perfection of Steve Kerr hitting a buzzer shot in a professional basketball game (162), are both weak analogical and narrative devices.  Vowell further missteps by interjecting a personal anecdote about vacation Bible school amidst a passage concerning the Puritan’s theological tendency to question the divine right of kings (118) as well as inserting a childhood experience at a Pequot museum while detailing the Pequot War (197).  These intrusions tend to be far more jarring than illuminating, and though the aim appears to be helping the reader make a personal connection to the material, I believe that it falls short of its goal.

Elyssa East’s role in Dogtown is quite different.  Not merely a historian, East is a pilgrim herself, on her own journey into the heart and soul of Dogtown, Massachusetts, a long deserted piece of nature that has enchanted her and many others – the from locals and visitors to painters and poets. In the opening pages we’re introduced to Marsden Hartley, the artist whose otherworldly paintings of Dogtown have made his name synonymous with the cloistered patch of wilderness, and it’s East’s connection to these that bade her explore.  She observes that “these images of rocks and earth thrive with profoundly felt distillations of energy…so strange as to seem unreal…exist[ing] beyond the ‘borders of the known world'” (3).  Immediately, East’s journey into this unknown and beguiling land becomes crucial, and despite the potency of the other narrative lines – the  brutal 1984 murder of Anne Natti interspersed with pre-1800’s New England history – her story remains the most vibrant.

Marsden Hartley's "Dogtown" 1931

East’s experience with the people and history of Dogtown is intimate.  Her first sojourn into the woods is met with a frustrating warning for her safety by a local, but ultimately leaves her shaken as she is nearly lost in the haunting forest (32).  On her second trip, she must endure the heartbreak of a painful discovery: of one of Hartley’s notable subjects, a rock formation called Whale’s Jaw, had since broken and no longer resembled it’s painted form.  Her sense of betrayal is palpable (44).

Her repeated encounters with the natives coupled with her own experience begin to paint a picture of Dogtown she hadn’t expected.  The murder of Anne Natti, though two decades before, left its mark on the entire region.  East notes, “There is something especially disturbing about a murder in a natural setting.  It shatters our illusion that nature is our protector, a force that inspires goodness” (155).  As this chilling aura permeates, she begins to question what she really came looking for.  Then, a particularly harrowing sight – that of a horde of foreign birds swarming a tree – breaks her of her reverie completely, and she realizes “that I was doing nothing but spending my time being swept away by curious folklore and running around some peculiar woods turned all the more bizarre by a combination of man’s manipulation and neglect” (221).  Her final realization that she cannot recapture that youthful energy in Dogtown which had seemed to inspire Hartley is saddening, and a stark contrast from the optimism that marked the book’s introduction.  But the journey here is the true story, and while it may not have ended quite as the author had desired, it remains a rich and captivating tale, personal and engaging.

East’s presence in her tale stands in such contrast to Vowell’s because she truly belongs there.  Dogtown has its own history, but seeing it through East’s eyes enriches the reader’s experience; Vowell’s presence is not so necessary to our understanding of the Puritans’ world.  Vowell is the passive observer, East the dynamic explorer.  While Vowell is a stowaway with her shipmates, East is at the helm, the centerpiece and captain, the most important character, without whom there is no story.

Reference:

East, Elyssa.  Dogtown. New York: Free Press, 2009.

Vowell, Sarah.  The Wordy Shipmates. New York: Riverbend, 2008.

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Musings on the Craft: The Writing Process

A recent assignment was to assess the writing process, which at first was daunting; it’s very hard to express succinctly.  But as I wrote, I found it led down some untrodden mental corridors, and I ultimately found the exercise a valuable one.  I’d be interested to know what your process involves…

My process as a writer has evolved through many stages as I’ve aged, and I imagine it will remain in flux, ever changing to reflect my experience and serve my purposes until I’ve written my last word.  For me, channeling creative energy is a vastly different process from one written medium to the next.  In this essay I will explore three facets to writing I have endeavored, and the various processes involved in each: expository, fiction, and creative non-fiction.

Expository writing represents the format I am most experienced with, and as a result is probably the easiest for me in terms of process.  I spent years competing in and even coaching competitive high school debate, and with the time constraints placed upon me in a debate round, brevity and clarity as well as strong organization became the most dangerous weapons in my arsenal.  My subject, whether it was to explore the efficacy of feminism or to examine the state’s moral authority over the life of its constituents, always belied a fundamental philosophical ideal or concept that had to be unearthed.  Exacting the pith of the conflict was the first step in this process, thus revealing the core value at issue.  From this core value sprang the individual contentions and their subordinate sub-points, the ultimate goal an airtight and compelling argument wrapped tight with the cords of reason and hardened in the kiln of logic.  These contentions were developed over countless brainstorming sessions and hours poring over tomes of philosophy seeking an edge – that evanescent argument that was beyond contestation.  Of course, the unassailable viewpoint is a myth, but it was still a thrill to attempt.

This method has remained with me with any expository writing I attempt now.  My brainstorming is sometimes conducted on a long run or drive, but I still prefer the process of tossing an idea around with a peer or two; it tends to get my creative engine firing.  After letting these nascent ideas dance around my head for awhile, I begin the process of carving off their fat to expose the meat of their truths.  When I’ve discovered their most quintessential elements, I corral them to centerpiece the work, and begin developing the girders to support their platform.

At this point, I’m looking for three kinds of evidence to build these pillars.  The first is logic.  In certain circumstances, a logical syllogism is as tight a bond between concept and pragmatism as is empirical evidence, especially if that evidence doesn’t exist or, worse, if certain evidence threatens the verisimilitude of that concept.  The second is the supporting words of an expert.  Whether it’s the Surgeon General cautioning against smoking, or John Stuart Mill extolling the virtues of Utilitarianism, an educated or eloquent ally is an excellent resource to mine; no need to restate what has already been stated more eloquently by another.  The third is, of course, demonstrable hard evidence.  In my experience this evidence, while ostensibly the most potent, can be of lesser impact persuasively than the other two; people tend to follow their hearts first, someone else’s reasoning second, and often only lean on hard facts as a last resort.  Case in point: surveys show that as much as 20% of the American population believes that President Obama is not a natural born citizen (despite all evidence to the contrary), because the words of pundits like Glen Beck are often given more credence than truth.  This is not to say that my goal is ever to manipulate, but it’s foolish to ignore these maxims when considering audience.

My process in fiction is less structured as it is less practiced.  My first attempt at fiction when I was very young was to take my favorite cartoon heroes and draw them into comic-book style stories complete with abysmal artwork.  They were the clashes or plots that the episodes hadn’t given me yet, or a crossover between GI Joe and Transformers that was only possible on my pages.  My first attempts at longer fiction began in late grade and early middle school, virtual copies of my favorite stories from Narnia or the Star Wars universe told with my own characters.  I was still stealing ideas, and some criticism received for this made me put down the pen for a time.  Though I always thought of myself as a novelist – I have forgotten a thousand daydreamed plots – I never really put pen to paper in an attempt to create my own original work until after college.

In part, I was inspired to begin again by Stephen King’s On Writing. His process seemed accessible, and in truth closely resembled my own: he would just sit down, write, and see what happened.  I was familiar with the sort of “zone” he describes, in which the story grows legs and begins to lead itself.  Inspired by this, as well as his struggles to get published, I started my first novel when I was 24.  I had a general idea where I was going, but I just let the plot drive itself along, the occasional character popping up and fleshing himself out along the way.  This story was a sort of supernatural thriller, complete with an agent specializing in the paranormal.  It was a completely linear narrative, like so many other novels in the genre, and even as I wrote it I questioned if I’d even want my name attached to it if it were published.  It’s fluff, I realized.  Good fluff, friends insisted.  It didn’t matter.  I abandoned it, but not simply because of the subject matter; at around 100 pages the weight of editing and rereading began to mount, and self-doubt moved in like a camel into the tent, inch by inch.  I decided it was no good.  Years later I went back to read it again and it wasn’t terrible, but it certainly wasn’t where I wanted to go with my writing.  Though I don’t regret leaving it behind, finishing it would have been a worthwhile endeavor for the sense of accomplishment it would have given.  Failing to complete books because of self doubt inadvertently became part of my process at this point.

My process changed somewhat after reading Ayn Rand’s The Art of Fiction in my late 20’s.  Stephen King had this to say on plot: “I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.”  Rand, on the other hand, revered plot as sacred.  Contrasting her The Fountainhead, one of the best books I’ve ever read, with almost any Stephen King book is like comparing a Van Gogh to a photo spread in Vogue magazine, so I was inclined to take Ms. Rand’s advice.  Her plot outlines and deep character sketches for Atlas Shrugged were nearly as lengthy as the massive tome itself, and it manifested in a story with very little wasted action which drove spellbindingly toward resolution.  Getting to the end of a Stephen King book is a bit like trying to find your lost car in a mall parking lot: you’ll eventually arrive, but you may be frustrated and tired as hell by the time you do, and all you’ve learned is to not make the same mistake twice.

As a result, drawing up character backgrounds and outlines became part of my process, and it helped shape the form of the action.  While as King notes, our lives rarely have plot, they are just as rarely interesting, and the parts that are almost invariably do have plot.  It’s too easy to meander without an outline, or to create six versions of yourself without developing characters.  The next book I attempted, one with a plot I changed too many times to count, relied more heavily on these principals and though I never finished it, it was a stronger piece.  When you have to react as one of your characters, you must be inside their head; the sketches made this possible.  What motivates them?  What is their philosophy on life?  What past experiences could shape how they react to this new stimulus?  Without these you’re just replaying a thinly veiled version of yourself.

Of these three I have the least experience with creative non-fiction, but I am enjoying the genre.  Unlike fiction, the story is already there.  I am exploring a story with a friend to write of a journey he made on foot from Panama City to New Orleans for charity, and after I got all the plot points down, I then went after the emotional content.  My questions took aim at the textures of what he saw, the people he met, the thoughts and feelings he encountered along the way; though he thought Fats Domino, who wrote the song “Walking to New Orleans”, the inspiration for the walk, was the main character, I reminded him that in fact he is the most interesting element in the story and he must remain the emotional core.  The reader can connect with the non-fiction writer in a unique way, especially in memoir; the story is uniquely intimate and the narrator can pull the reader deep into their reality with an ease unavailable to other writers because they have both truth and story on their side.  It is the best of both worlds.  From what I am learning, close attention to bringing characters, places, and the small details to life is the key.

Each writing style: expository, fiction, and creative non-fiction are different and ever evolving for me.  I hope that my continued work will bring improvement and refinement to my processes, and that in another five years I can again look back upon these and see how far I’ve come.


Musings on the Craft: Eloquence

The topic: What is the essence of eloquent writing?  This was my response.

Eloquent writing comprises many elements, some concrete, some elusive, and some virtually indescribable.  There are many rules to obey; the laws of grammar and form are the masters from youth and their specter looms ever over the shoulder of the aging writer.  They are signposts along the path to clarity and cohesion, and their tenets are sacred.  Beyond the horizon of structure and law, however, is where truly graceful writing begins.  As essential to the written word as spelling is style, the signature of the author, the vivid brush strokes that engage the mind and soul of the reader.  The eloquent writer must master both form and style.

It is critical that a writer learn the basics of form before he endeavors a volume of work, much as a physicist must master algebra before he attempts calculus.  Most students learn the basic building blocks of the sentence in prep school, but few encounter such fundamental guides as William Strunk and E.B. White’s The Elements of Style (1918), or ever learn what it means to write with concision or how to avoid the passive voice.  As Joseph Williams and Gregory Colomb also emphasize in their work Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace (1997), a good writer must employ the active voice and eliminate unnecessary words.  Writers often believe that wordiness and lengthy sentences distinguish their prose as ornate or intellectual, but Strunk and White would argue that  the strongest paragraph is the one that reaches its point most efficiently and effectively.  The use of the active voice, with the subject committing strong action toward object or resolution, is generally the clearest and most definitive way to communicate an idea.

It’s possible to dissect any sentence down to its component parts and find fault in many; a split infinite here, a sentence beginning with “but” there, the subject trailing the object, a clipped fragment, and the list goes on.  At some point, however, a writer must be willing to break the rules to find his voice, though it is a subject few approach without fear.  In The Courage to Write (1995), Ralph Keyes addresses this issue and I believe he reaches the heart of the matter: the writer must be fearless or risk drowning in an endless sea of laws.  Williams and Columb would agree that for most rules, there are perfect exceptions.  Even with every grammatical or stylistic rule his arsenal, the aspiring writer has only made half the journey toward compelling writing; he has only learned how not to write poorly.

Truly eloquent writing – the kind that possesses you, romances you, leads you, teaches you, or decimates you – is rare and difficult to fathom.  It is, in part, word choice.  The imagination has infinite colors, but the writer’s palette is limited to the tints on his own wheel.  The perfect word or phrase is a fleeting and delicate thing; the best writers find it most often.  Communicating ideas and images perfectly with words is an art, and like all artists the writer draws upon his experiences, his mind, and his soul to craft them.  On the page, the author cannot hide, and the less he attempts to do so, the better.  Consider this passage from the prologue of Pat Conroy’s The Lords of Discipline (1980):

I wear the ring.

I wear the ring and I return often to the City of Charleston, South Carolina, to study the history of my becoming a man.  My approach to Charleston is always silent and distracted, but I come under full sail, with hissing silk and memories a-wing above me in shapes of the birds I love best: old brown pelicans, Great Blue herons, cowbirds, falcons lost at sea, ospreys lean from dives, and eagles over schools of mullet.  I am a low country boy.  My entrance to this marsh-haunted city is always filled with troubled meditations on both my education and my solitude during a four-year residence at the Institute.

In this introduction he offers himself up completely and fearlessly as he begins his story.  His metaphor to returning to his home town – that of a ship entering rocky but familiar waters – reflects his own experience and knowledge of Charleston woven seamlessly into the description.  It paints a picture not only of the atmosphere of the city, but also of his own troubled psyche.  His descriptive phrases – hissing silk, ospreys lean from dives, the marsh-haunted city – are rich and evocative.   Conroy demonstrates his intimate knowledge of language, Charleston, and himself all in one paragraph.  This is potent writing at its finest.

Another facet to eloquent writing lies in the power to deftly capture complex philosophical or scientific ideas and their quintessential elements and convert them into lucid and comprehensible terms.  The Russian born Ayn Rand, whose polarizing ideas on capitalism and the individual have sparked a thousand coffee-shop debates in the last half-century, is a master of this craft.  In her treatise on literature and the arts, The Romantic Manifesto (1971), she writes:

Art is man’s metaphysical mirror; what a rational man seeks to see in that mirror is a salute; what an irrational man seeks to see is a justification – even if only a justification of his depravity, as a last convulsion of his betrayed self-esteem.

Rand addresses the controversial topic of the nature and value of art; in this chapter it is her premise that the purpose of art is to celebrate the greatness of man, and that art championing any lesser or base value is not art at all.  Regardless of one’s own position, Rand’s clarity and precision in this sentence is impressive; the writing is strong and direct, the verbs are potent, the analysis biting.  Her style reflects her thoughts, her experience.  It indicates her potent mind and will, demonstrates her command of language, and speaks to her understanding of the human condition.  The eloquence of her words is a result of the breadth of her intellect and reasoning.

Ultimately, eloquent writing springs from an eloquent mind.  The writer must have the discipline to learn the laws of language and the courage to break them.  He must preserve a strong and active voice, eschewing frivolity, while remembering that the soul of the story hides in detail and nuance.  He must, finally, experience the world and himself.  No book of technique can bestow the knowledge and wisdom a writer must possess to give his story significance and his words impact.  He must explore every corner of both the language and his own mind to find his voice, his style.  This is no easy journey; this is why there are not many truly eloquent writers.