I don’t generally write a post here as a response to one of my colleagues, but today I was moved in that direction. And as I questioned myself about whether that was some kind of a cop-out or avoidance to writing my own post, that little voice inside became a big voice, and fast. “No, it’s NOT a cop-out,” it yelled at me. This blog functions as a place for us to post our thoughts and ideas about our writing and the world of nonfiction, but it is also an ongoing conversation. These INKers are my colleagues, yet we do not share any office space and have no water cooler around which to engage in conversation. In fact, in this particular case, I have never met the person I want to respond to—Jim Murphy. Yet through this blog, and with each passing post, I have felt a growing feeling of simpatico. We SHOULD have a water cooler. And so I stand by it today, to respond to Jim’s latest post.
He last blogged about mind games, and I’m certain we all play our own versions to get us where we need to go. Here is what Jim wrote as one of his moves: “when I write, I tell myself that I should imagine I'm talking to one reader who happens to be sitting across the desk from me, which means writing in a conversational, informal way. If I feel a section is sounding too much like a freshman college lecture, I stop and do something else (wash dishes, water plants, take Page out) and come back later, hopefully with a fresh eye and approach.”
I read this, raised my arms above my head, and said, “Yes!” I do a slightly different version of this. I get up, walk around, and hold the page or laptop (mine is VERY light) and read out loud, as if to an audience, perhaps during a school visit in my mind. For me, the reading of a tricky or troublesome passage out loud makes my fumbles glare at me from the page, as if daring me to read them out loud. I can see them taunting me: “go ahead, wrap your tongue around this, if you can.” I actually often stop just before I am about to utter whatever sentence I already know has failed. When that happens, I often revise it on the spot—still out loud—as if I am an actor on stage and just realized it’s improvise or flop. New words come out of my mouth. After I say them, that’s when I take a break from my imaginary performance and rush to get them on paper.
I also loved Jim’s other techniques for self-editing—pretending he’s the “nastiest editor alive” and going through it with an eye to someone who knows nothing about the subject. This last one is one we share; and I suspect many other nonfiction writers do this as well. I teach my high school son to do that with his essays, and my college students as well, as there can be this feeling that somehow they are writing to ME only, and since I assigned the topic, they can leave certain things out that surely I must already know. We leave things out in our rough drafts, too. Not because we assume our readers already know them, but because at some point we have become so immersed in our topic that our knowledge base takes over and we start to take some things for granted for ourselves. That is a GREAT sign in terms of feeling as though you have wrapped your arms around a topic in such a way that you can authentically write about it. It is also a GREAT sign that you need to spend some time reading through your work with the sole focus of finding where you have not filled in the blanks for your reader.
This was fun, and I hope others sidle up to the water cooler as well. I love these people on INK—some of them are my dear close friends, and others I have never met. But it doesn’t much matter, as our words continue to bring us closer together.