Tuesday, August 8, 2017


Manuscript page from a recent project

Interesting article in Sunday’s The New York Times Book Review by Sarah Manguso.  She debates whether or not a writer should keep all drafts, notes, outlines for posterity that may or may not ever come, or should they only keep the final draft and throw everything else away.

She says “I keep a few old paper drafts…I used to compose my work on paper, revise on the computer and save the initial drafts.  Now that I compose on the computer, there’s only ever one extant version, and no drafts at all.  My own ‘archive’ fits in three shoe boxes.”

Of course, writers and their heirs have made a good bit of side income by selling off their archives to universities, but first one must become a “Writer” with a capital W.  Susan Sontag’s archive is at UCLA, including three laptop computers.  Emory University has Salman Rushdie’s drafts and other writerly paraphernalia.  William Saroyan’s dead trees are scattered all over California—at the Fresno County Public Library, the Bancroft Library at U.C. Berkeley, and Stanford University, which also owns one of his typewriters.  No telling who got the fingernail clippings—yes, he kept those, too.

Those of us who toil away at blog posts, newspaper articles and magazine pieces might never generate enough interest to have someone approach us to ask about buying our archive.  I certainly was not considering the prospect of selling my drafts, notebooks and other detritus when I cleaned out my storage unit and moved all of my boxes of manuscripts, journals, notes, and outlines under one roof.  My apartment is now ready to explode at the seams, but I am so happy to have everything here.

That being said, I have changed the way I work because there is no longer any room.

For a long time, I have worked in meticulous fashion following this careful methodology:  handwritten notes leading to various handwritten drafts of an outline, then to a first draft followed by printing it out when finished.  Then, I attack the page and rewrite nearly every line multiple times, printing out each successive draft only to attack it again and again until I have the one I want, only it is not the one I want.  It is simply that the deadline is now and I have to send it out into the world.  In the end, I have the final draft on top in a manila folder and each previous draft, in reverse chronological order back down to the notes from which it sprang.  On long pieces or troublesome pieces, the folder is thick; most of the time, I write at least five drafts.  Now, I am left with 23 file boxes just for manuscripts and notes.  I also have one four-drawer filing cabinet and six or seven boxes of research.  My closet is jammed and books, magazines and journals litter my office floor.  I swear I am not a hoarder, but my work space makes it seem as if I am lying.

Lately, I have continued to write handwritten notes and outlines.  I also keep an almost daily journal or notebook also in handwriting.  I think it is important to engage the pen with the page, but it is a painfully slow process.  My hand cannot keep up with my mind.  So after I have made notes and outlines, I write the first draft on the computer.  Only then can I keep up with the flow of ideas in my brain.  I then reread and revise the draft over and over again on the computer, and it might be four to seven passes before I actually print out another draft.  Then I tear it apart again on the computer.

For blog posts, this is working well.  I do not have them saved except for the digital archive on the computer which I back up several times a week onto a flash drive.  For the project I just finished, a book-length thesis, I wrote several drafts of each chapter and had at least one major rewrite of the entire thing that changed it significantly.  Because of that, I have several previous drafts saved in case I want to put something back in that I cut.  Also, due to length, this project merits its own file box.  If my longer projects involve research, they have their own file boxes containing all notes, outlines and drafts as well as articles and clippings.  The books, when I am finished, go back on my shelves.

I tell my students that back when I was an undergraduate, I used to write my papers the night before they were due.  Actually, I might have written them in the wee hours of the morning the day they were due.  And I suffered mightily for my indiscretion.  I turned in crap, to put it bluntly, and my teachers let me know it.

I remember sitting in an English class on Ernest Hemingway one evening—it was a seven to ten class—dreading the coming return of our research papers.  While I was waiting for the professor to arrive, I kept my head down and hoped that no one would notice me in the back of the room.  Two girls who were sitting in front of me were discussing the upcoming edition of the college literary magazines of which one of the girls was an editor.  She was listing off all the well-known literary stars of the senior class who would have pieces in that issue.  “Oh,” she said, “and there’s a short story by some guy named Paul Martin.”  Neither of them knew who I was.  However, I was suddenly, deliriously happy.  I was to be published!  I had not had much success in my writing up until then, and almost immediately I was soaring out the window of the classroom and across the campus.  The sky was the limit. 

Then the professor arrived.

“Paul Martin,” he said, looking around the room, unsure of who belonged to that name in this, the tenth of eighteen weeks of class.  The two girls in front turned around to look at me.  I raised my hand so the professor could see me.  “Could you step out into the hall for a moment,” he said.  He had a paper in his hands.

We stepped out into the hallway and he handed me my paper:  D+.  In the case of a grade like that, is the plus simply an added insult?  “Son,” he said sternly, “you don’t know how to write a paper.”

He was a teacher I admired, and shame colored my face.  I guess he hadn’t gotten the memo:  I was to be published in the school literary magazine!

“I’m really more of a fiction writer,” I mumbled, refusing to make eye contact with him.  In truth, I wasn’t sure yet what kind of writer I wanted to be or even if I was a writer.

“All writing is writing,” he said.  “If you can write a story, you can write essays and research papers.  Hell, every piece of writing is a story of one kind or another.”  He sighed and turned to go back into the room.

Here is what I learned:  one, Ernest Hemingway probably suffers in comparison to Impressionist painters with whom I tried to connect his writing.  He is much more like Edward Hopper, I now know.  All clean lines and angles, harsh light.  Just because Van Gogh painted a cafĂ© doesn’t make him an artistic match for a guy who hung out in cafes in Paris circa early 1900s.  I definitely should have known better.

The most important lesson I learned was that writing is a thought process from the very first tentative notes to more assured analysis to outline to draft to finished paper.  In every step, the writer must take the time necessary to build the essay or story or poem—yes, even poetry needs process.  Revision is key.  Revision is huge.  It is a chance to “re-see” the scope and sequence of the entire piece.  Nothing, nothing ever comes out right the first time, I don’t care if it is brownies or essays.  Even seasoned bakers know that not every recipe works every time, and even something as elementary as altitude can throw the whole thing off.

So I have embraced the process.  I keep writing and revising and writing and revising.  I revel in it.  I worship the process.  And I take great comfort in the fact that every piece published still has things I’d change if there were more time.  In short, the process is never finished; the deadline simply arrives and we must send our children out into the world.

We must teach process.  The only way to do that is for the teacher to collect multiple drafts of a paper at different points in the course.  This means reading and rereading the same paper.  It means stacks and stacks of student work to be worked through and dissected.  But if we leave it to students, they will be waiting to write at three in the morning on the day the damn thing is due, and it will be a chore to read for us in the end.

The great nonfiction writer John McPhee, in his Paris Review interview, speaks about his high school English teacher Olive McKee.  “In the average week, she would have us do three compositions.  We could write anything we wanted to—poetry, fiction, or a story about a real person.  But what it had to have, even if it was a poem, was a diagram of some kind that showed the structure of what we had done.  You had to turn that in with your piece.”

He goes on to say “We’d get up and read our work, and the other kids were absolutely unbridled in their reactions.  They wadded up pieces of paper and threw them at you while you were reading, they booed, they clapped.  We had a lot of fun in that English class—and believe me, if something wasn’t working, you heard about it.”

There it is:  writing as a process.  It is even, sometimes, a public process.  We hear the sound of our words and we gauge the reaction from an audience.  Invaluable.  Olive McKee influenced McPhee’s entire career.  Structure of the piece is his primary focus throughout the drafting process.  He is a master carpenter building an intricate house, and no one builds a house without a blueprint and careful consideration at every stage.  If it is not working, the architect is called in a minute adjustments are made.  That is the only way to build a strong house and a strong essay.

Drafts on paper, on a screen, on a combination of both, revision, re-seeing with fresh eyes, all are imperative.

And maybe those boxes crammed into every corner of my office will be worth something someday, most likely after I am long gone.  But I can live with that.

My file boxes of manuscripts and notebooks under my desk

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Dead Trees in the Classroom

I said goodbye today to my critical thinking and writing workshop students.  They are a great group of young women who are destined to do important things in the STEM majors at the university.

It is interesting to gear a writing and thinking class to science and medicine.  I am so used to teaching those skills in literary analysis, so it was challenging to find ways to explore their majors through a humanistic lens.

One thing I decided to do in this workshop was to use newspaper, magazine, and peer-reviewed journals.  I have watched with great interest and excitement as journalism especially has seen a revival in our time of Trump.  So I took them through the databases on the library’s portal and encouraged them to look up peer-reviewed articles on subjects in which they were interested.  I explained what is meant by peer-reviewed—experts in the field review the articles submitted and evaluate them for solid science and research before the editor approves them for publication.  Almost immediately, they began to use the databases and like most students who have grown up with technology, they quickly became experts in finding what they were after.

I also used two columns from The New York Times Magazine that I have read with great interest over the years.  The first is called “The Ethicist” by Kwame Anthony Appiah and appears weekly in the magazine.  People write in with ethical problems and Appiah attempts to reason his way through them to a solution.  The students seemed to enjoy dissecting the issue and Appiah’s argument for a particular action in response.  The problems tend to be real world, average people’s quandaries which made them all the more real to my students.  I reworked each piece a bit to make it more objective since the person writing in composed the question in first person.

The first dilemma concerned Ben and his desire to willfully refuse to pay income taxes because he disagreed with the way Trump was running the government.  Of course this is illegal, but Ben was willing to pay the price for his protestation.  My students were quick to realize what Appiah was thinking, although I waited until they had a solution in mind before giving them Appiah’s response.  They nailed down the position that there are many items to which are tax dollars go, and they are expenditures necessary to keep the country functioning.  Plus, if Ben diverted his tax payments to his state government, whom he trusted, he would simply receive the overage back in a refund.  Appiah and my students felt Ben should pay his taxes and choose to donate to or work with several groups such as those advocating for women’s rights and organizations that helped the poor.

Another problem concerned a woman who discovered a possible sibling she did not know existed.  He was imprisoned and had a violent past.  She wanted to reach out to him and ask him to take a DNA test to see if he was, in fact, her brother.  My students questioned the woman’s motives.  Was she truly trying to help the man, and was she prepared now to have the responsibility for his care in prison if he was her brother?  What would the man feel when he discovered that his father wanted nothing to do with him?

These were both excellent thinking exercises with no clear absolutely right response.  There was only a better action, but like life, things were far from clear, and that made for a good discussion.

The other column I used is written by Dr. Lisa Sanders and is called “Diagnosis.”  Every other week, Sanders presents a patient seeking treatment from an unknown ailment and then details the way the doctors work to diagnosis and treat the mysterious medical issue.  My students in this workshop are pre-med and biology majors, so they liked these problems and worked diligently to try to solve them before I revealed the answers, which in this case were more definitive.

The first case concerned a man who suffered from continual hiccups.  What I liked about this case is that it started with something we would consider rather innocuous, but later becomes something quite life threatening:  a brain tumor.  The students not only figured out the answer, they also determined what tests they would run on the patient and what medications they would prescribe to alleviate the symptoms.  Of course, this case ended in brain surgery, but the students were astute about the full range of treatments.

The second case was a mysterious fever that turned out to be listeriosis, but the bacterial infection did not present in its usual manner, so the diagnosis was tricky.  The disease could have resulted in the man’s death if doctors were not quick enough to figure out the mystery and start treatment.

A long time ago, I had a journalist come to speak to my students in a writing class.  She told them that she could teach an entire semester’s courses to them using only a daily newspaper.  I have remembered that boast ever since and I am certain it is possible.  When we look at all the stories in all the sections of a newspaper, there are examples of nearly every genre of writing there, both sophisticated and simple.  I would even say one could teach a class with just the Sunday edition of the paper, especially The New York Times.  This is why journalism is necessary, and why it should be celebrated in our democracy.

My students and I had a good time this week debating these articles, discussing ways to think and discover, while also studying the ways to improve writing and communication skills.  Using “dead tree media”—newspapers, magazines and journals—really made the classes come alive with real world dilemmas and issues.  A biology textbook might be good for a class, but application is just as important, and the articles we used gave ample opportunities for my students to take what they were learning and apply it to real life.