Writing: Inspiration or Perspiration?


My first attempt at an MFA began inauspiciously.

An instructor, a published novelist at George Mason University, looked around the classroom at his bright-eyed students, eager to write and workshop our essays. Workshop, a verb. As in, submit our prose for criticism and feedback so we could revise and improve it.

His first-day comments about logistics and the syllabus trailed off, and he fixed us with a hopeless look. “I’ll be honest,” he said. He flicked his wrist derisively. “This doesn’t really work.”

We shifted in our seats, side-eyed each other. What doesn’t really work? As he went on he made it clear he was talking about the workshop process itself.

Thank god I had participated in others and knew that, with good leadership, they did work.

Of course, they’re imperfect, and, as writing instruction goes, simply receiving feedback from other writers—with varying degrees of competence and talent—isn’t enough. But to dismiss them altogether was absurd. Sadly, in this instructor’s hands it was also self-fulfilling.

Unfortunately, he was expressing a belief held by many writers, one I suspect says more about their own sense of specialness than their understanding of pedagogy. Most MFA faculty are writers first and teachers second—they teach to pay the bills. Some are reluctant, even resentful. They aren’t necessarily devoted to the art of teaching or trained in the science of learning.

Happily, many love the craft so much they transcend these limitations in order to promote it. They learn how to teach. They discover that yes, actually, feedback, discussion, and revision does result in better writers. Workshopping, done well, does work.

It’s true that there’s magic in writing, and magic isn’t conferrable the way facts are, or the way skills can be.

But writing is only about one percent sorcery. The rest boils down to putting in time, with intentionality: reading and analyzing mentor texts, drafting regularly, and revising ruthlessly.

The 99 percent of writing that isn’t sheer-luck talent is a knowable, if vast, domain. Certain elements make for good stories, and these elements are not a mystery: For example, (nonexperimental) fiction and narrative nonfiction need a protagonist with a clear conflict—something at stake—and a narrative arc. Descriptive nonfiction must be structured in a way that clearly conveys its main ideas, supporting them with illustrative details. Arguments must be rhetorically sound and should anticipate and address counterarguments. 

Those are just the basics. If writing couldn’t be taught, writers would never get better, but I see writers improve all the time.

After the George Mason instructor of little faith told me I should acquire assignments from editors by showing up at their offices rather than emailing them because “you’re young, you’re attractive,” I dropped out. A few years later, I earned an MFA in creative nonfiction at Goucher College, where the instructors understood the pedagogy of writing.

The Charm of the Large Word

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Big words get a bad rap.

George Orwell practically outlaws them in his famous essay “Politics and the English Language” (which, if you haven’t yet read, do, as soon as you finish this). It’s right there in rule (ii): Never use a long word where a short one will do.

Hemingway famously preferred short words to long:

Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.

Using big words may feed our ego. Hemingway clearly thought they fed Faulkner’s.

And ego-nourishment is no reason to use a big word.

But big words can be beautiful. Notice that Orwell doesn’t categorically prohibit them; he implies room for their use “where a short word” won’t do. Hemingway masterfully combined short words to make big meaning, but not everyone has Hemingway’s talent or wants to imitate his style.

As with every word on a page, a big word must earn its place by communicating something vital to the author’s message. Orwell’s opposition stemmed from reading text bloated with big words that supplied no meaning or clarity. Hemingway’s motivation to avoid them seems more stylistic.

In any case, to earn its place in a text, a big word must be two things: the right word and the best word.

It’s the right word if its meaning is what you intend. It can be tempting to use a word whose meaning we sort of know; we’ve heard it in this context before. But if its meaning isn’t precisely right, some of your readers will know this, and you’ll lose credibility with them. Readers who know its meaning no better than you will not be impressed either, because they will only sort of know what you’re trying to say. Of course using such a word shows that you only sort of know what you’re saying, too.

It’s the best word if using it reduces your overall word count. Take a word like trajectories, which I used in the phrase “At some point in our writing trajectories” in my last post. Using trajectories saved me four other words, because the alternative in that context was “in our paths of development as writers.” It also spared me using a more boring big word, development.

If a simpler synonym would be vague (e.g. routes for trajectories) or if avoiding the big word creates verbosity, let the big word do its work.

One of the English language’s most beautiful features is its many words, each with a shade of meaning ever so slightly distinct from its next nearest relative. This feature lets us write with precision, which gives our ideas clarity, which improves communication, which is, after all, the point of prose.



Who Are You Writing For?

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Pity the reader. –Kurt Vonnegut

There may be as many reasons to write as there are writers, but most if not all can be lumped into three categories:

  1. self-expression and creative fulfillment
  2. sharing information, entertainment, and/or inspiration
  3. calling readers to action (e.g. political, spiritual, commercial)

Of the three, only the first reason allows for the possibility of not taking readers into consideration—and then only if the writer plans to leave the writing on a shelf.

Otherwise, we write to connect. We have something to say and want others to hear it.

It’s surprising then how easy it is, putting words to paper, to forget the reader. It’s alarmingly common, for example, to read political commentary that assumes its readers already agree with its author. Otherwise, it wouldn’t insult people who don’t—the very people whose minds the author is trying to change.

Another kind of disregard for readers is self-indulgence. Our own voice seduces us; it warps a piece of writing into a showcase of our intelligence, wit, expertise, or sophistication. Nobody wants to read that. Except the writer—until she finally acknowledges these motivations and winces at how transparent the preening must have been all along to everyone else. Guilty.

Sometimes we get hung up on our vision for a piece of writing. I understand the integrity of creative expression, and writing (particularly poetry and experimental fiction) is art. But if we want that vision to land we must follow Vonnegut's advice.

A writer I met recently was frustrated with her book editor. The editor suggested adding background and context. Telling me this story, the writer made a face. “That wasn’t what my focus was,” she said. She didn’t want to emphasize that.

This line struck me, because I both recognized the sentiment behind it—what writer hasn’t felt thwarted and misunderstood when sharing her work?—and agreed with the editor.

The writer seemed to forget her purpose for writing, which was to explain an important problem so her readers would do something about it. Frankly, it didn’t matter if she didn’t want to emphasize that. Assuming readers needed it for understanding, she had to include it.

I’m no expert in her topic and don’t know her readership, so I can’t make the call, but the editor’s suggestion sounded solid. If the writer had said, “My readers already know that,” or “Readers don’t need to know that,” okay. But her reluctance wasn’t reader related.

So how do we pity the reader? One way is to put ourselves in his shoes and ask, “If I didn’t know this author, what would I get out of reading this?

Is the writing entertaining? Insightful? Informative? Inspiring? Does it shed some light on the human condition?

Pitying the reader is a mindset. It may be one you set aside while writing the first draft—at that point, it’s best to let it all fly—but it is one you must adopt when revising and editing.

But Where Do I Start?


There comes a time when it strikes you that you have got some stories to tell. You have something to say! You’ve seen some crazy s**t in your lifetime; you’ve come through some harrowing times. Now, you’re on the other side of those experiences, but they’re hanging around in your heart and your mind.

Or it strikes you one day, after a decade or so in a field, that you that you know a hell of a lot about a subject, and that this is a subject other people should know about.

There’s something there. Something worth sharing, or maybe even simply something worth documenting, remembering, or exploring.

But, damn. What do you do with it? How do you even start?

The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik once wrote that writing is “turning time into language.”

So you start with time.

You put it on your calendar. Maybe it’s an hour on a Tuesday night—maybe an hour every Tuesday night. Or maybe it’s a chunk of a Saturday afternoon.

Then you consider space.

You pick your writing happy place—maybe the far end of the couch. Maybe that one table in the back of the coffee shop. You get there early enough to order your coffee, to brew your tea.

You bring your beverage to your happy place. You silence your phone and put out of sight. You open your laptop or your paper notebook. On your laptop, you turn off the WiFi and maximize the window—in your paper notebook you turn to a clean page—so there’s nothing to see but a sheet of white paper. Maybe you set a timer, maybe you don’t, but you definitely do not do anything—anything—else for the time you’ve carved out of your life for this important work.

And then you write. Easy, right?

No? No. It’s not easy. Maybe nothing will happen. Maybe you will stare at the blank page for a long, long time.

Maybe you’ll type a sentence, but as soon as you see it on the page, you’ll decide this writing is for other people, who are you kidding, and you’ll want to delete it immediately. Don’t. Instead, hit return a few times, or turn to a new page, or open a new document, and try again.

Maybe you write a sentence, and it makes you think of another one, and then another and another until your tea has grown cold and your timer goes off. (You are very lucky if this happens to you.)

Most likely it’s something in between. Some good sentences, some sentences that embarrass you, some long stretches of time with nothing happening.

Be patient. Love yourself. But, as writer Ron Carlson has put it, “Whatever you do, stay in the room.”

Because the secret to turning “time into language” is to spend the time.

At this point, that’s all that matters. At this point, you’re just getting started. Down the road, you’ll re-read that language, and some of it will please you and a some of it won’t. (If all of it pleases you, this writing thing really may not be for you, because humility and an ability to see ways to improve our writing are key qualities for writers.) Down the road, you can think about showing it to someone else—a writing group or a friend or a teacher or a coach—and that person can help you tease out and polish the parts with potential and identify and discard the parts that aren’t so brilliant.

But for now, it’s about time. Make the time.