Yelling “Theater!” in a Crowded Fire


Writer’s block is a thing like when you sit down on the train and realize that you have just stepped (in your brand new shoes) into the sticky residue of someone’s spilled soda. And you think, well, heat melts sugar, right? So if only the curtains of my imagination were on fire, I could pull myself out of this urban transit tarpit and actually create something.

Writing in the Body: A Feminist Reminder


Working at MIT, I meet a lot of people who seem to think they are brains with big Mickey Mouse gloves: the ideas go zip-zap straight from the synapses in the grey matter to tippetty-tap on the keyboard. This is, unfortunately, not the case. Ergonomics matter because we write in the body. If your body is uncomfortable, then your brain will be uncomfortable and distracted, and that will affect your writing. If your seat is too low or too high, or worse yet, if you are doing that laptop in your lap thing, then you are in a suboptimal position. You can sustain that for a little while, sure, the same as you can sign a form on someone else’s back, but that doesn’t mean you want to write a novel that way.

This probably sounds obvious if all you are looking at is biokinetics, the body working as a machine for productivity. If you treat a machine better, then you will probably get a better product, and possibly even a more consistent product. That is the capitalist, patriarchal way of looking at this subject. I prefer a more ecological, feminist way of looking at it.

Rather than thinking of writing as production for some kind of profit, let’s think about it as reproduction, pulling the seeds out of ourselves to let them bloom and flower in the world, to encourage other people to do the same. Perhaps this metaphor is on my mind because yesterday was Veteran’s Day and that reminded me of the phenomenal art installation constructed at the Tower of London last year to commemorate Britain’s entrance into World War I: Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red. Art doesn’t have to imitate other art to be inspired by it.


More importantly for me as a feminist, the idea of writing in the body and from the body is a way to revise (literally, re-see) a problematic trope in Western culture, that (mental) discipline equals (physical) suffering and that this is potentially a good idea. St. Paul wrote about the “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:7-10), the pain that keeps us from getting above ourselves, the pain that keeps us from hubris, pride, equating ourselves with the gods or G-d.

This started with the Greeks and the Christians took it and ran with it. And while in certain cases, human pride is absolutely a major problem, particularly when it is coupled with anthropocentric economic policy and action, for a lot of people (especially members of marginalized communities) the real problem isn’t pride so much as shame. The history of overvaluing the mind and denying and devaluing the body is deeply entwined with the oppression of women, minorities, nonhuman animals and the Earth. So when we take care of ourselves while we write, when we treat our bodies with respect and gratitude despite whatever hellish deadlines we are up against, we are engaging in a feminist practice that we can take out into the world in other ways.

A Writer and Her Tools Are Not Soon Upgraded


Having been born in the twentieth century, I will admit that I only ever used a pen-and-ink-on-parchment recreationally (and no, I did not inhale; as a rule, it is better not to). As a writer I have been fond of Zebra pens and colored felt tip Bic markers, although as I age, or rather, as my hands have been aging, I am being dragged kicking and screaming into the century of the fruitbat and am increasingly doing my first drafts on my iMac. Having said that, I will admit that my iMac is 7 1/2 years old, just six months younger than my cat, who has not yet started slowing down, freezing or losing files, although from time to time, he will knock them off my desk to test if gravity is still working.

Note: it is. Phew. Thanks, Musashi!

My computer, alas, is not so spry. Last night I dreamed that a friend reminded me that this weekend would be Massachusetts Tax-free Weekend, which means no tax on purchases of $2500 or less: perfect timing for Back To School folks to buy computers and still be able to afford, for example, Apple Care Protection. (And for those of you who have ever read while drinking your breakfast coffee, you know how useful that can be. Keyboards are less expensive than they used to be, but still.)

So yes, I am breaking down and getting a new computer before I am in the middle of finals and lose everything. Did that before. Don’t recommend it.

And then there are people even more clueless than me.

The Hokey-Pokey of Writing


So back in May I talked about the bit in a piece of writing, usually a long piece of nonfiction, which you always end up cutting. It served you as a writer to get from idea A to idea M, but it no longer serves your readers, so it must go. The problem is that it’s not always obvious which bit or how much of it is the bit you need to cut and which bits you need to keep. Sometimes you cut a section, then put it back in, then take it out again, or possibly take another bit out and then put it back in again. After a while you throw your hands up in despair and run away weeping, which is actually a really good idea.

But let’s face it folks, that really is what it’s all about. And if you don’t believe me, check out this video of bagpipers proving it:

Often what you need after finishing a draft, particularly a frustrating draft, is distance. Walk away. Do something else. Eat something. Do your laundry. Read a book. Play with the cat. While you are gone, with luck, the writing will set like Jello, and your choices will be clearer.

Teaching Writing


So tomorrow I have to go to MIT and teach about clear writing. We are using a piece by Samuel Delaney about the difference between good writing, which can be learned by anybody, and talented writing, which is much harder to achieve. We also have a piece on writing for business and it talks about topic sentences and coherent paragraphs and all the thing one hopes they learned in fifth and six grades, but these days, who knows.

This is not the way I normally teach about writing as it feels very mechanical and I tend to feel more organically about writing. I also believe that most good writing happens during the second and third drafts of anything. People who get hung up about these sentence-level infelicities often have problems with their writing process, and trust me when I tell you that perfectionism is already a huge problem for MIT students. That’s how they got in. I spend an awful lot of my time explaining that they’ll never get out if they don’t give up that bad habit as soon as possible.

One of my mottoes is “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly the first time.” It’s true about cooking. It’s true about sex. It’s true about writing. Make a mess. Write crap sentences. Doodle in the margins when you don’t know what to write. Scribble notes to self like “brilliant transition goes here.” Take a break and make a sandwich. Get peanut butter on your hard copy of the draft. Lick it off. Read your work out loud, even if it makes you wince. Then go back in and fix the problems, over and over and over.

How We Do What We Do


So I had a physical recently and while we were going over the results of my bloodwork, my doctor mentioned how different he found handwriting and typing for production, on the one hand, and writing for publication versus speaking in front of an audience on the other. I agreed on both points. Being over 40, I still do a lot of handwriting, especially prose, until the arthritis in my hand kicks in and I have to stop. It is like my brain is wired to my moving right hand or something. It is a little different with poetry, in part because the amount of output is shorter and also if I suddenly decide to change line lengths or stanza breaks, it is simply easier on a computer to make those little changes without actually having to rewrite the text.

He also asked if I teach my students to read their work out loud. YES. I don’t know why it is but I find I hear problems that I can’t simply see reading quietly, especially clunkers and those small infelicities that get in the way of the brilliance that I frequently feel I could manage more if I could just get the 100% correct word in all the right places.