Sorting the Garbage

When I received my glorious and wildly unexpected National Merit Scholarship and got a chance to attend Universities, I had a little bit of common sense.  Or I thought I did.

Of the three Universities that sought me out – for I was far too naïve to have done the searching myself – I chose the newly married ‘Case Institute of Technology’ & ‘Western Reserve University’ simply because they were in the city where I grew up, and no one had told me that a scholarship might include room and board.  No one had told me anything.

Once on board, I gravitated to the ‘Case Institute’ party of the marriage.  I was not accepted as a student of Case Institute, because they had a limit of 3% on their female students.  Whatever I was, I was not amongst the top 3% of STEM students.  (We hadn’t that acronym STEM in 1967, but the idea was the same.)  So I was officially a student of Flora Stone Mather college, while taking a lot of Case classes.  And all my friends seemed to be Case students.  Which meant all my friends were male, except for one extremely brilliant woman.  She was so brilliant I never could focus my eyes to see her name, but I remember her brilliance.

I suppose this was all natural progress to a person who read as heavily as I had read, and who had read a preponderance of Science Fiction.  Not all of what I had read was SF, I’m glad to say, but enough of it was that I easily fit with the propeller-beanie crowd.

What my common sense was telling me was that I mustn’t waste my precious time having fun, which is to say, taking literature classes.  I knew I could read on my own.  So I did everything but study English.

In one sense, I created of myself a very stupid writer.  Everything I know about writing I have learned from tolerant editors.  I didn’t appreciate them at the time, gods know, but I do appreciate them now.  Now that tolerant editors don’t seem to exist for young writers, I bless them. Not all of the editors I worked with fitted that description, but enough of them did.

But in a sense, by my continued ignorance, I saved myself as a writer.  The truth is simply that it takes only a few months of studying writing to learn how abysmally bad one is as a writer. And once that is understood, the paralyzing shame destroys almost everyone who wants to write.

There are paths to avoid this, now.  There is Clarion.  There are other workshops.  There is such a thing as a mentor, for the one-in-a-thousand students who might find a mentor.  The old saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear,” must be true only in a world-view that includes many re-incarnations.  A person like myself was in no danger of finding a mentor.  Nor did I have the money or family resources for a star-gift like Clarion. So, what I did was avoid classes containing anything like literature, because such classes would be fun, and I wasn’t at school for fun, but to save my life. (When I attended CWRU, post K-12 schooling was an unusual thing, unlike today.)

As it turns out, nothing I did at school got me work anyway, because I graduated in the same year Nixon beheaded the fellowship system in the U.S.  Nineteen-seventy-one.  I became an artist’s model, and froze standing still for hours at a time.  I became a bartender, and got paid fairly well, although I learned that I was being paid by folks for helping them ruin their lives.  And I slowly learned to type, so that I might get a more reliable job.

In the end I learned to type amazingly well, and did get work that could keep me alive.  And it enabled me to write.

Oh, how I wrote.  Reams and reams of paper went through my IBM Selectric.  And oh, how badly I wrote!  I had good ideas, and have re-used them all in subsequent years, but still I wrote so much lovely stinking trash.  I continued writing because I didn’t know it was trash.  I bless the fact that I learned to write without knowing it was trash.  There are writers with egos so strong they can learn they are writing garbage and keep writing, while learning to write something better than garbage.  I would not have been one of them.

It was ten years or more of typing novel length things of one sort or another, and sending out the homing pigeons in manila envelopes, before I found the one person who told me exactly what sort of garbage it was that I was writing.  That was the important part.  A writer can’t simply be told she is writing garbage.  She must be told what sort of garbage it is.  Knowing that, a writer can change.

For me, it took eight hours.  Eight hours of sitting at someone’s dining table and being made to read my work aloud, while she sat there and said nothing.  Eight hours and then a year of redrafts.  I remember there were seven of them.

I’ve said this in print before and I’ll likely say it again.  I don’t recommend my own history as a program for aspiring writers.  It was just the way it worked out for me.  I would so like to help other writers avoid the ten years of trash.  Unless, of course, their goal is to become a very good typist.

My only real advice for a person without the resources for mentorship, or the money for the few blessed workshops where writers can help each other (without falling into the common trap of trying to destroy each other,) is to find a person who will be willing to tell the young writer not that they are writing garbage – because that is a given – but exactly what sort of garbage it is.

The reason I keep repeating this advice is simply that it is the only advice I have to give.

White Space – And Why I Love It.

I have always been very fond of introducing white space in my writings, and not because I want to pad my work and make it seem longer.

I think a long, unbroken paragraph gives this reader the opportunity to find herself being lulled along by the rhythm of the words, until she finds she’s forgotten what was meant.  For me, it’s a trap, and I don’t think I’m alone in this.

I’ve just been reading Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart, in which the writing is very complex and interesting, but the paragraphs so dense I often had to stop near the end of a paragraph half the length of a page and make myself start over again to remember what she started out to say.  It is work, and gives me an opportunity to put the book down and say to myself I’ll get back to this later.  Maybe I will.

That’s a great danger for any writer.  When the reader puts the book down, there’s a good chance they won’t pick it up again.  I think those moments are to be avoided by a writer.  There are already enough distractions in life that force the reader to put a book down.

With Funke, part of the issue is that she was writing in German, a language just perfect for long sentences.  And I’m sure that German readers are used to this.  Perhaps they are trained to be more attentive to dense prose.

The people I write for, for the most part, are not.  I myself prefer to read with breaks in the prose, letting me know the subject, or the voice is changing.

So therefore, the white space.  See it in the previous paragraphs?

Poetry and Song.



I don’t think that, prior to the wide use of the printing press, there was any distinction between poetry and song. It was only when a person could buy an edition of someone’s poems, and read them – not knowing at all how the writer had meant them to sound aloud – that a branch of poetry that consisted of interesting mind pictures could exist.

And that explains my preference over the poetry of Yeats to that of Eliot.  (I’m using old poets because it’s more likely people will understand my references.)  When Yeats went to excess, and he did frequently, he sounded, well, ridiculous.  Silly.  When Eliot went to excess, he became didactic.  Preachy.

I’ll take ridiculous over preachy ten times out of ten.

That may also explain the difference between Walt Whitman and Emily Dickenson, although I criticize neither.  Whitman was very out-going, and if his poetry was a barbaric yawp, at least it yawped in tune.  Dickenson had no one to sing for, as she lived in a strange solitude, so her poetry was the perfect succession of imagery, broken by lots of long dashes.

Now, of course, we have poetry which is not either song nor pictures.  It is conceptual, and goes on and on.  I guess I am showing a prejudice, here.  But as I’m not a critic by occupation, and in fact I avoid the role whenever I can, I can admit to my prejudices.  I like my poetry to sing.

I can’t dance with elegance, but in my head I do. And I like to have words to dance to.

One Word Implies Another

Chip Delany described it best, years ago, in an essay titled About 5750 words.

When we think up a story, it seems to be of a certain shape, and we assume that will be the final shape.  But then we sit down to the keyboard and write the first word down.  *Splat*.  There it is.  And that first word has now limited our possibilities for the next word.  Simply said, if we start by writing ‘The’, then we can’t very well go on with ‘I’ve been dwelling . . . ‘.  Our choices are limited.  Of course we can erase ‘The’, but then we are back with a blank screen.  Or piece of paper.  Whatever.  Somewhere along the line, we must write the first word.

And the next word has to fit in with the first word, or we’re not communicating.  So it begins.  The story-shape in the head often winds up bearing little resemblance to the words on the final document.

But there has been a change since that great essay of Delany’s appeared.  I discovered it myself the last time I read a piece of a novel for a convention audience.  Spiffy new processors, such as Word 2016, which is what I’m using to write this, make it possible to dart blithely into our story, inserting foreshadowing as needed, or making global changes.  And the piece of story I read aloud in practice, to my embarrassment, didn’t flow as well as I thought it did. So on the floor I found myself winging it.  Not keeping to the document’s phrasing at all.

Because one word did NOT imply the next. Not always. 

I think that is becoming more and more common with writers of fiction today.  I have tried to read aloud what I find on the page of many new books in my own library, and it doesn’t sound like anything anyone might have said, or written, a generation ago.  Possibly this is not important for expository prose, (although I’ve read some journalism in the past few years that is almost gibberish.  And from sources that used to be proud of the quality of their journalism.) But it is everything for a writer of stories.

So I’ve taken to the idea of reading, or at least subvocalizing, anything I send out.  Whether to a collaborator, an editor or even a friend.  And I find myself making changes.  Lots of changes.  So that one word implies the next and the story keeps working as a story.  When read aloud.

And even when the reader is in private, reading words on a page or on a glowing screen, I think that reader, somewhere in the mind, will be able to tell the difference.

Thank you, Samuel R. Delany.