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Writing Tip: Write Drunk. Edit Sober.

Monday, February 23rd, 2015

The short little quip that is the title of this post—”Write drunk. Edit sober.”—is commonly attributed to Ernest Hemingway. Because the Internet loves a debate even more than it loves a pithy quotation, you’ll find arguments online about whether Hemingway ever said any such thing (here for example). In fact, these debates get deep. One popular blogger believes the exhortation is both bad creative advice and an immoral glorification of substance abuse. That seems like an overreaction.

As far as I’m concerned, “Write drunk. Edit sober,” is excellent advice, whoever said it first. It reminds us of two important facts:

1. Good writing is a two-stage process.

Good writing begins with a first draft, but a first draft is rarely any good. My first drafts are little more than notes—some full sentences, others fragments—all on the same subject, more or less. They may look like paragraphs, but they are actually just loosely related ideas that were once flitting around in my brain and are now pinned to a piece of paper. The very idea of someone reading any of those drafts horrifies me. But they serve their purpose: to get the thoughts out of my head and into the material world where I can manipulate them.

The purpose of editing, the second step in the process, is to rearrange those words, delete them, expand them, so they form a composition. Writing gets all the ingredients on the counter. Editing makes them a dish you’d serve to your guests. That’s because between “drunk” and “sober” there is a span of time. That span of time is critical for the creative process. Write one day. Edit the next.

2. Writing well requires that you silence your inner critic—at least momentarily.

The reason writing and editing must be separate stages in the process is because they demand different disciplines. I would never advocate that you actually write drunk. I do advocate that you write freely, embarrassingly, and without inhibitions in your first draft. Write with the momentary confidence of a man who’s had one too many. Avoid with all your strength the urge to type a sentence only to immediately delete it. Instead, stand on your chair and rant until you’re tuckered out. Metaphorically speaking.

When some time has passed, read what you’ve written in the clear light of day. For me, this stage is where the magic happens. I read what I wrote before, and think Oh, so that’s what you were trying to say! I can work with that. I move paragraphs around. Provide structure. Trim the flabby sentences. Add transitions.

All my best writing begins with editing. All my best editing begins with terrible writing.


Monday, February 16th, 2015

With an initial investment of less than $100, I began a new hobby in 2015. A workbench, a dovetail saw, and a couple of flea-market hand planes have me set up to try my hand at traditional woodworking.

My accomplishments in this noble guild can be summarized briefly: I built the workbench (such as it is) on which all future work will take place. That is all. For the last couple of days I’ve been shaping a lovely piece of rough-sawn and locally sourced poplar into the proper dimensions, from 1.25 inches thick and slightly crowned to 1 inch thick and flat. If there is anything left of it when it’s finished—after I’ve shaved a little off this side then a little on the other side and then, well, a little more on the first side to keep it even and so on—it will become a bench for our foyer. That will be my second accomplishment.

This type of woodworking is traditional in at least two ways. For one, the basic technology utilized in modern hand tools is more or less unchanged since about the 17th century. (If the articles I’ve skimmed are to be trusted.) More personally, two of my great-grandfathers were craftsmen. The television in our living sits atop a chest-of-drawers one of them built decades ago. It is fashioned from repurposed crates delivered to the ammunition plant where Daddy Carl worked. (Handmade of reclaimed lumber. Daddy Carl would have made a killing on Etsy.)

The thing is, though, I am not using my great-grandfathers’ tools, nor did either of them teach me the techniques I’d need to know to use them. My tools are technologically primitive but really rather new. And I’m learning everything I know from videos on YouTube. The word “tradition” comes from a Latin root that means to “hand down.” What I’ve done is more nearly picked up something discarded and put it in my pocket.

But this is what “tradition” and “traditional” mean, for the most part, today. Few people I know learn traditional skills from their elders or in dusty workshops or well-lighted studios. We learn traditional technologies such as planing and canning through our new technologies—tablets and smartphones. Tradition isn’t binding or authoritative. It supplements our sense of tactile connectedness with the past. That’s one sense new technology really cannot satisfy. Tradition is today a selective recovery of artifacts—spiritual or material—carefully curated to complement our lifestyles. This is a definition of tradition previous generations would hardly understand.

I’m not complaining. When I finish my bench, I’ll snap a couple of photos with my smart phone. One of them, certainly, will feature a nearly translucent ribbon of poplar beside the planer and the other will show off the finished product in good light. I’ll post them on Instagram. Probably on #handtoolthursday.

Flannery O’Connor on Gift and Vocation

Wednesday, August 21st, 2013

[A] vocation is a limiting factor which extends even to the kind of material that the writer is able to apprehend imaginatively. The writer can choose what he writes about but he cannot choose what he is able to make live … . The Christian writer particularly will feel that whatever his initial gift is, it comes from God; and no matter how minor a gift it is, he will not be willing to destroy it by trying to use it outside its proper limits.

Flannery O’Connor, “The Fiction Writer and His Country”

Writing Tip: Write Like a Painter

Thursday, August 15th, 2013

After a conversation with my granddaddy about his process for painting portraits, I realized that his creative process and mine are quite similar. Maybe he paints like a writer. Or maybe I write like a painter.

1. Start with composition. The first thing a painter does is lay out the composition of his subject. Granddaddy does this by sketching lightly in paint where the primary objects will be; deciding what’s in the foreground, what’s in the background. The purpose of this step is to prioritize. What in the painting is most important, and how will you ensure it receives the focus it deserves?

I do this in my writing—especially when I have a strict word-count limit—by outlining. I’m currently writing a book review that can be no longer than 1250 words. This is how I started:

Intro: 125 words
Summary: 600 words
Commentary: 400 words
Conclusion: 125 words

My parameters are established. There’s a good chance I’ll break my own rules. But this keeps me mindful, at the very least, that the hero of this assignment is summary —it gets the most words. Everything else is background and shadow.

2. Apply color in layers. Granddaddy works in layers. The first application of color is fairly flat. Depth and dimension is added gradually, layer by layer. The same is often true for my writing. My first layer of text is usually quite colorless. My goal is simply to get the information on the paper. Here are the things I think, in no particular order. For a book review, the prose might be as boring as, “They use 19th-century sources.” That’s true, but it ain’t pretty. That’s okay. Depth and dimension come later. By the way, that sentence eventually became, “They lead us on a brisk walk through 19th-century sources.” Better.

3. Walk away. “If you look at your painting long enough,” Granddaddy told me this weekend, “your eyes can convince your mind that everything looks alright. But if you go away for a couple of hours and come back, the mistakes just jump right out at you.” Walking away is an important part of my writing process. When I’m mired in an unsatisfactory draft, I usually need 24 hours’ worth of distance to regain clear vision. Sometimes it takes several drafts and several periods of distance before I see clearly.

4. Hone, sharpen, and define. The final step in portraiture is sharpening crucial details so that the viewers eye goes where you want it to go. At this point in my writing I pay attention to alliteration, sentence structure, or repetition. My goal is to identify how specific writing tools will draw the readers eyes to the right places. A couple of short sentences prepare the reader for a long sentence, in which the truly important information is communicated. A metaphor from the introduction and stitched through the paragraphs can be tied off in the conclusion.

I’ve said more here than I know about painting. But I do know this for sure: a simile can save a writer. Write like a painter.

Portrait of an Artist: Granddaddy

Tuesday, August 13th, 2013

Studying a book on portraiture

My granddaddy retired very young. I have vague memories of his retirement party; I was very young myself. But for the better part of my thirty-something years of life, Grandmother and Granddaddy have been retired.

Since they retired, Grandmother and Granddaddy have taken taekwondo, learned to speak French, criss-crossed the continental U.S., traveled to Europe, expanded their home from two bedrooms to three (with their own four hands—and my two in the summers), cared for aging and ailing family members, and have generally made the most of their time. They have been models for me of lifelong adventure and constant personal enrichment. And quiet, unassuming determination.

Even before they retired, Granddaddy was an artist. It was not his job, mind you. He was an electrician in the Navy during the Korean War. He was an inventory manager for a manufacturing company that made things for the military. He wrote a couple of computer programs. But he was always an artist.

And, in my opinion, he is and always has been a true artist, because he is an artist for art’s sake. He draws and paints beautifully, and most people never see his work. He does not create things with hopes of fame or fortune, but simply because he wants to create lovely things. That’s something I find hard to do. These days I rarely spend time writing unless I’m trying to meet a deadline or unless I have some reasonable expectation that someone will pay me for my effort. I think that’s why I hesitate to call myself an artist. I have a hard time creating something simply for the sake of creating it. My time with Granddaddy this weekend challenged me to take up my quill and write something beautiful, regardless of whether anyone else will ever read it.

This is Granddaddy’s eightieth year of life. His current project is painting small portraits of his parents and siblings. In order to do this well, he is poring over books about portraiture, taking painting classes, learning new techniques. Because anything worth doing is worth doing right, even if no one else will ever see the final product.