Thursday, February 16, 2012

Hey Jim Murphy, Meet Me at the Water Cooler

I don’t generally write a post here as a response to one of my colleagues, but today I was moved in that direction. And as I questioned myself about whether that was some kind of a cop-out or avoidance to writing my own post, that little voice inside became a big voice, and fast. “No, it’s NOT a cop-out,” it yelled at me. This blog functions as a place for us to post our thoughts and ideas about our writing and the world of nonfiction, but it is also an ongoing conversation. These INKers are my colleagues, yet we do not share any office space and have no water cooler around which to engage in conversation. In fact, in this particular case, I have never met the person I want to respond to—Jim Murphy. Yet through this blog, and with each passing post, I have felt a growing feeling of simpatico. We SHOULD have a water cooler. And so I stand by it today, to respond to Jim’s latest post.

He last blogged about mind games, and I’m certain we all play our own versions to get us where we need to go. Here is what Jim wrote as one of his moves: “when I write, I tell myself that I should imagine I'm talking to one reader who happens to be sitting across the desk from me, which means writing in a conversational, informal way. If I feel a section is sounding too much like a freshman college lecture, I stop and do something else (wash dishes, water plants, take Page out) and come back later, hopefully with a fresh eye and approach.”

I read this, raised my arms above my head, and said, “Yes!” I do a slightly different version of this. I get up, walk around, and hold the page or laptop (mine is VERY light) and read out loud, as if to an audience, perhaps during a school visit in my mind. For me, the reading of a tricky or troublesome passage out loud makes my fumbles glare at me from the page, as if daring me to read them out loud. I can see them taunting me: “go ahead, wrap your tongue around this, if you can.” I actually often stop just before I am about to utter whatever sentence I already know has failed. When that happens, I often revise it on the spot—still out loud—as if I am an actor on stage and just realized it’s improvise or flop. New words come out of my mouth. After I say them, that’s when I take a break from my imaginary performance and rush to get them on paper.

I also loved Jim’s other techniques for self-editing—pretending he’s the “nastiest editor alive” and going through it with an eye to someone who knows nothing about the subject. This last one is one we share; and I suspect many other nonfiction writers do this as well. I teach my high school son to do that with his essays, and my college students as well, as there can be this feeling that somehow they are writing to ME only, and since I assigned the topic, they can leave certain things out that surely I must already know. We leave things out in our rough drafts, too. Not because we assume our readers already know them, but because at some point we have become so immersed in our topic that our knowledge base takes over and we start to take some things for granted for ourselves. That is a GREAT sign in terms of feeling as though you have wrapped your arms around a topic in such a way that you can authentically write about it. It is also a GREAT sign that you need to spend some time reading through your work with the sole focus of finding where you have not filled in the blanks for your reader.

This was fun, and I hope others sidle up to the water cooler as well. I love these people on INK—some of them are my dear close friends, and others I have never met. But it doesn’t much matter, as our words continue to bring us closer together.

7 comments:

Deborah Heiligman said...

Oh I wish we had a water cooler. But then, I fear, none of us would get any writing done. On topic: when I first started writing for kids, I was at Scholastic and I was writing about all kinds of difficult topics. Pesticides for 4th graders, 200 lines at 64 characters per line! Nuclear War, famine, etc. I had to interview experts. Whenever they started talking to me as if I knew something about the topic (I had about three days to research, write and revise) I would say, "I'm writing this for fourth-graders," tell me like I'm a 10-year-old. Which, in fact, was about where I was on the topic. It always worked. I've used this to this day (and this was before Denzel Washington said this to Tom Hanks in Philadelphia).

Jim Murphy said...

I suggest we all meet at the wine bar (after doing an appropriate amount of writing). Much more relaxing than the water cooler, in my opinion. And to respond to this great post, I try to always read a text start to finish out loud before sending it off to a publisher (though I usually do this when no one else is at home; I'm a bit shy). Helps me to hear bumpy, clunky, overly long places in the text.

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

How can we all live so far away from each other and still come from the same general gene pool? To make sure they sound right, I read my manuscripts out loud in the dead of night when nobody else in their right mind is still awake (only without any red wine lest I fall asleep and discolor the carpet). And I always write exactly the way I'd talk to a kid of the appropriate age.

Steve Sheinkin said...

There was no such thing as "visual learners" when I was in school, but I guess I'm one. So instead of reading out loud, it helps me to try to "watch" each scene in my head, and see if it's easy to picture and follow. If I can't see it, I figure readers will have the same problem. The advantage this has over reading aloud is that I can do it in the library without frightening others.

Jim Murphy said...

Steve, I am definitely a visual learner and I also play what I write in my head as if I'm watching a movie (though I tend to do this early on in the process for some reason and it becomes less of a practice as the book gets revised). It's interesting that we all have our own way to create, shape, and re-shape our words, similar in many ways and yet individually different.

Steve Sheinkin said...

Yes, Jim, I love hearing about how other writers work and tricks they've taught themselves. Actually, I think I'll try your "read aloud with no one around" technique for my next manuscript. I'll report back...

Cheryl Harness said...

Oh now, it seems to me that this here commentary corner of our mutual enterprise is, at the very least, our virtual water cooler and by the by, did any of you ever see the glorious Cary Grant/Ginger Rogers/M. Monroe film, Monkey Business, in which a clever chimpanzee, entrapped for testing, freed himself, concocted a youth elixir, and poured it into the water cooler?