Saturday, May 8, 2010

Better writing but how?

One of my clients, a graduate school of nursing here in Portland, sent me a small project to edit on Friday night. It was their updated statement of the graduate writing requirement, the writing skills they wanted their doctoral candidates to demonstrate. There was nothing new on the list and I was glad to see them so plainly stated. At the same time, I wondered how they were going to make this happen.

Most graduate programs are credit heavy with course work, skills and information, and there's no extra room to offer writing classes. At the same time, faculty are not writing teachers or editors. Even those who write well may be unconscious writers; that is, they can do it themselves and can recognize bad writing in others but do not know how to teach writing improvement.

And from my own experience as a writing teacher, it's reasonably simple to explain how things work and what the rules and standards are, and another thing entirely for students to change the writing habits of a life time. It takes time, energy, and discipline--things often in short supply for busy graduate students with other priorities. Such training needs to come decades earlier--junior high, high school, and sadly, that doesn't seem to happen much anymore.

Friday, May 7, 2010

A Mother's Day poem I love

Invisible Work
Because no one could ever praise me enough,because I don't mean these poems only but the unseen unbelievable effort it takes to live the life that goes on between them, I think all the time about invisible work.
About the young mother on Welfare I interviewed years ago, who said, "It's hard. You bring him to the park, run rings around yourself keeping him safe, cut hot dogs into bite-sized pieces for dinner, and there's no one to say what a good job you're doing, how you were patient and loving for the thousandth time even though you had a headache."
And I, who am used to feeling sorry for myself because I am lonely, when all the while, as the Chippewa poem says, I am being carried by great winds across the sky, thought of the invisible work that stitches up the world day and night,the slow, unglamorous work of healing, the way worms in the garden tunnel ceaselessly so the earth can breathe and bees ransack this world into being, while owls and poets stalk shadows,our loneliest labors under the moon.
There are mothers for everything, and the sea is a mother too,whispering and whispering to us long after we have stopped listening.
I stopped and let myself lean a moment, against the blue shoulder of the air. The work of my heart is the work of the world's heart.
There is no other art.~
Alison Luterman ~ (The Largest Possible Life)

Thursday, May 6, 2010

A willingness to work at it

I had lunch today with my good friend Scot. An old friend had sent him a collection of short stories that she'd written some years ago and published herself. When I asked him if they were good, he said "Not very. There were some great ideas and some beautiful images but it wasn't well written. It was as if she put them down and then gave up."

Having a willingness to work at our writing is an essential characteristic of the good writer. That may seem obvious but I don't think so. Many writers think that when they've labored through the self-help book or the novel they've always wanted to write, read it over, and tweaked it, that they're done. It doesn't occur to them to rewrite it because they never have been shown how.

When I talk to clients whose work seems hasty and amateurish (although it may have taken them several years to get it that far), inevitably they did a first draft for school work, maybe even college work, and got good grades. That makes them a good writer, they think. They don't realize that teachers aren't always good judges of writing, that teachers can be poor writers themselves or only look at a student's grasp of content for the grade.

In order to become a good writer, one must read a lot, write a lot, and usually do some study of the genre and style. That can be formal study in classes or it can be self-study, a close reading of text to see how the greats do it. In any case, working and reworking with the writing is the only way to get it to be really good.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Language as classist

Here in the U.S., we like to think of ourselves as a classless society. And in some ways, it's true. With a certain amount good fortune and hard work, you can move from one economic class to another or the reverse, if your fortune's not so good. Many of the members of my parents' generation moved from the working class to the middle class in that prosperous time after WWII. And people marry up and down the economic system.

Education too can move you along. In unheard of numbers, children of the working class are getting not only college educations but advanced degrees and moving into a professional class of workers with the possibility if not the reality of professional wages.

I've been thinking about class issues these last two weeks as I edit a number of doctoral dissertations from a variety of institutions. All these writings in various fields and on various subjects have one thing in common: a highly inflated and stiff form of the language. Some are particularly obtuse and abstract. This kind of language is prized in very few places but it is prized in academia and it creates an elitism, a snobbery that is disconcerting to me.

Two of the writers are very liberal feminists and yet they are writing in a way that excludes many women from access to their ideas (which are quite fine). They would say that they are playing the game, that without learning to write like this they cannot succeed in graduate school and that may well be true. But having written a dissertation in plain English (albeit several decades ago), I don't think that's true. I think it is true that it's a game, but it's not a good one. For that kind of writing is classist--only a certain narrow class of intellectuals can access that information. Not very democratic, I don't think.

Monday, May 3, 2010

A poem for my mother

Lucile, This Place, and You

She stood at the back door one afternoon.
The bees were loud in the arbor by the garage
Drunk already on the fallen fruit.
The children were playing in the field next to the school yard.
Molly barked and yipped and jumped from boy to girl to girl.

Her life seemed endless. The cycle of laundry and meals and cleaning and shopping—
a loop broken only by the drive on Sunday, ice cream and baseball on the radio.
He loved her in his way. That was what she had.

And now you stand at the back door, hearing the children in the school yard at recess.
Why don’t adults get recess? Why aren’t we able to take it easy?

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Revision as a pleasure, not a burden

This is a busy time of year for me. A portion of the editing work I do is on doctoral dissertations and this is high season as graduation draws near. Some of my clients are amazed when their documents come back to them full of things for them to fix and clarify. Even if I send a "clean" copy, one in which my editing marks have been accepted, there are inevitably comments and questions that need to be dealt with.

One client called Friday and wanted to know what I wanted her to do with the comments. I patiently explained that I had fixed as many things as I could but that in some cases, I didn't know what she meant or didn't have the necessary knowledge to do the clarification. She was, in fact, the author of the document and she needed to address the issues. "But that will mess up the text," she said. She went on to explain that she had expected a perfect document from me. And I realized it had never occurred to her that anything might need rewriting or that anything might be missing or unclear. So, although she has written a book-length document, she is not a writer.

Writers learn early to embrace revision, and some of us enjoy it thoroughly. It may not carry the same high as drafting your argument or your plot or generating that gorgeous turn of phrase. But the polish, the clarity, the honed nature of well revised writing is a joy in itself. I know I'm working with a writer when they tell me this is draft five or six and they're ready for someone else to take a stab at it, instead of being offended that anyone would question their words.