Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Richard Todd

My ten creative books #8: The Silent Woman

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Note: I’m counting down ten books that have influenced the way that I think about the creative process, in order of the publication dates of their first editions. It’s a very personal list that reflects my own tastes and idiosyncrasies, and I’m always looking for new recommendations. You can find the earlier installments here.

For various reasons, there are fewer useful books on the craft of literary nonfiction than there are on writing novels. This may just be a result of market demand, since more people seem to think that they might make good novelists than biographers or journalists. (As W.H. Auden devastatingly notes: “In our age, if a young person is untalented, the odds are in favor of his imagining he wants to write.” And he was probably thinking of aspiring fiction writers.) This is a gap that needs to be filled—I’ve learned firsthand that writing a nonfiction book can be practical and rewarding in itself, and I wish that I’d had more models to follow. In recent years, there have been a number of notable efforts, including Good Prose by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd and the indispensable Draft No. 4 by John McPhee. But by far the best work on the subject that I’ve found is The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes by Janet Malcolm, which, as I recently noted, is probably the best book of any kind that I’ve read in years. It isn’t a guidebook, and if anything, reading it might dissuade a lot of writers from tackling nonfiction at all. Those who persist, however, are rewarded with a book that has more insights per page into the creative process than almost any other that I can name. To pick just one example at random, here’s Malcolm on the biographer’s use of letters:

Letters are the great fixative of experience. Time erodes feeling. Time creates indifference. Letters prove to us that we once cared. They are the fossils of feeling. This is why biographers prize them so: they are biography’s only conduit to unmediated experience. Everything else the biographer touches is stale, hashed over, told and retold, dubious, unauthentic, suspect. Only when he reads a subject’s letters does the biographer feel he has come fully into his presence, and only when he quotes from the letters does he share with his readers the sense of life retrieved. And he shares something else: the feeling of transgression that comes from reading letters not meant for one’s eyes.

And perhaps the book’s most memorable passage comes after Malcolm visits the home of a minor player in the Sylvia Plath saga, who turns out to be a hoarder. Afterward, it strikes her that the house was “a kind of monstrous allegory of truth,” both in how we look at the world around us and in how we face the problem of writing:

This is the way things are, the place says. This is unmediated actuality, in all its multiplicity, randomness, inconsistency, redundancy, authenticity. Before the magisterial mess…the orderly houses that most of us live in seem meagre and lifeless—as, in the same way, the narratives called biographies pale and shrink in the face of the disorderly actuality that is a life…Each person who sits down to write faces not a blank page but his own vastly overfilled mind. The problem is to clear out most of what is in it, to fill huge plastic garbage bags with a confused jumble of things that have accreted there over the days, months, years of being alive and taking things in through the eyes and ears and heart. The goal is to make a space where a few ideas and images and feelings may be so arranged that the reader will want to linger a while among them, rather than to flee…But this task of housecleaning (of narrating) is not merely arduous; it is dangerous. There is the danger of throwing the wrong things out and keeping the wrong things in; there is the danger of throwing too much out and being left with too bare a house; there is the danger of throwing everything out.

Malcolm concludes: “Once one starts throwing out, it may become hard to stop. It may be better not to start. It may be better to hang onto everything…lest one be left with nothing.” Obviously, she hasn’t listened to her own advice, and we’re all the better for it. But that doesn’t mean that she—or the reader—has to be fine with the outcome.

Written by nevalalee

August 8, 2018 at 9:00 am

He said: “She said…”

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Tracy Kidder

Recently, I’ve been reading the excellent book Good Prose by the legendary journalist Tracy Kidder and his longtime editor Richard Todd. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever seen on writing creative nonfiction, and it’s packed with interesting stories, illustrations, and advice, to the point where I suspect that we’ll start talking about Kidder and Todd in the same breath as Strunk and White. For someone like me, though, the richest section is the one near the end, in which the authors discuss specific challenges and pitfalls of usage. These range from dangling modifiers to subjunctives to the difference between “lie” and “lay,” and even experienced writers are likely to learn—or be reminded of—some useful distinctions. The discussion I read with greatest interest is the one on gendered pronouns, which presents a thicket of problems to even the most thoughtful writers. Kidder and Todd write:

In a few instances in this book we have followed the convention by which the masculine pronoun stands for both sexes. This practice is eroding fast, and with reason…In other cases requiring a singular pronoun, some writers change “he” to “she,” whether consistently or alternately or randomly. This may have come to seem natural to those who do it, but to many readers (to us) it seems self-congratulatory.

I’m inclined to agree, not so much because I think it sounds smug, but because it momentarily takes me out of whatever point the writer is trying to make: for better or worse, “he” is a more invisible prounoun than “she,” the latter of which unfortunately breaks the rule of going whenever possible for the least obtrusive way of expressing an idea. However honorable a writer’s intentions may be, I’m left with the uncomfortable fact that whenever a feminine prounoun is used to refer to a generic individual—”When a writer first looks over her work”—I’m no longer thinking about the content of the piece itself, but stray, however briefly, into a reflection about gendered language in general. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a stylistic mistake, but it’s a problem, and there’s really no good answer. Kidder and Todd continue:

Other solutions have been proposed. The conservative writer Charles Murray has an idea that is simplicity itself: use the pronoun appropriate to your own sex. (Jane says everyone/her; John says everyone/his.) Unfortunately no one seems to recognize this rule except Charles Murray, and it costs him nothing to follow it since he is a man.

Charles Murray

The authors conclude on a note of muted resignation: “The language has yet to come up with a universally acceptable solution.” Instead of dealing with the issue directly, they suggest that authors reword sentences to work around it, usually by using a plural subject. This isn’t a bad idea, and it’s the one that I’ve tended to use the most in practice. Until I started writing this blog, I’d never really had to confront the problem of gendered pronouns: I was either writing fiction or criticism, in which the gender of the person under discussion was usually clear. Soon after I wrote my first blog post, though, I found that I was writing about generic individuals almost on a daily basis, as I tried to talk about various aspects of the creative process. (“Every author develops his or her own strategies for corralling ideas…”) Early on, I used the “his or her” construction a lot, and it still crops up whenever I think the sentence can sustain it. Before long, however, I started to feel that it was clunky when overused, so I’d rewrite sentences to avoid it, and when I didn’t have a choice one way or the other, I glumly went back to the generic “he.”

Obviously, every writer will come up with his—or her—own solutions. But the larger point is that it’s often necessary to rework a sentence to avoid a construction that calls attention to itself, even if grammar is on a writer’s side. “Whom” is the great example here: even if you know how to use it correctly, it inevitably results, as Calvin Trillin notes, in making you sound like a butler. I’ll often rewrite sentences to avoid a glaring “whom,” and although it might seem undesirable to allow your grammar to be pushed around in this way, sometimes, there’s no better solution. It’s fortunate that the gendered pronoun problem admits of so many workarounds: I’ll often replace “he or she” with “you,” “we,” or best of all, “I,” since most of the unidentified writers whose lives I decribe with such confidence here are thinly disguised versions of myself. There’s no foolproof answer, but as with most things in writing, if you prefer the concrete to the abstract and the invisible to the distracting, you’ll generally come up with something that works. (Of course, I’m also keenly aware that I’ve only cited male writers, including myself, in proposing approaches to this problem, so I’d love to hear any additional thoughts.)

Written by nevalalee

January 22, 2014 at 9:50 am

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