Sunday, December 31, 2017

Starting with What Matters, Part 3: Joan Didion

Two paragraphs into Joan Didion's essay, "Self-respect: Its Source, Its Power," which appeared in the August 1961 issue of Vogue and in her 1968 essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem, comes this 85-word sentence: 
I lost the conviction that lights would always turn green for me, the pleasant certainty that those rather passive virtues which had won me approval as a child automatically guaranteed me not only Phi Beta Kappa keys but happiness, honor, and the love of a good man (preferably a cross between Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca and one of the Murchisons in a proxy fight); lost a certain touching faith in the totem power of good manners, clean hair, and proven competence on the Stanford-Binet scale. 
With wit, edginess, and aplomb, Didion crafts a young woman's sudden, unwelcome arrival at the rite of passage from precocious youth to pragmatic adult by:

  • dropping and after the first comma to set a running rhythm
  • referencing a half-dozen symbols of popular culture (Phi Betta Kappan, Bogart, Casablanca, Murchisons, proxy fight, Stanford-Binet scale)
  • inserting an unexpected semicolon, departing from standard usage for surprise
  • breaking parallel structure twice for impact (happiness and honor joined with love of a good man; good manners and clean hair, with the longer phrase proven competence on the Stanford-Binet scale
  • transitioning from abstract nouns (happiness, love, honor) denoting romantic youth to sharper adjectives (good, clean, proven) to usher in the rash realities of womanhood.

In doing so, Didion charmingly creates an urge in her readers to know how such a setback sets the stage for defining self-respect. This is the kind of purposeful writing that makes critics admire her finesse with language.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Starting with What Matters, Part 2: James Baldwin

In "The Negro Child—His Self-Image" delivered as a talk to teachers on October 16, 1963, and published in The Saturday Review on December 21, 1963, James Baldwin, crafted this 88-word sentence toward the end of his 3,632-word essay:
Now if I were a teacher in this school, or any Negro school, and I was dealing with Negro children, who were in my care only a few hours of every day and would then return to their homes and to the streets, children who have an apprehension of their future which with every hour grows grimmer and darker, I would try to teach them—I would try to make them know—that those streets, those houses, those dangers, those agonies by which they are surrounded, are criminal. 
As background, Baldwin was talking to teachers at the invitation of their school. The premise of his unusual appeal was that no sooner do children develop a conscience that they find themselves at war with a backward society. He was challenging not only the very foundation of education but the moral and political imperative that we all must confront.

Let's start with the base clause of the sample: I would try to teach them that those streets, those houses, those dangers, those agonies by which they are surrounded, are criminal.

Baldwin suspends his subject, I, for 59 words. In doing so, he violates what most writing teachers would say is a hallmark of good writing: getting to the point by starting with the subject and verb. But in doing so, he proclaims how practically complex yet spiritually pure his point is. The words preceding the base clause sets the stage for the teacher's moral obligation: 
Now if I were a teacher in this school, or any Negro school, and I was dealing with Negro children, who were in my care only a few hours of every day and would then return to their homes and to the streets, children who have an apprehension of their future which with every hour grows grimmer and darker ...
By this point in his speech/essay, Baldwin has already established his credibility as a sage of the cultural mores of his time. Starting the sentence with "Now if I were a teacher in this school, or any Negro school" comes at a propitious moment. The additional clause "and I was dealing with Negro children, who were in my care only a few hours of every day" is far from redundant; he is punctuating the educational dilemma in which teachers find themselves. And by concluding the long left branch preceding the base clause with "children who have an apprehension of their future which with every hour grows grimmer and darker," Baldwin emphasizes the heart of the problem and pivots to his appeal.

James Baldwin wrote many powerful, dramatic sentences like this one in his essays. You can find them is his Collected Essays and The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Starting with What Matters, Part 1: Oliver Sacks

This and the next several WORDS ON THE LINE posts cover a key tip on writing to the point, namely, starting with what matters most to your reader. Throughout the series, I refer to actual sentences from respected writers who skillfully illustrate ways that we can emphasize the most important point. In each case, I take a sentence out of the context of the sentences preceding and following it, so I encourage you to read the entire work, not only to understand why the authors chose to write their sentence as published but to reap the pleasure of capturing their creatively rendered content and style.

The sentence below comes from the essay "Darwin and the Meaning of Flowers" by Oliver Sacks in his posthumously published essay collection, The River of Consciousness:

Natural beauty, for Darwin, was not just aesthetic, it always reflected function and adaptation at work.
So much is happening in this 16-word sentence. Let's start with the obvious comma splice, a sentence that many English teachers would not tolerate. Sacks could have written a "correct" sentence by placing a period or a comma after aesthetic, but he wanted to move us along quickly, trusting that we would know he wanted only a slight pause and not a full stop. Great writers like Sacks take such linguistic liberties to nuance their prose.

A second point: Sacks separates the subject (beauty) and verb (was not) with a short, mid-branch, for Darwin. He could have written, For Darwin, natural beauty was not ..., but great writers know how and when to mix up their syntax for variety to keep the reader engaged.

Next, notice Sacks's subtle downplaying aesthetic, used as an adjective, in contrast with the nouns function and adaptation. In making aesthetic a mere descriptor of natural beauty as opposed to a more prominent concept, he brings to the fore the two parallel nouns that follow with even more force than he would have by simply writing was not just.

But what about getting to the point? The answer is simple: Sacks chooses to get to the point indirectly, creating greater surprise for the reader. As you might surmise from the title of the article, Sacks took on the dual challenge of describing Darwin's contribution to a radically new worldview of botany while explaining that flowers adapt to their environment in ways as profound as humans do. Such intellectual discoveries for the reader demand from the writer an uncommon style.

A weak substitute for Sacks's beautiful sentence runs 14 words, more concise than the 16-word original, yet nowhere near as imaginative or captivating, not even close to asserting the point that he wants to make.
Darwin saw natural beauty as aesthetic, but also as function and adaptation at work. 
You might think there's no way that Sacks put so much thought into each sentence and its limitless alternatives. If he had, he'd never finish writing one essay, let alone the many volumes he composed in his remarkable life. But ask jazz legend Sonny Rollins if he thinks about every stunning saxophone solo he plays, or three-point wonder Steph Curry if he deliberates before making a perfect shot from 24 feet out. Their likely answer would be that they're programmed, after thousands of hours of practice, to just do it. The same is true for Sacks. 

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Writing Is a Process

The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), one of the guardians of the English language, has argued for years that writing is a process as well as a product. The product is what we write, the white paper, proposal, report, procedure, email, speech, essay, story, play, or poem that informs, persuades, guides, or entertains our readers. The process is how we write, the steps we take to move words, sentences, and paragraphs from our brains to the screen or paper. 

In its position statement Professional Knowledge for the Teaching of Writing, the NCTE claims that everyone has the capacity to write and to become better writers. An effective use of the writing process enables students to achieve multiple benefits:
  • Break writer's block.
  • Eliminate procrastination.
  • Reduce writing-related stress.
  • Generate creative ideas.
  • Organize content logically.
  • Draft messages quickly.
  • Revise, edit, and proofread efficiently. 
  • Improve their productivity.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Upcoming Webinars

Clients ask me nearly every day, "When is your next webinar?" So I've decided to list just a few of my public upcoming webinars with their descriptive registration links:
I am also presenting many nonpublic webinars for private clients. If your business is interested, please reach me at Phil@PhilVassallo.com.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Make Every Word Matter

Work-related documents requires concision; we should remove verbiage. This truism is easier said than done if one loves classical literature. I dare not change John Donne's final lines from his Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, XVII (1624). The repetition of tolls is, well, poetic:
Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. 
I harbor no ill feeling toward Charles Dickens's opening of A Tale of Two Cities (1859), which paints a picture of discord and chaos through its repetition:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.
And I dare not argue about the repetition in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s I Have a Dream speech (1963). In the final 5 minutes of that legendary address at the Lincoln Memorial, King uses dream 10 times, followed by a paragraph about faith 3 times, followed by freedom 9 times, and ending with free 3 times. The repetition is what makes his speech as memorable as the spirituals and anthems he borrows from.

But business and technical writers rarely need such repetition. Here is an example of adding useless words: 
The company is currently monitoring the situation in order to work out a solution. (14 words)
The present continuous tense, is monitoring, eliminates the need for currently. The prepositional phrase, in order, is unnecessary since a clearer, though weak, infinitive phrase, to work outfollows it. That infinitive phrase is weak, and it is followed by a noun phrase, a solution, when a verb phrase, to resolve it, would have been stronger. So a 9-word rewrite would look like this:
The company is monitoring the situation to resolve it.
This 36% reduction in word count is not as rare as you might think. We tend to read business messages just to get information, not to assess the writer's style. But the next time you run through a boring, ambiguous message, don't be surprised if the writer didn't edit out verbiage. Writers should take a second look at their emails and reports before pressing send to make sure that every word matters and their readers get the point. 

Sunday, November 19, 2017

The New Number 1 Question About Email

Consider whether email is the best way to reply. This is the most frequent comment I hear from the CEO level of organizations where I conduct training. Corporate presidents typically tell me to make sure I admonish their staff not to use email as a way of "assigning blame" and "avoiding responsibility," or as "a weapon of mass destruction." They say, "Tell them to get off their butts and develop relationships with people by walking down the hallway or picking up the phone."

While I mentioned this point in an earlier WORDS ON THE LINE post, I reiterate it because it is the most frequently asked question in my many webinars on email. Using alternatives to email at key times is not only the more considerate choice, it is also the more time efficient one.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Tense Tricks, Part 4: Useless Appendages

The present continuous, or present progressive, tense indicates an action or state that is happening now:
She is working hard. (action)She is being diligent. (state)
Since the continuous action or state is obvious to us, we never need to write, "She is going to go to work." I often hear people speak like this, which may not be a problem in the context of a conversation. But I occasionally see people write the sentence, which is excessive at best and ambiguous at worst, especially since it confuses the present continuous with the future continuous tense. So we have two choices in such a case:

  • If we mean a present continuous action, we can write, "She is going to work. 
  • If we mean a future continuous action, we can write, "She will be going to work."

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Tense Tricks, Part 3: Present Continuous or Future?

We know we will meet with our friend Kim tomorrow, so which sentence is correct?
1. I am meeting Kim tomorrow. (present continuous tense)
2. I will meet Kim tomorrow. (future tense)
Credible sources, such as British CouncilCapital Community College, and Education First, say we use the present continuous if we have clear plans for the future. Therefore, since we do know that Kim agrees to meet with us, we can use option 1. However, option 2 in no way causes confusion, so that choice is acceptable too.
 

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Tense Tricks, Part 2: Past or Present Perfect?

Assume you are a manager emailing a direct report that you want to review her annual performance. Which of these two sentences would you prefer?:
  • I reviewed you performance. (past tense)
  • I have reviewed your performance. (present perfect tense) 
If you prefer the second one, I'm with you. Both are correct, the first one because you completed the review and the second because you just completed the review. But using the present perfect tense (have, has, or had + the past participle verb form) implies a greater sense of immediacy, suggesting that you have not wasted a moment from the time of the review to the time of communicating with the employee.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Tense Ticks, Part 1: The 12 Big Ones

Since English tenses are pretty particular, let's start this series with the 12 standard tenses, which we use to indicate a specific time that an action or state of being occurs:

1. Simple Past (action that happened, or state that existed)
I wrote a book.
I was happy.
2. Simple Present (action that habitually happens, or state that exists)
I write books.
I am happy.
3. Simple Future (action that has not ye happened, or state that does not yet exist)
I will write a book.
I will be happy. 
4. Past Perfect (action that happened before another past action, or state that existed before another past action or state that existed)
I had written a book when the publisher contacted me.
I had been happy until I wrote a book.
I had been happy before I became a writer. 
5. Present Perfect (action that started and is just completed or is continuing, or state that started and still exists)
I have written a book.
I have been happy for years. 
6. Future Perfect (action that will happen before another action will happen, or state that will exist before another action will happen or state will exist)
I will have written a book before you will write one.
will have been happy for years when I am old.
7. Past Continuous (action that was happening or state that was existing)
I was writing a book.
I was feeling happy.
8. Present Continuous (action that is happening or state that is existing)
I am writing a book.
I am feeling happy.  
9. Future Continuous (action that will be happening or state that will be existing)
I will be writing a book.
I will be feeling happy. 
10. Past Perfect Continuous (action that was happening before a certain past time)
I was writing a book until I grew tired.
11. Present Perfect Continuous (action that started and has been happening from a certain time to the present) 
I have been writing a book since last month.
12. Future Perfect Continuous (action continuing up to a certain future time)
I will have been writing a book for a year on October 23.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Glad Your Doing Well in You're New Job. Really?

If you did not pick up the two spelling mistakes in the headline of this post, I am not at all surprised. Testing on those two words has always been a staple of grammar and usage tests, but lately the mistake has become legion in my reading.

On Facebook and other social media, I see many educated, articulate people writing your when they mean you're. These are folks who actually know the difference between the two words. It leads me to wonder: Do we care about our grammar when writing on social media? If so, will this carelessness lead to other syntax and diction errors? Will the distinction between your and you're blur until either becomes an acceptable substitute for the other? Do I have too much time on my hands to think such thoughts?


One conclusion I can make with confidence is that the sheer volume of online written communication today has led to countless grammatical and, needless to say, informational errors. On guard! 

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Knowing When Not to Send That Message

One of the best lessons a developing business writer can learn is not to put some things in writing. Online transactions, social media, and instant messaging have forced us to redefine the concept of privacy. Knowing that we're all over the place as it is, and our stuff might end up where it should not be, we should remember these guidelines:

  • Do not inundate readers with forgettable email strings whose shifting meaning with each addition engenders confusion.
  • Do not fire off an email to someone who has just upset you, as you'll be sure to deliver a purposeless message.
  • Do not write an email if you are wondering whether you should—go with your gut and refrain. 

Sunday, October 01, 2017

I hope you're having a nice day ...

This dialogue is a recurring one in my writing workshops:
Learner: Is it OK to open an email by writing, "I hope you're having a nice day" or "I hope all is well"? 
Phil: Do you write those openings? 
Learner: Yeah.
Phil: And no one calls you out on them?
Learner: No.
Phil: Then you answered your question.  
While I find little value in those all-too-often disingenuous statements, many managers expect their staff to open with such niceties. I do understand the importance of setting the right tone, as business depends on cultivating strong relationships. 

Meanwhile, some employees do more damage by following those gracious greetings with abrasive demands or gratuitous accusations, sending misdirected missives, copying staff who have no business receiving the message, and forwarding purposeless email strings leading nowhere. 

My point: Be your word. Don't say you hope someone is having a great day only to ruin it for them.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

What Writers Say, Part 25: William Faulkner on What Makes a Good Novelist

In the Spring 1956 Paris Review interview, this is how William Faulkner answered the question, "Is there any possible formula to follow in order to be a good novelist?"
Ninety-nine percent talent ... ninety-nine percent discipline ... ninety-nine percent work. He must never be satisfied with what he does. It never is as good as it can be done. Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself. An artist is a creature driven by demons. He don’t know why they choose him and he’s usually too busy to wonder why. He is completely amoral in that he will rob, borrow, beg, or steal from anybody and everybody to get the work done.
I read that provocative interviewperhaps my favorite in the 65-year tradition of the Paris Review's inspirational and instructive "Writers at Work" seriessome forty-five years ago when I was a college student and have paraphrased this quote countless times in social conversations and classroom lectures. I appreciate the candidness of Faulkner's observation, especially since I hear so many aspiring writers make excuses for not writing: no time, inadequate location, or insufficient support. Indeed, Faulkner is implying that the only way to write is to write.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

What Writers Say, Part 24: Joyce Cary on the Real Stuff of Fiction

Irish novelist Joyce Cary saw plenty to be reaped from considering a character's motivation: "You've got to find out what people believe, what is pushing them on." Cary saw an absolute connection between form and "an ordered attitude towards" the character's principle of unity with the universe, God, and whatever else he or she would call existence.

Sounds deep, I know. In practical terms, this viewpoint can mean  writers must reach the core of characters, their souls, not only their way of interacting with the world but their reason for it.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

What Writers Say, Part 23: Francois Mauriac on Using Senses in Writing

"Before beginning a novel I recreate inside myself its places, its milieu, its colors and smells. I revive within myself the atmosphere of my childhood and my youth—I am my characters and their world."

When the author Francois Mauriac made this observation about his penchant for using sense perceptions in his creative work, he reminded all writers of the vitality they bring to their prose when following suit. What we most remember from our favorite books are the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touch that pervade the action. A good start toward describing senses is looking for them in the fiction of most respected writers.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

What Writers Say, Part 22: Francois Mauriac on the Value of Distance in Time in Writing

French novelist Francois Mauriac was a believer in "a certain distance in time" for a fiction writer. Mauriac said it was absolutely necessary except in journaling, so he opined, "A young author has almost no chance of writing successfully about any other period of life than his childhood or adolescence."

If we take Mauriac's declaration literally, Carson McCullers proves him wrong when she created The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, whose the memorable characters Spiros Antonapoulous, Jake Blount, Biff Brannon, Dr. Benedict Copeland, and John Singer were older than her 23 years. Other examples are abundant.

Nevertheless, Mauriac makes a strong case for distance in time between experience and memory. As time passes, we better understand the setting, people, and situations that influenced their motivations and actions. Writers must write what they know, and they know more with distance in time.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

What Writers Say, Part 21: Francois Mauriac on Overthinking Technique

Nobel laureate Francois Mauriac expressed disdain for obsessing over what he called technique, claiming that the younger novelists of his time "think a good novel ought to follow certain rules imposed from outside. In fact, however, this preoccupation hampers them and embarrasses them in their creation."

Mauriac said he eschewed formulaic writing as a means to achieving a naivete essential to the sense of spontaneity he wished his audience to experience when reading his work. "A borrowed style is a bad style," he insisted.

This simple advice is not easy to heed when analyzing one's plot, characters, narrative, and dialogue. Mauriac would suggest that an author's preconceived notions kill good stories. His admonishment might be a good impetus for free-writing, the technique of writing for a set period without attention to structure, grammar, diction, and even content.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

What Writers Say, Part 20: William Styron on Making a Writer's Environment

William Styron had a definite opinion on the type of environment he needed to produce: "I like company and entertainment, people around. The actual process of writing, though, demand complete, noiseless privacy, without even music; a baby howling two blocks away will drive me nuts."

Every successful writer has a conscious writing process and an ideal writing environment. Like Styron, Ernest Hemingway preferred a quiet place. August Wilson said he could write anywhere. Sam Shepard wrote longhand before typing. 

Whatever the desired environment and tools are, get them and get to work.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

What Writers Say, Part 19: Blaise Cendrars on Why Writers Should Not Complain

Blaise Cendrars lays down a sound wake-up call to writers who complain about how tough a craft they have: "They should talk a little more about their privileges and how lucky they are to earn some return for the practice of their art."

Any writer who has seriously practiced over an extended period knows that the craft beats most other jobs. People who make excuses for not writing would probably make excuses for most other shortcomings in their life. 

I've mentioned in WORDS ON THE LINE before: There are no shortcuts. I'll add to this maxim one other: Write more, complain less. The results have to be better.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

What Writers Say, Part 18: Blaise Cendrars on Writing for Oneself

When Blaise Cendrars spoke about the "fatal disappointment" of finishing a book, he was not being overly dramatic. He was referring to the blind ambition of publishing without enjoyment, explaining that he had come to creating poems in his head without writing or sharing them.  He said, "It's good so to daydream, to stammer around something which remains a secret for oneself."

Cendrars may seem egocentric or self-deluding on the surface, but writers can learn a great lesson from his thought. Writing for the sake of writing, taking pleasure in the task itself, savoring the creation of something new benefits writers enormously, transforming hours into seconds, inspiring them to wake up the next day, and urging them to get started immediately at the dawn of their new day.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

What Writers Say, Part 17: Ernest Hemingway on Writing with the Iceberg in Mind

Concluding this Ernest Hemingway 7-part series within a 25-part series, I could not end on a better note. Hemingway once said, "I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg."

This simple yet profound needs no explanation. Writers just need to remember if they know it, their readers likely will too, so they need not explain it. Just show, don't tell; tell what happened, not why. Your readers are as smart as you.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         




Sunday, July 23, 2017

What Writers Say, Part 16: Ernest Hemingway on the Importance of Observation

"If a writer stops observing he is finished," Ernest Hemingway once told George Plimpton. "But he does not have to observe consciously nor think how it will be useful. Perhaps that would be true in the beginning. But later everything he sees goes into the great reserve of things he knows or has seen."

A writer's skill in engaging an audience is directly related to his power of observation. Without this critical know-how, writers will appear naive at best and manipulative at worst. The writer's job is to report what he experiences unblemished, showing readers the best and worst of human nature.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

What Writers Say, Part 15: Ernest Hemingway on Reading His Work

Ernest Hemingway once said that he occasionally reads his own novels to cheer himself when he is having a hard time writing. 

Not a bad idea for all writers. When struggling with a difficult piece. pick up something you've already published or readers have praised. That quality standard could be the goal of your next literary work.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

What Writers Say, Part 14: Ernest Hemingway on Movement and Flexibility

In responding to a question about his usual conception of a short story, Ernest Hemingway implied that no system consistently works for him. "Sometimes you know the story," he said. "Sometimes you make it up as you go along and have no idea how it will come out." Hemingway's conclusion to this point is of special importance to beginning writers: "Everything changes as it moves." 

While the changes in a story a writer is composing may be palpable, they are not always. This inevitable encounter with the constant state of flux inherent in settings, characters, plots, and even premises in story-writing demands patience with the process as well as flexibility with preconceived notions about narrative lines and dramatic outcomes. 

Sunday, July 02, 2017

What Writers Say, Part 13: Ernest Hemingway on Interpretations of His Work

In response to a question about whether symbolism appears in his novels, Ernest Hemingway dismissively said that he'd rather leave that answer to the critics, concluding, "Read anything I write for the pleasure of reading it. Whatever else you find will be the measure of what you brought to the reading."

In skillfully deflecting the question, Hemingway reminds us that while we may write to entertain others, we have our personal reasons for writing, too.    

Sunday, June 25, 2017

What Writers Say, Part 12: Ernest Hemingway on His Diverse Influences

In response to a question about his literary forebears, Ernest Hemingway recited a litany of writers, including Twain, Chekhov, Dostoevsky, and Shakespeare, but he also mentioned composers (Bach and Mozart) and painters (Tintoretto, Breughel, Goya, van Gogh, Cezanne, and others).

Hemingway's eclectic selection suggests, as WORDS ON THE LINE has often stated, that writers can find inspiration not only from their favorite authors but also from painters, sculptors, photographers, composers, musicians, choreographers, dancers, and actors. 

Sunday, June 18, 2017

What Writers Say, Part 11: Ernest Hemingway on the Work Destroyers

It's often said that artists are selfish. The nature of their work demands that they spend long stretches of time isolated from others. When Ernest Hemingway was asked which places are most advantageous to his writing, he responded that he could work in most any quiet place and concluded, "The telephone and visitors are the work destroyers." When asked about the optimal emotional time to write, he curtly answered, "You can write any time people will leave you alone and not interrupt you."

Sounds selfish, right?

But truth be told, the writers I have met are not much different from everyone else I know. Some are generous and some greedy, graceful and some crude, some mature and some puerile, some sensitive and some cold, some grounded and some neurotic, some energetic and some lethargic, some ambitious and some lazy, some sensible and some superficial, some happy and some depressed, some talkative and some quiet. This observation tells me that what distinguishes writing from other professions is that it is performed in places of intimacy, where non-writers might consider writers antisocial or selfish because writers perform their work where and when others are at their leisure.

Lesson learned? When writing, keep people and telephones out. If Hemingway were alive today, he would add smartphones to his list. 

Sunday, June 11, 2017

What Writers Say, Part 10: Harold Pinter on How Writing Feels

Harold Pinter did not much like talking about his creative works, and especially his writing process, not because he was secretive but because he saw such disclosures as little more than time-wasting, deceptive chatter. Moreover, he said he could not recall precisely how his plays develop from conception to completion. The closest he seemed willing to express about his writing process was his feeling throughout it: "I think what happens is that I write in a very high state of excitement and frustration."

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's classic books Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience and Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention examine in depth what happens during the creative process. Hours can pass like seconds to an artist in the midst of creating. But what I appreciate about Pinter's observation is its pragmatism. When we are excited and frustrated, we tend to work through those feelings until they fade, making writing an activity in which our intellect and emotions collaborate.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

What Writers Say, Part 9: Edward Albee on Writing as Discovery

When Edward Albee said, "Writing has got to be an act of discovery," he did not mean that writers should approach their story clueless as to what comes next. Indeed, they might begin writing a book knowing what every chapter might look like. Nevertheless, the act of writing is an act of discovery, a means of exploring one's creativity, introducing unique characters, disclosing singular situations, and inventing new phrases.

Understanding this point can liberate writers. They begin to realize that they are engaged in much more than self-expression. They are trying to find what they've envisioned, to learn what comes next, to get to the bottom of things. Some writers compare this journey to detective work and some to the construction craft. Others prefer to call it simply what they do as artists. If the work isn't exhilarating, it's not writing.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

What Writers Say, Part 8: Edward Albee on Reacting to Criticism

Taking too much stock in positive or negative criticism could be crippling for a writer. Edward Albee noticed that once playwrights lose the favor of their critics, they might become confused by being panned for works that are actually as good if not better than their earlier works that had won acclaim. Albee also one-upped this commonly held view among writers by claiming that the final evaluation of a dramatic work has nothing to do with the audience or the critic. He insisted that writers take an intensely personal view of their own work, resisting the temptation to compose for popular appeal, which can be fickle and undefinable.

Whether one agrees with Albee as I do, writers should take as lifelong advice the underlying value of his admonition. It's up to the writers themselves to decide whether their creations have value. That disposition will keep them writing.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

What Writers Say, Part 7: Lillian Hellman on Failing as a Writer

Edward Albee referred to negative critical response as the inevitable ax falling. Francis Ford Coppola spoke about the proclivity of critics to topple the very pedestals on which they placed creative artists. For this reason, playwright Lillian Hellman once observed, "It is necessary that you not become frightened of failure." 

Hellman makes a salient point in response to this destiny that writers will ultimately experience. In theater more than other literary endeavors, many factors can contribute to a flop: the director's interpretation, the actors' performances, the set and light designers' staging, and critics eager to build their reputation at the expense of the writer among them. Therefore, failure seems inevitable. It's part of the business. It's public, it's embarrassing, it's painful. But it will happen. Fearing the specter of failure is no different from fearing the inevitability of death. 

Since writers need not worry about the certainty of failure, they have only one responsibility: to write.  

Sunday, May 14, 2017

What Writers Say, Part 6: Norman Mailer on Seeking the Truth

If writing is a challenging task for dubious returns even for the most astute and accomplished authors, then why bother with it? The French novelist Jean Malaquais once told Norman Mailer that despite the anguish writing exacts on him, he continues to do it as the only way to find the truth. This self-imposed yoke compelled Malaquais to endure whatever mental or emotional burden he could to complete his manuscripts.

Whether writers see their job as a means to an end, whatever that end may be, or as an intellectual or spiritual exercise, their goal should always be to do it with integrity. That approach by itself will ensure they reach a state of high quality. I suppose this truth holds for any walk of life.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

What Writers Say, Part 5: Norman Mailer on the Ideal Audience

What sort of readers do writers hope pick up their book? Norman Mailer said his ideal audience "has no tradition by which to measure their experience but the intensity and clarity in their inner lives. That's the audience I'd like to be good enough to write for."

Mailer's goal for such an audience is to raise their experience to a higher level. Thus, he sets for himself the standard of writing to enlighten readers whose intellect and insight exceed what have attained merely from their formal education, a depth of wisdom that comes from a continuously examined life. If writers can't take their job that seriously, then they should do something else. 

Sunday, April 30, 2017

What Writers Say, Part 4: Norman Mailer on the Value of Ignorance in Writing

Norman Mailer distrusted extensively researched novels. He said, "I feel in a way that one's ignorance is part of one's creation, too."

Mailer's outsized ego triggered his taking great pleasure in making trenchant pronouncements and outrageous innuendos during interviews, but he meant what he said in this interview. Too much research and not enough story line yields an encyclopedic treatise, not a compelling narrative. Of course, we should ground what we write on reality, but facts are not what moves our readers; rather, our interpretation of those facts and an imaginative exploration into their underlying value are what keep them turning pages.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

What Writers Say, Part 3: Norman Mailer on the Link Between Style and Character

Some writers say that style comes from wisdom, experience, and maturity. Norman Mailer believed it comes from being good. "Style is character," he famously said in a Paris Review interview. "A good style cannot come from a bad, undisciplined character." He went as far as saying that those who are physically graceful have a greater chance of writing well than those who are physically clumsy, and that greed and laziness contribute to poor style.

Those inclined to disparage Mailer's provocative view on his craft should consider the delicate balances that writers must strike among contradictory forces. They need to selfishly guard their writing time yet selflessly seek the truth of their subject matter, uninhibitedly release their creativity while discerningly review their manuscripts with a critical eye, and spend endless hours in isolation during the composing process but explore their environment and its denizens in discovering new ideas. All of these inclinations and actions take character.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

What Writers Say, Part 2: James Jones on What It Takes to Write

Novelist James Jones once established a self-funded writer's colony that failed to produce his desired results. He believed that giving talented, developing writers the space, solitude, and encouragement to create would yield creative literary output.

For the most part, the experiment did not work. Jones realized that talent and environment are not enough. Writers need to write. They have to work at their craft just as any craftsperson would.

Taking my lead from Mr. Jones, my advice to people who say they want to be writers is simple: Stop saying you want to be a writer and just write.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

What Writers Say, Part 1: James Jones on the Incremental Nature of Writing

Author James Jones did not think big when it came to daily literary output. He knew the math: a few words a day mean many more per week and exponentially more per month. In a Paris Review interview He looked for two or three typescript pages per day of narrative and maybe ten to twelve of dialogue. The next day he would read what he had written before moving on to the next two or three pages.

That level of productivity might not seem like much, but it produced From Here to EternitySome Came Running, and The Thin Red Line, among other works.

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Financial Management Network Talk on Time Management

I had the great pleasure of being a featured speaker on the Financial Management Network (FMN) for an April 2017 talk, "Time Management: Are You Masterful?

For three decades, FMN has been viewed monthly by as many as 44,000 corporate financial executives, who rely on the network's expert commentators to keep them up to date with recent developments affecting their profession. Here is how FMN describes the event:

To most people in a business environment, it seems as if there is never enough time in the day. Yet, since we all get the same 24 hours, why is it that some people achieve so much more with their time than others do? The answer, according to well-known author, instructor and coach Phil Vassallo, lies in masterful time management. In this segment, he shows you how to shift your focus from “activities” to “results,” in order to work smarter rather than harder.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Things Writers Do, Part 21: Self-promote

Writers are not braggarts by any means, but they do talk up writing in general and their own work in particular. Many writers have said  that no publisher will promote their book like they can. As a result, they go wherever they can to bring exposure to their books. 

Writers get caught up in the obvious book readings, online interviews, blogs, and vlogs. But they also talk to whoever will listen to them about their latest work. They don't hold on to their stuff; they send it into the universe of print and online publishers, news outlets, and other established global sources. It's their business; it's what they do.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Things Writers Do, Part 20: Return to Abandoned Projects

Writers are hoarders. They collect news clippings, store event programs, and stash notes scribbled on napkins. 

These practices may not keep them in good standing with their uninformed significant others, but they need to do these things to always be working. The ten-year-old news story about an environmental incident might solve a problem the novelist was having in establishing a context for the setting of a long-abandoned book. The playbill from a forgotten Off-Broadway musical twelve years ago might help a poet recall a line from a song that she can weave into an unpublished sonnet she started last year. A note about a conversation overheard in a diner fifteen years ago might hand a playwright just the sentence she needs to close a scene in one of her deferred theatrical works.

Writers do not forever abandon their filed projects. They won't let them fade away until they do.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Things Writers Do, Part 19: Change

In a long ago conversation with a friend, salsa vibraphonist extraordinaire George Rodriguez of the New Swing Sextet, I ruminated about my disappointment over jazz legend Miles Davis, whose trumpet transformed from playing sweetly melodic and soulful tunes to wildly dissonant, herky-jerky compositions in his later years. George prescriptively responded, "Artists are always trying to invent something new, and sometimes they reach new places that no one understands, not even themselves. Maybe whether it's good or not to others doesn't matter to them as much as being in the moment of invention, whatever the outcome."

George beautifully summarized what writers do. They should always be ready to change their course, fearfully perhaps, but willingly, moving in new directions, reinventing their craft, trying a different sentence structure, establish a unique setting, creating an unexpected story line, reaching for an unfamiliar character. If writers are to reflect the times in which they live, they need to acknowledge that their times are always changing, so they must change with them. 

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Things Writers Do, Part 18: Take Notes

Writers take their notebooks whatever the situation. They know a good idea may pop up:
  • At Anytime — Especially at their most relaxed moments (when drowsy, waking, lounging, strolling, meditating), writers are likely to invent creative ideas.
  • In Anyplace — Setting their characters and story lines in an airplane, bodega, cellar, forest, garden, hospital, jail, museum, substation, tugboat, university, or war zone makes an intellectual and emotional difference. Thus, writers study these places and record their observations.
  • From Anyone — Writers know that all people contribute to their knowledge of natural phenomena, historical facts, human habits, cultural proclivities, speech patterns, and much more. They will want to note those unique discoveries. 
  • Over Anything — From the obvious seashells at the beach, bench in the park, and signposts on a commercial street to the less apparent bleeding a blister, threading a needle, or mooring a skiff, writers are ready to memorialize the moment.
In all these situations, writers carry their notebooks or recording devices to capture what they need to remember the next time they sit down.