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." 

The Ear Still Does It

Last week, while reading remarks from the Irish novelist Kevin Barry in The Atlantic's By Heart series ("How Fiction Can Survive in a Distracted World"), I heard another writer's voice break in. Barry, who had spoken by phone with Atlantic contributor Joe Fassler, was discussing the various challenges to sustained readerly attention. "We’ve changed very much as readers of texts, in recent years. We’re much more impatient now — I think, primarily, because we’re all online, all the time." But, he reflected, the human voice "can still arrest us, slow us down, and stop us in our tracks." This was a preface to his specific appreciation for the captivating power of "Under Milk Wood," Dylan Thomas's "play for voices." 

It was just after Barry had demonstrated the particularly inviting effects of the opening voice in the play, which asks us repeatedly to listen, that I was listening to Robert Frost's voice, talking from somewhere in my memory. 

I went looking for the source, which turned out to be a letter Frost wrote from England in 1914 to John Bartlett, his friend and former student. Soon I had Barry talking in one browser window and Frost writing in another.  And a minute later, Barry was standing on one side of an imagined stage, inside his home in County Sligo, the phone to his ear, while Frost sat writing at a desk on the other side. A bare space at center stage — and almost exactly a century — separated them, but still they conversed, in a way. 

FROST: (voicing what he writes) The ear does it.

Barry pauses. Pulls the phone from his ear for a moment, as if he's heard something in the room.

FROST: The ear is the only true writer and the only true reader.

BARRY: (continuing into the phone) I always think there are two kinds of readers. There are readers who read with their eyes —

FROST: Eye readers we call them. They can get the meaning by glances.

BARRY: — who process a text in images —

FROST: But they are bad readers because they miss the best part of what a good writer puts into his work.

BARRY: — and I think there are readers who read with their ears, who listen, as the sentences unfold across the page. I’m of the latter variety. 

FROST: (nodding) You listen for the sentence sounds.

BARRY: My ear is my critical tool.... It’s what catches the false notes.

Silence

 FROST: I wouldn’t be writing all this if I didn’t think it the most important thing I know.

Have Sentences, Will Travel

"In encouraging my students to join me in collecting sentences, I’m hoping they will establish a kind of associative network, so that their consideration of one sentence will lead to comparison to others and an expanding and informed artistic appreciation on this fundamental level. I’m reminded of and motivated by a remark by Robert Frost. “A poem is best read in the light of all the other poems ever written,” he wrote. “We read A the better to read B (we have to start somewhere; we may get very little out of A). We read B the better to read C, C the better to read D, D the better to go back and get something more out of A. Progress is not the aim, but circulation. The thing is to get among the poems where they hold each other apart in their places as the stars do.

"My thing is to get among the sentences...."

Read my complete post on the blog of the Piper Center for Creative Writing, at Arizona State University.