An Epiphany at Sea

I’m teaching writing on a Caribbean cruise off the coast of Mexico. (Tough gig, I know.) Yesterday I had an epiphany right in the middle of teaching a session on memoir writing. I told the participants that gathering information for their memoirs would show them things about themselves they didn’t know. “Memoirs teach you who you are.” And I told an anecdote about my late father, a shy man of few words.

He never talked about what he did as a naval officer in World War II, but I’d gathered bits and pieces over the years and put together my own picture of what he did. I knew he helped develop the airborne radar used in hunter-killer teams. One plane (the Hunter) used radar to find enemy submarines, and the other plane (the Killer) carried depth charges to drop on the sub. When he was dying, I cornered him in his hospital bed and interviewed him about what he really did. He couldn’t escape me, and for once in his life, talked at length. I assumed, since he was an electrical engineer, that he had helped develop the radar itself. Actually he figured out how to train flying officers to operate the radar and find the sub. Later he led a group of radar specialists, and flew missions himself. I confirmed all this later in his service records.

And just as I finished telling this anecdote, I had an epiphany. I had never seen the connection between what he was and did (an engineer) and what I became and did (a teacher-scholar). But as I told the story to my participants, it hit me. He created new knowledge, recast it so others could learn it, and taught it to smart people so they could act on it. Which is exactly what I’ve done my whole life, and what I’m am doing right now on this cruise, and what I’m doing in this blog post.
[Ever had an epiphany while telling a story?]

Published in: on May 1, 2011 at 10:44 am  Comments (6)  


Readers read along until something jolts their attention, such as a misspelled word or an incorrect fact. They continue moving their eyes over the following words, but they’re not paying attention. They’re thinkink about the problematic word, just as you’re now fretting about my misspelling of “thinking” at the beginning of this sentence.

Sometimes you have to include something that’ll jar the reader. Writers tend to explain it later, or just let readers bump on it. The better way is to signal the reader that something striking is about to happen. Even better, disarm the bump at the same time.

Here’s a model of what I’m suggesting, in an article about caffeine:

Hollingsworth compiled his studies in a 1912 book that used a contemporary spelling for the substance: “The Influence of Caffein on Mental and Motor Efficiency.”

The author, Murray Carpenter, warns us that an odd spelling of caffeine is about to startle us, and we don’t bump.

(Do you have any examples of handling this problem well or badly?)

Published in: on March 29, 2011 at 8:58 am  Leave a Comment  

Writing on the Move

Most writers have a favorite writing place: my study, an office, a sunny glade. But some writers take it one step further. They have a writing spot that moves.

Don Murray, the first writing coach, wrote as he drove his van. He dictated books to his wife Minnie Mae, who sat at a portable desk in the back seat.

Liu Ming, who teaches feng shui and Chinese medicine in Oakland, built an eight-foot cube on wheels in his 1,100 square-foot loft. The cube contains a bedroom, a meditation area, and his study.

He says he “added wheels for feng shui purposes. Now that it is portable, I can spin it on an axis, I can point my head and point my desk in different compass directions for different projects. If I am writing something and feel blocked, I can get up and move the room.”

He “wanted to design the work space so that it could also turn — turn it toward the light on a sunny day, or in a different mood, turn it to the wall and meet a deadline.”

He can even change the view, from downtown Oakland to “the hills and the sunrise.”

Now you might think that having a custom splendid view might distract you from writing, but remember that Petrarch climbed Mont Ventoux for inspiration, and Wordworth made a career of writing about emotions occasioned by landscape.

George Bernard Shaw anticipitated Mr. Liu when he built his revolving writing hut at Shaw’s Corner in Ayot St Lawrence, Hertfordshire, England. It turned on a track to follow the path of the sun. Not a bad technique for the British Isles.

[Anybody use a moving writing spot?]

Published in: on February 11, 2011 at 12:12 pm  Comments (6)  


I’ve just collected a new technique for saving yourself from writer’s block. John Casey, a Charlottesville novelist, told how a friend taught him “a trick for beating writer’s block: Think of a fairy tale that you don’t know entirely. Rewrite it.”

Why does this technique work? First, it distracts you from your own writing that you’re not writing. You can’t not think of something, but you can think about something else. Thinking about failing at the keyboard is not likely to inspire you or distract you. What better than an easy story?

Second, it lowers the level of seriousness. You stop failing to write THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL or THE DEVELOPMENT OF CONSCIOUSNESS IN WORLD THOUGHT SINCE GILGAMESH, and start thinking about a damsel with tower-length hair. Many writers succumb to writer’s block because no matter how hard they think and write, they keep failing to produce a masterpiece. As V. S. Naipaul puts it, “Great subjects are illuminated best by small dramas.”

Third, you don’t have to come up with a plot or a thesis. The fairy tale story is fixed. Actually, it’s not. It’s only a skeleton ripe for riffing. That’s why you don’t write a fairy tale. You rewrite one.

Fourth, the tale you choose is one “that you don’t know entirely,” meaning one you haven’t read in a long time, perhaps since childhood. Fairy tales have an elemental power that will startle you when read them anew. In graduate school, I studied German by reading the Grimm Brothers’ legends in the original. These little kids’ tales were full of puns and profoundly obscene. “Rapunzel” is delicious smut.

Finally, if you’re merrily rewriting a fairy tale, you’re writing and no longer stuck in writer’s block.

[ Have you tried anything like this technique?]

Published in: on December 17, 2010 at 8:32 pm  Comments (4)  

Deleting Dotted Lines in Word

I’ve finally figured out the most maddening problem in Microsoft Word. I never could get rid of these lines of small squares that reached from margin to margin.

Nothing would dent them. I couldn’t highlight them, delete them, or overwrite them. The only solution was to erase the whole passage that contained them, and type from scratch. Sometimes that failed. They spread like rabbits.

Here’s the secret. That line is the bottom border on the paragraph immediately above. So you have to attack it in that paragraph. Here’s how.


Highlight the whole paragraph before the line, even if it’s just one carriage return. Click FORMAT, then BORDERS AND SHADING, then BORDERS (1). Under APPLY TO, click PARAGRAPH (2). Under SETTINGS (3), look at the bottom item: CUSTOM (4). That’s the baddie. See that little line of four dots? You have to kill that. Click NONE (5) at the top of that column, then OK (6). Voila, the line is gone, adios.

Maybe it’s not. It’s still there, but moved up one line. The fiends at Microsoft designed in a defense against us. If there’s more than one dotted line, they stack on top of one another, but you only see one. So you have to repeat the whole process until they’re all gone. Last night, I rooted out seven of them masquerading as one.

By the way, if you want to create that line, type a carriage return, three asterisks, and a carriage return.

Different versions of Word may do this in different ways, but maybe you can figure out how to make the proper changes. I use Microsoft Word 2004 for Mac.

[Do you know different ways to get rid of these little monsters?]

Published in: on October 21, 2010 at 2:38 pm  Comments (305)  

Coaching Gigi

I coached Leslie Caron. Yes, that Leslie Caron. Gigi.

During a food writers retreat in Burgundy in October 2006, we ate at Auberge-La Lucarne aux Chouettes (‘Owl’s Nest’), which Ms. Caron owns in Villeneuve/Yonne. With a dancer’s carriage and movie star aura, she joined our table to chat with the food writers about how she converted an abandoned warehouse into her restaurant, about her chefs’ quirks, and a little gossip about Fred Astaire, her co-star in “Daddy Long Legs.” And, of course, about the food. She spoke expertly on every topic and even told how she designed her own website.

Then she mentioned how she’s struggling to write her memoirs. After 61 pages, her agent wanted an outline to show to publishers, but Ms. Caron couldn’t write one. Voila, writing coach to the rescue.

I explained the difference between “planners” and “plungers.” Planners decide what to do, and then do it. Plungers simply do it, and figure it out as they go along. Planner writers create an outline and follow it, but plungers “write by discovery.” They type to figure out what they want to say. I told her that one-third of our group were plungers, and she replied, “So, I’m not alone.” Ms. Caron had recognized herself as a plunger, who needs to write the piece in order to outline it. I suggested that she explain plunging to her agent and tell the agent to wait until most of the memoir had been written. At that point, a “back outline” is a cinch.

Just then, her dog Prunelle, sporting a Veronica Lake hairdo, joined us, and the impromptu coaching session ended. Another plunger freed from the straitjacket of the outline.

[Photo: Spencer Johnson; many thanks.]

Published in: on October 16, 2010 at 8:11 am  Comments (2)  

The listening pen

The world of writing has a new tool, described in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. You use the Livescribe pen to take notes on special paper, and it records the sound of whatever you’re listening to. When you tap the point on a note later, the pen replays the sound that produced that note.

To capture a quotation, you don’t have to write down something like this: Pete Wells-“The whole idea of mise en place tortures me.”

You just scribble “mise” or “mep” or whatever. Touch the pen to that jotting later, and the pen plays back the quotation. It’s like writing down the counter numbers on a digital recorder for important things, so you can listen later.

Ideally, this device would free interviewers to spend less effort on getting things down in the notebook, with more time and energy to process what the speaker’s saying. Transfer the notes to a computer, and the Livescribe software can search it. And you can annotate the notes. Ideally.

In real life, the pen can fail at the worst moment, just like any recording device. It may not hear clearly, and record mush. The person next to you may be commenting, and the pen may record the commenter rather than the speaker. The transfer to a computer may suffer the usual glitches. You have to use special paper. And the pen costs $129.95, or more.

I’ll bet it won’t work in the rain.

Used sloppily, without good listening and good notetaking, this device will help you fail. My friend Tom Berner reminds me, “The fault lies not with the recorder, but with the person using it.” Used properly, it can improve listening, which is the key to interviewing.

[Had any experience with the Livescribe pen?]

Published in: on September 21, 2010 at 11:11 am  Comments (5)  

Mise en place

Pete Wells attacked the tyranny of “mise en place” in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine. This cooking term refers to “the practice of having all the ingredients and tools set to go before you even light the stove.” You prep most of the foodstuffs and lay them out in little dishes. He sees this pre-arranging “as an unattainable ideal, a receding mirage, a dream of an organized and contented kitchen life that everyone is enjoying except me.”

He discovers mid-recipe that his peppers are moldy; he runs out of space, time, and patience. So he abandons the march-in-step and just cooks.

Wells quotes food writer Sarah Moulton, who abandoned mise en place, despite her professional training, in her cookbooks. She says, “I had as little time as everybody else, and I realized I couldn’t wait to measure and slice and dice all that stuff…. I noticed I’d be mincing the garlic while I was cooking the onion. I’d be cooking the whole thing by taking advantage of what was already cooking.”

Wells closes with a Thomas Keller recipe, which “has you brown the bacon and start chopping and cooking the long-braised collards, then boil the potatoes in their skins, stir sugar into the strawberries and put the chicken on the grill. While it’s cooking, you mash the potatoes and then whip heavy cream.”

In mise en place, you plan everything ahead and lay it out. In the prep-as-you-go, you do the steps in whatever sequences and combinations work for you.

What I’ve just described is like planners versus plungers. Planner writers decide what to say and how, and then type it, often from an outline. Plunger writers type lots of paragraphs, one leading to another in no sequence, and then rearrange them to make sense.

Planning works better and faster if you try out your plan on somebody smart before you type it. Plunging works best if you draft without revising, cut anything irrelevant, rearrange, and then revise.

Which is better? Both give the same results in the same time. Which you choose might depend on how you cook.

[How do your cooking and writing techniques coincide?]

Published in: on September 20, 2010 at 9:49 pm  Comments (2)  

Multiple Drafts

Drafting without revision and revising once is the fastest way to write, but not the only way. Some writers, sometimes including me, produce multiple drafts, which is inherently slow.

Some writers stop in the middle of gathering and whip out a quick draft to find the holes in their knowledge. Then they devote the rest of their gathering to filling those gaps. They don’t necessarily produce a new draft later, but sometimes the added information requires an entirely new version.

I sometimes draft three or four unrevised paragraphs to see if I’ve got the tone right, and I usually delete them. Some writers use this technique to design an appropriate beginning.

I only know of one writer who uses the following method. A humor writer types over 200 words per minute on continuous butcher paper rolled into a typewriter. She figures out what she wants to say, then types at top speed until she runs out of steam. She then discards the entire draft and takes a long break. Then she does it again, and keeps repeating this cycle until she types the bottom sentence. Then she revises, just a little.

Speech writers often write a full draft and submit it to the speaker to see if it says what’s desired. Often it doesn’t, and they start over with a new draft. (My wife Joan once worked for a speaker who would reject an entire draft with a red slash across the first page or a red “NO” at the top. She had no idea what was wrong or right.) This slow method works better if the writer interviews the speaker briefly to find out what he wants to say, and then drafts that.

Sometimes a draft is such a disaster that it can’t be revised, especially if it was composed by multiple authors or a committee, or by combining disparate documents. You can try to revise it, but I find that having one writer produce an entirely new draft works better. You get there faster, and the various authors are less likely to try to defend the parts they wrote.

Finally, some authors write multiple drafts because they don’t know any other way to compose. That’s slow, but fine if it works for them. If you must do it that way, don’t revise as you draft; otherwise, you discard things you spent time revising. As a coach, I often advise such people to spend more time organizing so the first draft gets closer to what they want to say.

[What kinds of multiple drafts do your write?]

Published in: on August 23, 2010 at 6:33 pm  Leave a Comment  

Leaving blanks

An easier version of drafting without revising involves leaving blanks in the text to be filled in, either later in DRAFT or in REVISE. Again, the idea is to get it down, then get it right. Maybe we should call this technique “Get it down, then fill it out.”

Here’s an example about Admiral Nimitz about to award the Medal of Honor:

Four senior naval officers stepped tentatively into the hospital room. “Commander Fixx, I’m Admiral Nimitz,” said the tallest one, extending his hand. “Let me introduce XXXX.”

In this case, we’re not sure of the date , so we leave it blank. We know the names of the other three officers, but not their exact titles, so we simply type “XXXX.” Using consistent codes, such as “XXXX” or double brackets around the blanks, makes it easy to find them later with the search function. My wife Joan codes by changing the color of the font, usually to red.

You can also specify what you need in the blank, such as “[[MAYOR’S HUSBAND’S NAME?]].” Some writers send messages to themselves in the blank, such as “[[IS THIS CORRECT?]].” Many coaches and editors use coded blanks to send queries to writers inside the text: “[[CHECK SPELLING IN FRENCH]]” or “[[CONVERT TO INCHES?]].” I use ALL CAPS to make the insertions easier to spot during revision.

Wouldn’t it be quicker just to find the information as you need it and type it in? Maybe, but you’ll lose the flow of rapid drafting. And you might get distracted and come back an hour (or day) later. Undisciplined and disciplined writers need different techniques.

One caution: at the end of revision, check that you’ve filled all the blanks and eliminated all the codes. You don’t want your editor or reader to see something like “[[WHERE DID I FIND THIS?]].”

[How do you use blanks?]

Published in: on May 29, 2010 at 9:58 am  Comments (2)