Writing Small

“The bigger the issue, the smaller you write. Remember that. You don’t write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid’s burnt socks lying on the road. You pick the smallest manageable part of a big thing, and you work off the resonance.” Richard Price

Are writers always writing?

“I cannot find any patience for those people who believe that you start writing when you sit down at your desk and pick up your pen and finish writing when you put down your pen again; a writer is always writing, seeing everything through a thin mist of words, fitting swift little descriptions to everything he sees, always noticing.”  ~ Shirley Jackson

Capturing nonverbal cues in writing

Lately I’ve been thinking about the power of nonverbal communication. You’ve probably heard about the influence non-verbal cues have on our first impressions of people, as well as our day-to-day communication.

Have you ever noticed that it can be hard to get an email or text message to convey the right tone? Part of this may be due to the fact that text-based communication lacks non-verbals. Emoticons can help fill this gap, but there are times that they aren’t appropriate (such as an email to a potential employer) as well as times that you simply can’t create an emoticon to communicate what you want to communicate.

I’m still looking for a way to capture a nose-wrinkle. *sighs in frustration*

Emoticons probably won’t help you when you’re trying to capture emotion or complexity of meaning in poetry or dialogue, either. (Notice I said probably, because if someone hasn’t already written an experimental piece that does this beautifully, I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened at some point in the future).

How can we as writers capture the complexity of nonverbal communication in black and white? I’m still working on this. I know that I’m pretty expressive non-verbally; even when I try not to be, I’m fairly transparent. For this reason, you would think that I would be extremely good at picking up on non-verbal cues, but I’m not.

I’m trying to be more conscious of the subtle things that I do with my face or body when I’m feeling certain ways, and I’m also trying to be more conscious of the non-verbals the people around me are using. Even if I’m interpreting these signals incorrectly, there must be a reason that I perceive them the way I do.

It’s more than just the words they say that make us believe the girl we just met doesn’t like us, or that our best friend is angry at us and won’t tell us, or that the guy we sit next to in class has a crush on us. Whether we are right or wrong, we base many of our judgements on nonverbal cues (lowered eyebrows, blushing, the distance another person stands from you, ans so on).

That’s why including descriptions of this kind of nonverbal communication can add depth to your writing (particularly to dialogue). It takes skill to make this sound natural–I know I still have quite a bit of practicing to do in this area!

I’ve also been thinking about the ways characters’ interpretations (or misinterpretations) of non-verbal cues can provide momentum for the plot. Nonverbal cues can be frustratingly ambiguous. A character could perceive cues that don’t exist, or correctly identify a nonverbal cue but ascribe the incorrect meaning to it.

Maybe I’ll write a story someday that explores these ideas. Maybe not. Either way, thank you for reading these ramblings of mine! If you have any thoughts about non-verbal communication, or tips about how to incorporate nonverbal cues into writing, please let me know in the comments below 🙂

 

Attention!

An important part of being a writer is being observant. Writers constantly take in details through their senses–sight, smell, hearing, taste, touch–and put them back out again. These observations are a writer’s raw material.

You can’t expect to describe something in a compelling way if you fail to pay attention to the world around you. This is true for all genres of writing, but I tend to notice the effect most strongly when I am writing poetry, because poetry is often composed of distilled observations.

Through the very act of going out in the world prepared to observe and remember, writers can increase their receptiveness to the world around them. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott notes that she always carries index card with her to write down her observations and insights:

“I fold an index card lengthwise in half, stick it in my back pocket along with a pen, and head out, knowing that if I have an idea, or see something lovely or strange or for any reason worth remembering, I will be able to jot down a few words to remind me of it.”

Like Lamott, I find that when I prepare myself to observe and remember I am often pleasantly surprised. The act of attention is one of the greatest gifts writing has given me, I think. There are moments when it produces a strange sense of doubleness, as I focus on a meaningful experience but also on the sensory details and physical sensations it produces.

This can be disconcerting, but the alternative–to shut off the part of me that sees and remembers, the part that is attuned to my surroundings and seeks to find words for my experiences–would be like suffocating a part of my own brain.

It’s too easy as we go through life to fall into routine and stop paying attention to the world around us. Writing forces us to cease absorbing details like a complacent sponge and actively work to take in, remember, and record our observations. How can we find meaning in our experiences if we let them pass us by?

Anne Lamott says that all you are able to offer as a writer is all you’ve noticed. That’s why it’s so important to be fully present. How would you want to observe the next person you meet if you knew beforehand that he or she would someday be your best friend or the love of your life? What details would you want to remember if you knew that today was a turning point in your life, and that nothing would ever be the same?

In your life’s story, you can’t know ahead of time which moments will be the ones that will change everything. You can only observe, and remember… and maybe some day you will see how to fit these details into a larger narrative, whether it is your own or one of a character you’ve created.

Why don’t you come on out and say it?

Writing with clarity is important in all types of writing, but this is especially true for academic and technical writing. For these types of writing, the concept of clarity seems straightforward enough, but somehow it can be difficult to achieve. I struggled with this a lot in my first few years of college. I thought the connections between my thoughts were obvious because they were obvious to me.

Don’t make this mistake. Remember that your reader doesn’t know what’s going on inside your head, only what you’ve written on the page. When you are writing in an academic setting, you are generally trying to inform your readers or communicate information. You want your audience to have to do as little additional work as possible. They shouldn’t have to read a paragraph and think, “Now why did the writer include this?” They shouldn’t have to do the work of analyzing and synthesizing the information contained in the paper; you’ve already done that in the process of writing it.

The revision process is a good time to think about clarity. When you are revising, you already have your main points on paper in a way that makes sense to you, because you have the internal scaffolding of your writing process to support them. What you want to do is to take this mental scaffolding of connections and incorporate in into your paper.

The thesis statement is a good place to start. Once you’ve formulated a strong thesis statement (more on that here), you want to make sure that every paragraph has a clear relation back to the thesis. Transition statements are also important for clarity, because they tie paragraphs together and show the connections between your ideas.

It’s generally a good idea to have someone else read over your paper for clarity; another pair of eyes will catch possible confusion more easily that you can. Someone who’s completely unfamiliar with your paper will have the necessary distance to pick up on unclear connections or points that are inadequately explained.

Don’t worry about being too obvious in an academic essay: just come out and say it! Of course, that doesn’t mean you should belabor points that are common knowledge or repeat yourself as you strive for clarity.

Creative writers strive for clarity a bit differently than does a writer who is working on a research paper or an academic essay. In a poem or short story, you often don’t want to spell out every emotion that you want the reader to feel. Sometimes, leaving the reader in the dark about a character’s motivations adds drama and depth to the story.

In this case, the oft-quoted dictum “Show, don’t tell” can be helpful to keep in mind. Describe the details of a scene clearly enough, and chose words that have connotations that contribute to your overall effect–the readers will feel what you want them to feel. Approach your characters’ emotions and motivations with subtly and depth, allowing your readers to discover them much as they would discover the motivations and feelings of the people around them.

This can be difficult. Sometimes it seems that there is a fine line in creative writing between telling too much and not telling at all. Again, this is where reader feedback comes in. The writing center at my college allows students to bring in creative writing pieces, so if you have access to a college writing center, you may want to try this. Friends, family members, and classmates may also be willing to act as beta readers.

In all types of writing, the key to achieving the appropriate amount of clarity is to reread your work and revise, revise, revise! As you become more familiar with your readers’ needs, you will learn what you need to say and what you can communicate through allusion and hints.

I am a writer

What makes someone a writer? The simple answer to that question is to be a writer, you have to write. There are no magic elixirs or code words. The are times, either in the act of writing or in the process of thinking about writing, that I know I’m a writer.

I am a writer when I am madly scribbling in my private notebook, writing poems and stories no one will ever see but myself. I use a mechanical pencil because the point is always sharp. When my pencil is dull, my mind feels dull. I like to write quickly, in long bursts, firmly crossing my t’s and forming the tails of my y’s with careful flourishes.

I am also a writer when I am staring at a blank computer screen, typing a few words at a time before backspacing and erasing them all. I am a writer when my mind feels sluggish and charred from too many words but I write anyway.

I am a writer when I am lying in bed unable to sleep because of the words bumping around inside my brain, forming themselves into unusual juxtapositions and startling images. It’s times like these that I often give up on my half-formed slumber and turn on my bedside lamp so I can write down my inspiration before it fades away into dreams.

I am a writer when I observe the world, noticing the veins of a leaf or the glimmer of a snowflake and adding these details to my store of writing material. Sometimes I observe myself this way, noting each heartbeat and breath as I climb a steep hill or hear a piece of bad news. When my boyfriend puts his arm around me for the first time, I try to remember the sensation for future reference, because I might need to gift it to one of my characters someday.

I am a writer when I am researching a topic that fascinates me, when the ideas click and suddenly I am able to articulate my thoughts in a new way. I have sheets of notebook paper in front of me covered in illegible ink scratches, but now I know that I can say what needs to be said.

How about you? When do you know you’re a writer?