I have been reading Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others both for general inspiration and to prepare for leading the Lansdowne Writers’ Workshop which will be starting in September 2017.
Ms. Schneider, the founder of Amherst Writers & Editors, has compiled a book full of exercises for long-time writers, new writers, and those getting back to writing after a break (which includes excellent information for mothers returning to writing). Her suggestions are down-to-earth and straightforward. The exercises allow writers to jump into writing as beginners or for more seasoned writers to jump-start a piece that may be stuck.
My favorite section is on the topic of solitude. Schneider writes, “Solitude is an absolute necessity—the single most crucial necessity—for the writer. Only in the deepest solitude is it possible to achieve the utter surrender required for creative work.” Schneider then goes on to quote Rilke, “I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other.”
Lately, I have been lucky enough to have a friend who has provided me this necessary solitude by offering me a quiet room in which to write. In exchange, I’ve provided her with a steady stream of writing exercises. One hour a week, I write in this room, and over the weeks I have been compiling the pages of a long piece of fiction.
Another way in which we can stand guard over each other’s solitude and provide a place to write is by joining together in a writers’ workshop. In such a group, where members quietly focus on their own writing, solitude is preserved for the whole.
Experienced writers, new writers, and writers returning to writing who are looking for this kind of solitude and supportive environment in which to write may want to join me for my Fall 2017 workshop. More details will follow, but for now, if you’re interested, go ahead and contact me.
When I was studying writing at The University of Iowa, I lived in France for a month with a host family. The father, a professor of engineering, was interested to learn about my program and asked me how writing could be taught. At the time, I didn’t have an answer for him.
In an October 2016 interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, writer Ian McEwan was asked if he ever taught writing. He replied,
“I’ve chatted to seminars and groups of students, including MFA students, usually when I’m passing through the morning after giving a reading. Long before I even published my first book in the States, I taught at [the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop]. I had a very enjoyable time. My sense is that anyone who is good arrived good and left good. They surely picked up a few things. The most useful is when someone has expectations of you. You’ve got a reader, got an audience. The difference between having a handful of people [reading your work] and having no one is infinite.”
Can writers be taught to write? Well, they can be taught the basics of grammar and syntax. They can be taught how to be clear and express their true meaning. But really, what writers need are readers who can reflect back to them what is working and what is not.
This is why McEwan’s point about having an audience resonated with me.
I have been in a writers’ workshop or writers’ group since 1991, so when I have a story I want to workshop, it’s easy enough for me to find an audience. Finding the perfect reader or editor can take some trial and error. Personally, I like to find someone who inspires me to do my best work, yet encourages me to keep rewriting.
Writing in a vacuum doesn’t provide writers with the feedback they need. In a vacuum, writers may nurture grandiose visions of their writing or underestimate the impact of their words. That is why, sooner or later, we all need to find an audience.
I am reading Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, by Mary Norris. Norris writes,
“One of the things I like about my job is that it draws on the entire person: not just your knowledge of grammar and punctuation and usage and foreign language and literature, but also your experience of travel, gardening, shipping, singing, plumbing, Catholicism, midwesternism, mozzarella, the A train, New Jersey, and in turn it feeds your own experience.”
This perfectly describes how I feel as an editor. I love bringing my life knowledge and experience to an author’s manuscript. In turn, my life knowledge and experience is added to by the process of editing the author’s work. The experience of encouraging a writer, especially a first-time author, so inspires me that I find I am doing my own best writing in parallel.
Another quote from Norris resonated with me.
“There is a big fancy word for ‘going beyond your province’: ‘ultracrepidate…’ So much of copy editing is about not going beyond your province. Anti-ultracrepidationism. Writers might think we’re applying rules and sticking it to their prose in order to make it fit some standard, but just as often we’re backing off, making exceptions, or at least trying to find a balance between doing too much and doing too little.”
It is for this reason that I prefer to read over a manuscript before I start querying the author (asking questions in the margins). I like to fully understand an author’s piece and the culture behind it before diving in with specific suggestions on how to improve a piece. In my editing, I strike a balance between encouraging the author and providing honest feedback. My role is to help authors create the books they want to write.
A few years ago, while I was reading, If on a winter's night a traveler, the 1979 novel by Italo Calvino, a passage challenged me to define what it was that I loved so much about reading. Calvino writes,
“Your house, being the place in which you read, can tell us the position books occupy in your life, if they are a defense you set up to keep the outside world at a distance, if they are a dream into which you sink as if into a drug, or bridges you cast towards the outside, toward the world that interests you so much that you want to multiply and extend its dimensions through books.”
While there have been times that I have read to escape from the outside world, my primary reason for reading is to learn about people that I will never have the chance to meet and places that I will never be able to visit. I read to visit times gone by, as well as have experiences that I wouldn’t in the ordinary course of my life.
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