by one L. Pei

How to Write Without Having Anything to Say

Haruki Murakami has said in an interview that he has “a strong desire to write but nothing to say.” And I have a feeling that everyone who wants to write has experienced the same thing. Most writers, though, don’t want to talk about it, and I think there’s a lot to learn from what Murakami says on this subject. In that same interview he continues,

There were so many things I didn’t want to write about that when I stripped them all away there was nothing left. . . . So I just picked the 1970 setting and started putting words together. . . . I probably assumed that, no matter how I put the words together, the one doing it was me myself, so my consciousness was bound to come out in the words one way or another. (Jay Rubin, Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, p. 35)

In 1992 HM delivered a lecture at Berkeley in which he talked at length about the creation of A Wild Sheep Chase, which he has described as his real starting-point as a writer. This is how writing while having nothing to say is put into practice:

     As I wrote A Wild Sheep Chase, I came to feel strongly that a story, a monogatari, is not something you create. It is something that you pull out of yourself. The story is already there, inside you. You can’t make it, you can only bring it out. This is true for me, at least: it is the story’s spontaneity. For me, a story is a vehicle that takes the reader somewhere. Whatever information you may try to convey, whatever you may try to open the reader’s emotions to, the first thing you have to do is get that reader into the vehicle. And the vehicle – the story – the monogatari – must have the power to make people believe. These above all are the conditions that a story must fulfill.

     When I began writing A Wild Sheep Chase I had no preset program in mind. I wrote the opening chapter almost at random. I still had absolutely no idea how the story would develop from that point. But I experienced no anxiety, because I felt – I knew – that the story was there, inside me. I was like a dowser searching for water with his divining rod. I knew – I felt – that the water was there. And so I started to dig.

     The structure of A Wild Sheep Chase was deeply influenced by the detective novels of Raymond Chandler. I am an avid reader of his books and have read some of them many times. I wanted to use his plot structure in my new novel. This meant, first of all, that the protagonist would be a lonely city dweller. He would be searching for something. In the course of his search, he would become entangled in various kinds of complicated situations. And when he finally found what he was looking for, it would already have been ruined or lost. This is obviously Chandler’s method and it is what I wanted to use in A Wild Sheep Chase. . . .

     In A Wild Sheep Chase, however, I was not trying to write a mystery novel. In a mystery novel, there is a mystery which is solved in the course of the book. But I am not trying to solve anything. What I wanted to write was a mystery without a solution.  I have almost nothing to say about what the character called the Sheep Man is, what the sheep with the star on its back is, or what finally happened to the character called the Rat. I used the structure of the mystery novel and filled it with entirely different ingredients. In other words, the structure was, for me, a kind of vehicle.

     I groped my way through the first few chapters, still uncertain what kind of story would develop. It was like feeling my way through the dark. I had absolutely no idea when or where this story would intersect with the story of the sheep. But soon something clicked inside my mind. A tiny gleam appeared far ahead in the darkness. And that was it. Something told me that all I had to do was go in that direction. Of course I would have to watch my step. I would have to be careful not to stumble, not to fall into any holes as I moved forward.

     The most important thing is confidence. You have to believe you have the ability to tell the story, to strike the vein of water, to make the pieces of the puzzle fit together. Without that confidence, you can’t go anywhere. It’s like boxing. Once you climb into the ring, you can’t back out. You have to fight until the match is over.

     This is the way I write my novels, and I love to read novels that have been written this way. To me, spontaneity is everything. (Rubin, pp. 80-82)

Reflections: The story is a vehicle that takes the reader somewhere. Meanwhile, the structure of Chandler’s novels was Murakami’s vehicle. That structure was not his story, but it was just enough of a story-template to take him somewhere – to his confidence? Having the Chandler mystery structure made him believe in his ability to write the book? It seems to me this is the sort of help any fiction writer needs from the books that have already been written: you need a model of story that works. You know the model works because you derive it from books you know have worked for you. The model is truly helpful because you not only see how you can follow it, you also see how you want to deviate from it. Both are essential. If you only envision yourself replicating the model, it remains an exercise, a valuable way of learning technique but not yet fully your own work.

HM talks about making the pieces of the puzzle fit together, yet there are pieces that don’t have to fit and that’s fine, which he is also aware of. This includes all the things that can’t be explained, or that he doesn’t know.

In the same interview quoted above, Murakami went on to say:

I think it’s precisely because I have nothing I want to write about that I can write long novels. The less there is I want to say, the simpler the structure gets. If you know beforehand “I want to say this or that,” then structure naturally begins to become oppressive and to interrupt the spontaneous flow of the story . . . “Theme” is strictly a secondary matter . . . Basically, I believe in the inner power of the human being. (Rubin, p. 128)

This is what I believe as well. It’s a vision of creative process that’s probably not for everybody, but it’s one that really works, and one that I’ve experienced myself.


It’s Worth a Try

In Book 3, Chapter 8 of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the protagonist is at the bottom of a well, and by a concentrated use of his mind, he is trying to pass through the wall into an alternate reality that he knows is there, where a crucial encounter awaits him. This whole chapter can be read as an extended metaphor for the work of the imagination in writing fiction. Here is a key paragraph worth meditating on:

Like a make-believe bird hanging in a make-believe sky, I see the rooms [in the alternate reality] from above. I enlarge the view, pull back, and survey the whole, then zoom in to enlarge the details.

Notice how the character is using exactly the powers that a third-person narrator has in a work of fiction. This image parallels the second sentence beginning HM’s novel After Dark:”Through the eyes of a high-flying night bird, we take in the scene from midair.”

Each detail carries much significance, of course. I check each in turn, examining it for shape and color and texture. From one detail to the next, there is no connection, no warmth. All I am doing at that point is a mechanical inventory of details. But it’s worth a try. Just as the rubbing together of stones or sticks will eventually produce heat and flame, a connected reality takes shape little by little. It works the way the piling up of random sounds goes on to produce a single syllable from the monotonous repetition of what at first glance appears to be meaningless. (394)

There is much commentary on the act of writing fiction here. The protagonist is like the writer who sits down at his desk and sets to work trying to imagine his way into his created world. He knows that he’s got to get inside it to do what he wants to do. The way in is not through the overview; the way he tries to get in is through the details. Patiently he contemplates the details of the imagined scene, because each one “carries much significance, of course.” What he needs to find his way to is not simply the details themselves, but a reality in which there is a network of connection and warmth between them. Then the details won’t be sitting there separately, like dry little artifacts in a museum; they’ll be part of a living reality. But he isn’t there yet, and he knows it. “All I am doing at that point is a mechanical inventory of details. But it’s worth a try.”

The message for a writer is really very simple: keep piling up the details. Keep looking closely at them. Keep rubbing the sticks together. If it seems monotonous, meaningless, mechanical, just keep on anyway. Don’t quit. Little by little, a connected reality will take shape.


Stop making too much sense.

On the flip side of everything we think we absolutely have pegged lurks an equal amount of the unknown.

         Understanding is but the sum of our misunderstandings.

         . . .

         In the world we live in, what we know and what we don’t know are like Siamese twins, inseparable, existing in a state of confusion.

                           (Sputnik Sweetheart, p. 134)

Reality is created out of confusion and contradiction, and if you exclude those elements, you’re no longer talking about reality.

                           (Underground, p. 363)

What I am trying to provide here is . . . not one clear viewpoint, but flesh-and-blood material from which to construct multiple viewpoints, which is the same goal I have in mind when I write novels.                                              (Underground, p. 250)

Discrepancies and contradictions say something in themselves. Sometimes, in this multifaceted world of ours, inconsistency can be more eloquent than consistency.

                           (Underground, p. 234)

         The question is, how much sense does a story really have to make? Murakami’s answer would be, if everything in it totally makes sense, then you’ve gone too far, because the world we live in does not work like that. If you take responsibility for making the world totally understandable in your writing, you’ve taken on an impossible job.

Thus it is okay, and it is possibly even necessary, for there to be things in a story that are never explained, that are unexplainable, that are forever unknown.

Obviously some readers are going to be dissatisfied with that. For dealing with this, see the next entry.


One Out of Ten

Murakami ran a jazz club in Tokyo for seven years before he became a full-time writer. After a while, he realized that out of all those who came through the door of his bar,

If one out of ten was a repeat customer, then the business would survive. . . . it didn’t matter if nine out of ten didn’t like my bar. This realization lifted a weight off my shoulders. Still, I had to make sure that the one person who did like the place really liked it. In order to make sure he did, I had to make my philosophy and stance clear-cut, and patiently maintain that stance no matter what. . . .

         After A Wild Sheep Chase, I continued to write with the same attitude I’d developed as a business owner. (What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, p. 38)

“If you do anything out of the ordinary, you can be sure someone, somewhere, will get upset.” (1Q84, p. 894) You don’t need to please everybody, and you shouldn’t try. If you’re doing your work with independence of mind, which is what matters, it is bound to annoy someone. “If you do the same things everyone else does, in the same way, then you’re no professional.” (1Q84, 973) This vision of professionalism is the opposite of the corporate ideal of “best practices,” in which you get rewarded for doing what others do. Writers are held to a much higher standard: you’re a professional if you do things others haven’t thought of, in ways that haven’t occurred to them. You’re a professional if you can originate, not just emulate.


Being subtle is not an end in itself.

Sometimes you want to be blunt, obvious, impossible to misinterpret.

Murakami compares his mission as a writer to what ET managed to pull off when he cobbled together a bunch of cast-offs in the garage so he could phone home:

I’m going to have to construct a “cosmic communication device” of my own. I’ll probably have to piece together every last scrap of junk, every weakness, every deficiency inside me to do it. (There, I’ve gone and said it – but the real surprise is that it’s exactly what I’ve been trying to do as a writer all along!) (Underground, p. 233)

At the end of Norwegian Wood, the protagonist calls up the woman he loves from a phone booth in a train station:

         “I have to talk to you,” I said. “I have a million things to talk to you about. A million things we have to talk about. All I want in this world is you. I need to see you and talk. I want the two of us to begin everything from the beginning.”

         Midori responded with a long, long silence – the silence of all the misty rain in the world falling on all the new-mown lawns of the world. Forehead pressed against the glass, I shut my eyes and waited. At last, Midori’s quiet voice broke the silence: “Where are you now?”

         Where was I now?

         Gripping the receiver, I raised my head and turned to see what lay beyond the telephone booth. Where was I now? I had no idea. No idea at all. Where was this place? All that flashed into my eyes were the countless shapes of people walking by to nowhere. Again and again, I called out for Midori from the dead center of this place that was no place.

When ET phones home, he isn’t subtle. When the protagonist of Norwegian Wood calls out for Midori again and again, he isn’t subtle. Too much is at stake to permit the luxury of being subtle! In these situations, the attempt to communicate desperately matters – that is the focus. Not getting imaginary style points for being subtle.


Write From the Shadows

There is another incredibly important lesson in HM’s metaphor of the “cosmic communication device”: To carry out your mission as a writer, you cobble together the junk inside yourself; you make something out of your weaknesses and deficiencies. You don’t try to hide from those things; they are what you work with.

We can’t write from the public side of ourselves, the daylight side, alone; we have to also write from the nighttime side, the secret side, the part of the self that remains in shadow. Without that, the story will never be good enough. If it isn’t, in the end, some transformation of your obsessions, of the stuff that’s life or death to you, then why bother with it? One must give in to one’s material. The question is not whether the material is new, the question is whether the writer feels it at gut level and is willing to go there, has a feel for language, has imbibed the forms, the techniques, the traditions, and done something skillful with them. The best parts of your writing are some kind of transmutation of your own suffering and your own hopes. The question is not whether that should be so (of course it should), but exactly how one’s suffering and one’s hopes can turn into worthwhile art.


Handle With Care

Near the middle of 1Q84, Tamaru (the bodyguard) and Aomame (the female protagonist) have a conversation in which he tells her how he grew up in an orphanage in Hokkaido. He became the protector of a savant-like boy who was good at only one thing: carving rats out of blocks of wood. “He’d pick up a block of wood and stare at it for a long time until he could see what kind of rat in what kind of pose was lurking inside. . . . once that happened, all he had to do was pull the rat out of the block with his knives.” (645) Tamaru tells Aomame he often thinks of that boy.

“I still have this vivid image of him ‘pulling rats out’ of blocks of wood with total concentration, and that has remained an important mental landscape for me, a reference point. It teaches me something – or tries to. People need things like that to go on living – mental landscapes that have meaning for them, even if they can’t explain them in words. Part of why we live is to come up with explanations for these things. That’s what I think.”

         “Are you saying that they’re like a basis for us to live?”

         “Maybe so.”

         “I have such mental landscapes, too.”

         “You’d better handle them with care.” (646)

         Some important piece of the narrative by which Tamaru maintains his Self lives in this image known only to him, but the advice this conversation gives applies to all characters in Murakami. Mental landscapes are a basis for them to live, and they need to be handled with care. The best example of this would probably be the way that Tengo and Aomame, the protagonists of 1Q84, guard and treasure their separate memories of holding hands in an empty classroom when they were ten years old; this memory is the guiding star of both their lives.

Likewise a writer must handle with care the mental landscapes that are a basis for her writing. Everyone has mental landscapes that are like inexhaustible reservoirs of meaning and feeling for them, and them alone. They are images, memories, patterns of thought, patterns written on the heart. These are the secret sources of imaginative power. HM likens writing to drilling down through rock to find the vein of water:

Writers who are blessed with inborn talent can freely write novels no matter what they do – or don’t do. Like water from a natural spring, the sentences just well up, and with little or no effort these writers can complete a work. Occasionally, you’ll find someone like that, but, unfortunately, that category wouldn’t include me. I haven’t spotted any springs nearby. I have to pound the rock with a chisel and dig out a deep hole before I can locate the source of creativity. (Running, 43)

When you do find the source, it is often a mental landscape. A whole novel can come out of an image (and has done so for me). Every writer finds himself writing certain things again and again, in different forms, because he has to. These are the mental landscapes one must handle with care, which means respecting their power, returning to them, acknowledging that they are where your vein of water lives, surrendering to them. It means you don’t judge them, and you don’t judge yourself for caring so much about them. For Murakami, the image of a boy holding a girl’s hand, a man holding a woman’s hand, is inexhaustibly powerful; it occurs over and over in his work, and every time it does, it’s extra-meaningful. I know nothing about his internal experience of writing, but I’m betting that he never allows himself to think “Why am I still writing about this? Why can’t I move on? You would think I’d have something more significant to write about than holding hands.” When the imagination hands you a gift of power, you don’t judge it, you accept it, you go where it tells you to go. That is what is meant by handling your important mental landscapes with care.



Modern man reads and needs novels in order to feel at home in the world, because his relationship to the universe he lives in has been damaged.

— Orhan Pamuk, The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist

My experience says that Orhan Pamuk is right. For me, writing fiction has indeed been driven by not feeling at home in the world, and by the hope of one day being more at home. In this I don’t think I’m unusual; right now in my fiction writing class, I have fifteen students, and twelve of them are writing about characters who don’t feel at home in the world. Three or four of those are writing about dystopias in which it seems there is almost no possibility of ever feeling at home.

When I read fiction, I have always covertly asked certain questions: what is this world I find myself living in like? What holds it together? Is there an underlying pattern? How does one go about living here?


Is it possible to get out of the aloneness and separateness of being human? What would that look like, if it could ever happen?


What do people really do, really feel, really want, really fear? I want to know not just what they admit to doing or wanting, what they say they feel, but what really goes on in human life. What are the secrets, open or otherwise, that help to constitute life as it is actually lived?

Why would I care about that? Because I want to know if I am completely unlike anyone else in experiencing life as I experience it.

Now, there are two ways fiction can go in responding to this feeling of not being at home in the world. One is to set out to create a feeling of being at home by writing a work in which we know that our expectations will be fulfilled. This is the province of genre fiction, e.g., romance novels, detective novels, spy novels, fantasy of various kinds. Which is not to say that such stories can’t include things that are upsetting, violent, sad, etc.; but I know how the genre works, and when I open the book I already feel that I am guaranteed a certain type of experience. So, if I’m reading a detective book, people may get shot and killed, the detective may be (and usually is) someone who doesn’t feel at home in the world, but my expectations of a certain kind of story, and certain characteristic moves within that story, will be met, and I know this from the start; this is what makes reading the book comfortable and creates for me as a reader a temporary feeling of being at home. This is what makes sequels and series appealing to readers. This is the attraction of fanfiction, both reading it and writing it: you know in advance exactly what the expectations are, and you know that every effort will be made to meet them. How reassuring that is.

The other way fiction can go is to confront the situation of not feeling at home in the world head-on. Not only are the characters not at home in the world, but the story itself is alive and dangerous, and we can’t get comfortable in it. Just when we, as readers, think things can’t get any worse, they might and they sometimes do. Whatever our expectations may be, there is no reason to feel sure they’ll be met. If the genre story is conservative (it always plays by the rules), this other story, which I guess I have to call literary, harbors the opposite ambition: it wants to be disruptive, even revolutionary.

Does this mean the literary story is inherently superior to the genre story? I’m not at all sure I want to argue that. Art cannot consist solely of breaking the mold. As one of my very smart students almost immediately pointed out when I made this argument, to paint this as a binary situation is too simple. The disruptive, radical, subversive aspect of the literary story needs to exist against a backdrop of some shared idea of order, some expectations that are met, because if it did not, the story would be baffling, obscure, impossible to make sense of.

When confronted with a binary situation, look for the third space. But that is a whole different topic, which signals that it is time for this post to conclude.


John Gardner says that the kind of entertainment fiction offers, at its best, is “entertainment of the soul.” If a story, whatever its flaws, is that, it’s worthwhile in a way that a story can’t be if it’s not. Now: can I define this?

This is difficult territory. Any effort to talk about art comes up against this eventually. Beauty, for example, is “entertainment of the soul.” And it, too, is nearly impossible to talk about.

Perhaps it means that the work acknowledges, admits to the normally unspoken hopes, longings, dreams, and suffering. In some way, the work says that these are what human life is really about, these things we all know but seldom talk about – may not talk about even with ourselves.

What are these things?

Human aloneness and the unending hope of getting out of lifelong separateness into some communion with others. Perhaps it never happens, or never can happen for long in the way we secretly hope. But “entertainment of the soul” is independent of the story’s outcome.

The struggle for self-knowledge and self-transcendence. To become what one secretly is, to go beyond what one is and what one has been made to be by circumstances. Again, the “entertainment” lies in the struggle, not in its result.


Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Dog,” which is often talked about as the first modern short story, and still one of the greatest, ends this way: they seemed to be on the verge of a decision, and a new, beautiful life would then begin; but they both knew that the most difficult, the most complicated part had only just begun . . .

It’s a story of adultery, about two already-married people who fall in love. And once you start to look, you see that this is what many short (and long) stories are about.

It’s a story about: the real life is secret; on the surface, in society, there is only falsehood. The story of adultery is the story of leaving the world of falsehood for the realm of the true, the real – of actual love.

Of course this story can be, and often is, told by inverting it, as in Andrea Barrett’s “The Littoral Zone,” where the adulterers do not find truth or the more real life or the love they imagined. It’s “The Lady with the Dog” carried forward, leading to disillusioned marriage and falsehood renewed. But this does not mean that the longing for truth, for meaning, for the secret life of the soul has ended – it remains alive in the disillusionment.


This tells me something important about what we want from fiction.

We want acknowledgement of the heart’s desires, not dissembling and obligatory falsehood, hypocrisy, convention.


If we shall never attain what is truly needed and desired, then we still want the necessity of it to be spoken and assented to, respected somewhere – in a story.


The story is on the side of the secret, the unspoken, the not allowed. The story is subversive. The story is for breaking down the established order. The story says what we’re not allowed to say. The story is against resignation. The story is against accommodation. The story is against settling down. The story is against compliance. The story is against giving up. The story is against untruth.


A few obvious things about this WordPress post you’re now reading (I’ll try to make it quick):

You can’t pick it up, you can’t smell it, it has no thickness or weight. It has no pages; it is not a codex but rather — at least conceptually — a scroll. There can be no experience of a page beginning or ending, of a page turn revealing what’s next, of flipping through pages or picking up a writing tool and marking on them. I give up many visual choices by writing in this medium: the type size and leading are indeterminate — with a couple of keystrokes, you can change them as you read. The font in use is not something I control. The relationship of text to margins is set partly by the template I’m using for this blog, partly by the type size you, the reader, choose, and partly by the size of the window you happen to have open on your computer screen. The format is determined for me; I can’t, for example, prevent paragraphs from being demarcated by extra blank space in between them on the screen, and I can’t begin a paragraph with an indent.

The thingness of the text has been lost in translation to the screen.

So what? The words I wrote are still the same words. Doesn’t it stand to reason that you are therefore reading the same text regardless of its thingness?

This digital medium says thingness doesn’t matter. It tells us that writing is a conceptual art, that the creaturely dimension makes no difference. But is that really true?

As a reader of text on a screen, what can I relate to in a creature-like manner? The device it’s displayed on. That is an object in the physical world, and if it’s small enough to carry around, I can bond with it constantly wherever I go. But the device has nothing to do with the text on it; the association of the two is ephemeral and can be severed at any moment; the text vanishes and the device is what stays, what we own, what is ours. The only thing that is not conceptual and infinitely replaceable is the device itself. Compared to the device, the text dwindles into mere “content,” and “content,” wrenched from any context, is disposable, consumable, evanescent. There is an infinity of it out there, and the single text, divided by the infinity of possible content, shrinks to almost nothing.

In Walker Percy’s essay “The Loss of the Creature,” a tourist approaches the Grand Canyon for the first time, in anticipation of the moment when the “sovereign knower confronts the thing to be known.” Percy’s idiosyncratic word “sovereign” says that the individual human being is — at least sometimes, at least potentially — not a mere tool of the surrounding culture but an agent, a center of awareness, free to create meaning. A reader who picks up a never-before-read text has the opportunity to be a sovereign knower confronting the thing to be known. Is this encounter changed if it happens onscreen?

Yes, if the thing to be known has suffered a kind of diminution, dilution. If text onscreen is merely a consumable, then the reader is demoted from a sovereign knower to a mere consumer. And the writer, no longer writing to a sovereign knower, is in no position to think of himself as creating art.

I’d be going too far if I claimed that artful writing can never coexist with this medium, but our culture’s relationship to text is in flux, and I feel as though no one knows where that relationship is going next.

On October 29th, at a conference at MIT on academic writing in the 21st century, I took part in a conversation about the Googlization of knowledge. Very interesting because it suggested that the new search tools which are part of everyday life are changing our relationship with knowledge, that they have some sort of epistemological effect. I can’t unfold that idea at length; I heard it from Andrea Volpe of MIT. (A book titled The Googlization of Everything was published this year by University of California Press. The author is Siva Vaidhyanathan.)

When I tried to build on that thought, I ended up saying things that seemed fairly obvious at a second look, but in hopes that they’re worth saying out loud, here’s what I’ve got so far.


          Keyword searching is clearly something very different from the way librarians curate knowledge, structure it into categories, build ways to access it. I don’t know enough about librarianship to be able to say more precisely what is being lost, but something has to be lost when the user of Google becomes the do-it-yourself curator, and the act of curating consists of typing in a keyword or a series of keywords.


          Though Google can be a gateway to knowledge, it does not have knowledge. Google is not a knower, not an intelligence. It’s more like an infinite filing cabinet that can reorganize its files instantly on the basis of keywords. It definitely cannot do anything grounded in a personal relationship with the user. If its algorithm commits acts of judgment about which links to display first, those judgments cannot be in any way connected to communication with the user, or to knowledge of the user’s intentions.


          The items which turn up on Google are links that lead to products of human intelligence, texts intended as acts of communication, but only a tiny snippet of each item is visible and often these snippets are cut off in the middle of a sentence; the words appearing in a Google item are a teaser at best, sometimes almost meaningless out of context. Yet these few words become the basis of decisions to click or not to click on a given link. A reader glancing at an article on paper would not only take in more words in a few seconds, she would be holding the entire text which she could immediately flip through, perhaps reading section headers or noticing illustrations. There would be orders of magnitude more opportunities for something in the text to look interesting, and the decision to read or not to read would be based on vastly more exposure to the thing itself, even after one minute of skimming the article.

Of course, prior to that one minute it could take considerable time to get one’s hands on the printed text. The Google tradeoff is that you get speed and quantity if you give up the richness of the actual experience. Google returns a vast number of extremely thin and extremely partial representations of texts, instantly. The trouble, by this account, is that as a gateway it doesn’t give you enough sense of what it is a gateway to.


          If one were to slow down and find a number of actual articles, the skimming process described above would come into play, but this is often impeded not only by the sheer difficulty of slowing down (Google sets a pace: instantaneous), but by the discovery that the article one wants is owned by some giant publisher (e.g., Springer, Elsevier) and the full text can only be had for a steep fee. What are my choices, then, if I don’t leave my computer?

Settle for the abstract.

See if I can access the article through my college’s library; this leads to searching other databases, often with an embarrassing lack of success. Aren’t professors supposed to know how to do these things?

Try to find a link where someone has posted it on the internet free of charge.

Request the item through interlibrary loan.

Probably in the heat of the moment I read the abstract and move on, making a mental note to try one of the other routes; or maybe I do try another route. Meanwhile, the original search hangs suspended, frustratingly incomplete. I have a vague but nagging memory of having seen other titles that triggered a feeling of “I should look at that.” I am pulled and driven in multiple directions. The net effect is that I find it almost impossible to stop and think for long once I have dived into the Google vortex. Instead I’m reading parts of things at top speed in an effort to identify what I’m supposedly going to think about later (but will the hypothetical “later” ever come?). Some of the things I read contain links that I can’t resist following. This proliferation and inundation continues until I reach a stage of nearly complete overwhelm and realize that if I don’t stop clicking on things, I will be working with a burned-out remnant of my former brain.

          I’m not saying this process is useless; it does produce worthwhile results. One way and another, I eventually do discover and get possession of texts that really teach me something and move my thinking along. But if this is my experience, and somehow it finally works for me, is it therefore what I’m trying to teach my students to do on a “research paper”? If I find it this challenging, what does it look like to a first-year student? What do I already know, perhaps without having to be aware that I know it, that allows me ultimately to use this tool to my advantage?


Hyperlinks are great things, until they aren’t.


A Research Story with Five Obvious Lessons

In 2007 I started a research project from this thought: “I want to write about water.” I was exactly like the student with a poorly focused idea for a paper topic. “Water” is totally impossible as a keyword, that’s three billion hits on Google. In my sabbatical application I did little to focus the topic by saying I wanted to write about “water and human survival.”

One of the first bits of research I did was to attend a one-day conference about water and public health in the developing world, which turned out to be about such things as cholera beds and composting toilets. Intriguing in a way, but holding zero promise as subjects I might write about. I read parts of a couple of books about water that I got because they looked interesting. (Right from the start, the “looks interesting” criterion came into play.) I found that in those books were various things I, again, had no interest in writing about. I eliminated vast fields of potential subject matter before I got through half a book. The various water-related crises unfolding around the globe were almost too discouraging to think about, the people who wrote about them knew 800 times more than I ever would, and the book about them had been written dozens of times already. Okay, I couldn’t write about drought, draining aquifers, and impending disaster.

I looked at some other books and, for reasons like the above, didn’t want to read them. I wrote a bunch of pages about what I wasn’t going to do and why. I tried to define what I should do for a reader; in the absence of a clear subject, this didn’t get me very far.

I picked up a book that was recommended to me by my nephew Josh Jelly-Schapiro, who was a grad student at Berkeley at the time, in geography. In other words, I described my vague, nascent project to someone who was well-read in a relevant field, and he came up with “You should read this.” I trusted his discernment and his taste. I knew him personally and had talked with him many times about books and ideas we both cared about. Without a doubt this made me more receptive to the book he recommended, more sure I would find something worthwhile in it, even if all it did was give me a better understanding of what Josh was up to as a Ph.D. student.

Bingo – before I got through the introduction, I connected to this book, I felt like it was taking me somewhere I wanted to go. In fact it did, though I could never have predicted where I would eventually end up, a couple of years later.

This story seems as though it should have relevance to the situation of a student who begins with only the vaguest notion of what research she wants to pursue. Five obvious lessons follow, for me:

1. If you start with a poorly defined keyword, you get so much potential input that it’s useless.

2. You have to do some research to find out what you don’t want to write about.

3. The process takes a long time. We don’t typically give students multiple months to develop a “research paper.” In 2007 when I started that project, I was on sabbatical, and yet it took about a month to formulate what seemed like a clear, well-articulated statement of what I was really interested in, which proved not to be water itself so much as what looking at water could tell me about our relationship with nature. It took more months to go the next step and see that my real focus was how we think about that relationship.

4. You have to refine your focus, but how? The first step was to apply the “looks interesting” criterion. Research is personal in some way; what I’m interested in, and not interested in, is peculiar to me.

5. I got a key piece of help from a more knowledgeable authority whom I personally knew and trusted. Finding a book by means of my nephew Josh could be called the opposite of a Google search. It was a personal event, grounded in relationship. The result was based on human intelligence, both in the sense of his knowledge of the field of geography, and his judgment of what would be useful to me, based not on a few keywords, but on a conversation about my nebulous interest in water. This doesn’t seem all that different from the help that could be given by a teacher, if she and the student have a good relationship.


          It seems that the very earliest stages of research are the most dicey, the most uncertain, the least programmable. And when we teach the “research paper” in a first-year writing course, aren’t we working on the earliest stages? In other words, are we not in some sense inevitably presenting novices with the most confusing part of the task right off the bat?

I’m not saying we shouldn’t, or that we can help doing this. I’m saying we might need to think more about what we’re actually asking of our students.

More Writing, Less Commenting

This train of thought started in several places, one of which was the recent visit to our campus of Barbara Walvoord, who is a long-time writing instructor, WAC leader, assessment consultant, and all-around smart person and excellent teacher. During her workshops, she proposed a fundamental paradigm shift in the way we teach. Briefly, it’s this.

The focus is how we teachers make use of our time and our students’ time, in three arenas: students and teacher together in class, student alone outside class, teacher alone outside class.

The standard paradigm (Walvoord was focusing on a typical content course at the college level):

In class: Student receives first exposure to the material. Typically, teacher lectures. Delivers content from the front of the room.

Student outside class: Studying = trying to process the material, understand what it really means. Produces some product intended to show how well the student understands (e.g., does problem sets, writes papers).

Teacher outside class: Writes responses to the products students produce, trying to improve their understanding.

In this paradigm, Walvoord would say, the teacher is running a cottage industry, cranking out those responses piece by piece, alone, and the amount of time it takes is, as we all know, a problem.

The key to the altered paradigm is to shift the student’s first exposure to the material to the time alone outside class. It goes like this:

Student outside class: First exposure. For example, the lectures could be made into videos and the student could watch them at home.

In class: Processing the material, responding to students’ efforts. Now wrestling with understanding it takes place in class, with the teacher present to structure the activity and troubleshoot it on the spot. The teacher’s goal becomes to get the students to give each other responses of the type she would have given them herself. In Walvoord’s words, the teacher gets the students to “mass-produce” the responses instead of doing them all herself in “cottage industry” style; but they are still individualized because students are responding to each other’s individual efforts.

Teacher outside class: Designing the in-class activity becomes the key piece of the work. It is also in part devoted to creating whatever the students use to get their first exposure. This time is NOT all about writing those responses.

To acknowledge what seems like the loudest potential objection: the students won’t be able to give those responses as well as the teacher would. This is true. Answering that objection requires a different theory of what you’re up to as a teacher. That is what I’m trying to articulate.

I don’t think it’s coincidental that Barbara Walvoord has a background as a writing teacher and now proposes this paradigm shift. In part it’s a wider application of what writing teachers have learned to do because they had to. The challenge now is to carry out this strategy all the way. Here’s how I apply this paradigm, not to a content course, but to the teaching of writing. And I mean all kinds of writing, whether “creative” or “not.”

Since writing is the material of a writing course, “first exposure” is the act of writing, and class is about processing and response to that writing. Thus, writing teachers who use the workshop model have already been carrying out Walvoord’s non-traditional paradigm. But crucially, the writing workshop model fails to solve the “cottage industry” problem of how long it takes to write all those comments, which is bedeviling all of us. Walvoord’s proposed solution is to create “mass production” by structuring class time so that your students give each other comments of the type you would be giving them on your own.

This is precisely what in-class peer review is all about, and writing teachers have been working on ways to structure that for decades. I am no exception.

But I haven’t taken the final, radical step: cutting down drastically on the comments I write myself.

Here is my basic procedure for designing what happens in class:

I look at my own comments on the kind of writing we’re working with and then reverse engineer them, by first looking for repeated kinds of comments (patterns) with this in mind: what questions was I asking myself, what was I noticing, that caused me to make these comments?

Then I create for students a list of those questions, and/or directions to notice those attributes, in their own work and others’ work, and have them give each other and themselves feedback based on that questioning and noticing.

The educational argument for this, which I believe is a powerful one, is that they will gradually internalize the way to meta-think about a piece of writing and be able to apply it in the future to their own.

This is where we get to fundamental questions of what a course is supposed to do. Let’s use my beginning fiction class as an example:

Is the point of the course for me to give brilliant comments that will result in a better story than the student could ever have produced on her own? [let’s call this the product goal]

Or is the point of the course for the student to go away with improved ability to generate her own comments on her own writing and act on them? [the meta-thinking goal]

I know I’m making too stark a dichotomy, but please bear with me because I think this clarifies some issues. The question is what the student carries away with her, after the course is over. It’s cool for the student to carry away a story that she’s proud of, but it seems to me it’s even cooler for her to carry away writing abilities she didn’t have before the course started. Plus, this internalization of meta-thinking should produce a better product by semester’s end than she could have written had she not taken the course. Yet the key outcome, in this way of thinking, is not the product, the story she wrote during the semester, but her ability to think story.

Or, if the product the course focused on were instead the idea-driven analytical essay, or the research paper, the outcome would be the student’s better ability to think her way through the writing of those things.

Cool as I hope the immediate product will be, the prize I’m thinking I should keep my eye on is the student’s future writing.

The underlying thinking, the “below the waterline” part of writing, is what I’ve been focusing on for a while now and it is coming to the fore as THE point of what a course does.

I think this addresses the objection that the student’s version of my comments will never be as good as mine. It won’t, but that’s not the point. If the student’s ability to meta-think (comment on) her own work is the goal, it’s important to remember that it does not necessarily follow that receiving my comments will lead to the student’s being able to generate ones like them. What the student makes of my elaborately crafted responses may be quite different from what I tried to convey. And what the student makes of the whole experience is all that matters. This does not mean I shouldn’t try to give the student my best work; it means I should ask, which best work? Best work of what kind?

I’ve operated for my entire teaching life on the assumption that the right, the admirable and obligatory thing to do was to give the student the best possible comments on her work that I can create. I’ve been refining this skill for over thirty years. I think I can write a pretty damn insightful, articulate comment, some of the time, and a solid one just about all of the time. But what if this work, while very good of its kind, is not exactly the best kind?

What if, to use a jazz analogy, my comments are playing bebop when a basic blues would do? In other words, what if I’m overshooting the mark, and thus making a ton of work for myself, more because I’ve learned how to get deep into this act of commenting on writing, and because I know how to get myself interested in it, than because everything I write is necessary to the student’s learning? What if, in fact, I don’t owe my students all this work, I just like to think I do because it justifies all the time I spend?

Human world-views tend to be self-confirming. Why should I be any different in that respect?

This can be seen as a question of how one understands cause and effect in a writing class. Suppose a class worked, in that students’ writing visibly improved, and suppose that in this class I wrote my usual long, elaborate comments on their work. (When I say long, I’m not kidding. As of April 24, 2011, I’ve written 163,000 words of comments this school year, and it isn’t over.) Does this mean that without such elaborate comments, the improvement would not have happened? Or is that the fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc? Are my comments mostly appeasing my desire to feel I did a good job? Or reflecting how interested I am in thinking about how writing works? Rather than being a necessary condition for the students’ improved writing?

One has to make a deliberate effort to see over the mental horizon.

What if the course really could work without so many thousands of words of written comments?


Okay, now let’s collapse the dichotomy I created earlier. Let’s acknowledge that a writing course has both the goal of product and the goal of meta-thinking.

Here is another paradigm-breaker, on the product front: what if the class time in a writing class consisted of writing?

Almost sounds too simple, doesn’t it?

Try this on for size: a blog post by the creative writing teacher Cathy Day, on her blog The Big Thing: http://cathyday.com/2010/11/12/writing-together/ As you will see if you read down to the comments, it made a light go on for me. It might do the same for you.

Here’s another one from the same blog, quoting a different writer/teacher: http://cathyday.com/2011/01/26/this-is-how-you-do-it-1-writeshop/

And yet another: http://cathyday.com/2011/02/27/this-is-how-you-do-it-john-vanderslice-part-2/

Around March 20, the vernal equinox, this stuff converged with Barbara Walvoord’s shifting paradigm and a TED talk by Salman Khan (http://blog.ted.com/2011/03/09/lets-use-video-to-reinvent-education-salman-khan-on-ted-com/), and the light didn’t just go on, it started flashing.

Think about this: in a chemistry class you have lab. In Organic Chemistry as taught at Simmons College, the students aren’t doing cookbook labs, they’re doing research. The basic approach is “Here are the supplies, I’ve taught you some basic techniques, now go do it.” (“It” might be trying to answer some question like “Why doesn’t this compound behave the way it should?”) The same thing happens in Basic Photo in the darkroom: “Here are the supplies, I’ve taught you some basic techniques, now go do it.” The next step in both cases is “and then we’ll troubleshoot what you do as the need comes up.” This is what it looks like to teach somebody to do something. Why not in writing?

If they can have all that scheduled lab time, why can’t we?

Therefore I have a proposal of how to think about a writing class.

There are two fundamental kinds of goals for writing courses. One is to learn to produce a first draft piece of writing of a certain kind; the other is to learn to take what you’ve got (a draft) and make it better.

In a truly introductory course such as my intro fiction class, if you produce a draft of a piece of fiction at all, even if it isn’t very good, you’ve accomplished the basic goal. In the novel-writing courses described on Cathy Day’s Big Thing blog, if you produce a draft of a novel at all, you’ve succeeded. It’s like NaNoWriMo but with serious guidance from someone who knows how to teach writing.

At the college level, courses in academic writing are not truly introductory. Students have been working at the writing of idea-driven papers probably ever since middle school. The first-year college writing course is truly a case of “take what you’ve got and make it better,” both in the sense of moving the student along on a journey of learning that began long ago, and in the sense of learning to revise with certain things in mind. Here the product written during the course may end up being no more than a souvenir, and that’s fine because the ultimate take-away for the student is internalization of the ability to meta-think the kind of writing that helps you succeed in college.

So, a principle: when the job is product, spend class time writing. When the job is taking what you’ve got and making it better, spend class time giving response, so that you internalize the meta-level.

I propose that a writing course should meet for more hours per week than a content course, analogous to science labs and studio art.

I would suggest further that it makes sense to start any writing course (introductory or not) with some, shall we say, recap or reminder in the form of spending class time writing together. Basically a way to say to students, “This is what we’re about here, let’s warm up and work out the kinks.”

A writing class, like writing itself, is a social process. A crucial agenda early in any writing course, at least as taught by me, is for students to learn the social process of the writing classroom, the team sport of thinking together about their writing. This crucially supports everything else the course is trying to do. Going to class becomes an interpersonal experience that satisfies human needs, and this creates a synergy that makes learning far more probable. Intellectual development rides on the back of relationship.

So, roughly, I propose that it could work like this:

If the course is not introductory, but farther down the road:

In the earlier part of the course there should be a bunch of writing together during class, as well as sharing and talking about things students have written, because they’re learning the social process and they’re also producing something that they’re going to learn how to make better. Then as the course goes on, the students should be spending their class time practicing the skill of responding to writing (their own and their colleagues’) in the way the teacher would. But if there comes a time during the course where the real agenda is simply to produce more work, then revert to writing together in class.

If a course is truly introductory, such that producing writing that is recognizably of a certain kind constitutes success in itself, then a significant amount of class time, maybe even most of the class time, will be devoted to doing writing.

Once I had these thoughts, I tried to put them into practice in my fiction class. We’ve had three class meetings (80 minutes) devoted entirely to writing, and most of the students had a fourth. (I met with the rest separately because they wanted to discuss drafts as a group.) I was able to get a classroom we could use for extra writing time, before class meets, for one or two hours depending on the day. One to four students have showed up for extra writing sessions. Everyone seems to appreciate being able to write together in class, having a structured, quiet, undistracted time intentionally focused on this one act. I feel people receive a kind of support from the presence of others who are writing, even though each is writing on her own. And it’s helpful to me and to students that I can talk with them, one to one, about their work as it is developing. I would be spending that much time, and more, writing comments on their work. Talking face to face is more efficient than trading drafts and written comments, and it enables me to know that I’m addressing the writer’s real concerns.

In all of this, it seems to me, as the course goes on the teacher should comment less and less rather than more and more.

Am I succeeding in doing this? Maybe. In the fall I wrote 100,000 words of comments for 29 students; this spring, with two weeks to go in the semester, I’ve written 63,000 words for 24 students. We’ll see how it eventually works out.

What I think is happening in the fiction class, right now, is that because we talk more often one to one, and because the students know that I know their work is progressing, most of them feel less dependence on my written comments. Or maybe the key is that I feel less dependence on writing them. In any case, I seem to be writing comments on fewer stories, because in some cases I feel I’ve already said (aloud, face to face) what I have to say. Because most of the students are writing first drafts, their work is inherently independent in any case. My role in the context of first drafts is different from what it would be if I were trying to guide subtle revisions. If students bring me fundamental fiction writing problems (e.g., should I really do this thing of shifting points of view?) I can give them advice, help them think about those problems. But when a first draft is still in progress, it’s too soon to think about what the story is trying to do or say overall and how to get it to do that better.

I’m not going to claim, yet, that I’ve reduced my written commenting in a radical way. But I am trying to go in that direction, and I don’t feel guilty about trying. That’s a first step, anyway.


You can download this as a Word document here: More Writing, Less Commenting

Is There a Way to Teach Revision?

Last week, one of the grad students in my pedagogy class, Kara Sheridan, said this in response to my piece “Writing Process and Teaching Process”:

I think that what I’m struggling with the most after reading “Writing Process and Teaching Process” is this: “teaching, for me, is teaching revision.” I understand your meaning, having been in one of your workshopping classes, but I also know that much of revision takes place within one’s own mind, away from the suggestions of the class, focusing on the areas that the teacher has pointed out as problematic but has not suggested solutions for. Because of this, I’m wondering if there really is a way to teach revision in a satisfactory way, which, to me, means to allow the student to revise their own pieces without a teacher.

If writing is really the process of revision, and the majority of the time, revision takes place with just the student and their paper, at home and away from the teacher, how are we teaching them revision? What is the process of teaching revision . . . beyond just commenting on a paper and assuming that they understand what to do with those comments? What can I do in class that makes them understand what to do with those comments?

This is a crucial question, and I think it’s one that tends to get ignored. In my own teaching, I think there is plenty of “assuming that they understand what to do with those comments.” Or if I don’t assume that, my thought process tends to be that giving the comments is my job and working with them is the student’s job. But Kara is right to ask if that’s the best we can do.

My comments do tend to, as Kara said, raise issues without giving solutions. I try to ask questions or to point to problematic areas, as well as affirming strengths, but much of the time I don’t offer a procedure for revising the problematic part.

Why not? And should I?

Sometimes I don’t offer a solution because it would constitute telling the student what to write. The question or problem has to do with the content, the argument, the ideas, the substance of what the student is working on, and it’s not my role to tell them what the substance of it should be. I feel my role is to take the Reader position and say, “I’m having trouble with this because, the way it looks to me, there’s an inherent contradiction [or whatever] . . .” In other words, I’m saying to the writer “Here is what you communicated to me, and when I thought about it in good faith, I had difficulty for the following reason. Can you say this in some way that will help a reader deal with that difficulty?” (There is also the possibility that the writer will feel that is exactly the difficulty she wanted the reader to have. Which may be perfectly valid as long as she communicates that that’s what she means.)

The above doesn’t just apply to idea-driven pieces or the logic of arguments; in fiction, there could be unclarity in the action, mystification about the motivation of a character, etc. – all sorts of problems that have to do with the substance of a story being told. Again, it isn’t up to me to tell the writer what the story should be.

In either case, I do sometimes skate closer to saying “write it this way” when I talk about what I think the story is trying to be or what I think the paper is trying to say, based on evidence in the existing draft. I sincerely don’t believe I am necessarily right about these things, and I know the student often won’t agree with me. This is okay. I’m very averse to writing a “do it this way” cookbook for the student, because to me that constitutes taking over her paper, and completely defeats the purpose, which is, as Kara said, to leave the student able to write better when I’m no longer around.

Nonetheless, the fundamental question doesn’t go away: can we teach the student anything about how to work with the feedback we give?

There is a kind of feedback that I think does do this: feedback that teaches principles of technique. Basically feedback of this kind says “Here, in your piece, is a situation of a certain kind that often occurs. The technique issue in situations of this kind is X; the way you resolve it is Y.”

Here’s an example, from the fiction class I’m teaching right now:

I feel that you’re underlining the same emotions repeatedly [this is a kind of narrative situation, and what follows are statements of principles that apply in such situations], and when you do this a law of diminishing returns sets in. Understating it slightly, or being frugal with words describing emotions, can be more powerful. It’s always best if people can perform their emotions, as opposed to the narrator telling the reader what they are. This kind of thing [Now I quote the writer’s words back to her, implicitly saying two things. One, she’s already doing it in a desirable way some of the time, and two, therefore she could do it more of the time]:

He turned around and found Lilly leaning against the doorway, tears rolling down her cheeks. He didn’t move.

“I was married once,” Lilly said quietly.

“You don’t have to do this,” Alec said, but Lilly held up her hand to stay his words. [Kalie Wilkerson]

The fact is, however, that I had to search for a while to find such a clear example of articulating a principle among my comments. They tend to be more local, more responding to specific passages, than about generalizable technique advice.

When writing teachers imagine their work on some ideal plane, they might aspire to do all their commenting in the following way: identify technique issues in students’ writing, then give them reliable, durable principles of technique that will enable them to deal with each issue successfully in all future writing. I know I used to aspire to this. But after 30+ years of teaching writing, I don’t think it can work that way. There will always be very local, particular, context-specific things that are needing some response from me. Only in a minority of cases will I be able to give my feedback in terms of generalizable principles of writing technique.

And if I could comment in terms of such principles all the time, and only gave such comments, I would long since have gotten bored to death with teaching writing. I’d feel as though I was simply articulating the same principles over and over again. It’s the individual, particular, relational aspect of the commenting that makes it interesting.


          But maybe this is all addressing the question on too high a level. Before everything else about revision, students must learn to revise at all. Even the least little bit.

In the immortal words of one of my students, revision is an attitude toward writing. That attitude is not easily or automatically acquired.

I suspect that the very first notion of revision students acquire in school is “fixing the problems the teacher points out,” and at the beginning those problems are on a very concrete level: correcting spelling, for example. Putting periods at the ends of sentences and capital letters at the beginnings. We can teach kids rules about most of these things (except maybe spelling) that tell them how to fix the problems.

As time goes by, the problems the teacher points out come to be on a more abstract level. For example, in my pedagogy class we looked at some 9th grade papers about Of Mice and Men, and we all wanted to point out how there wasn’t enough use of evidence or the evidence chosen wasn’t very convincing. And clearly the teacher wanted his assignment to address that issue, because his handout to the students said, “This assignment allows students to interact with the text and practice using textual evidence in support of their opinions.” Again, we can teach, if not rules, then ways to think about use of evidence. (Is this quotation relevant? How does it relate to what I’m asserting? etc.)

So a way to describe the progression would be to say that the issues being pointed out get more and more sophisticated, and we keep teaching more ways to think about those issues. Probably that never stops. For example, if you and I, dear reader, were in graduate school in philosophy, we’d know all sorts of highly sophisticated ways to think about making arguments, and the kinds of problems that could be pointed out in an argument might not even be understandable, or might not matter, to a non-philosopher.

At the same time something else is going on, and this is where the attitude comes in. I think the other crucial issue is the student having ownership of their own writing. I don’t think ownership is something that develops late, I think it’s there from the start. You can ask a first-grader to write you a story, and though he may “write” it by dictating it to you, it’s his story. The issue, it seems to me, is keeping on having that kind of ownership while writing the kind of writing that is right for the context you’re in. (It could be anything: a novel, a term paper, a journal article, a letter to the editor.) This is taking me back to where I was before: I don’t want to give feedback in which I take over the paper. The student has to own it, and this is why I can’t tell her what the substance should be.

As part of this ownership, the student has to own revision. In the end, if all this educational process works, it cannot be a case of “I revise because the teacher requires it,” and it cannot be “I revise because the teacher allows me to improve my grade” – a deadly attitude that teachers often encourage without realizing the damage they’re doing. If the student achieves a mature relationship with writing, it has to be “I revise because this is my work and I’m making it as good as I can.”

Phew! I think finally I may have begun to address what Kara was asking.

So, following this thought where it takes me, because my goal is for the student to own revision, this may indeed mean that I can’t tell her everything about how to go about it.

What can I do in class?

First off, I can start a conversation about revision, or more broadly, about writing process. I often have students write something informal about their writing process, then share and talk about their thoughts. If they haven’t taken a writing class in a while, they often haven’t thought much about their process, and just putting it in the spotlight of awareness is constructive. Often they find that other people go about it differently from the way they do, which can be something of a revelation. It can open up possibilities. It may not work to say “Revision is done like this,” but it may work to say “Revision is done in many ways, including . . .”

I think it’s helpful to ask students what kind of feedback they find useful, and to follow up, when they describe some helpful feedback, by asking why it’s useful, or what they do with it.

One fundamental key to all this, to teaching itself, is that everything doesn’t come from the teacher. Some of what creates the learning comes from the students, and one has to rely on this and make room for it to happen. I actually can’t emphasize this enough. If you see teaching as trying to zap some life into a passive lump of dough, it will appear hopeless and impossible. It may be hard, but it isn’t that hard. To some extent, your helplessness – in that you cannot possibly do the thinking and learning for the student – is also a psychic lifesaver, because you cannot be responsible for doing the impossible.

Back to what I can do in class. When a student has revised something in a successful way, I could copy the before and after versions (maybe just an excerpt, to make it manageable in size), show them to the class, ask the writer what process she went through to get there.

I could ask people (and often do) what their big issues are with the thing they’re writing, and then if there’s an issue most of them have in common (there often is), I can start a conversation about that. And this would be a point where principles of writing technique could come into play, because we’d now be talking about a writing situation that recurs over and over in many people’s writing. For example: the challenge of writing the ending.

I pretty often give exercises that address points of technique I believe will come up in students’ writing. Then I can at least hope students will make use of whatever they internalize from these exercises while they’re revising, and I can remind them of what they’ve previously done.

I think there will always remain a part of this that we really can’t mess with directly. The student carries away with her a piece of feedback and sits down to work on her writing. Let’s say she reads my comment. It’s like a voice in her head. She hears this me-voice say something. How does she then have the next thought?

It seems to me that is in principle unknowable. I don’t know where ideas come from. I don’t believe I can teach a student to have a thought. I don’t believe I have to, either; people just have them.

Suppose I’m having a conference with the student and I give her some feedback face to face: “Right here in your story,” I say, pointing to a passage, “this gave me trouble. This part: [I read it aloud].”

Student: “I just don’t know how to say that differently.”

Me: “Well, do you see why it’s hard for me? The way I read it, it seems to say that [I tell her my understanding of the passage].”

Student: “Uh huh. [lengthy pause, during which I’m sure she can’t understand how I can be so dense] Yeah, but I still don’t know what else to put there.”

Me: “Okay, how about if you just tell me what this phrase means, right here. Just say it to me any way you can think of.”

Student: “Well, so, um, it’s like . . .” and then, not to belabor the point, she does eventually tell me in some new way what she means. Now, where did she get that new way of putting it into words? I have no idea. I CANNOT SUPPLY HER WITH AN ALGORITHM FOR HOW TO HAVE THAT THOUGHT.

It’s a social process, a relational process, it happens BETWEEN people, in the midst of their ongoing interaction.



You can download this as a Word document here: Is There a Way to Teach Revision?


New Beginnings in the World

 thoughts on the classroom, built upon Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition

(The version cited is that published by University of Chicago Press in 1998. When words are quoted in boldface type, the emphasis is mine. The book was originally published in 1958, and in true old-school fashion, Arendt uses the words “man” or “men” and the pronoun “he” to mean all persons in general.)

Hannah Arendt, in her philosophical classic The Human Condition, does not present her ideas as ways of thinking about teaching, but they strike me as wonderfully suggestive on the subject of what we do. For me, Arendt illuminates why the thing that happens in a successful classroom feels so deeply valuable and so rare that creating it is a worthy focus of a life’s work.

A key point of Arendt’s argument is that mass society has so thoroughly triumphed that we now find ourselves existing in a space defined by bureaucracy and administration, in which spontaneous action is always being leveled out into normalized behavior (40). We are chronically deprived of a true public space, where (by her definition of “public space”) people would remain their distinct selves, retaining what Arendt calls their “natality,” their condition of coming into the world as a unique and new thing. If we lose that, we lose everything except mere getting and spending; but the classroom, I’m arguing, is a little world in which a human reality can prevail.

Arendt’s mental model of the public space is the polis of the ancient Greeks, not as a social structure but as a condition of the spirit. The ancient polis was available only to a fortunate few: free men (not women), householders and slaveholders who were oblivious, as only the privileged can be, to the necessities of making a living. Such men could devote themselves to the affairs of the city in the company of their peers. This Aristotle called the “good life,” the best and freest existence one could have. It was founded on an inequality that is totally unacceptable to us; but such inequality is not a necessary condition. I believe the classroom can become a far more democratic version of a public space in which, for a certain period of time, a good life begins to be lived.

Crucially, in a true public space, people are capable of action, which Hannah Arendt defines in an idiosyncratic way: “nothing acts unless [by acting] it makes patent its latent self.” (her translation of Dante, p. 175) What is this latent self that is to be revealed? In her view, people are both equal and distinct – equal enough to understand each other, to plan for the future needs of others, yet possessed of a self distinct from all others, past, present, or future. If not for this distinctness, “they would need neither speech nor action to make themselves understood. Signs and sounds to communicate immediate, identical needs would be enough.” Members of other species possess variation and distinction one from the next, “But only man can express this distinction and distinguish himself, and only he can communicate himself and not merely something – thirst or hunger, affection or hostility or fear.” (175-176) Yet, though we possess this capability, the opportunity to communicate ourselves does not come about automatically or frequently; it occurs only in the public space.

Through speech and action, “human beings appear to each other, not indeed as physical objects, but qua men. This appearance, as distinguished from mere bodily existence, rests on initiative.” (176) The impulse to speech and action “springs from the beginning which came into the world when we were born and to which we respond by beginning something new on our own initiative . . . With the creation of man, the principle of beginning came into the world itself, which, of course, is only another way of saying that the principle of freedom was created when man was created but not before.” (177)

“ . . . the origin of life from inorganic matter is an infinite improbability of inorganic processes, as is the coming into being of the earth viewed from the standpoint of processes in the universe, or the evolution of human out of animal life. The new always happens against the overwhelming odds of statistical laws and their probability, which for all practical, everyday purposes amounts to certainty; the new therefore always appears in the guise of a miracle.” (178)

This brings us to teaching, and to the writing of fiction. What Arendt says about the miraculous quality of human action is crucial to both. Fiction is about actions, which in turn are about our humanness, and action is specifically this: a new beginning, an infinitely improbable initiative, a miracle. Without action having this character, a human being’s “natality” is not declared and therefore it is betrayed. In teaching, I’m arguing, we are trying to create a space in which our students can take miraculous actions and declare their being as a new beginning in the world; these actions occur both in their writing, and in relation to each other as they share and discuss that writing together. In the classroom we deliberately create an exception to the domination of mass society. We deliberately try to create a space where our students will come together in acceptance of each other, not only in order to learn something, but for the sake of the kind of reality that can only appear in such a space.

That kind of reality is made visible when Arendt describes the ideal of a public space; in doing so, she describes an ideal classroom:

          The polis . . . is the organization of the people as it arises out of acting and speaking together, and its true space lies between people living together for this purpose . . . It is the space of appearance in the widest sense of the word, namely, the space where I appear to others as others appear to me, where men exist not merely like other living or inanimate beings but make their appearance explicitly.

The word “explicitly” means that the polis is a place where people appear as themselves, in their uniqueness, and reveal themselves in speech and action. This is exactly what the classroom needs to be, if education is to be more than simply pumping people full of information.

          This space does not always exist, and . . . to be deprived of it means to be deprived of reality, which, humanly and politically speaking, is the same as appearance. To men the reality of the world is guaranteed by the presence of others, by its appearing to all; “for what appears to all, this we call Being,” [Aristotle] and whatever lacks this appearance comes and passes away like a dream, intimately and exclusively our own but without reality. (198-199)

To exist in a bureaucratic context, as one molecule in a mass, contributing to a statistical norm that regards the uniqueness of each human molecule as an unimportant epiphenomenon, is to have a merely personal reality, incommunicable and stifled, to exist for others only “like a dream,” to be for them no more than an image coming and going, a character in a shadowplay. In such a state one is never truly heard, never known, only dealt with; one is absurdly or pointlessly alone rather than being singular in a world of other singular human beings who recognize one’s unique existence. It seems to me that if education is to be worth anything, it has to begin by creating a space in which all the participants can be present in their fullness of being. And I do mean a physical, not a virtual space. We do not have a technology that can create such presence among people who are at a distance from each other. It seems absurd or perhaps pathetic to have to point out that there is no substitute for the bodily human presence, but this is apparently no longer self-evident. The need to affirm this tells you something about the extent to which we have become used to other human beings existing for us as images on screens.

          Being seen and being heard by others derive their significance from the fact that everybody sees and hears from a different position. This is the meaning of public life, compared to which even the richest and most satisfying family life can offer only the prolongation or multiplication of one’s own position with its attendant aspects and perspectives. . . . this family “world” can never replace the reality rising out of the sum total of aspects presented by one object to a multitude of spectators. Only where things can be seen by many in a variety of aspects without changing their identity, so that those who are gathered around them know they see sameness in utter diversity, can worldly reality truly and reliably appear. (57)

          “World” is a key word in Arendt’s thought. “Worldly,” in the preceding passage, means far more than “sophisticated” or “urbane.” A “world” in Arendt’s terms is constituted by lasting works of human artifice which transcend the human life-span, the existence of which provides or creates a public space. Education of a certain kind, I am arguing, is one of the great works of human artifice having this function.

Arendt says that “worldly reality” arises out of people seeing “sameness in utter diversity”; I believe this happens in a successful class. I sometimes express what I take to be the same idea in a simile about reading a piece of writing together: the students and I are sitting in a circle around the text we are discussing, like people sitting around a campfire. Behind each reader, like a tutelary spirit, his or her own version of the meaning of the text is standing in the flickering shadows at the edge of the dark. But these people are engaged in a social activity, and through their shared conversation (which may include shared writing), during the minutes in class, sometimes a shared meaning stands, for a time, above the text they are all looking at. Certainly a shared presence is confirmed in its being, and that is how I, at least, understand what Arendt means by “worldly reality.”

This confirmation of presence tells you why it matters so much for our students (or anyone) to experience this act of coming together in a true public space.

 . . . without a space of appearance and without trusting in action and speech as a mode of being together, neither the reality of one’s self, of one’s own identity, nor the reality of the surrounding world can be established beyond doubt. The human sense of reality demands that men actualize the sheer . . . givenness of their being, not in order to change it but in order to make articulate and call into full existence what otherwise they would have to suffer passively anyhow. (208)

Think what this says about the enterprise of school. If the classroom becomes a “space of appearance,” as I believe it should, it also becomes a place where students can establish the reality of their identity and their existing in a surrounding world. When it truly works, the public space of the classroom allows students to appear to others in their “worldly reality” and thus to know that their identity actually exists. It is also a space where, as Arendt indicates, we do not try to change who the students are. We may be able to tell students that we think there is a certain “what” one should be – ethically or professionally, for example – but if Arendt is right, we absolutely cannot be involved in telling them who they should be.

Why is our reality and identity established in a public space? Because we cannot help revealing ourselves in action. Yet we cannot wilfully reveal ourselves, or even know the latent self that is revealed. This goes on every time I walk into a room as the teacher, and every time the student walks into a room as a student. I always reveal to my students more about myself than I realize and more than I intend, and each of them does the same; this is simply the way humanness works.

          In acting and speaking, men show who they are, reveal actively their unique personal identities and thus make their appearance in the human world, while their physical identities appear without any activity of their own in the unique shape of the body and sound of the voice. This disclosure of “who” in contradistinction to “what” somebody is – his qualities, gifts, talents, and shortcomings, which he may display or hide – is implicit in everything somebody says and does. It can be hidden only in complete silence and perfect passivity,

                             [think of some of our students!]

                                                          but its disclosure can almost never be achieved as a wilful purpose, as though one possessed and could dispose of this “who” in the same manner he has and can dispose of his qualities. On the contrary, it is more than likely that the “who,” which appears so clearly and unmistakably to others, remains hidden from the person himself, like the daimon in Greek religion which accompanies each man throughout his life, always looking over his shoulder from behind and thus visible only to those he encounters. (179-180)

          This revelatory quality of speech and action comes to the fore where people are with others and neither for nor against them – that is, in sheer human togetherness. Although nobody knows whom he reveals when he discloses himself in deed or word, he must be willing to risk the disclosure . . . (180)

Must! Or else, to focus on teaching, a discussion can never happen. And to focus on writing, in the art work there is always, if it is any good, the risk of disclosure – or, I would say as a writer, the hope of disclosure, the hope that finally a piece of one’s truth will be heard and recognized by someone else. The taking of this risk is made possible in a classroom “where people are with others and neither for nor against them,” that is, where there is a shared undertaking that people can be accepted as who they are, because we cannot, in any case, by any imaginable means, make them be anything else. There is a radical equality implicit in this stance, and a baseline of respect.

I think of my students when I read the following passage:

The connotation of courage, which we now feel to be an indispensable quality of the hero, is in fact already present in a willingness to act and speak at all, to insert one’s self into the world

          [or the classroom]

                                                                                  and begin a story of one’s own. And this courage is not necessarily or even primarily related to a willingness to suffer the consequences; courage and even boldness are already present in leaving one’s private hiding place and showing who one is, in disclosing and exposing one’s self. (186)

This courage and boldness is needed every day at school. And writing equally requires the courage to leave one’s private hiding place, not only when one undertakes to begin to write, but in every choice of a word. One is always embroiled in choosing to hide or not to hide.

The extent of this original courage, without which action and speech and therefore, according to the Greeks, freedom, would not be possible at all, is not less great and may even be greater if the ‘hero’ happens to be a coward. (186-187)

Here, I think, is one of the keys to what makes teaching work: being a “hero” is available to a coward. The student comes into the class afraid to speak in front of the group, the writer is afraid to read her work aloud, I as the teacher may be afraid to say, “No, what we have been doing is not enough, we have to go where you-all would be more comfortable not going.” Bvt courage is there within the cowards, including oneself. One of the first things the teacher must have the courage to do is to believe that there is courage within the students, and act on that belief. Miraculously, it becomes true. Because people actually are new beginnings in the world.


You can download this as a Word document here: New Beginnings in the World

A bold statement, I know. I make it with a crucial condition attached: No writing is ever wasted, as long as you keep writing.

In 1975 I decided that since I had written a 300-page dissertation for my Ph.D., thereby proving I could make something of that size, I would try to make something I really wanted to write: a novel. Of course, after years of higher education in which I focused on novels as much of the time as I could (my dissertation was on Anthony Trollope), I immediately found I had no idea how to write one. So I set out to try anyway.

I did what I now think is the usual thing novices have to do: I had no idea how to create a story out of whole cloth, so I started writing a narrative that was part of my not terribly exciting life with the names changed. After most of a year, I had “finished” this cringe-inducing piece of work and showed it to a T.A. of mine, Kim Stanley Robinson, who has since become a deservedly celebrated science-fiction author. “Pei,” he said, “where’s the fiction in this fiction?”

Busted. Well, what could I do? I started over. This time I attempted to tart up my life experience by adding some things my own life didn’t have much of (action, sex), thinking, I guess, that if I sprinkled these fictitious jimmies on the autobiographical sundae, it would pass for what it wasn’t.

Of course that didn’t work either. Then a very kind person (Kathryn Marshall, the author of My Sister Gone) read this crappy manuscript and said I should try writing it in the first person. That, in the end, opened the door and led me actually to begin writing fiction; so five or six years after I first started trying, I finally completed something I could truly call a novel.

It wasn’t very good.

But all that writing wasn’t wasted because I finally knew what the hell I was doing. The next novel I wrote was Family Resemblances, which got published by Random House and thereby legitimized me as “a novelist.” I got all excited and wrote another novel; I sent it off to Random House and they promptly rejected it. A colleague of mine, the poet Bill Corbett, read it and said, “It didn’t come as a story.” He was right; it was more of a Chautauqua than a series of dramatic actions.

But all that writing wasn’t wasted; for one thing, it was apparently what I had to write, and I had to get it written in order to keep on writing. Meanwhile, it was teaching me more and more about writing. The narrative shifted among several viewpoint characters, which was a technical challenge I hadn’t taken on before. Though as a novel it was too much of a talk-fest with meditative counterpoint, that made it also a major lesson in crafting dialogue and interior monologue. And that wasn’t the last novel I wrote that didn’t work; later I wrote about half a book starring Karen, the protagonist of Family Resemblances (and its sequel, From the Next Room), that didn’t work. It started to feel forced and then it lost its forward momentum and died a natural death. In a word, so what? Was it such a bad thing to have discovered, through writing, that that story didn’t have to be told? I didn’t think so then and I don’t now. If anything, I think that effort taught me a major lesson about letting go. Writing can be very hard and require a large capacity for persistence, not to say stubbornness, but along with the stubbornness you have to learn when to let go. Just because you can write your way down a certain path as a writer, that doesn’t mean you should. And though writing stuff that doesn’t work is not a waste, it’s possible to lessen the amount of time you have to spend learning the hard way.

I first learned that in the writing of Family Resemblances. Late in the first draft, near the end of the book, I was writing in a way typical of me, not knowing (and not wanting to know) what was coming next or how the book was going to end. There was a fork in the road of the story and I chose which way to go and started off in that direction. I was writing the same as before, I was well inside the world of the story as I had been for a long time, I could imagine every particular of the scene as it unfolded with no diminution of its reality. I obviously could write this. But the more I wrote my way down that road, the more I felt a nameless, unignorable sensation in my stomach. Its location felt very specific. It wasn’t a sharp pain or even an ache, but there was something ineffably wrong about it and it wasn’t going away, it was slowly getting worse. After perhaps twenty pages of this experience, I decided my stomach was trying to tell me something specific: This thing you’re writing right now? It’s not the thing you need to write. Don’t go this way. It will only take you farther and farther from where you want to go.

That was good advice. The tricky thing is that you have to learn when to trust it. You have to learn how to sort out the many passing somatic experiences that go on in the background of writing, the twinges of anxiety and dread, the fits of discouragement or euphoria, and figure out when the faint, fleeting, but definite feeling that something is not right means that something is not right. The only way to learn that is to act on the feeling and see what happens. When you discover that yes, it really wasn’t right, that that message was trustworthy, you have a brand-new powerful tool. As long as you keep writing. Otherwise, it’s as if somebody gave you a gorgeous new table saw but you never built anything with it.

The most powerful confirmation that no writing is ever wasted came about twenty years after I first started trying to write a novel.

After writing my apprentice novel that didn’t work – or perhaps simultaneous with it, I can’t remember for certain – I wrote many drafts of a long story which I thought wanted to be a novella (it was eventually published as “Vital Signs” in 1987). That story’s protagonist is an insurance agent named Tom, living in Columbia, Missouri. His wife is pregnant and he is possibly falling in love with his temporary secretary, though we never do find out what comes of that. He is definitely having some kind of existential crisis. Tom is descended from the protagonist of the apprentice novel, who also lived in Columbia, Missouri, and also worked at a mundane job, behind the counter of his camera shop. So that novel that didn’t work gave rise to “Vital Signs,” but my imagination wasn’t done yet. The fourth novel I wrote was about an insurance agent living in Columbia having, this time, an unmistakably spiritual crisis that became a strange journey into a shamanic underworld, a sojourn on the borderline between ordinary reality and another that’s equally real and totally at odds with the everyday. It was, I realized about halfway in, the novel I had been trying to write all along, even in the very first effort that didn’t work, the one I wrote in order to learn the basics of craft. So that initial impulse was far more powerful than I ever realized, and all that work had started something bigger than I ever imagined.

So much for writing being wasted. And this experience brings me to something I find strange and wonderful: it is possible to start to imagine, and start to write, a story that one is absolutely unable to complete at the time – a story that will only finally be written years later, when one has been through enough life experience, has written enough, read enough, matured enough, evolved enough to be the person who can at last write it. When you start that story not only can you not imagine where it will eventually go, you cannot imagine the person or the writer you will eventually become. But you will, and it will.

If you keep writing.


I would like to thank Cathy Day for publishing this post on her ever-interesting blog, The Big Thing. Her subject is the teaching of fiction writing, especially novels (hence the title), and I’ve already learned a lot by reading what appears there. If you enjoy this site, you’ll get a lot out of hers, too.



In his book on photography, Camera Lucida, the French writer Roland Barthes invented a term which I believe applies equally well to the writing of fiction.

First he says that a photograph may have a quality he calls the studium, which means that the viewer feels a sympathetic but rather general interest in what the picture shows, has a taste for that kind of image, is a member of a culture that’s interested in the subject of the photo. The viewer willingly enters into the scene shown in the photograph. This is a good thing, certainly, but it’s not everything. There can be something much more intense about the aesthetic experience, which he defines as follows:


The second element will break (or punctuate) the studium. It is this element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me. A Latin word exists to designate this wound, this prick, this mark made by a pointed instrument: the word suits me all the better in that it also refers to the notion of punctuation, and because the photographs I am speaking of are in effect punctuated, sometimes even speckled with these sensitive points; precisely, these marks, these wounds are so many points. This second element which will disrupt the studium I shall therefore call punctum; for punctum is also: sting, speck, cut, little hole – and also a cast of the dice. A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).

(pp. 26-27)


I think the punctum occurs in fiction as well, or in any kind of narrative writing, in the form of the detail that shoots out of the scene like an arrow and pierces the reader. I have a strong feeling that the punctum tells you something about human memory: that the emotional charge of a memory often attaches to something tiny, something that may seem almost random, something that is not at the center of attention but off to the side. This detail – and what I’m talking about always is small enough to be called a detail – somehow stabs the one who remembers with feeling. It pierces your defenses. Here’s an example from the work of one of my students:


We had our last fight in front of the sink, the one that I had needed to snake not six months before because Lilly and our children, Hannah and Andrew, had been making play-doh and Andrew threw some of his down the drain. The sink was black, like the counters, but there are still little bits of fuchsia play-doh stuck to the deep sides, like tiny barnacles attached to a ship. I stared at those play-doh barnacles as Lilly told me she wanted a divorce, as she told me that she had been having an affair, as she informed me she was moving out. (Kalie Wilkerson)


The punctum here, for me, is those little barnacles of fuchsia play-doh. They are tiny arbitrary specks that just happen, by chance, to be there, but when the critical moment comes that’s what the narrator is staring at, and when he remembers that moment (as he’s narrating), the pain of it is anchored to those same bits of fuchsia play-doh.

This works for me as a reader. It makes me feel the narrator as a person and go past the words into his experience. I’m convinced that it works in part because it is very specific; those bits have a precisely named color (fuchsia) and they are made of a substance (play-doh) which has a very particular sensory quality that I know well. Play-doh is not exactly like any other substance; it’s unique. That level of specificity matters.

If I think about this in terms of technique that I might try to apply while writing, it comes out something like this: remember that something seemingly insignificant might be the most potent vehicle for powerful feeling. That the seemingly arbitrary detail or minor action might be the thing that sticks in the mind and makes the larger whole seem real. So when something terribly important is happening, don’t forget about the unimportant that is happening at that moment too. It may be the key that unlocks the feeling in the scene.


[The photograph at the top of this post was taken at a homeless encampment in the Alewife Reservation, Cambridge, Mass.]