Yes, I used a strong word in the title of this post: “hate” because in “Several Short Sentences on Writing,” the author, Verlyn Klinkenborg quietly, simply, and very clearly cuts to the bone, every assumption you ever made about writing. Here’s a taste from the front jacket.
“Most of what you think you know about writing is useless. It’s the harmful debris of your education — a mixture of half-truths, myths, and false assumptions that prevents you from writing well. Drawing on years of experience as a writer and teacher of writing, Verlyn Klinkenborg offers an approach to writing that will change the way you work and think.”
He even asks you to think about typesetting. The book is written without the usual form of paragraphs. On purpose he breaks up his own sentences, adding line breaks, and setting certain phrases off by themselves. It doesn’t even look like any other book you read. And he truly does ask you to think about how you write. In fact he asks you to think, and observe, how you think.
“The central fact of your education is this:
You’ve been taught to believe that what you discover
By examining your own thoughts and perceptions,
Is unimportant and unauthorized.
As a result, you fear thinking,
And you don’t believe your thoughts are interesting,
Because you haven’t learned to be interested in them.”
You mean all that time spent in college, I was being trained to not be interested in my own thoughts? He goes on:
“There’s another possibility:
You may be interested in your own thoughts,
But they don’t have much to do with anything you’ve
ever been asked to write.”
I agree with him here, and can recall so many class papers, articles, and even news stories that I was paid to write, which I had no interest in the subject and simply dashed off the words just to get the thing finished and turned in on time.
Now Klinkenborg links our un-interest in our own thoughts to our un-interest in what we notice around us:
“The same is true of what you notice.
You don’t even notice what you notice,
Because nothing in your education has taught you that
what you notice is important.”
And if you do notice something that interests you,
It doesn’t have much to do with anything you’ve ever been asked to write.”
Who many writing teachers have you come across who is courageous enough to tell you that your education is so lacking that what you think and what you notice is not important? Not many. Then he serves up the saving grace:
“But everything you notice is important.
Let me say that a different way:
If you notice something, its’ because it’s important.
But what you notice depends on what you allow yourself to notice,
And that depends on what you feel authorized, permitted
In a world where we’re trained to disregard our perceptions.
Who’s going to give you the authority to feel that what
you notice is important?
It will have to be you.
The authority you feel has a great deal to do with how
you write, and what you write,
With your ability to pay attention to the shape and
meaning of your thoughts
And the value of your own perceptions.”
I don’t know about you, but it took me years of struggle and of self-doubt and even after getting a degree in Journalism, I still wondered if I could ever “be a writer.” Because of all the baggage that goes along with our perception of who a writer is and what a writer does. And as Klinkenborg says, I am the one who has to finally decide, I have to give my self the “authority” to feel that what I notice and what I think are important, and your job is to learn how to communicate that importance to your reader.
And now that you have the authority to communicate what you notice and what you think, he walks you through countless observations on the process of noticing, asking the question again and again, what do you notice? He asks you to practice noticing and that “…it requires a suspension of yearning and a pause in the desire to be pouring something out of yourself. Noticing is about letting yourself out into the world, rather than siphoning the world into you in order to transmute it into words.”
Noticing is about “letting yourself out into the world,” I love that because he so turns the idea on its head. That as writers, we are to be absorbing life, to turn it into material. “Practicing noticing will also help you to learn about patience. And the nature of your mind. Noticing means thinking with all of your senses. It’s also and exercise in not writing.”
In a world where everyone is telling you to write fast, produce more, tweet this, post that, more, more more. Klinkenborg is asking you slow down and examine yourself, he’s asking you to take the time to focus on one thing, to really see the world around you, and to notice yourself, to question what it is you notice and why it popped out at you, why is it special to you?
And this is a lot of hard work. I told you, you would hate this book. I was curious and looked up the reviews of this book posted on Amazon. I laughed when I saw they ranged from five stars to one, with not much else in between. This revealed a lot about the reviewers, the one star reviewer show said, “a lousy read and doesn’t give particularly useful advice.” Here’s someone who is unwilling to examine how he thinks, and how that influences what he writes.
And I would disagree, the book is filled with many useful exercises. But they are not easy. They are not “five grammar mistakes everyone makes.” They are more like drills, this is what he has to say about grammar:
“You don’t need to be an expert in grammar and syntax
to write well.
But you do need to know the difference between transitive
and intransitive verbs.
Between active and passive constructions.
The relation between a pronoun and its antecedent.
All the parts of speech.
The different verb tenses.
The nature of participles and their role as modifiers.
The subtleties of prepositions — the hardest part of
speech even for native speakers of English.
You need a toolbox of rhetorical devices, like irony, hyperbole,
And the various kinds of analogy.
You need an ever-growing vocabulary — and with it
the awareness that most words carry several meanings.
You need to look up even familiar words every time
you have a doubt.
And especially when you don’t have a doubt.
That is, very often.
That is, every time you write.”
I’ll be honest I don’t know the difference between a transitive and an intransitive verb. I don’t look up words often enough, and prepositions and prepositional phrases still stump me. And it goes on. And it is fascinating, and I love this book. It is a great reminder that no, there are no tricks, no shortcuts, no magic formula to becoming a better writer. It takes lots, and lots, of boring hard work. This book is not for everyone. It is not for the wannabees. It is not for the writer looking for a quick fix. It is for creative souls who are willing to hunker down and work hard.
And which category do you fall in? How does it feel when someone questions you? Questions your thoughts and how and what you notice? I’d love to hear your reaction to this one. I better sign off and go look up some verbs. Thank you so much for stopping by.