Give Yourself Away

Say a Few Things.png

by VALERIE DUFF

As a young writer, I often felt I needed to write about something beyond myself — something accessible only to writers older, more intelligent, more talented than I was. This pressure I put on myself often resulted in stagnant, dreadful writing, full of clichés and in a voice that sounded wooden. Then, in my early twenties, I attended a writing workshop with a Cambridge poet who gave the class a sheaf of poems and essays on poetry. The handbook she’d compiled for us began with a quotation (author unknown):

“Yesterday, I told my girls, I told them, if somebody interesting talks to you, you say a few things, too. You might as well breathe at the same time and let the words out in the air. Don’t ask questions, I told them. Give things away. Give yourself away.”

It was astonishingly simple advice, both fearless and easy.

This became the invaluable mantra I repeated when I sat down to do my own writing. It’s a mantra that works no matter what writing project is in front of you.

It’s easy to forget that once upon a time our stories were spoken, and that writing carries with it an authentic voice. Our work as writers is not to come up with a story unlike any that has come before — a constraint no one needs to submit to. Instead, our work is to invest experiences that may be familiar to others with details and observations that are distinctly ours. It’s the piecing together of specifics by a perceptive individual, always reacting to people, places, predicaments — the sound of a voice, the feel of a particular location, the awareness of a misstep. This is what makes a fully realized personal essay so much more compelling than writing that shows off its education or tries to be something it’s not.

Every writer gets to say a few things, too. In the best writing, the self-conscious self falls away. You always have permission to sound like yourself.

Still, when I work with students and I say something is confusing, or I ask them for particulars, I hear them say, “I thought I was supposed to sound a certain way” (read: dry, abstract), or “I wanted to focus on ideas.” I hear that fundamental misunderstanding about this endeavor that I once carried. This is when I repeat the mantra. You can see the relief on their faces; revising suddenly turns from work into play. In a few minutes of simple, actual conversation, we unearth the specifics, which we catch and write down. What I see in the revision is real change — suddenly there is a voice, a tactile thing, a motive, or a music that I can inhabit as I read. We all have experiences, and we’re all moving toward that alliance with another. Did you see what I saw? Yes! Or: No — describe it for me? Oh, yes, and that reminds me of… Writing becomes a win-win enterprise; it becomes a completed transaction. When you give yourself away on the page, your reader experiences each moment with you.

Another quote from that poet’s handbook along the same lines: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” Robert Frost. You can’t fake it. What you have available to express continues to grow as you explore it, and voice it. And when you’re ready, you can offer it to readers, who, encountering the specific details of your experience, will suddenly feel they know you as well as they know themselves.

Hear Ye!

I probably spend about as much time reading my words aloud as I do typing them into my computer. We may think we read books only with our eyes, but the mental circuitry of language connects to our ears. The ancient Sufi poets sometimes spoke of sifting the sands of a beach with one’s eyelashes to remove the pebbles of imperfection. That’s what reading aloud lets a writer do. It takes a lot of work and you can never remove all the pebbles, but it’s still the best way of gauging writing-in-progress that I know.

Mohsin Hamid

Reminds us of Matt Bell ("[T]here was never a day when I worked on the book in silence").

And of Frost, who remarked that "the ear is the only true writer and the only true reader." 

And, while we're at it, of Flaubert, who "once complained that his throat hurt — from too much writing." 

A Sentence as Clean as a Bone

Q: What are your first drafts like?

JAMES BALDWIN: They are overwritten. Most of the rewrite, then, is cleaning. Don’t describe it, show it. That’s what I try to teach all young writers — take it out! Don’t describe a purple sunset, make me see that it is purple.

Q: As your experience about writing accrues, what would you say increases with knowledge?

BALDWIN: You learn how little you know. It becomes much more difficult because the hardest thing in the world is simplicity. And the most fearful thing, too. It becomes more difficult because you have to strip yourself of all your disguises, some of which you didn’t know you had. You want to write a sentence as clean as a bone. That is the goal.

from The Paris Review, The Art of Fiction No. 78

The Sentence and Your Discontent

Sometimes it’s just the tiniest kernel of something you enjoyed writing. Then, once you put it down on the page, and write it and rewrite it, it’s actually your own discontent with it that, in some slow mysterious way, urges it to higher ground. And often it will do so in ways that surprise you.

—George Saunders, in "George Saunders: On Story," by Redglass Pictures

 

 

Teaching With the Most Unteachable Things

"I realize that to encourage a perspective on words as unfixed, individual, moveable things, and to sustain a playful motivation to keep words in experimental movement, is of particular interest not only because students often find it very difficult to revise, to pick up and reposition words they've already set down. My interest has also grown from my observations of my own young (not-yet-writing) children at play."

Read More

On Writing Out Loud

“One thing that I’m sure helped me: I was constantly reading aloud from the book, from the first day of drafting to the last day of revision, years later. I’ve read the book out loud cover to cover multiple times, at the end of every major draft, and there was never a day when I worked on the book in silence. I think that there was also some want on my part to prove wrong a truism I’d heard too often in grad school and in other places: When I was in school, it seemed to be a given that an intense focus on language and acoustics couldn’t be carried over an entire novel, that this kind of voice was the province of the story, the poem, that it was too difficult for the writer, too exhausting for the reader. From the first time I heard someone say that, I didn’t believe it—there are plenty of books out there that prove otherwise—and I think I wanted to find out for myself what I could do at this length, with the kind of voices I’m drawn to.”

— Matt Bell, author of In the House upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods (interviewed by Tin House)