Sunday, February 03, 2008

Writing as Muscle Memory:
35 Things You Can Begin Doing Today To Tone
Your Writing Muscles And Hone Your Craft

Here's the introduction (at least for now) to a book I hope to finish writing this year. If anyone's interested, perhaps I'll also post the table of contents sometime soon:

Nearly 20 years ago, when I was no more than a modestly promising fledgling writer myself, I somehow got the notion that I should begin teaching the craft to others. It wasn’t so much an exercise of writerly ego—though there was no doubt some of that involved—as it was a sense of desperation to quicken my own learning curve. I had attended a writing class in which the instructor airily prattled on for hours without providing much in the way of real substance, and I came away deeply unimpressed, even cheated out of the modest fee. “I could do better than that myself,” I thought.

Before long, I arranged to do just that, or at least to try. Something told me that by preparing the material to share with others, I would begin to better grasp the whole writing process myself. They say nothing prepares you for a subject like having to teach it to others. Still, I was like the proverbial rookie teacher, reading one chapter ahead of the class, painfully aware of my own limitations.

During my lunch hours at work, I began making notes to myself about the mechanics of writing, photocopying examples of what I considered great work, taking special care to point to the most vivid writing I could find in various genres. To emphasize great descriptive writing, I pored through the dictionary—yes, a common desk dictionary—and highlighted words that I thought were especially well-defined. I loaded all the material into a backpack, climbed aboard my bicycle, and pedaled off to meet the class of adult lifelong learners at a local middle school.

A half dozen middle aged people—all older than I--were there waiting for me when I arrived. As I entered, I felt them eyeing me hungrily, as I had earlier eyed my own instructor, hunting for clues on whether this young guy could possibly help them learn what they came here to absorb.

I decided—again through little more than intuition--that the best way to begin would be to briefly go around the room and get everyone’s story—who were they, why were they there, and what did they hope to learn from this class? I figured the benefits would be two-fold: it would help me more closely tailor the material for each them, and it might also break the ice and get everyone more comfortable with each other. If we all undressed a little together, I figured, maybe we could all lighten up and relax. Maybe we could drop the inevitable, unspoken but nevertheless palpable comparisons about our various skill levels and just help each other learn.

The first person I called on was a woman named Jeanne, who was sitting in the front row. “Tell us about yourself, Jeanne.” What came next couldn’t have possibly been any more unexpected. She began speaking as if in a trance, her voice low and well-modulated, her eyes never blinking (or so it seems in my memory). She wasn’t looking at me or at anyone else in the room, so much as she was looking off into the middle distance, recalling her painful story. While riding her bike along the side of the road, she had been in a serious accident with a car. She sustained injuries to the brain, from which she spent the next several years trying to recover through various rounds of therapy. While in recovery, she had searched in vain for a book that would help her to recover from her injuries. “Why am I here?” she asked, echoing my initial question. “Because I want to learn how to write the book that I was trying to find myself in order to save my life.”

I’m not sure I’ve ever been more stunned by someone’s words, before or since. I spent the next hour in a mental fog, trying to process what she’d just said—as well as its implications on my responsibilities as a teacher--while at least pretending to give my full attention to the class. But what I really wanted was to excuse myself and head home, or at least hide out in the bathroom. Anything but try to answer that woman’s naked cry of pain. I didn’t have the slightest idea of how I might help her. Wasn’t this just a writing class, after all? What was I, a shrink? No, I was just a skinny, 28-year-old writer of painfully modest accomplishment, a newlywed without children yet, and certainly without enough life experience to be able to begin to understand her pain. Sadly, it seemed she had come to the wrong place for answers.

And yet, in the years since, with added perspective, I’ve come to understand that she did me an enormous favor. She taught me a lifelong lesson I can never forget: that writing, reading and language is serious stuff. It really matters to millions of people, even if they will never be writers, never be published, even if they never intend to try to get published. Sometimes, people just need to use written language to figure out what they think, to make sense of their otherwise scattered experiences, to find a cohesive narrative to their life. The percussive shock of Jeanne’s earnest request woke me up to the real stakes of my life’s work that day. No one would ever have to impress that upon me again.

Over the years, I’ve coached, taught, mentored or encouraged several hundred writers. Many were of course beginners. But more than a few were also far more accomplished stylists than I’ll ever be—though most simply didn’t know or believe that. My task, I always thought, was to find that elusive switch in their brains, the switch that, when turned on, makes a person believe they’re a writer. Which is when they really begin to write.

I’ve had a few proud, glorious moments as a writing coach and teacher who remains a writer first. Students have gone on to do some remarkable things–one recently published his fifth novel, and he’s been steadily building international acclaim as a talented weaver of tightly crafted thrillers. In Great Britain, his books even outsell the runaway hit The Davinci Code. But I’m every bit as proud of and interested in the progress of Alicia, who will sometimes avoid me when I see her in the library or at the store, no doubt sure that I’ll be asking about her progress with the pen, a subject she’d evidently rather not go into. At least not yet.

I’ve enjoyed my own, far more modest, success. I’ve had the good fortune to write well over a thousand published articles. They’ve appeared in places such as the
New York Times op-ed page, some of the most revered real estate in my profession, and in scores of other publications small and large, well-known and obscure. I've had a chance to cover the U.S. Congress as a 24-year-old rookie reporter, and later briefly administered a half-million-dollar editorial budget at an Internet start-up, before it crashed and burned during the first feverish dot-com era. I've had the good fortune to interview railroad company presidents on overnight journeys to New Orleans aboard well-appointed Pullman cars and shadow basketball superstar Lebron James for a magazine cover profile. I've gone to Texas to interview independent oil "wildcatters" and London to glean news from an international conference about the airline industry. I've had a chance to leverage the incredible power of the Internet by publishing a blog full of ideas for and about writing and writers. Three years into that daily discipline, I received an email from Indonesia, written in partially broken English, that sent a shudder through me: 'Hi. I'm rini from jakarta, Indonesia. I read ur weblog and i was impresed that even though you already writting much but u still considering to share what u tough trough the weblog...I m editor staff for kid and teen comic and magazine, espesially in product with Disney lisence. Keep posting nice articles, people would like it. Warm regards, Rini.'

In short, I've had a life filled with intellectual adventures and emotional gratification of the sort I had no right to expect. Best of all, I have the sense that those adventures are only going to get better in coming years. Mostly, I feel so deeply blessed to have been given the chance to do something that I know millions of my fellow humans would give almost anything for: the chance to earn a living exclusively from my writing.

This, then, is a book about what I’ve learned from several hundred people. Some, like Jeanne, were students or those whom I prodded and encouraged. Others were subjects of my writing, real, complicated three-dimensional people who felt pain and suffered stings from ill-chosen words (which taught me to be extra careful in my choice of words). Still others were mentors, those priceless Sherpa guides on the path of life who tend to appear when we need them most.

This is, in the end, a book about good habits--the habits of both mind and practice that will stand you in good stead as a writer. Because I didn’t major in journalism or even English in college, I used to imagine I was largely self-taught. But I soon came to realize otherwise. Luck and happenstance have managed to put so many people in my path who taught me how to do it better, how to dig deeper, last longer and work harder. By the towering example of their life and their work, they taught me to defer gratification, stick to what I wanted and needed to say regardless of publishing trends or the whims of editors. They allowed me to soak in their deep sense of craftsmanship and reverence for the truth, a combination I've since come to think of as more combustible than pure oxygen. I owe these friends, mentors and great word craftsmen everything. They’ve opened up an entire life to me and gave me the courage to pursue my life’s work, even when that wasn’t very practical. It’s to all of them that I dedicate this book.

As I hope I’ve told every class I’ve ever taught, and any writer I’ve ever coached, neither I nor anyone else can really teach anyone to write. All anyone can hope to accomplish is to lead you to some good habits that, if practiced over time, will help you become better yourself. This is a book about one writer’s take on the habits that will make it more likely that you will continue to do this work, and perhaps one day even do it well. I’m hoping the same for myself.

But here’s the bad news (you knew that was coming eventually): nothing comes quickly with writing, as it doesn’t with anything really worth doing. A couple of years ago, when it dawned on me that I had just passed the 20-year mark as a professional writer, the idea began to settle on me that I had just then come out of my apprentice phase, and that I was now perhaps embarking on the intermediate stage of my craft. I was just beginning to get comfortable with the tools, just getting to where I had internalized the habits and the ways of thinking that yield some success, some at least modest mastery over an ever-elusive craft. After 20 years, I had begun to acquire a critical mass of muscle memory for writing and telling stories, for using language to move minds and hearts. And now I could really begin to have some fun, really begin to take this baby out on the racetrack and see what it might do when I opened it up a bit.

Here’s hoping you’ll experience that same feeling, as well. Perhaps you already have.


At 4:17 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

This Introduction works for me because it's personal and anecdotal. You ground it in your own experience, rather than hiding behind generalizations. I think that's good.

Your comment that "no one can really teach anyone to write" is spot on. I learned the same truth in music school, where all they can teach is craft. They CAN teach craft—but that's ALL that they can teach. If you have nothing to say, no inspiration, no truth of your own already, they can't do much for you. I think the same thing's true for writing, especially poetry or essay.

I look forward to seeing more of this project of yours.

At 4:26 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Art, how wonderful and appropriate that you should be the first to comment on this. You've been such a splendidly spot-on commenter here for some time, and someone who's obviously on the same page in many ways.

As always, you've provided some REALLY valuable feedback, confirming my belief that grounding these tips and advice in my own war stories and accumulated experience are what might just set this apart from the run-of-the-mill writing book, of which we've all read far too many. And funny how you bring up the parallels with learning music! Only yesterday, shortly after I posted that intro (after fiddling with it again, probably my 12th draft at least), I came across a wonderful riff somewhere about learning the piano by endlessly playing scales. I made a mental note to add that metaphor, because it's so much like the muscle memory accumulated from writing, right down to using the typing/playing fingers in such a way that they become second nature. And as someone who quit piano lessons in the second grade and have always since regretted it, the parallels are even that much more vivid for me.

Anyway, thanks for being such a cornerstone reader, Art. This blog just wouldn't be the same without you.

At 9:37 PM, Blogger Wordsanctuary said...

I like the bold idea of becoming a teacher even as one strives to become a writer. And I am struck by your deep listening to that first student, John. Her story reminds us all that the arrangement of words on paper (or in cyberspace) can mean the difference between life and death of the spirit.

At 10:36 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Wow, Maria, your last sentence is powerfully put. All the more meaningful given that you're a lifelong teacher as well as a writer. Thanks so much for that input.

At 8:02 AM, Blogger tina said...

A wonderful read. Please share the TOC when you are ready!

At 8:11 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Thanks, Tina. Great to see your name back here after some time away. Your wish is my command.

At 8:17 AM, Blogger tina said...

Although I don't comment much, I am still reading.

At 2:40 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

That counts for plenty too, Tina. Thanks.

At 11:13 PM, Blogger Maria said...

What is the key to persevering on a book-length project, John? Answer some time, if you wish. Did the table of contents drive you...or vice versa?

At 1:03 AM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Maria asks an interesting question.

There are several answers. The one that works most often for me is that I don't think about a book, I just write lots of smaller bits, than at some point realize I have enough for a book. (In terms of poems, that's easier than otherwise.) I realize too that my own blog serves that function: a place to post finished pieces, look them over, revise them, come back to them, maybe organize them into a book, having been able to see them all in overview.

I find I never work from an outline. I find that stifling.

John's answer will be interesting.

At 6:24 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Great question, Maria, and my answer is not unlike Art's. And remember that each project is utterly different, and so this answer would only fit this book (although in general I think it's always good to break down large projects into bite-sized nuggets for easier digestion).

This project arose out of so much writing about, thinking about and even speaking about the writing process over a number of years. The blog--now coming up on five years as a daily exercise--has helped collect, sharpen and focus that material for me. But so too has speaking about and teaching the subject. And last but certainly not least is a tremendous amount of reading on the subject. I've made mental and then actual notes on the kind of structure and organization that might make sense for the topic. And then (and this is where I depart only a little from Art) I did begin collecting into an outline the subjects that I thought should be covered, which pretty quickly worked themselves into a table of contents, which is still in process (and which I'll post in the next 24 hours). But that was about the extent of my outlining, so I'm certainly not too far from Art on that. I like to have a little bit of a roadmap, but only a rough guide, and one from which I easily depart, and follow the writing process wherever it takes me.

Where I really agree with Art is that I just keep writing bits of the thing and don't worry so much about transitions or polish at first. That gives you a sense of momentum and allows you to keep chipping away at it, buouyed by the feeling that you now only have about 80% and then 70% and then 50% left to do. That really helps. It's tough for most of us to think about climbing a large mountain, but a number of discreet journeys up the hill, one after the other, pitching your tent and resting overnight as you go, is one way of breaking it down into manageable tasks. And of course what really helps is having a subject that sustains your interest and your passion, for which you've collected quite a lot of material, impressions and stuff.

Finally, on the subject of breaking things into pieces. Perhaps you're familiar with a glorious book by Annie Lamott, Bird by Bird. It's one of perhaps the three best books ever written on the subject of writing. And the title comes from a charming and powerful story she tells about her dad, which subsequently became a useful metaphor for her life's work. She recalled her dad once observing his son (Annie's brother) growing frustrated over a big science project he was trying to do at the last minute on birds. He felt overwhelmed by it all, and the dad quietly counseled him: "just take it bird by bird, son." A simple, important lesson for all of us.

At 11:43 AM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Patience and persistence. I find when climbing mountains it's always great ot look down to see how far I've come, by I don't look up ahead much, or I can feel panicked. I usually just look at the part of the trail I'm on Right Now, and just deal with that.

I think the outline is a great tool. To clarify what I said before, I should say that I never outline a project before beginning it. The outline AND the structure will eventually emerge at some point. Once you have an overview of the material, you can see where X fits with Y, and the outline itself can emerge organically from within the material itself. That's how I've usually worked. Tables of Contents usually come quite late for me.

At 11:56 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Yes, you've said it nicely. Ideally, the structure emerges organically from the material itself. But I think the problem for some writers--okay, probably for many--is that they try to work that out too much in their head before committing things to paper, rather than just beginning to get it all down, however ugly at first. Annie Lamott says it vividly in her little riff about getting comfortable with what she calls "a shitty first draft." That, too, is an essential part of it, I think. To me, the source of writer's block is generally one of two things: either a lack of anything much to say (which of course is fatal to writing), or just a problem in getting started because one freezes up over having to begin well (which is by far the preferable problem to have, though not necessarily easy to deal with for most writers). Any thoughts on that, Art?

At 12:23 PM, Blogger Maria said...

Lamott's comment about the willingness to write a totally ___
first draft is one I periodically share with students. I leave the adjective out and let them add their own spicy expletive in their minds!

It's interesting to read your approach, Art, and yours--John. Thanks for sharing.

I have mountains and mountains of material--it occupies three rooms of my house (much to my husband's consternation). I have the poems. I have the spiritual reflections. I have the teaching-related material. I have the professional writing material. Now, I've got a painful family history search. I tend to be the person who kind of "snows" creatively...flake by flake, thought by thought, many not in any way resembling the previous ones...and thus generates a lot of stuff...not the type of person who can build forts or even snowmen with the snow....and yet...hmmm....I am impressed with your minds' ability to envision somehow pulling your creative thoughts together into a coherent unit.

For me, blogging has been a way out of the door and the avalanche of paper. For me it's more like journaling unless I present an essay online that I lacked the energy to market anywhere.

In any case, I am enjoying this thread.

At 12:37 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I'm enjoying it too, Maria. And learning from it. You mention a familiar problem: having too much stuff, being buried in ideas, material, half-finished writing (ideas and drafts). While that may prompt envy in someone who's worried about not having enough, you and I both know (and I'm sure many others as well) that the problem feels no less weighty, and that as a practical matter, it may be even tougher to deal with.

But at the end of your post, you've hit nicely on how a blog can help focus your mind on what really matters, just as journaling can (and for many blog authors, they represent little more than journaling shared with an audience). There are a few other possible paths out of your mire, some of which you might have considered, but let me throw the first and possibly most important one out anyway: get thee to a good writing conference or two this year. If it's a little bit of a journey for you, so much the better. That will allow you to think freshly in new surroundings, and connect with peers who are having many of the same issues and challenges as you, and who are thus in a position to help you think through your situation in ways that will resonate for you, I think.

I have written in this book in process about a catalytic experience I had about 20 years ago, driving halfway across the country, to the little town in Missouri where Mark Twain was born, Hannibal, and how a writers' conference there unlocked so many things for me. I came back from it a new person (creatively speaking, at least), unleashed to do what I was meant to do, and to pursue it in my own way. But I'd be remiss not to mention the equally important contributions of my writing mentors, especially William Zinsser, who gave me permission (as he has given so many writers) to be the writer I was meant to be. That, too, opened a floodgate. And it continues to gush.

At 6:25 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

I don't think writer's block ever comes from having nothing to say: there are plenty of examples of writers who have nothing to say and won't shut up.

I'm in a rush at the moment. More later—

At 6:34 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

That made me laugh. You certainly have a point there.

At 11:05 PM, Blogger Maria said...

It was nice to read of your eureka at a conference, John. I had a mini-eureka at a poetry conference (during the Iowa drought of 1988)...discovering how much I could create when freed of grinding responsibilities of daily life (which grind us all into a fine mist, if we are lucky)...and getting encouragement...only to let my own light be positively stomped out by a local big name who felt it was his role to prevent forest fires. Should I have let this happen? No, but to trust one's work to anyone is a risk. I did have a breakthrough teaching conference as far back as 1990 that still reverberates, confirming what I knew in my gut about teaching and also supporting my own intuitions about group dynamics in classrooms. I guess what my dark-light note suggests is that I'd better choose any future conference carefully. If you encounter a good conference line up, plug it or let me know via email.

At 11:13 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Eureka moments are what it's all about, Maria. Or more precisely, they form the inspirational basis for a great beginning. Of course what has to follow is much perspiration and experimentation and simple execution. And I will indeed be watching the conference schedule with you and others in mind. But come to think of it, maybe you and I should collaborate on beginning one at John Carroll.

At 11:22 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

I actually am in a moment (phase? period?) when I am finding the critiques of my poetry from my so-called poetry peers to be beyond useless. (I've blogged about it, so I won't repeat all that here.) The upshot is, at some point you MUST trust that your own inner voices are leading you, not astray, but where you need to go—and that outside commentary is useless. This is a hard place to get to; I would surmise that many writers never get there. (Why? Because writers talk too much, because words are their tools. Too few writers have learned the value of inner and outer silence. Which is why I appreciate all the more those who have. But I digress.) I have found that spiritual and psychological disciplines such as meditation feed me as a writer at least as much as any writing exercise ever has; probably more, in fact.

The truth is, I no longer even believe in writer's block. I am disgustingly prolific as a writer, artist, and musician/composer. I produce new creative work at a rate faster than I can ever distribute or market it. marketing it, finding my audience, that's my biggest problem, and my weakness and flaw.

I don't believe in writer's block: I believe in fallow periods. Also, following Joni Mitchell's brilliant comments about how she always switches over to painting for awhile after finishing recording an album—like Joni, I believe in crop rotation. (I've blogged about all this, too.)

I think that writer's block, if it DOES happen to someone comes from two intertwined problems: 1. self-consciousness and lack of self-confidence; this is a form of perfectionism wherein the writer demands that they always write at top form, and become mentally crippled by the panic that they can't top themselves again next time; and 2. the inability to turn off the internal "editor." Nothing blocks one faster than one's own editor, which wants to start revising and re-working before the first pass is even done. I always tell people: spew first; edit later. Get it all out NOW; you can reshape it into something more coherent later. The editor has to be turned off during the writing process; the editor's role only comes into play during revision.

I always tell students: Remember, you are allowed to take risks and to make a fool of yourself. You are allowed to fail. You are allowed to view everything you write today as no more than an etude—a study, in the original sense of the word. You are allowed to discard all of it.

Nothing is more crippling than one's own expectations about one SHOULD be able to do.

Nothing is more liberating than being to laugh at one's own pretentions and mistakes.

I also ask students: Will the world come to an end if you don't get it right this time? No? Then why are you tying ourself up in knots? Get it out however you can—the world will no doubt continue turning. Later on, maybe you'll be able to get it out better. But don't push the river; actually, pushing the river is impossible, because the water just flows around you anyway. Keep this all in perspective, and don't take it so seriously, and most likely, you'll never have another block.

At 9:02 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

You've said it well. I won't try to add to that. Just hope everyone else will let it all sink in.

At 9:42 PM, Blogger Maria said...

John and Others: I think that there might be more conferences for (a) those in mid-career and (b) those who work in/aspire to more than one genre. I read of a seminar given at Harvard by former Clevelander Joe Mackall and his colleague Dan Lehman (sp?) on (fiction) narrative techniques for journalists. This is close, but not quite. Something: for nonfiction writers who veer into poetry...or memoirists who write opinion editorials...or bloggers who do technical writing...Unless I'm deeply languishing in la-la land, it seems that most conferences by their very nature aim at certain specialties...and that can make very good sense if one wants to sharpen one skill. For the generalists and hybrid-writers among us, there might be something else. Two more cents!

At 10:41 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Maria, I think you're referring to the annual Narrative Journalism conference put on by Harvard's Neiman Center, which has grown to attract nearly 1,000 people each year. I'm glad that Joe Mackall is part of that, because he's a fine guy and a fine professional. I used to write for him when he was editor of Cleveland Magazine in the '90s, and he's since gone on to write a wonderful memoir of his troubled youth in Cleveland. Anyway, I would recommend the narrative journalism conference to anyone. Here's a link to a directory of writers' conferences, provided by Poets and Writers Magazine:

At 10:42 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 11:58 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

I agree about the tendency towards specialization, and the value of aspiring to write in more than one genre or field. I think that writing across genres is incredibly healthy. Most of the writers I like to read often do that. The whole "creative nonfiction" is fascinating, and I have to say, has produced some of the best writing I've ever read.

Yet for most "mainstream" writers there seems to be a real LACK of cross-format understanding, in my experience, along with a really pointless disparagement of "genre" writing. Frankly, "fine art" literary fiction has fewer people who can turn a good sentence than most science fiction or mystery writers, IMHO.

(I'm not talking about the best-seller thriller fiction list when I talk about mysteries, either—all that stuff in that same "no style" style of post-journalistic narrative that tells a story, but usually fairly artlessly. I'm talking about writers who have a real knack for characterization, descriptive moments, and a real feel for the way people actually talk in the real world.)

The journalistic-narrative workshop idea is one I would question, although I would happily be willing to be convinced otherwise, because I can't see any way at the moment that it wouldn't lead back to the no-style style, which is dominantly plot.

Yet the idea of writers learning to write in other genres strikes me as incredibly healthy, and an underplayed idea. It stretches the muscles, and the possibility for discovery seems rich,

There is, for example, an almost complete lack of understanding about what prose-poems are, or can be, among both poets and prose writers. A simple bridge of understanding would be a terrific improvement. Learn by doing.

At 1:18 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Yes, Art, I too am a believer in the idea that writers build too many damn silos separating ourselves from each other. We're all writers. And even more directly to your point, we all (especially prose writers) need to study good poetry (which is why I've included an entire chapter on that), with an eye toward learning how to be more visual and more concise.

At 5:57 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Terrific idea. The Table of Contents does look interesting.

One thing I've discovered from the "creative nonfiction" realm is how poetic some of that prose can be: Loren Eiseley, Barry Lopez, others, are all good examples.

The prose-poem might make a good bridge chapter, too. Just a thought.

(It's your book! We're all meddling!) :)

At 6:10 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

By all means, meddle away, Art. That's precisely why I've posted it, and invited comments. My smarts and accumulated insights only take me so far. When combined with all the smarts of my readers, the sky's the limit. On the other hand, be careful of what you say, because I might well steal some of it for the book (carefully credited, of course). Seriously, though, I do hope and expect that some of you will become collaborators at least in a small way, as you provide helpful input that might well end up in the book.

And what you call creative nonfiction I and others are calling Literary Journalism. It's an exciting new movement, perhaps best captured in two places: the annual Nieman Harvard conference, and a fabulous book which I'll soon be writing about, The New New Journalism. It's a mind-blowing exercise in sucking the brains of some of the best literary journalists now working, as they cogitate about precisely how they practice their craft. I love it because while there's so much out there on the inspirational side of writing, there's far too little on the practical craft side of things (which of course is one big reason why I've dedided to fill that perceived vacuum).

At 12:18 AM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks for clearing up what "literary journalism" means. I see several mentions of John McPhee, who is a favorite writer of mine, and an inspiration. (His geology series books should be required reading, in my opinion.)

I'm not that fond of the label, but that's just my thing. Nonfiction is a more inclusive term than journalism, and since it's not all based in reporting—think of Loren Eiseley, who was a paleontologist and naturalist—and I don't think it's served by emphasizing the presupposition of journalism. Again, maybe that's just my thing—but then again, names have tremendous power.

Another one to read is Lyall Watson. His "Gifts of Unknown Things" is pretty incredible.

Can you tell I've into this stuff for awhile? LOL

At 4:46 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

You do seem to have been delving into a lot of stuff over a long time. And you rightly point to John McPhee in this context, because he's certainly seen by many as one of the founding godfathers of this kind of patient, inquisitive, long form writing. So if we agree on his importance, we agree on more than enough. Watson is an entirely new name for me, though. I'll be sure to check him out.

At 2:20 PM, Blogger Tim said...

Hi John

Your introduction is well written and provides an excellent preface to your passion for the craft.

Jeanne's story is pivotal in conveying your message.

Your literary career speaks for itself, with much more to follow.

I anticipate reading your finished manuscript.


At 2:40 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I anticipate reading the finished manuscript even more, Tim. Thanks so much for stopping by, and for confirming the pivotal role of Jeanne's story in my underlying message. I couldn't have said that better myself. As I believe you're a first-time commenter (but my memory could be faulty), anything you care to tell us about yourself in terms of age, geography, whether you're a writer, etc? It's partly for my sheer curiosity, and partly to help me continue to gather focus group impressions for the book. Again, only tell us what you're comfortable about sharing, if anything. But then, I suppose that's fairly obviously.


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