Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Keep a Notebook

A notebook is an indispensable tool for a writer. It serves for me at least three purposes, what I call my three R’s: recording, reflection, and reflex.

The most obvious of these purposes is recording. Realizing that the human mind can remember only so much, many writers keep a notebook simply to document events they attend, conversations they overhear, sentences they read, foods and drinks they taste, street scenes they see, and other sensory stimuli they experience. Those notes might very well become key pieces to a puzzle creative writers are trying to solve in a poem or story they’re crafting, but they help corporate writers just as much for white papers and proposals they’re composing.

As for reflection, I’ll let novelist and essayist Joan Didion do the talking. In her essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” she writes that she uses her notebook not to write literally, as if she were taking a photograph. “The point of my keeping a notebook has never been, nor is it now, to have an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking.” Rather, she is concerned with “How it felt to me: that is getting closer to the truth about a notebook.”

Finally, reflex is all about making writing as natural as possible. The more we write, the better we get at it, so by journaling or keeping a notebook, writers make their task more automatic, more habitual, like breathing.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

George Orwell's "Why I Write" a Primer for Aspiring Writers

George Orwell's 1946 essay "Why I Write" is a masterful mix of autobiography, politics, and writing instruction. Aspiring writers would get from this article at the least an inspirational gem and possibly a modus operandi.

In this 2,700-word, highly readable reflection, Orwell implies that the nature of a writer and the drive to write reveal themselves at an early age: “I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts.” He writes that he began writing poetry at age four or five and published in a local newspaper his first poem at eleven. An overarching theme in the childhood segment of this piece is the value of modeling one’s style after admired writers.

Orwell’s four great motives for writing prose are what he calls sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose, concluding: "What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art’. I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing."

And that he achieved supremely. Despite dying at age 46, Orwell wrote voluminously on causes of social justice, and he did so with great style to boot, most famously with Animal Farm and 1984. My favorite quote from the essay comes in the final paragraph: "One can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane."

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Reading-Writing Continuum

You do not have to look too far to find excellent readers who do not write much or who are not excellent writers. But the reverse is impossible. To excel at writing, one has to read voraciously, eclectically, and thoughtfully.

Truth be told, quality reading and writing are inseparable. The illustration shows how many strong writers approach their craft. First, they read to find inspiration, generate ideas, rewrite notes, seek corroborating details, check facts, or borrow from their previously written material. Next, they draft all their thoughts to get a rough idea of what they're trying to write. Then, they read aloud to catch the stream of logic and to detect ambiguity, repetition, and awkwardness. Finally, they write again for clarity, conciseness, grace, and vigor.
So excellent writers read to write and write to read. They need to answer not one question but two: What have you written lately? and What have you read lately?

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Happy Anniversary, Words on the Line!

Today is the sixth anniversary of the Words on the Line blog. I celebrated it by presenting a national webinar called How to Write a Darn Good E-mail for the American Management Association, and by committing to keep this blog alive for as long as it helps writers. My other writers' resources include:
Here's to your writing success in 2011!

Books by Philip Vassallo