Saturday, August 11, 2018

Reading for, Writing with, and Talking about Writing Tools


This may be an historical summer for me: the first ever that I have come close to completing my professional reading list!
A book about writing well has got to be well written if it’s going to exist at all. Especially when it has as prosaic a title as Writing Tools. It’s the ultimate embodiment of message in medium. And this one definitely succeeds. The writing itself is delightful, exemplifying all 50 tools as Roy Peter Clark quotes writers on writing as well as samples of everything from Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot to newspaper articles and James Bond books. If you are a writer and/or a teacher of writing, read this book. The chapters are short (about 4 pages each) and end with workshop suggestions for the reader to apply the topic in her reading and her writing. This first time through I wanted a quick overview, so I set myself a goal of five tools/chapters per day. Next time through I will follow the author’s suggestion: “We need lots of writing tools…. Here are fifty of them, one for every week of the year. You get two weeks for vacation. Learn and enjoy” (8).

The writing is winsome and insightful. Motivational, with wonderful similes. And demonstrating what it urges. Here are several examples:

  • "All of us possess a reading vocabulary as big as a lake but draw from a writing vocabulary as small as a pond. The good news is that the acts of searching and gathering always expand the number of usable words. The writer sees and hears and records. The seeing leads to language." (70)
  • “Good writers move up and down a ladder of language, At the bottom are bloody knives and rosary beads, wedding rings and baseball cards. At the top are words that reach for a higher meaning, words like freedom and literacy. Beware of the middle, the rungs of the ladder where bureaucracy and technocracy lurk…. The easiest way to make sense of this tool is to begin with its name: the ladder of abstraction. That name contains two nouns. The first is ladder, a specific tool you can see, hold with your hands, and climb. It involves the senses. You can do things with it. Put it against a tree to rescue your cat Voodoo. The bottom of the ladder rests on concrete language. Concrete is hard, which is why when you fall off the ladder from a high place, you might break your foot. Your right foot. The one with the spider tattoo.” (107)
  • “The good writer uses telling details, not only to inform, but to persuade. In 1963 Gene Patterson wrote a column mourning the murders of four girls in the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama: ‘A Negro mother wept in the street Sunday morning in front of a Baptist Church in Birmingham. In her hand she held a shoe, one shoe, from the foot of her dead child. We hold that shoe with her’ (from the Atlanta Constitution). Patterson will not permit white southerners to escape responsibility for the murder of those children. He fixes their eyes and ears, forcing them to hear the weeping of the grieving mother, and to see the one small shoe. The writer makes us empathize and mourn and understand. He makes us see.” (74)
  • “Repetition works in writing, but only if you intend it. Repeating key words, phrases, and story elements creates a rhythm, a pace, a structure, a wavelength that reinforces the central theme of the work. Such repetition works in music, in literature, in advertising, in humor, in political speech and rhetoric, in teaching, I'm homilies, in parental lectures—even in this sentence, where the word ‘in’ is repeated ten times.” (159)

In the most famous quote in this book, which I've seen make several circuits of the Internet, Clark cites Gary Provost's book 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing, to both urge and model the orchestration of sentence length to create music:

“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create must. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium  length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals—sounds that say listen to this, it is important.” (91). 

This morning I sat in a coffee shop reading my end-of-summer, just-for-fun splurge: The Brutal Telling, by Louise Penny, #5 in the Inspector Ganache murder mystery series). The following sentences leaped out at me:
  • “These days it was a triumph if she walked across a room and didn’t step on something that squeaked. [Paragraph break.] This place was certainly a triumph. But was it a home?” (36) An agent on Gamache's team goes to interview a witness. Approaching the home, she’s startled by the starkly spare, modern architecture that out of the Canadian wilderness. Reflecting on why she feels threatened by it, she falls into a reverie about her pre- and post-children housekeeping standards. This quote ends the reverie with the first sentence and shifts back to the external moment as the agent approaches the house with the second sentence, the transition accomplished, and perhaps something significant highlighted (or is it a red herring?) by the repetition of the word “triumph.” It’s also a bit of word play—the first triumph is self-deprecating, the second, self-conscious. 
  • “'Havoc!' his mother cried, letting the dogs slip out as she called into the woods.” (37) Did Penny really just do that? Allude to Shakespeare’s line in Julius Caesar, “Cry, ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war”? We’ve already had several comments on the oddness of the name Havoc, son of Roar. But as they are Czech immigrants, might the names not be as odd as they seem in English? One of Clark’s tools is the importance of names, and another is playing with language, even and especially when the subject is serious.
My last 3 years of teaching AP Language and Literature have helped me grow in my ability to articulate, model, and teach something I had paid lip service to for a while, but found a slippery fish in practice: reading like a writer and writing like a reader. This book was one important milestone along the way. Two others, in case you are interested, have been Voice Lessons and Mechanically Inclined (or anything else by Jeff Andersen).

Next week is all-staff orientation, and the next week classes start. I plan to finish Writing Tools and at least get a good start of Teaching Arguments. That will make this a record summer: the first I have ever gotten close to finishing all the professional development reading I had on my list. It really feels like time to get back to applying all this reading. May you, wherever you are, also feel the eagerness.

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