"To Learn to See Is a Blessing"

Photo by Mark Solarski

Photo by Mark Solarski

A few years ago, when a student in the audience at a talk I gave about writing the college-application essay asked me what I would say if I could give only one piece of advice, I responded: “Start paying attention to what you pay attention to. Make a list.” I recalled this exchange, and I considered again the significance of what informs our approach with students at Hillside — our focus on teaching them to trust the value of their interactions with their concrete worlds — when I read the following excerpt from an essay by the late poet Linda Gregg. We’re grateful for her description of her students’ various efforts to see, so relevant to our foundational work with students at Hillside.

I am astonished in my teaching to find how many poets are nearly blind to the physical world. They have ideas, memories, and feelings, but when they write their poems they often see them as similes. To break this habit, I have my students keep a journal in which they must write, very briefly, six things they have seen each day—not beautiful or remarkable things, just things. This seemingly simple task usually is hard for them. At the beginning, they typically “see” things in one of three ways: artistically, deliberately, or not at all. Those who see artistically instantly decorate their descriptions, turning them into something poetic: the winter trees immediately become “old men with snow on their shoulders," or the lake looks like a “giant eye.” The ones who see deliberately go on and on describing a brass lamp by the bed with painful exactness. And the ones who see only what is forced on their attention: the grandmother in a bikini riding on a skateboard, or a bloody car wreck. But with practice, they begin to see carelessly and learn a kind of active passivity until after a month nearly all of them have learned to be available to seeing—and the physical world pours in. Their journals fill up with lovely things like, “the mirror with nothing reflected in it.” This way of seeing is important, even vital to the poet, since it is crucial that a poet see when she or he is not looking—just as she must write when she is not writing. To write just because the poet wants to write is natural, but to learn to see is a blessing

—Linda Gregg, from The Art of Finding

Give Yourself Away

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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.

Picking the Locks

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The fall of my senior year of high school, I spent a very long time not writing my Big College Essay. It was a project I was already supposed to know how to do — two pages with just one job: to capture, in entirety, who I was. Oh, and it should hint at a keen intellect. And a social conscience. And a couple acts of heroism.

Two weeks before the deadline, after a weekend of jittery panic spent in my family’s computer room, I brought my essay to a trusted teacher. He read it while I sat on the other side of his desk, and when he finished, he folded the paper over and handed it back to me, shaking his head. “This is terrible,” he said. “Now let’s fix it.”

As clearly as I remember the agony of those months before that meeting, I also remember the relief that swept in afterward. The turning point came not with the word fix, but with the word Let’s. Suddenly, there was a “We,” another person in this with me who thought I had something important to say, and who, without any of the anxiety I brought to the project, seemed to know that somewhere in me, somewhere not yet on the page, there was a better story. A truer story.

These days, when I am not at Hillside, I make my living as a professional writer and documentary producer. I can’t say I’ve completely avoided the Blank-Screen Torture Chamber, but I have learned how to pick the locks to escape. I often begin by asking myself questions my high school teacher asked me in the “Let’s fix it” stage:

Am I, as the author, interested in what I’ve written? (“If you don’t want to write this,” my teacher had said, “why should I want to read it?”).

What makes this story mine? (“Tell me a detail I cannot already imagine,” he said.)

Why have I chosen to tell this particular story? (“Tell me how you feel now compared to how you felt before this happened.”)

I credit my teacher not only for rescuing me in my confrontation with my college essay, but also for giving me tools that I now use both as a journalist and in my work at Hillside. As an interviewer and a writing coach, I try to do for others what my teacher did for me: to make people comfortable in speaking openly with me; to listen in a way that helps them recognize the best details of their stories; and to discover with them how their stories became theirs. As a journalist, I have to weave together the story threads on my own, but as a coach, I get to be part of the “We,” the member of the team who asks the questions to uncover the details that inspire the writing. It’s rewarding work, as a writer, a reader, and a human. I value it in part because I remember how it felt to be in the Torture Chamber, but mostly because I remember the relief of hearing the word Let’s — how it felt to begin again, with a coach on the sidelines, and to see a story emerge, draft after draft, that wasn’t My Big College Essay but my essay.

On Going Deep

Recent research in cognitive science, psychology and neuroscience has demonstrated that deep reading—slow, immersive, rich in sensory detail and emotional and moral complexity—is a distinctive experience, different in kind from the mere decoding of words. Although deep reading does not, strictly speaking, require a conventional book, the built-in limits of the printed page are uniquely conducive to the deep reading experience. A book’s lack of hyperlinks, for example, frees the reader from making decisions—Should I click on this link or not?—allowing her to remain fully immersed in the narrative.

That immersion is supported by the way the brain handles language rich in detail, allusion and metaphor: by creating a mental representation that draws on the same brain regions that would be active if the scene were unfolding in real life. The emotional situations and moral dilemmas that are the stuff of literature are also vigorous exercise for the brain, propelling us inside the heads of fictional characters and even, studies suggest, increasing our real-life capacity for empathy.

from "The Case for Preserving the Pleasure of Deep Reading"
by Annie Murphy Paul

My Teaching Philosophy, Rediscovered

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Recently, while combing through the files (and files) on an old computer in order to see what's worth taking with me to a new hard drive, I came upon three points toward a "teaching philosophy" that I forgot I had written several years ago. Things haven't changed....

              •   •   •

Teaching Philosophy


The most successful, enduring learning happens in and through relationship. Any classroom presents a teacher with as many different opportunities for relationship as there are students in the room. With the motivated, already-skilled, eager students, the relationship often builds through the work, through the material and a mutual desire for engagement, and learning is deepened by the increasingly sophisticated questioning that the relationship allows. But with the student whose fundamental skills and understandings require more attention (practice, reinforcement), the relationship is of more immediate importance; its development is crucial for surmounting the obstacles of low self-confidence and motivation. I also believe that a teacher's relationship with his or her students can be as much the foundation for future learning as are the specific skills or understandings attained. My aim is for my students to see me and to remember me as uncommonly challenging and also unfailingly approachable, to see that the tasks I set before them may be difficult, but that support is available.


Training for any special skill demands consistent attention to the fundamentals, and writing is indeed a special skill. Few can do it well—that is, clearly, coherently, persuasively, engagingly. I often ask at the start of a new course for a volunteer to tell me of a particularly developed skill he or she has. Usually, I learn about a student’s refined artistic or athletic ability. I then ask what the fundamental skills are that must be mastered before one could dream of attaining that special ability. My purpose is to shed light on the often overlooked basics, and on the process of building from them. More specifically, my purpose is to begin emphasizing reading as a special skill.

I purposefully use the verb “master” above: the traditional master-apprentice relationship, through which a newcomer to a skill learns by observing, greatly informs my teaching. The apprentice painter or dancer or pianist or carpenter or plumber can watch the master at work, noting precisely what he or she does at various stages of creation or revision (or repair), or in particular emergent predicaments, and then can imitate to practice and progress. Having taught for nearly a decade at an arts-intensive high school—a school for talented high-school-age dancers, actors, visual artists, musicians, and writers—I am often reflecting on this time-honored approach to learning, and in doing so confronting the distinctly different situation in which the striving young writer finds herself. Unlike the apprentice sculptor or ballerina or actor or violinist, the apprentice writer does not learn much of anything (aside from quiet perseverance, perhaps) from watching the master: a writer at work is not very instructional. What the young writer must do is make the page the master, which requires developing the ability to read closely and sensitively enough to see the master’s moves in the phrasings, the sentences, the paragraphs.

A student in the literature class or the creative writing class must learn how to read profitably, and in my view the best teachers for such classrooms are the ones able to model productive reading practices delightfully, and, in turn, to demonstrate the relationship between such reading and skillful, effective writing. When with enough practice students begin to recognize the art in the individual sentence, they begin not only to read more perceptively but to write with heightened attention and specificity, and they soon find themselves with more to invent and to argue on the page.


To not know is a very fortunate starting point. I am influenced here by oft-quoted words from John Dewey's How We Think: "Genuine ignorance is ... profitable because it is likely to be accompanied by humility, curiosity, and open-mindedness; whereas ability to repeat catch-phrases, cant terms, familiar propositions, gives the conceit of learning and coats the mind with a varnish waterproof to new ideas." Students begin to see, to observe—to notice for themselves—when they feel comfortable encountering the new, or when they cannot convincingly claim to know about the object under study. I strive in my classrooms to make plenty of room for not-knowing (and am helped when my material can't be "known" quickly). I encourage students not to escape ignorance but rather to get familiar with not yet having enough information. Only from there can well-earned discoveries be made, and discovery is the first step to a sense of ownership over an idea. On a related note, I feel more and more commitment to teaching patience, whether with an object for analysis or in the drafting of a scene for a short story. "It's not that I'm so smart," Einstein is reported to have said. "It's just that I stay with problems longer."

The Comedian and the College Applicant | Part One

I didn't expect to see so many parallels between the way a comedian works on a joke and the process I've developed to coach high school students in the writing of effective and memorable college-application essays.

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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."

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"It is not our ambition to fill museums; we are gathering experience.”

The everyday experience of working artists is that they routinely fail to hit their mark, to draw the best line, to choose the stronger word, to sound the right note, and these are the stakes that make success in art so satisfying. The admission of this fact can and should liberate the artist-in-training to play the harder and thus learn the more in an atmosphere of passionate experimentation.

Teachers of writing: Hit refresh now by clicking over to Daniel Bosch's "Cover Letter," at 3:AM Magazine

A Course in Being an Accomplice

There is a writing course I would like to design and teach whose title I would lift from Virginia Woolf’s essay “How Should One Read a Book?” and in which we, the students and I, would not write — at all. The purpose of the course would be described pretty well by this excerpt from Woolf’s essay (recently featured here):

Do not dictate to your author; try to become him. Be his fellow-worker and accomplice. If you hang back, and reserve and criticize at first, you are preventing yourself from getting the fullest possible value from what you read. But if you open your mind as widely as possible, then signs and hints of almost imperceptible fineness, from the twist and turn of the first sentences, will bring you into the presence of a human being unlike any other. Steep yourself in this, acquaint yourself with this and soon you will find that your author is giving you, or attempting to give you, something far more definite.

Doubtless, there are writing teachers out there with this opportunity, or something like it. (I would like to know of them, please!) In my course I would successfully redirect the urge to write into reading, into practicing reading as sensitively, responsively, and accurately as possible, both in performance (aloud) and privately, as silent observers of language and its effects. I’ve always liked Zadie Smith’s comparison of a reader to “the amateur musician placing her sheet music on the stand and preparing to play. She must use her own hard-won skills to play this piece of music. The greater the skill, the greater the gift she gives the composer and the composer gives her.” (See “Fail Better,” published in The Guardian, 1/13/07.)

In other words, I would give much more room, all available room, to what I teach, in various ways but always first and foremost, when I teach any writing course. In this ideal environment, I would feel no pressure to move students toward their own crafting on the page. We would work mostly on the air, from the eye through the voice to the ear. We would together discover and come to understand — come to know through our various senses — the materials with which writers work, or have worked, and be able to discern how they succeed with these materials. And we would compile a mental library of instructional moments, instances of successful crafting that we have committed to memory.

Along the way, for support and sustenance, I’m sure I would revisit the experience Francine Prose describes in her very useful book Reading Like a Writer:

I liked my students, who were often so eager, bright, and enthusiastic that it took me years to notice how much trouble they had in reading a fairly simple short story. Almost simultaneously, I was struck by how little attention they had been taught to pay to the language, to the actual words and sentences that a writer had used. Instead, they had been encouraged to form strong, critical, and often negative opinions of geniuses who had been read with delight for centuries before they were born. They had been instructed to prosecute or defend these authors, as if in a court of law, on charges having to do with the writers’ origins, their racial, cultural, and class backgrounds….

No wonder my students found it so stressful to read! And possibly because of the harsh judgments they felt required to make about fictional characters and their creators, they didn’t seem to like reading, which also made me worry for them and wonder why they wanted to become writers. I asked myself how they planned to learn to write, since I had always thought that other learned, as I had, from reading.

Responding to what my students seemed to need, I began to change the way I taught. No more general discussions of this character or that plot turn. No more attempts to talk about how it felt to read Borges or Poe or to describe the experience of navigating the fantastic fictional worlds they created…. I organized the classes around the more pedestrian, halting method of beginning at the beginning, lingering over every word, every phrase, every image, considering how it enhanced and contributed to the story as a whole.  

(As for being an author’s “fellow-worker and accomplice,” consider this.)

"I think it’s important to open that area of inquiry as early as possible."

It is a pleasure to read Matt Bell’s answers in the new “The Books We Teach” series(-to-be) of interviews offered by Ploughshares — and to read the following in particular:

One of my favorite texts to teach is Gary Lutz’s essay “The Sentence is a Lonely Place.” I couldn’t imagine not exposing students to this piece. After reading it, we spend a day considering sentence after sentence on the projector, all kinds of successful ways to get from the opening word to the final punctuation, how the sentences are built, where the power comes from, and what kind of rules we can extract about what creates emotional effect on the sentence level. It’s my experience that fiction writers—and not just beginning fiction writers—have a lousy vocabulary for talking about sentence-level acoustics and poetics, and while there’s more to learn than we could ever cover in a single lecture, I think it’s important to open that area of inquiry as early as possible.

The Promise of the Single Sentence

I’m just back from teaching several craft sessions at the Desert Nights, Rising Stars Writers Conference, at Arizona State University, and I am reflecting again on this:

The writers I have taught who have enjoyed the most success have found their stories inside of single, compelling, well-crafted (and -revised) sentences of narrative charge. They have found character and setting and predicament, and have subsequently, and unexpectedly, come upon specific moment and momentum from the sustained empathic imagining that a single sentence has demanded. They have proceeded to unpack a story across sometimes twenty or thirty pages, addressing the narrative questions their initial sentence prompted. In starting story-making with what the crafting of a single sentence demands, we’re not limiting the imagination. We’re both deepening and sharpening it — and at the same time encouraging practice toward the agility and versatility a profitable sentence-maker must have.

"How did this thing come to be?"

As a writing teacher and coach — one who, twenty years ago, fresh out of college, stepped with novelist John Irving sentence by sentence through three revisions of the heavy manuscript for his novel A Son of the Circus (I was his assistant) — I’ve lately been stepping around with Verlyn Klinkenborg’s remark, “We can’t see all the decisions that led to the final shape of the sentence. But we can see the residue of those decisions.” AIrving’s assistant, I could see a lot of the decisions leading to the final shapes of sentences, and I suppose this and my subsequent experience as an editor has compelled me recently to design ways in which an apprentice writer might at least get the (imagined) experience of confronting the decisions behind model sentences, or may easily demonstrate — and in order to demonstrate, to see, first — his or her own decisions in crafting.

I call one exercise “Sentence Evolutions.” I will be presenting the practice to teachers in the Needham (MA) Public Schools today, and I look forward to writing more about them here. Right now, though, time allows only for sharing an excerpt from a piece from which I derive some support for my endeavors. Gary Lutz is clearly as admiring of and invested in good sentence-making as I am. I’m grateful for his words.

From "The Sentence is a Lonely Place," a lecture by Gary Lutz, published in The Believer, January 2009:

It took me almost another decade after graduate school to figure out what writing really is, or at least what it could be for me; and what prompted this second lesson in language was my discovery of certain remaindered books…. These were books written by writers who recognized the sentence as the one true theater of endeavor, as the place where writing comes to a point and attains its ultimacy…. The writers of such sentences became the writers I read and reread. I favored books that you could open to any page and find in every paragraph sentences that had been worked and reworked until their forms and contours and their organizations of sound had about them an air of having been foreordained — as if this combination of words could not be improved upon and had finished readying itself for infinity.

And as I encountered any such sentence, the question I would ask myself in marvelment was: how did this thing come to be what it now is?

Ten Explanatory Fragments on the Sentence


Why am I launching a blog on sentence-making and what comes from it? Here are ten fragmentary, overlapping reasons:

1. Because of the complicated beauty I find in sentences (well, some of them!) — in their texture and balance and momentum, in their weaving of sound and sense, in their play with time and rhythm, in the power of their design to shape vivid imagery and precise ideas. 

2. Because what happens between a writer and a reader begins and ends with — and in — the sentences between them.

3. Because I find that to work as a writing teacher and coach and as an editor — and, of course, as a writer — is to invest, first, in being as good a reader of sentences as possible. This is often overlooked.

4. Because my students want to write stories and essays before they've considered what must go into writing the sentences to get there. 

5. Because the challenge to pinpoint how black marks on the page can have the effects they do in the receptive mind is endlessly compelling to me—and a lot of fun. 

6. Because the sentence teaches control and purpose: it is where limitless possibilities in the imagination narrow to specific effect and predicament. 

7. Because, unlike with the master painter or dancer or pianist or carpenter or plumber, you cannot learn much at all from watching the master writer at work; you must observe the sentences he or she has made. The page is the master. If you can observe what's there well enough, you can be an apprentice.  

8. Because I agree with Verlyn Klinkenborg when he writes: “If you understand how to build silence and patience and clarity into your prose, how to construct sentences that are limber and rhythmic and precise and filled with perception, you can write about anything, even yourself.”

9. Because effective sentence-making is so pleasurably and variously difficult. 

10. Because writing, editing, teaching, and reading are all practices, and I like to practice.

Thanks for your reading. I hope you continue.