Category Archives: the writing process

how to write; Exhibit A

 

 

 

Roger W. Smith, ‘Sorokin as Bilingual Stylist’

 

See Word document above.

 

 

I am very proud of the short scholarly paper posted here, which I have just finished. It has not yet been published.

It was written by me for an upcoming academic conference.

I had very short notice and a tight deadline — about a week to research and write the piece.

I hunkered down and was virtually chained to my computer for the past few days. There was a lot of spade work to be done before I could begin writing.

On Saturday morning, two days ago, I was still doing what would be called spade work. I was very focused and energized. But, later in the day, I found myself being over anxious — too “wired.” I decided I had to shut down and do nothing for the evening.

I woke up refreshed on Sunday morning and ready to work. But I had a feeling of consternation in that I couldn’t see how I could get the piece done by the end of the day. It was due Sunday at the latest. The editor said she had to begin preparation for publication on Monday.

I told myself,  Roger, no more “research.” No more examining your source materials. It’s time to WRITE. (Note that I had about twelve hours left.)

I had a draft already, but it was an amorphous mess of some preliminary overall thoughts I had had pertinent to my topic and some sections partially written, plus a lot of stuff I had cut and pasted from downloaded source materials and “dumped” into the text.

The creative process started to kick in (if that’s the right way to say it) — miraculously — in my genius brain. (Don’t’ worry, I’m being facetious.) I saw a way I could possibly structure and organize the presentation. I wrote five or ten subheadings that seemed to provide a sort of outline and to group content into some meaningful order. Then I rearranged my materials under the subheads.

“Let’s see how long it is now,” I said to myself. Twenty pages. The editor wanted six to eight pages including an abstract and footnotes.

Howe can I possibly get it down to the required length in such a short time, I thought.

I went at it and started pruning. I found that a lot could be cut, such as long quotations, or repetitive quotations and examples.

The piece was still too long. I did a tightening job which required intense effort and craftsmanship. Lo and behold, I had gotten the piece down to just under eight pages.

Any writer will tell you that the hardest thing to do is to write a short piece when you have more material that you can fit in.

After slaving over a piece of writing — short or long — optimally the materials you are working with, words and paragraphs, suddenly gel and cohere — almost miraculously, it seems — since a moment before you had what was essentially a mess in front of you to work with, or — perhaps one should say — clean up.

 

 

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There’s such ego satisfaction in pulling such a job off. (The editor responded immediately with very positive feedback.) Here’s what I think this piece illustrates by way of pointing out what good writing requires and how excellence and professionalism can be ascertained:

— an ability to work a great deal of documentary material (based upon arduous research) into a tightly constructed piece

— how to assemble all this material and then present it in a coherent fashion, so that the piece reads well

— how to achieve an admixture of evidentiary materials with expository writing in which one conveys lucid, well thought out opinions and insights that do not get “lost in the traffic”

 

— Roger W. Smith

   September 16, 2019

left vs. right brainedness; does it apply to writing, and how so?

 

 

In a previous post of mine

 

“left vs. right brainedness; and, CREATIVITY”

 

left vs. right brainedness; and, CREATIVITY

 

 

I began by saying:

An animated discussion with an acquaintance the other day got me to thinking about the concept of left vs. right brainedness (known by scientists as lateralization of brain function) and how it affects people. Clearly, it is a fact of one’s makeup that is extremely important. There is much to be contemplated by the layperson trying to understand himself or herself. It seems to affect us so profoundly.

No doubt, the terms are often used loosely, and while I am not an expert, there seems to be much confusion, with concepts getting tossed around by people who feel that this or that trait is dominant in their makeup. …

I have zero expertise and cannot do more than speak from experience and my own speculations: my experience as it seems to corroborate the basic ideas; my speculations about what this might say about creativity.

I then went on to tackle the subject from my own layman’s vantage point, I am certain that I am left brained.

What follows are excerpts from that post in which I try to relate the concept to creativity, and discuss its applicability to the writing process.

 

— Roger W. Smith

   January 2019

 
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An online chart I consulted

 

Left Brain vs. Right Brain

 

http://www.diffen.com/difference/Left_Brain_vs_Right_Brain

 

shows the following:

Left Brain Functions: Speech and language, logical analysis and reasoning, mathematical computations.

Right Brain Functions: Spatial awareness, intuition, facial recognition, visual imagery, music awareness, art, rhythm.

 

 

There is a problem with psychology extracted from science. It often becomes pseudoscience.

Which is not to say that the schema is unsound, or that the scientific findings (and I am not a scientist) are unsound.

But, someone who glances at the chart may think, left-brain people like myself are nerdy, pointy headed analytical types who don’t have pizzazz and are too uptight, too straight-laced to be able to be spontaneous or creative. Whereas right-brain types are intuitive persons into music, art, and rhythm who are much more creative.

A lot of people think that being logical means one is inhibited and incapable of creativity and to be creative you have to be kind of nutty like a Salvador Dali. This is a superficial, misleading view.

I believe that this is a fallacy, a serious one, and that it can lead to a profound misunderstanding of what creativity involves. To repeat, it’s not the schema that’s at fault. It’s that misinformed people don’t interpret it properly. As a matter of fact, the internet posting indicates that “It is possible to be analytical/logical as well as artistic/creative and many people are.” (What is not said, which is a serious oversight, is that most creative people are analytical/logical.) The posting also indicates that it is not true that analytical people cannot be creative.

Note that the internet posting indicates that typical right-brain occupations include politics, acting, and athletics. “Acting,” one might say, “that’s creative. Proves my point. Right-brain types are creative.”

Two of the occupations listed, politics and athletics, are not in the creative category. And, actors, while they may have a lifestyle one associates with creative types, are not creative people. It’s the playwrights, screenwriters, and directors who are creative.

The posting indicates that right-brained types are “intuitive,” whereas left-brained types are “logical.” Meaning that poets are right-brained? How about writers in general?

I’m not sure about poets, because I am not knowledgeable about poetry. But, I do know literature and great writing. Most writers — I will go out on a limb and assert it — are left brained.

Think of a writer such as Milton (poet!), Tolstoy, Melville, or Joyce laboring to produce a great work of art. Take the example of Joyce. A genius at language. Who labored about four years over Ulysses and seventeen years on his final novel, Finnegans Wake. The sequencing, the choice and order of words, were all. It is a master of language engaged in the most challenging exercise of exposition imaginable, drawing upon all his left-brain resources.

The schema associates right-brained people with musical talent. Perhaps at strumming a guitar or enjoying acid rock. But, this is very misleading; nowhere in the schema is there any indication that left-brained people may have a capacity for music. But, it is noted that left-brained people excel at mathematics.

It has been known for a long time that people with innate intellectual ability when it comes to abstract mathematics are often great appreciators of classical music. And, what’s more important, I am certain that most of the great composers were left-brained. Think about Beethoven endlessly revising his compositions. Working out the inner logic of his symphonies until it (the “musical logic”) seems preordained and inevitable. That is left-brained thinking, unquestionably.

People use words like “creative” and “intuitive” too loosely. Left-brainedness does not preclude creativity, far from it.

My mother provides an example. Her biggest intellectual strengths were reading/writing; communication/conversation. She was left-brained. She loved literature. She wrote very well. She remembered the books she read in great detail, as she also did conversations, incidents, and people she knew from the remote past. And, she was highly intuitive. It was the type of intuition a poet might have. She was great at picking up on subtleties, as poets (and also novelists) do and noticing or recalling little, telling details, in contrast to what is seen in “big picture” right-brain types.

A key to categorizing the mental or intellectual “cast” of person such as my mother is not to apply an adjective such as instinctive, intuitive, or artistic to that person from an a priori vantage point and then attempt to make it fit. It is, rather, to ask, how does that person habitually cogitate, communicate, and so forth? My mother excelled at writing and conversation. She was a born writer who never became one professionally. My father, to give another example, was a professional musician who showed talent from a very young age. Did that make him right brained? The answer is, definitely not. His writing demonstrated where his strengths lay. He wrote beautifully, whenever it was required of him. He had a gift that seemed remarkable for exposition, for making things clear, and for presenting his thoughts cogently, which is to say logically, both in conversation and writing.

 

 

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My own career as a writer illustrates some of the above points. I was blessed with innate ability when it comes to language and exposition and raised in a family where these attributes were customary and essential. Yet, I slaved for years to hone my skills, beginning with rigorous writing instruction as a student and continuing with professional writing.

As a beginning professional writer, I often despaired of getting things right, meeting deadlines, being able to write to spec, and so forth; and labored for much longer than anyone might conceive to write short pieces for publication.

What I have found over the years as I have become more skilled and my productivity has increased, is that there is a still a process which I go through in most cases. I start out with an idea for a piece of writing, I get some ideas down on paper. Leaving aside the question of research, which is a major undertaking in itself in the case of most expository pieces, I begin writing and it usually goes reasonably well. I am able to make a start (and am much more adept at this than in my earlier years as a writer when I labored over leads). Then, there is a long process of building upon that initial stab at a piece, of incremental additions, of qualifiers, rewriting, rearranging and recasting of thoughts, and of trying over and over again to get it just right, to get the words and sentences to cohere. It’s sort of like completing a jigsaw puzzle.

People think creativity means inspiration. Yes, it does, and no, it doesn’t. Meaning that most great works were produced after prodigious labor and endless refining — leaving aside the extended apprenticeship, years of study of models of excellence and of beginning or trial efforts, that a creative genius must undergo before achieving mastery. And, the works themselves do not just spring like rabbits out of a hat. Endless toil and labor go into producing them, during which the artist is not sure of the outcome. The best insights often come when you’re thinking hard, which means working hard, to perfect a piece, and they often come near the point of completion.

For a while, one’s writing seems muddled, but it begins to take shape. Still, one knows that it’s not anywhere near completion, to being in finished form. One experiences frustration. But, the subconscious continues to work. One goes back to the piece, and on the tenth draft or so (literally) — if not the fifteenth or sixteenth — one feels the piece beginning to cohere and to have an inner logic: that it works. One has gone from being a logician of sorts (a logician of words and sentences, trying to work out their desired sequence) to an “artiste” (used sardonically), a creative writer, as they say. One experiences true creativity, which is very pleasurable. But true creativity is not possible without careful preparation and planning, without drudgery. This is not just true of a Roger W. Smith, it was also true of James Joyce, Gustave Flaubert, and Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy. Didn’t I already say it? I belong in distinguished company. I’m left-brained! As were they.

reflections on writing of an autobiographical nature

 

 

perspective-in-joyces-portrait-of-the-artist

 

 

A relative has commented on a post of mine on this site, namely “My Boyhood,” at

 

Roger W. Smith, “My Boyhood”

 

My relative had some questions and made some observations about selectivity on my part in seemingly choosing to focus on some aspects of my boyhood while overlooking others.

My relative’s comment induced me to think about what goes into writing such a piece. My response follows.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

     March 2017
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I appreciated your getting back to me with follow up on my response to your comment on my blog post “My Boyhood.”

I feel that some comments of my own regarding how the piece was written and my approach to it would be pertinent.

I wrote the autobiographical essay over a period of about six months (perhaps longer). I started it and got very into it, then put it aside.

I would go back to it periodically when something occurred to me to add. The piece grew incrementally, by accretion. It’s about thirty pages long.

My usual working method as a writer is to follow and trust in the drift of my recollections and thoughts. I feel that a good writer has the ability to link things that often do not on the surface seem to be connected — through a train of thought or of associations. Details and incidents come into one’s consciousness and get linked in the mind and fused in the narrative. Connections are made that might not be obvious and could be overlooked. It’s sort of like following one’s nose as a dog does — one does NOT first write an outline and say to oneself, I will cover this area first, then that, the next one. It’s anything but a PowerPoint presentation.

So, what individuals, persons get included — as a general rule/principle, and in this instance?

Take Janet Funke, my next door neighbor and first playmate. One of my earliest recollections is when I stole the flowers from her father’s garden. The incident made a big impression on me, especially because I incurred my mother’s displeasure and because of the way she handled it. So, Janet became a “character” in my blog post.

In writing, I usually don’t begin with a plan. I let things emerge in my mind and impinge upon my consciousness. I follow my own train of thoughts or associations, trust in it.

A respected friend and mentor liked the piece a lot and said he enjoyed reading it. He said it reminded him of James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.”

I am attaching a Word document (see above) which includes discussions of Joyce’s narrative technique. I once attended a lecture by an English professor at Brandeis University, Allen Grossman, who discussed the same thing in a lecture on Joyce’s story “Araby.” I know that you already know it, but the point made in the commentaries is that Joyce, as author, writes strictly from the point of view — I believe the Brandeis professor used the term “favored consciousness” — of the main character, in the case of “Portrait,” of Stephen Dedalus. Authorial omniscience does not occur; interpolated commentary by the narrator is basically omitted. We see things at a “ground level” view, strictly through the lens or prism of the young boy. My friend thought I achieved this.

Regarding subject matter — and persons discussed — in this and other blog posts of mine.

A key point is that — as I have already said — I write about whatever occurs to me — often relying on my memory, which I was told by my former therapist, as well as others, is excellent. Businesspeople have agendas, and coaches have playbooks; the creative process seems to be a matter of free association. Who knows why an author or artist uses some material as grist for the mill and overlooks other material?

Regarding who was named and/or discussed in “My Boyhood,” I reread it myself yesterday to see who was named and/or discussed.

I was not writing a family history. Nor was I trying to place emphasis on parents or siblings. My parents are mentioned, for example — anecdotally and with regard to how they impacted my upbringing — but this was not an essay about my parents.

Regarding births of siblings, to be honest, consistent with my modus operandi, when I was writing the essay, it did not occur to me to discuss them. I probably wouldn’t have anyway. This wasn’t a piece about my siblings, family, or family history — it was about one particular member of my family: ME. My family is discussed — could not be left out — but from a particular perspective, namely their direct influence, experientially, on me.

My former therapist observed that writing is at bottom a self centered activity, both in terms of what it involves (viewed qua ITALICS activity) — a solitary one that one undertakes hoping to be read — and by virtue of its nature: a priori, by definition. How true that seems to be.

Writing is done in isolation in the hope/expectation that the attention of others will be drawn to the writer’s thoughts and things about himself or herself that the writer shares, in the hope that he or she will thereby gain admiration.