Aug 27

The Power of Priorities

Dear Friends,

Holly and I are getting ready for our first collaborative workshop this weekend at Finnriver Farm in Chimicum, WA. As I think about what we’d like to offer this group, I imagine us gathered in a quiet circle, surrounded by the vibrant life of a small farm: blueberry fields glistening with ready fruit; chickens doing their chicken thing; apples ripening on the trees.

And I understand that before Holly and I even say a word, the workshop truly began when each person made the commitment to come here, to set aside three hours of their busy lives for this time of introspection and writing.

So much of authentic living, it turns out, is about commitment. Deciding what’s important to us and arranging our lives so they reflect these priorities. It seems simple, but the world has a way of placing obstacles in our paths. Emily Dickinson once said: “The world is spell so exquisite that everything conspires to break it.” Some days it feels like that: one frustration after another, and our real lives somehow getting away from us.

And some days are the opposite: days that begin smoothly, with all our priorities in place, shining like beacons. We get things done easily, smoothly, and even have “extra” time leftover for whatever meets our fancy.

For five minutes, list your priorities for the day. Try to go beyond the obvious and be a little whimsical. What do you REALLY feel like doing? If you had all the time in the world, what would rise to the top of your list?

Then, for fifteen minutes, write a memory or a fantasy of  a time when all your priorities seemed in order: what did this feel like? What did you do (or what would you do?)  What does this scene show you about yourself that you might not have articulated before?

Holly and I are looking forward to the twenty people we’ll meet this Sunday, but we also want YOU to be there in spirit. Even if you haven’t been able to join us in person for the workshop, consider setting aside an hour or two this Sunday, September 2, to write, alone or with others. We’ll be at it from 1:30-4:30 Pacific time. Join in!

Thinking of you,
P.S: Save the date: October 27th in Port Townsend for our second workshop. Information here.

Aug 20

The Elements of Style

Dear friends,

Are you ready for more writing advice?

I first encountered the timeless dispensary of advice—Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, (or “the little book, “ as it’s affectionately called, for where else can you find so many nuggets in just 85 pages?)—in my freshman English class, and when I became a college teacher myself, I continued the tradition: requiring it in all my writing classes over the last twenty years.

Those of you who have read The Pen & The Bell met my beloved journalism mentor, Rags, who used to not only assign The Elements of Style in his journalism classes, but required that students actually memorize the rules—and then he’d give quizzes to ensure they did. He taught many of the country’s top journalists, and I can’t help but think they succeeded because they’d memorized these “elements of style,” and had taken the critical next step: incorporated them into their own writing.

It would have been Rags’ 101st birthday yesterday, and I can’t imagine a more fitting tribute than to have us return to our dog-eared copies of The Elements of Style, choose one rule and consciously incorporate that rule into our writing this week. I’m starting with  “Omit needless words”:

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all details and treat his subject only in outline, but that every word tell. “

He then gives examples of common phrases that violate this rule:  “there is no doubt but that” (doubtless),  “the reason why is that” (because)  “owing to the fact that”  (since), in spite of the fact that (though).

See what writing advice you find in “the little book.”  If you don’t have a copy, you can order one from your local independent bookstore or download a free e-book here:

Yours, ever in pursuit of clarity & brevity,

Aug 12

The Long and Winding Sentence

Dear Friends,

Holly and I are both currently in residence at the Rainier Writing Workshop, the low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University. It’s like writing camp: every day is full of interesting talks, conversations, classes, readings. Everyone’s excited to be here. As faculty, I look forward to this chance to be in communion with fellow writers, to remember what brought me to writing in the first place.

Every year, it seems, some theme arises for me, and this year it’s a simple one: the sentence. I remembered I love the sentence. And, if you’re a writer, you must love sentences too. I don’t mean platonic love. I don’t mean liking something the way you like, say, chocolate or Friday Night Lights or the color blue. I mean LOVE. I mean wallowing around in it, full-bodied, mooning-in-your-pajamas love.

I sat in on a class led by Suzanne Berne, where we scrutinized sentences. Sentences that worked and sentences that didn’t.  I could have done that all day. When the time was up, I begged for more. I revealed my true inner nerd. But then again, Annie Dillard once wrote:

A well-known writer got collared by a university student who asked, ”Do you think I could be a writer?”

”Well,” the writer said, ”I don’t know. . . . Do you like sentences?”

Sometimes we get all caught up in WHAT we’re trying to say, forgetting that the HOW of saying it is really the writer’s work. And the HOW can reveal so much of our inner selves, our true voices.

Personally, I’m a fan of the long sentence. The sentence that keeps exploring deeper and deeper, suspending itself in space and time, breathing in and out, until something both unexpected and inevitable opens up at the end. Here at RWW, I taught a class on E.B. White and had the students pick out memorable “White” sentences; here’s one, from his classic “Death of a Pig”:

From the lustiness of a healthy pig a man derives a feeling of personal lustiness; the stuff that goes into the trough and is received with such enthusiasm is an earnest of of some later feast of his own, and when this suddenly comes to an end and the food lies stale and untouched, souring in the sun, the pig’s imbalance becomes the man’s, vicariously, and life seems insecure, displaced, transitory.

Ah. Do you hear it? The rhythm of thought, the rhymes, the momentum? Do you hear how that one simple clause, “souring in the sun,” allows us to hold still a moment in this contemplative space, to be suspended, before the drumbeat of “insecure, displaced, transitory” brings us to the inevitable, melancholy insight? This line ends a section, so a gap follows, in which we hear the bell tolling not only for the ailing pig, but for us all. (Luckily, White’s “vile old dachshund” Fred, comes bounding into the breach, wiggling his rump and lifting our spirits….)

In this busy world, it can be tempting to forego the long thought, the slow thought, for quicker bullets of information or story. Pico Iyer has written on this subject beautifully; in his article for the L.A. Times, “The Point of the Long and Winding Sentence,” he opens by telling us that he’s been accused of writing too-long sentences. His response?

“I’m using longer and longer sentences as a small protest against — and attempt to rescue any readers I might have from — the bombardment of the moment…. Nowadays the planet is moving too fast … and many of us in the privileged world have access to more information than we know what to do with. What we crave is something that will free us from the overcrowded moment and allow us to see it in a larger light…

Enter (I hope) the long sentence: the collection of clauses that is so many-chambered and lavish and abundant in tones and suggestions, that has so much room for near-contradiction and ambiguity and those places in memory or imagination that can’t be simplified, or put into easy words, that it allows the reader to keep many things in her head and heart at the same time, and to descend, as by a spiral staircase, deeper into herself and those things that won’t be squeezed into an either/or.”

So, I know that the way we read now can be so much different, and that I’ve already violated some of the unspoken blog rules about writing short, concise, bulleted points. But what say you, dear reader? Do you have any favorite long sentences that rattle around in your head?

For just 10 minutes, write the longest sentence you can. Don’t stop. Let the sentence breath through you. Where does this sentence lead?

With gratitude,