Hi! My name is Marcia Aldrich and I am an inept blogger. Here is my story.
Before I started Backhand Blog—a name that turned out to be surprisingly prescient—I had some concerns. I was embarking on a kind of writing, topical, occasional, friendly, that I had never been invested in. This lack of devotion seemed to me a bad sign, perhaps an omen about a venture that wouldn’t go well. If I distrust water, should I take up kayaking? If kitchens get me claustrophobic, should I channel Janette Desautel?
Permanent Status Update
I can’t get to the books I want to read or the literary journals I subscribe to or all the writing published by my friends. My daily workload, like most academically employed writers, consists of reading and responding to piles of student writing, and a range of other obligations too numerous and time-consuming to mention. I should be finding ways to focus my reading, not further my distractions. So too with my own writing. I have a file cabinet with drafts of essays I haven’t managed to complete, drafts of books I’ve abandoned in boxes that block movement in my study. One might say I have a real problem finishing what I’ve started.
So why take time away from my primary pursuits to write a blog? Wasn’t I going to contribute to the problem, writing more stuff no one has time to read? And yet blogging was one of the crucial elements I was advised to undertake in the service of promoting my book.
When I began my blog, Companion to an Untold Story was coming out, a book I had labored over for years. I felt as if I had written it in my blood. Since I had published my prior book, responsibility for promotion of such a work had changed—firmly shifting toward the author. Truth be told, responsibility had already started to shift by the time of my earlier book; I just didn’t know it. Now I did. I couldn’t entertain the illusion that someone else, a team of cunning publicists, would take care of creating buzz, setting up a wardrobe malfunction, getting me attacked by the right types so I could stage some faux outrage. The University of Georgia Press was publishing my book, a sober institution, and not a major commercial press. UGP has one publicist for all its books. That can’t be true, you might say, but it is.
As a self-reliant writer-publicist, I received from UGP a short guide full of steps I should take to promote my book. Many (hypothetical) readers will already be familiar with them. At the annual AWP Conference, where creative writers affiliated with postsecondary educational institutions gather, sessions on such matters occupy more and more slots on the program. Innumerable websites are available to consult, as well as hundreds of articles detailing the well-rehearsed steps authors should take, all written in the optimistic pep talk style of self-help. The steps are mostly about social networking: join Facebook and create a book page, join Twitter, create a personal website, create an author’s page on Amazon and anywhere else you can, and start a blog—oh, and make a trailer for YouTube!
I am going to focus on my experience with the blog. I am not going to go into my experiences with all of these strategies except to note that the guides imply that if you follow their simple steps, news of your book will spread like wildfire. Okay, maybe not like wildfire. But they do not tell you your promotional efforts will have the effect of a wet match.
On Not Picking a Topic
According to the guides, successful blogs have a theme, a topic they consistently return to. It stands to reason that an identifiable, consistent subject is a good strategy. People on the prowl for a word on that subject will find your blog and then follow it. Each new post adds more readers, like lint on a sweater. Many publicists advise picking a subject related to the book you are promoting, blogging before its release date to drum up interest.
Targeting a subject seems like sound practice, yet I did not follow the advice. That was my first big mistake (or maybe my second, depending when you start counting). I decided my blog would be eclectic and not confined by a focus. Perverse, right? Do I have an oppositional disorder? Possibly. That and a grand notion of the panorama of topics on which I had things to say. In my “About” description of the blog, I said: “Most blogs have an announced subject: a sport, yoga, a dog. I don’t intend to follow that pattern, despite my title’s reference to tennis.” One sign of my deep confusion, or opposition, or whatever it is, is the name Backhand Blog, when I had no intention of talking about tennis. I even had a subtitle—returning servers—to maximize the bafflement. There was a pun on “returning serve,” but I was serving off the wrong foot, so to speak.
I went on, “I envision my blog in the shape of a spider with its jointed legs and the hair on those eight legs picking up scents, sounds, vibrations, and air currents. In other words I want a blog with an abdomen that moves in all directions and an exoskeleton that is periodically shed.”
Good God! What does that even mean? What was I thinking? Was I thinking? Was I practicing the art of self-sabotage? If so, I was talented. Who would know what to expect from such a description? If a person roaming the Internet wilderness stumbled upon my blog, would that individual ever come back? From the statistical evidence, I’d say no.
On the one hand I sounded like a tennis freak, and on the other I sounded mighty literary, pretentiously so, the kind of literary to be avoided. My blog had no identity and no identifiable focus. I had gone out of my way to say I would operate like a spider ratcheting around to see what fell into my web.
Another Problem with Taut Focus
One of my problems in blogging my book to fame was that it concerned suicide. Need I say more? I think I wrote a compelling book on the subject, but I am not a credentialed expert in the field and did not want to set up shop as one. I am a contrarian, as I’ve said, but it’s not just that—there’s something disturbing about me opining on that ultimate subject. Don’t you see the promotional possibilities? my friends asked. I could become an authority, create a publicity persona, speak knowledgably about my insights, give advice. Many writers have carved out a niche for themselves doing just this, and very profitably, I was told. My friends named highly visible writers who were also gifted entrepreneurs. There was just one little problem with this scenario: once the book was finished, I’d rather go all Oedipus on my eyes than say more about that suicide, reliving my friend’s death and the involuntary role I played in it. I’d rather have the book languish on the dustiest shelf in the world emporium of remaindered books if to sell it I had to perform his death over and over. I had done that in writing the book, and it was all I could do.
So let’s review. With no intention of focusing the blog on tennis, I nonetheless began with a post called “The Drop Shot,” about Roger Federer and his deployment of that trick late in his career. Naturally it attracted people interested in tennis. They were probably genuinely confused to read such a literary consideration of the topic. I should add that my post came in at 2,204 words, not the recommended 300 or so. And when I say it was about Federer’s deployment of the drop shot, I’m not drawing the accurate shape of the twists and turns it took as it went about picking up scents, sounds, vibrations, and air currents—including a sweep back to my thorny relationship with my father. One of my smartest students told me she couldn’t figure out what I was up to, writing about drop shots. Of course, she knew nothing about tennis. Thus, people who knew nothing about tennis but knew me as a writer visited the blog and were taken aback. And people who knew about tennis visited the blog and were also taken aback.
I had scored a double own-goal, a two-handed knockout punch on my readers. (Federer, by the way, is one of the last of the one-handed backhanders.)
Did I follow up that first post with more on tennis? No, I did not. The next post was about a young buck that was severely injured when he was caught on a fence down the road from where I live and ended up in my yard in a terrible crumble. It was a sorrowful post with no silver lining. Even I can’t reread it. After that I veered to a humorous post about literary rejections called “The Art of Saying No.” That post, tagged as it was with the words rejection and literary journals, attracted the most visitors of all my posts. On March 29, 2012, 136 people visited “The Art of Saying No.”
If I had been smart, which I obviously was not, I would have carried on with that theme. But I did not. Of course not. I did not continue with literary themes, or tennis themes, or the heartbreak of deer themes. I posted nothing at all for a long time. Another poor move. You aren’t supposed to drop out of the blogging hemisphere for months—you lose all momentum. But momentum is not something I had achieved. I was the antiblogger, who created reverse momentum. I had to start from the beginning over and over.
In Before the Topic Fades
Why such inconsistency, you ask? Well, the answer leads me to one of the other oft-stated formulas for popular blogs—the writing is tossed off rapidly, triggered by the occasional, resembling a diary. I have never been a successful keeper of a journal or diary. I do scribble notes to myself, which I later find painful to read. The few times when I’ve attempted such a thing for longer than two days, I’ve discovered depressing truths. I repeat myself. Actually that’s too kind a way of putting what I do. I get into an emotional rut in journal entries, going over the same well-trod ground. A journal is private, or pretends to be, even the ones written for publication. But my entries really are written for me, private in the sense that no one should ever read them. In my journal I tend to take stock—that’s what I called it—of where I am in the looping narrative of my lot in life. Reading the entries is as enlivening as watching my elderly Aunt Virgie unload the contents of her fancy salt shakers after Christmas dinner, unto the last grain. I am not a good candidate for a school of writing that is diaristic.
Tossing something off sounds appealing—a stark departure from my ordinary painstaking rigor (not quite mortis). But could I transition to an informal, off-the-cuff mode? This seemed doubtful, even at the outset. And I will say that none of my posts were tossed off in a spontaneous manner. They were not flung onto the page. They were personal essays that I ended up trying to perfect, just as I do all my writing. I was not capable of changing a lifetime’s habits just because I was writing a blog. Someone commented on my first post that my entry wasn’t at all like blogs she read. It was meant as a compliment, but I should have read it as a warning about a problem. And that problem was never resolved.
Evidence of said unresolved problem is the post you are reading, which isn’t finished yet but just passed 2,000 words!
Conclusions or Takeaways or Maybe Just Questions
My experience may be the result of gross incompetence. Perhaps I live and write too far outside the social networking culture in which blogs have prominently figured, and can’t grasp how they operate, what purposes they serve. The student who didn’t understand why I was writing about drop shots asked, Aren’t blogs just self-publishing? It’s hard to get around that essential fact. That’s exactly what they are. No one asked me to write a blog, and no one vets the entries. I am the author, editor, and publisher, and perhaps audience, too. And even if I attempt to maintain self-imposed standards of writing, will anyone notice that the posts are well written—or care? So far I don’t see any evidence they care. Readers of blogs read for reasons other than tasting literary quality—making connections with others, sharing an interest, gleaning information, advice, solace. All good reasons to read.
By way of example of the point about literary merit: I blogged on thanking those who helped the writer on her way, a post called “Cordelia Does Acknowledgments.” It came in at 2,292 words. Yet another personal essay, quirky and twisty, but also filled with information I had gathered and sifted. Soon after I posted it, an article on the same subject appeared on a much-visited site. It was economical, informational, tried to add a pinch of controversy, but it was not memorable. Thousands read it, no doubt, stripping from it whatever copper they could get. (Maybe my post wasn’t memorable either, but I hoped it would be. That was my aim. That is always my aim.) There was nothing in the writing that stopped the popular article from being consumed and forgotten. A throwaway. That is what I fear blogs are, unless they can be collected and shaped into something else, like a book.
My long view (forgive a wild leap here), unsupported by anything factual, suggests that blogs will be defunct in time, perhaps soon. Perhaps they are already going defunct, replaced by other media. Perhaps people will grow sick of blogs. Perhaps if they are going to read something, they’d prefer to read my book on suicide rather than my blog posts about writing the book on suicide. Not my book necessarily—someone’s book. This could be wishful thinking. We do seem absorbed by writing about writing, writing about writing about grief, rather than the real thing. Reading about dieting rather than dieting. As home cooking declines, we have an explosion in cookbooks full of recipes we won’t make—we’ll just read them.
The annual report of stats for my blog arrived the other day. I had 1,300 visits for the year. In 2012, I had 1,500. My busiest day for 2013 was March 16, when I posted “I’m Not Writing about Trees.” That post was visited by 95 people. WordPress, the host of Backhand Blog, helpfully suggests I “consider writing about these topics [the topics that drew the most visits] again.” And who could argue? Should I heed that advice, having learned something about blogging, or should I call it a day?
In rereading my first post, on Federer’s faulty drop shot, there are words applicable to my blogging experience: “Maybe I have to accept Federer’s defeats at the hand of Nadal and accept, too, that his strengths are his weaknesses. None of us has absolute control over whether our shots will make it or not. Does that mean we shouldn’t try? We do have to be prepared to accept the consequences of our attempts, those failures and successes, and sometimes it’s hard to tell one from the other.”
(First posted at Bending Genre and since revised.)
1. What category do your bad dreams fall into?
a. Car troubles
b. Faulty machinery in general, including computers
c. Being chased
2. If you chose trapped, where were you trapped?
a. In a closet in the library of your elementary school
b. In a corn combine on your neighbor’s farm
c. Under the weight of the neighbor boy
d. Under the ice on a river
e. Behind the doors of the yellow school bus that wouldn’t open
3. What do you dislike about your current job?
a. The pay
b. The hours
c. The people
d. The workplace
e. The work
f. All of the above
4. How do you cope?
a. Yelling at strangers in the car
b. Going ten miles slower than the speed limit
c. Putting chewing gum on walls and under seats
d. Reading about extinct species
e. Dancing when the local football team loses
5. What is your least favorite activity?
a. Yard work
c. Paying bills
d. Cleaning the gutters
e. Overseeing children’s homework
f. Filling out annual reports
6. What word describes your view of mankind at this point in your life?
7. What issue most concerns you?
a. The state of the economy and your children’s future
b. The state of the economy (I have no children)
c. Yard waste
d. Won-lost record of the local football franchise
e. The disappearance of bees
8. If you had it to do over again, what describes your attitude about having children?
a. I’d have more
b. I’d have exactly what I have
c. I’d have some for others
d. I’d adopt
e. I’d get an aquarium
9. If you have a partner, which of the following describes your current feelings?
a. Faded admiration
f. All of the above plus trapped
10. At what point did your feelings for your partner change, if they did?
a. Shortly after the start
b. After the first child
c. After the second child
e. Before you began
f. All of the above
11. For a holiday gift, which would you prefer to receive?
a. Scrooge Mini-Nutcracker
b. Bavarian Santa Nutcracker
c. The Bob Cratchit Nutcracker
d. Animated Musical Toy Chest playing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”
e. Policeman’s bullhorn
12. Which of the following wouldn’t you like to receive?
a. The Horticultural Institute’s Tiered Floral Display
b. Handmade Kathe Kruse Margretchen Doll
c. The Lorenzi Cigar Rest with Continuous Burning Wick
d. Chinese rickshaw
13. Which of the following objects suggests your essence?
a. Cordless insect vacuum
b. Body fat analyzer
c. Step-on garbage pail
d. Long-reach bulb changer
e. Stop-Mud-in-Its-Tracks Slippers
f. Washable leather potholders
14. How would you describe your experience taking this questionnaire?
a. Excited, like seeing a strange new butterfly
b. Expectant, like seeing a kiss quivering inside your partner
c. Bored, like taking notes at a meeting
d. Angry, like required counseling
e. Sad, like reading the obituary of someone you once loved
This last spring I tried an experiment: in the last weeks of the semester I asked my introductory students in creative nonfiction to consciously write badly. To carry out this effort, we returned to an in-class exercise from the beginning of the semester, one I had created to target observation and description. The windows of one wall of our classroom look out to the Red Cedar River, which runs through the campus at Michigan State University. It’s a busy spot and rich for observation. In the original exercise, all twenty-five students crowded to the window for some minutes of visual research and then wrote about what they had selected to describe. Then we read the impromptu writings out loud and grouped them by subject matter.
We were all curious to see what others had selected to write about and how they approached their material. Who would gravitate to the spot where on frequent nights some individual or group spray-paints the ROCK? Who would write about the river, or focus on a human figure instead of the landscape?
We found that even when the same subject was chosen, approaches were individual and unique. One writer might take a humorous tack, while another was philosophical. One writer narrated a scene heavily, while another became invested in fresh description. Subject matter was not defining, approach was.
I hoped that springing this simple exercise on apprentice writers might make the experience fun and spontaneous, that they would enjoy the benefits of ungraded exercises. I also hoped we might create a sense of community in the classroom. The results exceeded my modest hopes. I learned once again that I do best when I turn my classroom into an exploratory writing lab, and that giving students something to do is energizing.
From that early day in the semester we practiced the dissection of bad writing to move incrementally into new skills and awareness. But toward the end of the semester, we all needed a boost of fun, a twist in our method, and so I came up with the idea of returning to that earlier exercise in looking out the window, but this time with the intention of writing badly. We could gauge how far we had come because it requires skill to consciously write badly. By now it was April, not January; however, last April in Michigan was a lot like January. We were still trudging through wet snow. The instructions were the same as the first time: pick something to describe from your view out the window. The added twist now was to target an element of style the student had come to identify as bad writing, and compose in that style using that element.
We read the results out loud. This time we identified the style elements. I did not predict the splendor of the results. Some of the students had so mastered writing poorly that their writing was good. It was something like turning a sock inside out. Reading them out loud was so much fun, so entertaining, that I thought we should record the result.
I spoke to Peter Johnson, the new and extraordinary digital specialist who had already begun filming our events to post on the department’s website. I had the idea of roughly modeling our video on the sequence of Bob Dylan displaying and discarding a series of cue cards bearing selected words and phrases from the lyrics of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” in D. A. Pennebaker’s documentary film Don’t Look Back. The students would write out on construction paper an announcement of the element of bad writing being demonstrated—for example, melodramatics, malapropism, run-on sentences, mixed metaphors, clichés, or detachment. That was the plan. Peter asked if there was a student who would want to work with him in the filming and production. Brandon Lee enthusiastically volunteered and did a terrific job.
A few students who had been engaged in a chalk drawing contest each day before class began, volunteered to create something on the blackboards as a backdrop for the video Bad Writing.
I did run into a stumbling block I had not foreseen. I thought the whole class was on board for the filming, but some were not. One student thought he was supposed to be learning how to write well and he didn’t see how this exercise in writing badly was accomplishing that. In short a handful of students wanted to opt out for a variety of reasons. At first I was taken aback by this mini-revolt and then I saw that filming each student would risk tedium. The overall results were enhanced by reducing the number of performances.
The filming was great fun. We figured out the order of readings, where each person would stand, and each student did his or her thing twice. The trick was having the performance pieces move forward at a good clip. All the students who participated were incredibly good in their own way. They put their pieces over.
Brandon showed the video on the last day of class. You never know what might result from an idea. It might fail, fall flat on its face, or it might take off. This time the experiment took off, and part of the reason it worked was because so many students put energy into it. It’s a balancing act, this teaching business, and sometimes I get it right and sometimes I don’t.
The undergraduate chair asked me if I’d be willing to show the video at the department’s end-of-the-year awards event. We did, and it was again a much bigger hit with students and faculty than I had ever imagined. Now Bad Writing is up on our departmental website.
[First posted at Essay Daily and since revised.]
If you don’t already, you should know this essay by Bernard Cooper, for its pleasures will make you a connoisseur of the art in question: “Poised at the crest of an exhalation, your body is about to be unburdened, second by second, cell by cell” (“The Fine Art of Sighing,” in Truth Serum: Memoirs, 111). Its concise and lyrical prose, its brevity and effect of effortlessness, the constructed undertow of its associative method, an inventive demonstration of how a writer’s thoughts shape a piece—these qualities make it an exemplar of the contemporary essay.
Behind the ease of “The Fine Art of Sighing” is the writer’s art of revision, and that is what launched the inquiry I am about to describe. Can we detect the steps toward its art? How did Cooper shape the breath of its sentences, its elegant respiratory system, the suspended movement of the climax, and the expelled throb of the conclusion? Out of its beginning, how did he craft its final finesse?
* * *
For me these questions first emerged from pedagogical concerns—specifically a moment when, huddled in my cold office on a winter afternoon, the graduate assistants in an introductory creative writing course turned to the problem of revision.
“How do you incorporate revision in your courses?” they asked. “What are your approaches?” In their voices was a yearning for answers. They had only recently encountered what all experienced teachers of writing know: the difficulty of pushing students forward from their current mark. There could be no writing without revision, we all agreed. However, our students did not necessarily see it that way. Some of them positively bucked revision, as if we were trying to cage their noble and wild words.
One GA in particular, Christine, was perplexed by her failure to communicate to students the importance of revision. She had developed a series of systematic steps they should follow, yet these novices resisted them, or implemented them without improving their prose. Students tend to believe that good writing comes out whole. No, we teachers insist, writing has a history. Revision is an essential return, even if only an hour has elapsed between the first version of the words and the second. Students needed to grasp that idea conceptually and experientially. How could we get the point across?
Christine Wilson is a Lecturer at Wright State University–Lake Campus, where she teaches English and directs the Writing Center. She received her Ph.D. from Michigan State University. Her essays and criticism have appeared in Legacy, Popular Ghosts, Universal Vampire, and Red Cedar Review.
A thought emerged in that frigid room: It might be enlightening to show students the revisions that an admired essay went through to arrive at its final disposition. We had found that students liked “The Fine Art of Sighing,” which displays a deceptive ease. It seemed an ideal pedagogical tool, highly wrought, of manageable length, and appealing to the apprentice writers we wanted to help.
Christine and I decided to email Bernard Cooper, saying we wanted to document the various stages of “The Fine Art of Sighing,” to analyze patterns, methods, specific changes, and authorial choices during revision. We wrote out and sent detailed questions—the mass of which embarrasses me—helpfully categorizing the topics on which we were requesting enlightenment: General writing practices (ten questions here), Conditions of writing (six questions), Specific practices in “Fine Art” (four questions), Revision of “Fine Art” (four questions, the second of which had eight parts), Content of “Fine Art” (two questions, one a two-parter), and “Fine Art” in the context of your other works (two questions).
Rather than shake his head at our presumption, rather than politely decline or—more what we deserved—press the Delete key with a stiff middle finger, Bernard Cooper wrote back, answering our questions and betraying not a sliver of irritation. His responses blossom with personality, generosity, and vividness.
* * *
When we contacted Cooper, we were operating under certain assumptions—that “The Fine Art of Sighing” went through many drafts and that we could, with his help, map out the revision process. We proposed to look closely at his drafts, analyzing why he chose this word instead of that one, this paragraph ahead of that one. Christine was prepared to undertake a close reading of Cooper’s changes and their significance, and to create therefrom a useful tool for teaching revision. She hoped that “he would create an order within the mystery,” that “he would give me a way to teach my students how to revise, a way that I could say, ‘Remember that great essay we read the first day of class? Here’s how he revises and writes. You should do that too.’” As teachers, we wanted to identify definite steps, from idea to draft to final version, that we could pass on in the classroom.
We were in the grips, that is, of a fetish of the draft. This is not to say that writers don’t revise, or sometimes hold onto versions of a work as it stood prior to its published form. Obviously, writers often do. But the real process of composition is more fluid, interior, hesitant, oscillating, obsessive, and charged than is represented by black text on white paper or by a file bearing a precise time stamp.
The draft is a pedagogical fiction, a frozen moment when fixed words can conveniently be assessed by an instructor or by peers in a workshop, suitable for classrooms, places where, in the last moments of a session, a teacher raises her voice over the hubbub as students grab their backpacks and pull out their phones, to announce those familiar final words: “Drafts due on Tuesday!”
* * *
Cooper’s essay, it turns out, was inspired by a friend’s query: was he aware that he sighed all the time, “big melancholy sighs”? (This and subsequent quotations come from Cooper’s email correspondence, specifically the answers he graciously provided to questions.) No, he was not:
I was stunned that a routine physiological response as fundamental as sneezing or sweating had escaped my attention. From where, in my body and temperament and history, did all this ponderous heaving arise?
He began to pay attention. The process of writing had begun.
I started out, simply, by attempting to describe the intake and exhalation of air, the metabolic and emotional release. The rest followed. Note that I do not say, the rest “flowed.”
A sigh is invisible, of course, but that never stopped me from turning it over and glancing at its facets as though it were a solid object. I was exploring a simple phenomenon—it is the nature and meaning of the essay to conduct this kind of verbal exploration—instead of setting out to make a point. The point made me, so to speak.
The result was one of his shortest pieces, written in a relatively short period of time.
The first half of “Sighing” came fairly quickly (if only every piece of writing would drop off the tree like a ripe fruit!), the rest over the course of two or three more days, then three weeks of small changes.
He also revealed that he had kept none of the working drafts for “Sighing.” He had no paper trail to provide or consult. He might temporarily retain a draft of a longer essay
to keep a record of the narrative. With long stretches of prose there’s too much to keep track of and it’s harder to assess in a glance, so to speak, and so I like to read long stretches in hard copy.
However, when he finishes an essay and sees it into print, even the long ones, he usually gets rid of the drafts.
This was a blow to our hopes, and there was more disappointment to come. We had pointed out, in one of our bloated questions, that “some writers keep their papers (lying in their treasures) with an eye turned towards posterity and history, perhaps assured of their place therein.” Cooper responded,
I don’t mean to sound too humble-pie-ish, but I wince at the thought of that kind of close scrutiny being devoted to my work; it leads to just the kind of self-consciousness I try hard to avoid.
His reluctance to keep his drafts, and hence expose them to scrutiny, arises from a desire to make his writing a “source of pleasure for the reader rather than … an academic or analytic labor.” Cooper works to immerse himself in the process and to avoid, as much as any writer can, worry about the destiny of his writing. As he put it, “The fate of my work will unfold on its own. I’m happier when I can stand apart from how my work is received, or from how it might be compared to the work of other writers.” In short, the absence of a paper trail, of the very drafts we were after, was central to Cooper’s efforts as a writer.
Its hull damaged by these rocky shallows, the ship named Cooper Project finally ran aground on revision itself. As a teacher, one tends to separate revision from composition. Cooper makes no such distinction.
Writing, for me, is revision. I generate an inchoate blob of language and then try to shape and polish it till the words make sense, though I may not know what sense I was aiming for until revision shows me.
* * *
It was now clear Cooper was not going to provide us with a methodical approach to revision. Christine bemoaned what seemed a nil payoff: “His answer didn’t chart out a practice of revision that I could teach.” “Where were the steps?” she asked.
But there were lessons a teacher could learn nonetheless. A writer in a classroom is different from a writer outside of one. The process I offer my students and the process a writer like Cooper follows are separated by an impassable river. Consider the workshop, that classroom fixture. Before he’s finished with a piece, Cooper sometimes shows it to a few friends whom he has cultivated over a lifetime. Although he’s participated in a couple of writing groups,
It is a daunting task to absorb a great deal of commentary about one’s work all at once, weighing which suggestions to dismiss and which to implement.
Think of the often contradictory responses students are bombarded by in workshops, and think of the context: they must by a fixed deadline cough up a rough draft for exposure to near strangers whose comments are often untrustworthy.
Many of our students see themselves not as writers but as students, with limited time to write outside the classroom. The can’t call themselves writers. They do not compose every day for three or four hours in the morning, as Cooper does. They do not go back later in the day, every day, to edit the morning’s work. They do not lie awake at night and think about an essay “with a mixture of excitement and apprehension,” as Cooper does. They do not beat their heads against “the metaphorical brick wall for quite a while” before they show their work for feedback. Obsession cannot be their method.
We began our project thinking that revealing how Cooper writes and revises would be instructive and encouraging for students. But what emerged is the gap between my own expectations for my students and the actual conditions of their writing. Much of what Cooper models—his philosophy of writing, the intimate relation of an artist to his work, the essay as an aesthetic object brought to vivid realization, his method of revising through obsessive practice, the protection he affords himself until he is ready to release his writing for commentary, his emphasis on the reader’s pleasure—does not help bridge the gap between writers and students. Rather, it maps differences. It confirms the distance between a professional, accomplished writer and a novice who dares not even claim the title.
While Cooper’s work takes its place in public, his writing process remains a secret I still don’t know how to whisper to a listening ear. How can students become so tied to writing that, driving or sleeping, they turn to each facet, over and over, looking hard at image and word until something emerges that pleases?
Far from producing a guide to revision, I think I’m better off going back to where I began—in moments of reading pleasure produced by “The Fine Art of Sighing.” Maybe it will inspire the young writer, who will inhale and exhale the sigh of writing: take a deep breath, I will say, release with feeling, attend to its passage, its history, its future. That is the fine art of writing.
These are my notes to the AWP Panel, 2013: How To Lose Friends and Alienate Loved Ones: Exploitation vs. Documentation in Creative Nonfiction, organized by B. J. Hollars. My fellow panelists were Roxane Gay, Bonnie Rough, and Ryan Van Meter. B. J. sent us a series of questions to think about; we agreed not to read prepared papers, in the hope of stimulating a conversation among us and engaging the audience. We could have spent hours answering questions afterwards.
Words from Derrida’s Writing and Difference guide my thinking these days about working within the field of creative nonfiction: “There is no writing which does not devise some means of protection, to protect against itself, against the writing by which the ‘subject’ is himself threatened as he lets himself be written: as he exposes himself.”
The prompt I have responded to was this:
Tell us a bit about your experiences writing nonfiction about friends and family.
I came to writing creative nonfiction through poetry. My background as a scholar and writer was steeped in the history of poetry. I hadn’t been participating in conversations about the generic boundaries between fiction and nonfiction. I had in graduate school read works like Paul De Man’s “Autobiography as Defacement” and thought about the complications of authorship, the inherent fictiveness of language and subjectivity. I encountered zero debates about the literal status of truth and fact. A poem’s value—its literary value—had little to do with whether anything in the poem happened or could be corroborated. I’d go so far as to say that facts occupied a negative space in my education. Poets were under an obligation to make something new out of the autobiographical through imagination and art, through words. We were concerned with issues of emotional truth, though I don’t remember using those exact words. Poems needed to operate with emotional coherence. The task was to find language and sequence and image that struck the reader as real while doing the emotional work of the poem.
I believe that I revealed myself in my poetry, but in the terms of our topic, I was also disguised and protected, and by inference anyone I “wrote about” or included in my poetry was also shielded. Certain conventions in how to read poetry were in place that gave me cover, a cover that is not available to the essayist or memoirist. It was assumed that a supposed person was the narrator of the poem. Attention was paid to the inventive use of language, the form on the page, and the internal coherence of image sequence rather than whether that was really my mother I was writing about and what might she think about that. I don’t ever remember being asked if my mother had read a poem in which “she” figured or what she thought about it as I have been asked by audiences after reading my nonfiction prose.
While creative nonfiction derives some of its power from the writer’s self-exposure, it is also burdened by a need to identify the literal status of the biographical.
My family didn’t really read my poetry. They were resistant to my artistic tendencies. Occasionally my mother read something, and what she liked is instructive for the discussion. She liked poems she found decorative and that did not raise any questions about how I might be representing my life, which might include her. She liked one poem of mine called “Young Women Picking Fruit,” based on a Mary Cassatt painting, and she asked my niece to write out the text using her calligraphy skills. Then she framed the poem with a small reproduction of the painting side by side and presented it to me as a gift. This was a piece of my writing that the family could get behind. They weren’t in it. And they didn’t think I was in it either. They didn’t understand anything going on in the poem because they considered themselves unqualified to understand poetry. It was pretty, benign, decorative. And I was safe. Their acknowledged ignorance kept me safe. And the conventions of poetry as I was safely employing them kept my writing unthreatening.
Not so when I began writing essays and memoir. Nothing kept me safe, though I didn’t know that at the time I began to dip my toes into the waters of creative nonfiction. I was woefully unprepared for the kinds of questions that arise in writing creative nonfiction. When I began to experiment in what I was vaguely thinking was autobiographical prose, I thought the same expectations of artistry applied to poetry and creative nonfiction—that they both belonged to the category of literature, not journalism. I believed they were both involved in the drama of the self, they were both mediated by language, and that memory could not be verified but is dynamic and constructed. I believed that a complicated relationship existed between the I who writes I in the text.
So, to compress wildly here, I want to use one essay I wrote as an example of what I was unprepared for. I began writing what I later learned were essays. At the time I knew they were prose and they were triggered by my attempt to explore my history through family, class, and gender. I had begun to send them to literary journals but I didn’t designate whether they were fiction or nonfiction. One of these pieces—“Hair”—was published and subsequently included in The Best American Essays. I was stunned to learn that my meditation on women and hair was an exemplar of Montaigne’s classic style. At the time I had never read Montaigne, I’m embarrassed to say. But more to the point, somehow my family got a hold of it and read “Hair.” I did not tell them about it, which betrays my concerns that they would not look favorably upon it. I never dreamed my little essay about my mother and sisters and I would get such play. But I knew my parents would not understand the essay and I was right.
They thought they could read and understand my essay very well, thank you, and they didn’t like it one little bit.
Here was one portrait of my mother’s hair—“This was hair no one touched, crushed, or ran fingers through. One poked and prodded various hair masses back into formation. I never saw my father stroke my mother’s head. Children whimpered when my mother came home fresh from the salon with a potent do.” And on it went in that vein.
My sisters didn’t fare much better, especially one. Here is my intro: “My other sister was born with thin, lifeless, nondescript hair: a cross she has had to bear. Even in the baby pictures, the limp strands plastered on her forehead in question marks wear her down.”
I didn’t spare myself. “Having not outgrown the thickets of cowlicks, mother bought a spectrum of brightly colored stretch bands to hold my hair back off my face. Then she attached thin pink plastic curlers with snap-on lids to the ends of my hair to make them flip up or under, depending on her mood. The stretch bands pressed my hair flat until the very bottom, at which point the ends formed a tunnel with ridges from the roller caps—a point of emphasis, she called it. Coupled with the aquamarine eyeglasses, newly acquired, I looked like an overgrown insect that had none of its kind to bond with.”
I wasn’t revealing what we’d call big, bad family secrets, but that didn’t matter. That I included myself for the worst treatment didn’t matter. My mother and sisters were upset with me. They didn’t understand the essay as a cultural critique about gender and style; they didn’t get the exaggerated humor—all of the niceties about literary voice were lost on them. To even try to talk to them was pointless. They felt exposed. And they didn’t like it.
What did I learn?
1. That the “personal essay” worked differently than poetry— there were new risks, new exposures, that people might read what I wrote, that all kinds of people who don’t feel qualified to understand poetry do feel qualified to read and judge memoir and essay, that people will for the most part not like being “included” in my work. And who can blame them?
2. The truth of what Joan Didion says– “Writers are always selling someone out.” I hadn’t intended to hurt or sell out my mother and my sisters, but from their point of view that was just what I did. In my writing up until this point, I had been spared this glimpse into the heart of darkness.
3. That to tell my story I had to include other people who didn’t ask to be written about. There was no way to write well about my past without writing about my mother and sisters. The essayist and memoirist face a terrible conundrum—their family cannot remain vague and inscrutable. And even when one writes out of empathy, there is no getting around the fact that they didn’t ask to be written about and that you aren’t telling their story.
4. That Mark Doty’s conclusion in “Return to Sender, Memory, Betrayal, and Memoir” was more true than false —“that we will lose people in our lives by writing about them.”
Do I regret writing the essay? No. I wouldn’t change the writing.
Would I do anything differently? Yes. I would know what the risks are in writing about my family. I wouldn’t keep my writing secret. I’d own up to what I was doing.
I’m currently writing a memoir, and this time around I’ve got a hold of what I understand a memoir to be and the risks I am incurring. Besides the many challenges of re-entering one’s past, the most immediate issue has been my realization that in order to tell my story, I have to include the man I married when I was exceedingly young who had been my professor my sophomore year in college. We divorced shortly thereafter, and we’ve gone on to live many lives since then. Still I can’t write about that period of my life without writing about him. He was integral to the experience. There is no way of going around him or leaving him out. I will have to use him to make something worthwhile. This intimate connection, this one on one, this life to memoir if you will, is the pleasure of the memoir and the pain of memoir; it is the risk one takes, and there’s no question it can go badly.
It’s impossible to get around this central fact of dependence upon others in memoir unless you write about trees.
I am not writing about trees.
Though there is nothing wrong about writing about trees.
I don’t think creative nonfiction is monochromatic. Each project is different and requires that the writer think through the ethical questions for herself. There are limits to the usefulness of generalization. There are writings in our field that make me uneasy—almost on an instinctual physical level. Sometimes I feel that the writer has not revealed herself but has exposed others and that the dynamics should be exactly the other way around. I have to work these tangles through again and again. The work is never finished.
For a long time I was blocked in my current project. I didn’t have the courage to seek out my ex-husband and put the case before him, and I knew I wouldn’t go forward without his response. I wouldn’t spring the memoir upon him as I sprung “Hair” on my unsuspecting mother and sisters. I was at an impasse, stymied. And then in a great stroke of luck he wrote me because a book of essays he wrote about viewing particular films had come out and he wanted to send it to me. He had written an essay about our watching Truffaut’s The Wild Child. So he was rereading his past too, and I was in it. I wrote back and told him what I was up to and was relieved to receive his go-ahead. I imagine there will be many difficulties ahead, but this is what I think I must do. It is an opportunity for me to try both to write as I must and to think about what it means for him.
In the fall of 2011 I faced the happy task of writing the acknowledgments page, and a dedication if I wanted one, for Companion to an Untold Story. I had worked my way through the copy editor’s suggestions, all typographical errors had been corrected, reference citations double-checked—the book was ready to move on to the next stage in production. In the writing of Companion, a book about the suicide of my friend Joel, I had spent years considering all manner of questions, but hadn’t thought about whom to acknowledge or whether a dedication was desirable. I had become faintly aware of the contemporary trend in acknowledgments, an outpouring of gratitude to a large cast of characters, but by and large I had paid little heed to these matters.
Best to take a look at how other authors approached this task before penning my own thanks, I thought, and I started to pull books down from my shelves.
Faulkner dedicated As I Lay Dying to Hal Smith on the copyright page. That was all. No acknowledgments. William Styron’s memoir of madness, Darkness Visible, published in 1990, is dedicated To Rose, words set off on an otherwise blank page after the copyright information. Styron acknowledges no one.
I noted with approval that one of my favorite writers, Marilynne Robinson, tucks her Housekeeping dedication—for my husband, and for James and Joseph, Jody and Joel, four wonderful boys—above the copyright notice, where, if I weren’t looking for it, I’d probably miss the small nod to her family. Anne Carson in Glass, Irony, and God spells out her dedication down the empty leaf before her title page:
She embeds her acknowledgments on the copyright page, dutifully thanking the editors and publishers of magazines in which some of the writing first appeared.
Collections of poems traditionally include some form of acknowledgement, often a section that lists the literary venues where individual poems were previously published. Louise Glück’s landmark collection The House on Marshland includes a full page of acknowledgments. That format was necessitated by the number of poems previously published in magazines, or maybe Glück highlighted this history in a bow to the magazines’ services to literature. Embedding their names in small print on the copyright page would not bespeak gratitude so much as legal obligation.
The next page is her dedication:
With love and gratitude
Ellen Bryant Voigt
So far the writers I’ve mentioned—novelist, poet, and memoirist—are restrained.
The expected breadth and depth of acknowledgments, however, seems to be evolving. Many hands are required to bring a book to life, and there’s a movement afoot to push this fact forward. Jo Ann Beard’s much-admired memoir The Boys of My Youth, published in 1998, lists venues where parts of the book were previously published. In the first paragraph of a separate page of acknowledgments she expresses gratitude to two art colonies for the “gift of time” and to a foundation for its financial support. Then she turns to thank her agent for “her sustained belief in my writing, her sanity, and her charming unwillingness to accept rejection when it came our way.” In the second paragraph, she thanks twenty-nine other people.
Mary Cappello’s Awkward, published in 2007, prints a five-page section at the back of the book that resembles an academic model of acknowledgments, wherein the author is entrenched in institutions. It’s hard to classify this book—it’s a memoir and a tour of an idea, combining research and personal meditation. She thanks a variety of fellowships that supported her research, thanks a range of writers and scholars to whom she is indebted, thanks in detail her students, undergraduate and graduate, and the courses that were instrumental to her thinking. She thanks eleven colleagues for their encouragement, nine friends and guides in Russia and Italy, where she was on fellowships, and gives a shout out to two tailors. She turns, then, to note the intellectual friendship of five others, her agent, who “keeps the faith,” her editor, her writing guru, her writing partner, and a partner in adventure. In all, it’s an utter refusal to make the immodest claims of the solitary genius in the attic.
Notes from No Man’s Land, published in 2009 by Eula Biss, is close in spirit to Awkward. Her essays are formally inventive, a rich blend of research and personal reflection. They are followed by twenty-three pages of notes. Her acknowledgments begin with the SOP of thanking the editors of the publications where the work previously appeared. Thanks then go out to her agent, to Graywolf for publishing the book, to Robert Polito for choosing her manuscript as the contest winner, and to Jeff Clark for the cover design. Then she moves to the foundations that supported her, seven friends who helped her write, three teachers who advised her along the way, and an additional four friends who specifically helped the revision process. Last she thanks her husband.
It’s not just nonfiction books that carry weighty acknowledgments. Frankly, the warmth and fellow feeling in Justin Torres’ We the Animals, a slim autobiographical novel, pretty much won me over. He graciously notes eight educational foundations that gave “generous support.” Agent and editor are mentioned. He provides a “partial” list of fourteen influential teachers, with special appreciation to his high school English teacher, whom “he loves very much.” The second page acknowledges readers, friends, and heroines for inspiration and guidance.
However, not everyone is on board with the proliferation of thank-yous. In the February 2009 issue of the American Spectator Jonathan Black takes on the shift in the way we do acknowledgments and quotes Sara Nelson, an editor of Publishers Weekly: “It used to be a writer spent 20 years alone in a room and came out with an ink-stained manuscript and made a deal with Bennett Cerf. Now it’s publishing by committee. Everything’s sales and marketing and publicity.” She says a bit snappishly that contemporary acknowledgments have turned into a “phonebook of helpers.”
In response, a blogger has taken issue with Black’s view that writers needn’t bring everyone in from the cold. It’s a good thing, says the blogger, that all persons involved with the birth of a book be laureated. Fifty-six commenters on the post agreed with his position; one found Black “curmudgeonly.” Gratitude can never be a bad thing—that was the consensus view. Spotlighting the many hands of support is good manners, good literary etiquette. Respondents also felt they got to know the author better by reading acknowledgments. They liked the personal touch.
When did the self-portrait of a writer as teetering atop a pyramid of support become commonplace? Listing a bunch of helpers behind a book was once seen as an uncrafty gesture. Inviting the whole cast—like that of a Broadway musical—to share the stage with the author diminished her stature as author.
If a book today is selected in a contest, as mine was, it is commonplace to thank the organization, the judge, and other “essential” people, such as first-round readers who passed the manuscript onto the judge. Then the publishing house must be thanked, with its troops of editors, copy editors, designers, production staff, and publicists. Agents might be involved—they can’t be left out. The impulse to pull the curtain up and bring everyone on stage for a bow is generous, and it demystifies the notion that an author is a genius alone responsible for birthing her book. Such an acknowledgment may awaken new respect for the mostly invisible assistance that is required for a book to be hatched, but sometimes I think that, given all the well-documented help the writer required, it’s a miracle the book got written at all.
In another era, we wanted the support behind the author to be invisible. No one advertised how substantially Gordon Lish “edited” Raymond Carver’s stories. Now, after the reputation has been established, we are faced with the much more complicated history of authorship behind the writer. Part of the romance of the book is the notion that there is only one author. A good book cannot be written by a committee, or so we have thought. In today’s mode of acknowledgments, the apparatus of writing is put on display.
The scene of writing, it turns out, is a crowded place. Children who suffered while their parent wrote must be brought on stage to be apologized to and thanked; others whom the author failed in some way (and who, according to the contemporary mode of thanks, are never a bitch about it) must be hailed for their patience and loyalty; agents and editors who believed in the writer and the book, against all odds—they, too, must take the floor. The book the reader holds in her hands was not miraculously created by the author and walked through a lonely tunnel; it had many stopovers at soothing spas along the way.
How can one not admire giving all persons their due, thanking each and every person for a part played so admirably? Isn’t it like the credits rolling after the film has ended?
The shift in attitudes I’ve been talking about is a part of much bigger changes in our world that go way beyond books themselves: the expansion of higher ed and the burst in the number of writing programs, which means that more authors have been supported by grants, research leaves, and other sorts of impersonal assistance that fertilize manuscripts; intensified interest in the conditions that allow markets to work, for example, economists’ attention to courts, financial apparatuses, and other institutions that have no role in a pure laissez-faire model; scholars who have in recent years studied the material conditions of books as objects, which–until the Internet allowed electronic versions–required paper and ink, typesetters, printers, warehouses, transportation, etc.; the decay of reverence in our jaded age; and so on. (What’s required here is a long list of factors—shall we call it an acknowledgment?)
And that leads me back to my own choices.
I was torn. On the one hand, being generous is a good thing, and I didn’t want to be seen as a curmudgeon like that rapscallion Jonathan Black. On the other hand, I noted that Denis Johnson’s recent Train Dreams thanked no one. There was no recitation of all the people who helped Denis Johnson write or publish Train Dreams. The era of the iconic author isn’t over just yet.
My first draft was fulsome. What about my copy editor? She was exemplary, I must say. I admired her care with details, her engagement with my themes. She probably never receives enough notice for her work, I thought, and decided to include her. I didn’t want to waste this opportunity to mention people who assisted me, and I thanked my high school teacher, Mr. Hinderlie, who had us write a short story a day for the first three weeks of my junior English class. He made us write a novel my senior year, and he introduced me to Joyce, Faulkner, Dickinson, Whitman, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, and many other writers who were thankfully, mercifully over my head and nothing like the pabulum served by Mrs. Troup, my English teacher for ninth and tenth grades. Who had ever properly acknowledged Mr. Hinderlie for the role he played in our development? No one. And I thought, I’m going to include him. The floodgates opened. In no time I had written two pages of gratitude, and I was just getting started.
But something was wrong. I thought about how awful those speeches are by actors who win awards. They’ve got a class roster of folks to thank, and they do, and by the end I don’t remember a single name or have any idea who was genuinely important. What’s special about being one of thirty people?
There were just three people whose acts of support towards me went deep, beyond the definition of help. One might even say their help cost them something, and none was employed in the business end of publishing. My husband allowed me to make him a character in my book, to open up his friendship with Joel for public scrutiny. Gale, the woman who had made a life with Joel for a time, allowed me to open it up again, even though it was painful. And Leigh simply was my ideal reader, the person I write to, who in that role has forged a lifetime bond with me and without whom I would be bereft.
At first, those three were lost in the crowd of the be-thanked around them. Their help wasn’t distinguished from that of a copy editor. It wasn’t my friend’s job to be my ideal reader. This was a gift I would never be able to adequately describe, not in a million acknowledgments. On my acknowledgments page I would thank only the people who couldn’t really be thanked.
In the final version I didn’t mention the Associated Writing Programs, which ran the contest I won, or Susan Orlean, who selected my manuscript, or the people at the University of Georgia Press who oversaw the production of my book (though they did a great job!). In each instance, I feel nothing but admiration, praise, and gratitude for these individuals and organizations. Yet I didn’t include them in my acknowledgments. In the end, I said: “I can’t say enough, and so I say very little.”
I didn’t dedicate my book to anyone. The book itself was the manifestation of my dedication, dedicated to Joel and laid at the altar of death. If I had written To Joel, it would have been a sign that my book had failed.