Writing Lesson of the Day

A few years back I worked with a very good writer who was getting an MBA from MIT Sloan School of Business. He came in after he had defended his very interesting thesis and threw himself into the chair beside me. He said, “I have figured out the one thing I have learned at Sloan.”

“What’s that?” I asked, curious.

“If your figure isn’t working, add arrows.”

Now on the one hand, he was kind of kidding, but really he also sort of wasn’t. When you are making a figure that explains some phenomenon, the arrows are the moving parts, the dynamic part of the system. So if your figure doesn’t she the important bit, of course it’s not going to work.

So the main thing I have learned from churning out angst and fluff and action and a few other things at a superhuman (yeah, it’s a pun, deal with it) rate these last two months is this:


If your scene/story/chapter isn’t working, you are probably in the wrong point of view.


Mental Models

So yesterday I worked with an MIT engineer on his thesis about the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant that suffered a severe compound accident from the tsunami that hit eastern Japan on March 11, 2011. One of the theories of thinking and reasoning that underlies some of his research is the idea of mental models, “that the mind constructs ‘small-scale models’ of reality that it uses to anticipate events. Mental models can be constructed from perception, imagination, or the comprehension of discourse” (Johnson-Laird and Byrne). I used this idea when I was writing my theology thesis about environmental survival, and it often comes up in cases where survival is at stake: people have to make crucial decisions at high speed in real time and they rely on their picture of reality, which is itself a) a form of perception, b) usually an oversimplification (occasionally the reverse), and c) affected by language, custom, and other symbolic attributes in addition to our lived experience.

That perception reality is shown in part by research that shows how inaccurate eyewitness testimony can be in court. “Many people believe that human memory works like a video recorder: the mind records events and then, on cue, plays back an exact replica of them. On the contrary, psychologists have found that memories are reconstructed rather than played back each time we recall them. The act of remembering, says eminent memory researcher and psychologist Elizabeth F. Loftus of the University of California, Irvine, is ‘more akin to putting puzzle pieces together than retrieving a video recording’” Akowitz and Lilienfeld).

It is true public safety officers are trained to observe more accurately than the rest of us, and there are ways of retrieving testimony that are less likely to color the witness’s recall. However, for my purposes here, that is less useful simply because in an emergency situation—a nuclear accident, 9/11—what an individual will be doing is not recalling What Happened Then but rather What Could Possibly Be Happening Now. The former is based on a single instant of reality and the latter is based on All the Reality I Have Experienced Up To Now, taken together, sifted, and drawn on the blueprint in the person’s head.

Think of the house you grew up in. Then think of all the houses you have ever seen from the inside or the outside. Then tell me what a house is. If you grew up in the suburbs, a three-story house or a Roman villa won’t be part of your picture. If you are M.C. Escher, this might be the house you draw for me.


With an overcomplicated mental model, you might withdraw from action—why try to get down 80 flights of stairs? I will never make it. Social problems, which are indeed multiply constructed, frequently face human inaction for this reason.

If you are a child, this might be the house you draw for me.


The trees out side the house will have brown bark rather than grey and green grass rather than winter yellow, even if you just ran across the yellow grass and climbed up into the grey-barked tree just yesterday.

I am not sure why I am even writing about this although I expect it has to do with Valentine’s Day. I have written before about the problems of love poetry for a writer who wants to be taken seriously, although I don’t think I specifically addressed the problem that poetry causes for us in our expectations about love. But I have a feeling that this is a thing.


Arkowitz, Hal, and Scott O. Lilienfeld. “Why Science Tells Us Not to Rely on Eyewitness Accounts.” Scientific American. 1 Jan. 2010. Web. 11 Feb. 2016.

“Child’s Painting Land.” MediaWiki. Web. 11 Feb. 2016.

Escher, M.C. “House of Stairs.”

Johnson-Laird, Phil, and Ruth Byrne. “Mental Models: A Gentle Introduction.” Mental Models Blog. July 2012. Web. 11 Feb. 2016.

Maybe I Need an Art Buddy. Maybe I Just Need Backup.


Well, here I am back in the Writer’s Block, which kind of sounds like something you would find in a Communist prison. Yes, they really used to confiscate writers’ typewriters in the USSR and Poland. It was cost-effective. You don’t need to feed typewriters and they don’t bleed when you beat them up.

Here in the more or less democratic US of A, where we have Freedom of Font and also a whole lot more options for putting our ideas down and spreading them around, the problem tends not to be so much Tyranny that is rearing its ugly head as it is Woeful Lack of Imagination.

Part of this, I suspect, is because a blog is not exactly a Project in the same sense that a novel or, for want of a better example, a few hundred pages of poetry about a 1990s TV show are. There isn’t the compulsive pull of a few well-chosen characters whose voices need to be explored. There isn’t the narrative tension of a plot to resolve or of subplots to weave in artfully. On the flipside, there are more opportunities to use pictures of cats to make my points.

Sometimes, when procrastination takes the form of Radically Empty Brain Syndrome (REBS), I stare at the wall, vainly hoping for something to show up. But remember that “radical” comes from the Latin, radix, meaning “root.” If there is nothing at the root of the brain, there won’t be much to grow out of it. So maybe the solution is to find another brain to work with.

If I were an Igor in a Terry Pratchett Discworld novel, I suppose I would mean that literally: find a brain, go up to the top of a tall MIT building and wait for lightning to strike. Then do an evil maniacal laugh, etc. Problem solved.


Failing that, I suppose I need to find another brain the less old-fashioned way, by actually finding a writing buddy, a collaborator, or possibly some badass with a big gun or maybe a Frisbee. Some writing buddies each write their own work separately and then read each other’s work. This is different from collaborators who work on the same project. Personally, I was thinking more along the lines of someone to come to my rescue with a whole lotta firepower, or possibly an Iron Frisbee of Doom.

Then maybe I’ll get writing again.

Summer of 1816, or, Who Knew?


My officemate at MIT has on her wall a call for papers about the Summer of 1816: Creativity and Turmoil. As she is, among other things a Shelley scholar, that year is right up her alley, so to speak, since in 1816 Percy and Mary Shelley were doing exciting things, most notably telling each other horror stories that eventually led to Frankenstein. Apparently major volcanic activity in 1815 caused major global cooling that led to a huge agricultural disaster, leading 1816 to be called the Year Without a Summer.

To put this in some kind of perspective, Jane Austen’s novel Emma came out in 1815. In the following year, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville premiered in Rome. Also the stethoscope was invented. I think of this now in part because I have been thinking about what we get taught in history, and how the Great Man Tradition of history is still running the show, even though social history (how people lived) and material history (what things people lived with) are lively trends in historical studies.

But I have looked at my high school world history textbook, and it segues from World War I to the Depression to the things that led to World War II without ever mentioning the Spanish flu that killed 500 million people worldwide between January 1918 and December 1920. But apparently that is less important to know about than World War I which only killed 10 million or so in twice the time, because it’s not political.

There’s a lot goes on we don’t get told. Or perhaps it is more apt to say that some of the things we get told are wrong. Think about the poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.


Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.

He said to his friend, “If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch
Of the North Church tower as a signal light,–
One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arm.”

Then he said “Good-night!” and with muffled oar
Silently rowed to the Charlestown shore,
Just as the moon rose over the bay,
Where swinging wide at her moorings lay
The Somerset, British man-of-war;
A phantom ship, with each mast and spar
Across the moon like a prison bar,
And a huge black hulk, that was magnified
By its own reflection in the tide.

Meanwhile, his friend through alley and street
Wanders and watches, with eager ears,
Till in the silence around him he hears
The muster of men at the barrack door,
The sound of arms, and the tramp of feet,
And the measured tread of the grenadiers,
Marching down to their boats on the shore.

Then he climbed the tower of the Old North Church,
By the wooden stairs, with stealthy tread,
To the belfry chamber overhead,
And startled the pigeons from their perch
On the sombre rafters, that round him made
Masses and moving shapes of shade,–
By the trembling ladder, steep and tall,
To the highest window in the wall,
Where he paused to listen and look down
A moment on the roofs of the town
And the moonlight flowing over all.

Beneath, in the churchyard, lay the dead,
In their night encampment on the hill,
Wrapped in silence so deep and still
That he could hear, like a sentinel’s tread,
The watchful night-wind, as it went
Creeping along from tent to tent,
And seeming to whisper, “All is well!”
A moment only he feels the spell
Of the place and the hour, and the secret dread
Of the lonely belfry and the dead;
For suddenly all his thoughts are bent
On a shadowy something far away,
Where the river widens to meet the bay,–
A line of black that bends and floats
On the rising tide like a bridge of boats.

Meanwhile, impatient to mount and ride,
Booted and spurred, with a heavy stride
On the opposite shore walked Paul Revere.
Now he patted his horse’s side,
Now he gazed at the landscape far and near,
Then, impetuous, stamped the earth,
And turned and tightened his saddle girth;
But mostly he watched with eager search
The belfry tower of the Old North Church,
As it rose above the graves on the hill,
Lonely and spectral and sombre and still.
And lo! as he looks, on the belfry’s height
A glimmer, and then a gleam of light!
He springs to the saddle, the bridle he turns,
But lingers and gazes, till full on his sight
A second lamp in the belfry burns.

A hurry of hoofs in a village street,
A shape in the moonlight, a bulk in the dark,
And beneath, from the pebbles, in passing, a spark
Struck out by a steed flying fearless and fleet;
That was all! And yet, through the gloom and the light,
The fate of a nation was riding that night;
And the spark struck out by that steed, in his flight,
Kindled the land into flame with its heat.
He has left the village and mounted the steep,
And beneath him, tranquil and broad and deep,
Is the Mystic, meeting the ocean tides;
And under the alders that skirt its edge,
Now soft on the sand, now loud on the ledge,
Is heard the tramp of his steed as he rides.

It was twelve by the village clock
When he crossed the bridge into Medford town.
He heard the crowing of the cock,
And the barking of the farmer’s dog,
And felt the damp of the river fog,
That rises after the sun goes down.

It was one by the village clock,
When he galloped into Lexington.
He saw the gilded weathercock
Swim in the moonlight as he passed,
And the meeting-house windows, black and bare,
Gaze at him with a spectral glare,
As if they already stood aghast
At the bloody work they would look upon.

It was two by the village clock,
When he came to the bridge in Concord town.
He heard the bleating of the flock,
And the twitter of birds among the trees,
And felt the breath of the morning breeze
Blowing over the meadow brown.
And one was safe and asleep in his bed
Who at the bridge would be first to fall,
Who that day would be lying dead,
Pierced by a British musket ball.

You know the rest. In the books you have read
How the British Regulars fired and fled,—
How the farmers gave them ball for ball,
>From behind each fence and farmyard wall,
Chasing the redcoats down the lane,
Then crossing the fields to emerge again
Under the trees at the turn of the road,
And only pausing to fire and load.

So through the night rode Paul Revere;
And so through the night went his cry of alarm
To every Middlesex village and farm,—
A cry of defiance, and not of fear,
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
And a word that shall echo for evermore!
For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere.


“Historians say Longfellow probably knew most of this when he wrote his poem. He had access to Revere’s written recollections, but he seems to have ignored them. “I think he told it the way he did because it’s simpler and more dramatic,” says Patrick Leehey, research director at the Paul Revere House in Boston.” (qtd. in Ewers)


“1918 Flu Pandemic.” Wikipedia. 3 Sept. 2015. Web. 1 Oct. 2015.

Ewers, Justin. “Rewriting the Legend of Paul Revere.” U.S. News & World Report.

27 June 2008. Web. 5 Oct. 2015.

Technology Makes Life Easier: NOT

So there I was in my little office at Northeastern University, lamenting the extreme oldness of my shared computer and how it takes roughly ten minutes just to boot up. And the following day I was in my little office at MIT, lamenting…you get the picture. English departments are pretty much by definition never the first to get the fresh fruit of the technological boom that is the twenty-first century, alas.

And then, hooray hooray! I find out that we are getting brand spanking new (as opposed to second hand from a fancier department) computers at MIT! Woohoo!

Except it’s never that easy. The New Mike from IT (as opposed to the Old Mike from IT—I think it’s like how all barbers are named Bud) came in and switched the computers and set my mail up and all that stuff back on Monday and I come in on Wednesday and I can no longer access anything that I was accessing on Monday: not my mail, not the Writing Center online scheduler, not Safari (btw, yuck; I much prefer Firefox as it has a much, much better bookmarking system, etc.).

I can still use Word, thank the gods, but that is pretty much it. And I can drink my Protein Zone shake/smoothie thing because, again thank the gods, breakfast still isn’t computerized.

Not yet.

Constructing Identity


Well, it is hard to believe it but the MIT Writing Center has been in its “new” location in Kendall Square in Cambridge for more than a year: a hot summer, followed by an interminable grey fall, followed by nine frigging feet of snow, a fair spring and a mild summer. The welcome difference between our current digs and the old grey bullpen in the late and not lamented Building 12 is that we all have our very own desk and computer and file cabinet With Wheels (and I know this because I personally put on all the wheels myself). This may not sound terribly impressive to folks who A. only have one job and B. have had their Very Own Space for like always, but when you are functionally somewhat itinerant having your own space is, scientifically speaking, way cooler.

Even back in the bullpen you could tell who was working at which desk based on whether the books on it were about nuclear proliferation, environmental ethics, Percy Shelley or opera, but now that we can accessorize a bit more, the differences are much clearer. My office mate (Shelley) has a Sherlock Holmes calendar and other Holmsian pictures, bookmarks, etc. I have a painting of red bamboo, a GreenPeace poster, a Fu dog bookend and, on my file cabinet, a maneki-neko clock amid a miniature Stonehenge that I bought while at an alumni reunion at Middlebury College. Layers upon layers.

It’s a bit like the way, back in Catholic school, although encased in plaid uniform and everybody wearing the same shoes, we found exciting shoelaces, with hearts or whales or rainbows, to assert our individuality.

Landscape and Identity

It’s hard to believe it has been fourteen years since the events of 9/11. The college freshmen I was teaching that semester are now in their early thirties, and one can only wonder if that event was formative for them. Certainly for the kids from New York and New Jersey, I imagine they were. I remember one student describing looking out her window at home, over the river to see Manhattan’s high rises, and then going home for Columbus Day weekend and her crucial landmarks were just gone.

It is unnerving when our landscape just disappears. It robs us of our anchors, the margins of our world that tell us which way is up and down and left and right. Perhaps that is one reason the Budweiser tribute to the victims of 9/11 from five years ago is so affecting.

An even more powerful example of this is the Japanese tsunami four years ago, when the sea rose up and ate whole towns and villages, leaving over 15,000 people dead, 340,000 people displaced and 24-25 million tons of rubble and debris. I cannot imagine returning home to see only barren broken land, shorn of natural and built environment, stranded in rubble and mud.

The flip side of all this loss are the barely visible landmarks by which we make our way through our familiar environments. I remember coming home to New England after spending more than two years in Japan and being amazed at all the church steeples everywhere I looked (or so it seemed). Although I started out Roman Catholic, the ubiquitous white wooden Congregational church steeples were like architectural punctuation telling me that this geography is a sentence I understand how to read.

And now, working at Massachusetts Institute of Technology after my time in Japan many years ago, I cannot pass under an apparently nameless concrete gate next to the Wiesner Building without thinking of all the torii gates I saw in Japan, particularly the most famous on out on the water near Miyajima. You can leave a place, but it doesn’t always leave you.


What You Always Cut


So yesterday I was talking to my MIT colleague Jane about–you guessed it–writing! I know you were expecting anything else from me, to wit:

  • My plan to join S.H.I.E.L.D. so I can learn to be a badass from Agent Melinda May
  • My cat, Musashi’s, plan to learn to play pingpong soccer like Pele
  • Our joint plan for world domination

It’s true, I have many plans. But mostly when I am not thinking about such things I am thinking about writing. One of the things I thought about quite a lot a while back was how annoying it is especially when I am writing nonfiction (insert loud sucking noise here), it always seems that there is a huge chunk that I end up having to cut before the end. Many writers I have worked with at MIT also experience this and they always want to know how to avoid what appears to be the wasted time of writing and then cutting this stuff.

After a great deal of soul searching, cuz yeah, I apparently write at least in part with my soul, don’t know what that’s about, I finally realized that this part of the process, though it sucks in lo these many ways, is probably unavoidable. But then I think about my mom’s pea soup. See, she always puts a hambone in as it’s cooking. It adds a meaty, smoky flavor that I have never been able to replicate when I have made vegetarian pea soup. But when she serves the soup, she takes the hambone out. I figure that those annoying bits in the writing are like the hambone: they get you, the writer, to the ideas you need to keep but then no longer serve your readers and have to get cut.


That’s my two cents, anyway.