Tag Archives: writing

Write or Wrong

Lots of people write for lots of reasons. Some love it. Some hate it. Some can’t help themselves. For those who know me primarily through this blog, it may not be obvious which of these sorts I am. After having read Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life I finally feel confident putting myself in category three. It’s not that I don’t like writing—I live for it. The kind of person Shapiro describes, however, is the one who defines their entire being through writing. Each day I post between 300 and 500 words on this blog. I’ve been doing it since 2009, which means I’m somewhere over the million-word mark. But those compelled to write will never be satisfied with just that. One does not live by blog alone, after all.

Once in a great while I get asked how many books I’ve written. Well, that’s not a question with a straightforward answer. Two of my books have been published. I’ve written at least ten. Some of them never made it from my desk to a publisher’s wastebasket. A few of them have. Like others who are addicted to writing, I can’t stop. Ironically, with a decade of experience working in publishing I’m not so good at getting my own work placed. Some of it is fiction. Some of it is non. Some of it is even poetry. If you’re a graphomaniac, I don’t need to explain any further. If you’re not, think of chocolate, or sports, or anything else you just can’t get enough of. That’s what it’s like.

Shapiro’s book, although not point-for-point, but more than not, is like wandering through my own gray matter. I had no idea that other writers—including a successful one like Shapiro—felt the same constant, nagging doubts and insecurities. I didn’t know that others considered staring off into the middle distance (there’s not always a window nearby) as work. Or that sometimes you write something and when you’ve finished it seems like it wasn’t you at all. Writers can be a trying lot. We tend to be introverts. We have odd habits (in my case, waking up at 3 a.m. to write on a daily basis). We tend to be able to spot one another in a crowd, but more likely as not we won’t say anything to each other. And strangely, we write even if we don’t get paid. With lifelong royalties somewhere in the low triple digits, economically it makes no sense to do what I do. Generally the world feels creative sorts aren’t terribly productive. It’s because we measure value differently, I expect. I’m glad to have met another traveler on this path although, as is often the case, our meeting will only be through writing.

Taking Time

Good writing is hard work. One of the mixed blessings of the internet is that it makes publication so easy. Get yourself a blog and nobody has to approve anything! Ideas come tripping across your fingers onto some electronic substrate and, viola! You’re an author! The problem is that being an author’s not the same as being a good author. Writing well (and I make no such claim for myself—after all this is just a blog) is hard work. A piece has to be written, and then read again and again. I’m reminded of the story of a convicted murder whose name I’m forgotten (call it a defense mechanism). This was early last century. The murderer was caught, initially after having been found wandering, disheveled, in public. As a respectable man (he was a doctor, I think) part of his defense was that he’d never have left his house without being presentable. He would have on a collar and hat. People would see him, and he had to convince them of his presentability every single time he walked out that door. (This isn’t an affliction that I share, by the way.) Writing for publication is like that—you need to take care to look respectable every single time.

I can’t speculate about how other writers do their thing, but for me the main requirement for this is time. Any piece that I want anyone else to see, has to be written. Read. Edited. Re-read. And probably edited again. All before the public sees it. This is just for the informal stuff. I’m currently writing a book (which is pretty much a constant state with me). The draft was finished months ago. I started thinking about a publisher. Then I read it again. I couldn’t believe I’d ever thought it was ready for a publisher. Several rewrites followed. I’m in the midst of another one at the moment. I think of it like my ill-used rock tumbler. You want shiny rocks, you’ve got to send them through with finer and finer grit. If you do it right, they’ll come out looking like they’re wet, and they’ll stay looking that way. Polished writing takes time.

Some things can’t be hurried. As a middle-schooler I had a summer job with the school district. One of my assigned tasks was painting bus shanties. Many of these were, as you’d expect, way out in the middle of nowhere. I’d be dropped off with a couple other teens and we’d paint the shelter inside and out. One day I got tired of the constant, boring, and repetitive task of filling a paint pan with white paint, carrying it into the shelter, using it up, and then doing it all over again several times. I decided to pour the paint directly on the plywood floor of the shelter. All I’d have to do would be to roll it out and who’d be the wiser? I only did it once. Little did I consider that the best painting, like the best writing, is a thin layer over the substrate. You need to go over it more than once, leaving time between layers. More importantly, I didn’t realize that you can’t gauge how much paint you need this quick way. The best thing is to run out and refill. Then you can pour the remainder from the pan back into the can. The floor took hours and hours to dry. Not only that, but the top surface dried first, so when I stepped in, I pulled up a thick layer of paint off on the bottom of my shoe. Tom Sawyer I was not. I had to redo it. What I learned that day, though, was a lesson about writing. Take your time. But you don’t have to take my word for it. I just write a blog.

Book Ideas

Call it sour grapes. When I was a young scholar, I used to wonder how to develop book ideas. You see, at a young age—twenties or thirties—even a doctorate means your understanding of the world is limited. I’d written a substantial dissertation on Asherah, and I was faced with developing several new courses from scratch at Nashotah House. My mind was focused on the immediate concerns. I did continue my research, however, into ancient Near Eastern deities, with an eye toward writing an account of celestial gods and goddesses. A substantial piece on Shapshu ended up being snatched up by a Festschrift, and colleagues began to tell me that to get hired away from Nashotah I had to write something biblical. Thus Weathering the Psalms was born. The research and writing took a few years because I never had a sabbatical, or reduced teaching load. In fact, administrative duties as registrar and academic dean were added to my remit. Still I scribbled away in the early hours and finished a draft. Then I was cast into the outer darkness.

Publishing was never my first choice of career. I’m more a writer than an editor. In publishing, however, you are not encouraged to write your own content. I can’t help myself. As I rounded the corner from my forties, I had finally read enough material—both relevant and extraneous—to have book ideas. In fact, too many. Held back by the lack of publication, I didn’t know how to channel this energy. One of the benefits of working for publishers is you learn how to come up with a viable book idea. I’ve got a backlog now. I’m currently working on a few books, but one is in the forefront of my mind and eclipses all other projects at the moment. Having watched what sells, I think this one has a real chance. Time to write, alas, barely exists. The writer, you must understand, has to build a platform. Get a fan base. Welcome to my platform.

Daily I receive the first books of young scholars. In this publish or perish—strike that—publish and perish atmosphere, even the mediocre is encouraged by dissertation advisors. Young scholars, maybe thirty, think they have something profound to say. Call it sour grapes, but I’m not getting any younger and I don’t have an institution to support me while I write what should be written. The face looking back at me in the morning has more gray hairs than I remember growing, and has wrinkles that my mind doesn’t recognize. It’s too full of books to write to pause long. The bus is coming soon and I have younger scholars’ careers to build with premiere branding. My own ideas ferment unseen in the basement. What some call sour grapes others call fine wine.

Photo credit: Dragonflyir, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Dragonflyir, Wikimedia Commons

Doodle Dandy

Deep in the stacks of the New College library at Edinburgh University, I came upon a book in the open shelves with a date of 1611. Once the staff had been notified, this book, which had simply aged in place over the centuries, was quickly moved to special collections. It is the dilemma of many a writer that books seldom see the light of library reading lamps. This episode came to mind as a friend shared an interesting story about doodles. Historian Erik Kwakkel has one of the most enjoyable jobs in history (seems appropriate). His research takes him to old books, and by “old” I mean handwritten, to look for pen trials—how pens were tried out before serious writing began. A lot may be learned from not just the words, but how they were formed. A different friend I knew was working on the forensic study of the order of stylus strokes in cuneiform writing. It was completely fascinating. With the right tools, you can find out in just what order strokes were made in clay, their depth, and a host of other information such as the right- or left-handedness of the scribe. Writing reveals the writer. In any case, Kwakkel has a great excuse for looking at doodles.

491px-Luise_KritzelzeichnungOne point in this fun story, however, struck a serious note with me. Scribes were, in final copy, expected to be completely anonymous. Their labor was to go unremarked through history. We owe them some of our greatest treasures, and in a bizarre back-formation, modern scholars give these anonymous scriveners names such as “the tremulous hand of Worcester,” in a vain attempt to recover them. In rare instances we are given the names of scribes. Some may have been creators as well. Most will remain forever nameless. Those who love books may be excluded from them by their very love.

There once was a joke that went around that asked “what do you call a writer who actually has a job?” The answer? “An editor.” In the old days, anyway. Now you can earn university degrees in publishing and editors very quickly vanish into the background, like the ninjas of literacy. Like those ancient scribes who, perhaps bored by the rote task of copying out somebody else’s words, left little doodles behind in the margins as their own attempt at immortality. In many ways this blog is my chance to offer a few doodles to the world. I used to be (and still hope to be) a content producer, but now I understand that content has no room for doodles. The serious business of publishing is all about showcasing the author whose ideas are worth spreading. Oh, there’s a subtext here, all right. A palimpsest, one might say. However, like the anonymous doodlers of history, many of us scribble away awaiting future discovery, long after our names are irrecoverable.

Retire Me This…

We’re all getting older.  My daily, grudging glimpse in the mirror reminds me that my beard wasn’t always gray, and there was a time *gasp* when no beard grew at all.  One of the realities of the brave new world we inhabit is that career stability has become a myth.  My father, in the brief time I knew him, worked as a house painter.  My stepfather worked in a sewage plant for a small town and drove a snowplow in winter to make ends meet.  These utilitarian jobs seemed never to end.  I made the mistake of going into higher education, not realizing that the risks were much higher and that I would make more money working in a sewage plant than I have ever made in my professional career, PhD in hand.  So it rankles me when I hear professors complaining about being too busy in retirement.  Retirement: what a concept.  When the guy who has custodianship of my minuscule retirement account from Nashotah House, after his gentle awaking from the defibrillator, looks at my records he always informs me, “you’re not well placed for retirement.”  Talking to my big brother we agree—our retirement plan is to die on the job.  So, when someone asks you to write another book, remember maybe it is some guy your own age who is trying not to starve.

As a society we’re aging.  Those who managed not to be fired by Fundamentalists have had a secure, tenure-ridden ride through the occupation that some of the rest of us were denied.  Busy in retirement?  Some of us will never have that privilege.  Funny thing is, it’s not funny.  I sometimes lean back in my editorial chair and realize, if this hadn’t happened to me, I would probably look at it the same way.  I would have published that second, third, and fourth book, and people would actually think my opinion mattered.  I would’ve become a resource to be tapped rather than a dancing monkey who hopes for anything shiny.  Is that another gray hair?

I don’t belittle the hard work of higher education—it’s not an easy profession. But writing books? That’s the fun part! Privilege induces blindness. How rare an opportunity it is to teach! While we as a nation devalue it, in many parts of the world those who shape future minds are revered. Yet elsewhere in the world there are those who are far worse off even than an editor—those for whom life is constant suffering and surviving another day is not reasonably assured. How easily I forget this as I neglect to balance my checkbook for fear of what I might find. We shouldn’t complain when someone asks us to give back, even in retirement. Those of us capable of writing books sometimes lack only the bona fide of a college or university position to do so. Otherwise I might hope to retire as well some day.

"Photo by Chalmers Butterfield"

“Photo by Chalmers Butterfield”

Don’t Need No Righting

“If you can read this, thank a teacher.” So the old saying goes. Besides the virtue of venerable age, this proverb has the added advantage of being true. When I first peered at a page full of complex combinations of minute, triangular wedge-marks and was told I’d learn how to read them, I needed to head outside for a few gulps of cold air. My first attempt at Akkadian was doomed to failure, but eventually I learned to read cuneiform through the gateway language of Ugaritic. After that the bewildering sprawl of Mesopotamian languages didn’t seem so threatening. I don’t exactly remember when I was first exposed to English cursive in the classroom, but I do recall that same breathless fear of the unknown. The language I’d learned to print out neatly all seemed to be melting into curly figures that looked remarkably alike. How would anyone ever be able to read this?

According to a story in Sunday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger, schools are moving away from teaching cursive. Beginning next year 46 states will no longer require it. Beyond that, some politicians are questioning why teachers should be wasting their time instructing students in printing, or even keyboarding. The gold standard they are worried about is identity. Can you sign your name (to endorse this campaign check)? If we have another way of identifying you—eyeball scans seem to be very popular suggestion—why should you bother to scrawl your name? Keyboarding, well, kids already know that by the time they start school these days. If the texting craze really takes off we may evolve future generations with just thumbs. School is for teaching students science, math, business—practical stuff. Oh yes, and intelligent design. (Got to keep the gods, or anthropic principles, happy.)

In a world where languages are dying out at a disturbing rate (each language is a thought process as well as a way of stringing sounds together), we have become very cavalier about the very innovation that has allowed us to develop as we have. I used to tell my students that less than seventy years separated the Wright brothers from the moon landing. A human lifespan where technology outstripped our ability to think. And the pace has only accelerated since then. Are we premature in leaving out cursive from the curriculum? There is coming a day when future archaeologists will discover a strange substance that seems to have been manufactured from wood pulp. On it they will find scrawls with loops and curls that form a pleasing pattern in the repetition, but from which no intent can be discerned. And if they are like modern technocrats, they will quickly realize the utility of the wood pulp for starting a fire.

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