Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Students: you can do this too

 From the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Writing Group of Two.

An excerpt:
I've written in this space before about the usefulness of a "writing date." You buy a kind of accountability when you're with someone and you're both supposed to be working....

Last summer I got an astonishing amount of writing done, as did Nancy and Jeff; we all suffered together, over endless cups of coffee and an occasional scone.

But Nancy and I did something else, too. When one of us got stuck, we asked the other for help. And by stuck, I don't mean when you have to stop looking at the page for a while and go out for a run, bake a cake, or do whatever you do when your brain needs to be reset to start working again. I mean stuck as in paralyzed. You know what you need to do, but you just can't get there.

Maybe that doesn't happen to everyone. But it happens to me. And it happens to Nancy. It's easier for me when it happens to Nancy. And that's when we move from having a regular writing date to being members of the Writing Group of Two.

Here's how it works. Nancy will say something like, "I have to put this book proposal together." And then she will stare into space for three hours. Or start working on a syllabus for some course she might teach someday. Or search for an apartment to rent in Paris.
That's when I say, "OK, let's get to work." I make her think out loud and interrupt her with a stream of questions. I ask her what the argument is, and make her articulate the question she is trying to answer. I ask her why she is the right person to write the book. I tell her she has to come up with a table of contents. Nancy is a slow typist, so usually I grab her laptop and curse that rainbow-striped Apple when I can't find the right keys and make stupid mistakes. But I type as she talks.

Everything is already in her head. It's not that she's stuck on the thinking part. It's that she finds it difficult to get her thoughts onto the page. So, like a translator, or a secretary, I listen to what she's saying and I record. I don't worry much about getting things right—that's her job. What I do is help her produce that first impossible draft.

Then it's my turn. My problem is different. I can write a first draft. But often, while I suspect it's crap, I can't figure out where it's gone wrong. The language is generally fine. Sometimes, in fact, it's too good; fluid prose can hide hideous flaws of thought—at least from the author. If you get a draft that you like, you tend to memorize it; the sentences start to seem inevitable and unchangeable. I know that once it's out there in the world, there will be people quick to point out my inadequacies, my glibness, my habit of skimming along the shiny surface.

So Nancy reads my embarrassing first draft and says, usually, "I think it's more complicated." Then we discuss. She forces me to refine my thinking...

1 comment:

  1. Oh, so tempting. I really need to get that book finished, and I'm 'stuck'. Have been for a long time. Maybe what I need is a Writing Group of Two.