Writer’s Dozen: Peter Selgin and Limits

This is the fourth in a series of posts, called “A Writer’s Dozen,” on texts that have been important to me as a writer.

When he was in his early 20s and struggling to get started as a songwriter, Peter Selgin was attacked by a black Labrador retriever owned by the woman for whom he was apartment sitting in New York. The dog chomped into Selgin’s left wrist. He underwent microsurgery to address significant scarring around the ulnar nerve that affected feeling in and mobility of the hand. Results were minimal.

This event is described in his essay, “Confessions of a Left-Handed Man,” which is the centerpiece of a new book of essays by the same name. I first read this essay in Best American Essays 2006.

Always a left-handed artist and writer, Peter Selgin knew at age 25 that the full manual dexterity of his dominant hand would not return after the attack and surgery. In the essay he recounts his attempt to train his right hand, which felt like “trying to sing with [his] fingers holding his tongue,” to do what his left hand had always done for him. Around this time he also broke his leg. One night he walked on crutches to the East River with thoughts of killing himself. He had always been the left-handed boy — had identified himself as that — and the mirror opposite of his twin brother George, a right-handed boy who became an economist. At the river that night he had a “good bawl” and “hobbled back” to his room.

Twenty years later, he wrote the essay from a point in time he no longer felt that his left-handedness had any special meaning. It simply was. Furthermore, he continued to write and make art with his compromised left hand. The work he made before and after the injury, though, have “nothing in common” with each other. He calls his style “naive, even primitive,” and he asserts that his “lack of dexterity has freed [him] from glibness, which in turn has delivered [him] from the temptation” to show off.

Even though Selgin’s theme for his essay is humility — he says that, for an artist, “to master humility” is as important as mastering the techniques of his medium — for me, the lesson is about limits that we cannot overcome, that we must work within. There is nobility in this, and necessity, once the sorrow passes. Continue reading

Writer’s Dozen: Mary Oliver and Sound

This is the third in a series of posts, called “A Writer’s Dozen,” on texts that have been important to me as a writer.

on the Provincetown shore, 2010

Words have more than meaning.

Words have sound, and how words sound affect the quality of something written.

For example, you could use either the word “moist” or “damp” to describe the armpits of a character’s shirt; the meaning — slightly wet — is about the same. And yet the sound of moist, which causes a pressing together of lips to create the mm, a pursing to form the oy, and then a sinister baring of teeth for the soft and hard st, evokes more disgust than the simple, matter-of-fact damp with its softer consonants.

D and p, in fact, are mutes, and m is a liquid. These are terms for types of consonants, grouped into what Mary Oliver calls “families of sounds” in A Poetry Handbook (Harcourt Brace, 1994).

Sounds of words matter — Oliver compares the nouns stone and rock and the commands “Hush!” and “Please be quiet!” — because, as she writes, “there is, or can be, a correlation between the meaning, connotation, and actual sound of the word.”

I love this book for its clarity, simplicity, and helpfulness. At different times in my life, especially my teens and mid-30s, I have had a great impulse to read and write poetry,  with scant formal training in it, and by that I mean no college or grad school poetry workshops. I did, as an adult, take a few classes in poetry through the Brookline Center for Adult Education, where I learned and wrote a lot. (One doesn’t have to get credits to get educated, I say.)

It was around this time I encountered Oliver’s Poetry Handbook for the first time. Over the years, whether I’ve been writing poetry or not, it has been a helpful reference on sound, meter, rhyme, and line breaks. Even if you are more a poetry reader than writer, this book can help you understand how words and combinations of them can do their work.

On rhythm, she writes:

The reader, as he or she begins to read, quickly enters the rhythmic pattern of a poem. It takes no more than two or three lines for a rhythm, and a feeling of pleasure in that rhythm, to be transferred from the poem to the reader. Rhythm is one of the most powerful of pleasures, and when we feel a pleasurable rhythm we hope it will continue. When it does, it grows sweeter. When it becomes reliable, we are in a kind of body-heaven. Continue reading

Writer’s Dozen: William Zinsser and Voice

This is the second in a series of posts, called “A Writer’s Dozen,” on texts that have been important to me as a writer.

In learning to write, there is always some unlearning to do. As writers, we build up our vocabularies and strategies in ways useful to us, but sometimes we get locked into those ways, and our writing becomes disembodied, unnatural, overwrought, show off-y. For writing to be good and worth reading, it has to fit the rhetorical situation and have a voice – a real one that could only come from that writer.

For me, the best definition and treatment of “voice,” as it applies to writing, comes from William Zinsser in his On Writing Well (1976): it is your “commodity as a writer” and conveys your “attitude toward language.” As writer, it is uniquely you.

Last week, some colleagues and I were reading stacks of essays by first-year students, as part of a writing assessment project at another local university. We read in mostly silence, but on our lunch and coffee breaks we would discuss features of student work that we liked or didn’t like. This is the writing teacher’s version of water-cooler gossip.

Uniformly we were irked by students using 50-cent words when plainer ones would do. For example, instead of using “posit” as a verb, which we saw used repeatedly in one essay, we prefer “state” or “argue” when quoting from an article or book or “say” when quoting from an interview.

The fancy word choices enraged one or two of my colleagues. I like a more straightforward style myself, but I understand why students write in what they believe to be a more formal register: to sound smart and to reach the teacher. (For a nice discussion of register, try this: link.)

Entering the academy and the conventions of academic writing is “like learning a new language,” I suggested to my colleagues. “It’s awkward at first, and it takes some mastery of the language before you use it naturally.” Before you get to the point of sounding like a native, there’s a lot of stilted use that doesn’t sound quite right to experienced ears.

I mostly practiced creative writing when I was in high school, and I was considered to be a fluent writer. When I got to college, however, and turned in my first academic paper – over which I had toiled devotedly and seriously – and got an F for a grade, with the comment, “This is not an analytical essay,” I realized I was unprepared for this new country called College and its strange customs. It was a new start and a tough one. Continue reading

Writer’s Dozen: Natalie Goldberg and Bones

Goldberg, pen, and cake

Permission, sincere belief, and urgency: those are what Natalie Goldberg gives to readers of Writing Down the Bones (Shambhala Publications, Boston: 1986). This post is the first of Writer’s Dozen, a series on 13 texts that have meant a lot to me as a writer.

When I first encountered this book, in the graduate-level Teaching Writing course at Simmons College in the spring of 2003, I wondered why Professor Lowry Pei had assigned it. I cringed reading the first chapter, “Beginner’s Mind, Pen and Paper,” and Goldberg’s hokey advice on choosing a “fast-writing pen because your thoughts are always much faster than your hand” and purchasing “a cheap spiral notebook” over a “fancy” one so that “you feel that you can fill it quickly and afford another.”

Let’s get to the point, I thought. The pen-and-paper suggestion seemed to be a detour and right at the beginning of the book when I was eager to get started. Clearly, this was for adults, and did they really need guidance in finding these most basic tools? If they do, they’re not going to get too far as writers. The snob in me was having her say in my internal dialogue.

Other chapters describe the timed “egoless” freewrite, writing as daily practice, distance of time, and some more fruitful topics. My position on Goldberg’s method started to soften, though, only when I read her command that we shouldn’t “identify too strongly with [our] work.” Words, when writing them, are “a great moment going through” the writer. Not being a Buddhist, as she is, I didn’t quite understand what she was getting at, but I found it a relief to think that I could write deeply and then move on to deeply writing something else, having left the old thing behind, done.

My initial resistance to Writing Down the Bones and the spiritual dimension to Goldberg’s approach had to do with my age (38), agnosticism, and experience writing and getting writing (for work and school) done. I didn’t think I necessarily needed anyone to tell me to write, write lots, write regularly. At first, I wondered if this book was intended purely for the beginner or the unsure, which I believed myself to be not at all.

But I quickly liked and was intrigued by the ideas of this writing professor, Lowry Pei, who has since become mentor, colleague, and friend, and I thought I’d go along with it and see how Goldberg fit into Pei’s approach. I was still keeping my emotional distance from Bones, not sure it applied to me. Continue reading

Writer’s Dozen: a new series

For several months, I’ve been keeping a list of texts that have meant a lot to me as a writer. Some are as long as a book and are explicitly about writing, in particular about practice, process, and style.  A few of my picks are essay length, and a few are about visual art, e.g., photography and ceramics, yet the authors articulate principles that, in my view, apply to writing.

This list of 13 of my fundamental texts will turn into a new series, Writer’s Dozen, starting with my next post. I am inspired in part by an essay I read recently, by Tom Bissell, called “Writing about Writing about Writing,” in which he takes stock of some staples in the how-to-write section of his local bookstore. It’s a balanced analysis; he finds reasons to both mock and praise the books he features. On my list and his only two overlap: ones by Annie Lamott and Natalie Goldberg. Bissell admits to varying personal interest in the other books he critiques, which include Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist (his one writer’s-life-changing text), Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, and Snoopy’s Guide to the Writing Life.

I highly recommend Bissell’s essay. He has a tougher sensibility than I, but the heart of his argument is consistent with my motivation for choosing 13 personally influential texts and commenting on them in my upcoming series. About books about writing in general, Bissell asserts:

Most writers have thoughts about writing as an act, as a way of understanding oneself, or as a way of being, and they are often interesting. I have any number of thoughts about writing, all of which I find incomparably fascinating… A how-to-write book saved my life, then, but it did so existentially, not instructively. Many of the best books about writing are only incidentally about writing. Instead, they are about how to live.

Indeed, my favorite books about writing or art are, in their way, about how to live.

First up: Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, a book that initially disturbed me and then later settled down and found its place in my habits.

Image, “Pencil Art,” by Nalini Prasana on Flickr via a creative commons license.