Category Archives: Writing Practices

Essential Emily & Marilynne

“Writing should always be exploratory,” writes Marilynne Robinson (Housekeeping, Gilead) in her NY Times essay, “Toward Essentials.”

“There shouldn’t be the assumption that you know ahead of time what you want to express. When you enter into the dance with language, you’ll begin to find that there’s something before, or behind, or more absolute than the thing you thought you wanted to express.”

I couldn’t agree with or love this idea more. One writes to understand, to deepen understanding, to discover. But, like “wrestling with an angel,” it isn’t easy. It takes discipline, curiosity, creativity, time.

It’s no surprise, then, that Robinson’s essay begins with a reference to Emily Dickinson, whose poetry is known for its rigorous compression of language and simultaneously sublime expansion of meaning.

Living in the 19th century with her family in Amherst, Dickinson stripped everything but what she felt was absolutely essential from her poetry, including conventions such as punctuation marks and proper nouns, while at the same time adding quirky signatures such as the dash and capital letters, additions that built layers of meaning into her sparse lines.

It is astonishing to think that, in the throes of inspiration, Dickinson jotted these poems on the flaps of envelopes and the backs of shopping lists found in the flotsam of her daily life (the “gorgeous nothings“).

Robinson cites Dickinson’s poem, “The Brain – is wider than the Sky.” I looked it up and reread it, having forgotten it. It’s just one of hundreds of astonishingly sly and intelligent poems that she wrote in her lifetime.

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and You—beside—

The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
The one the other will absorb—
As Sponges—Buckets—do—

The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound—

Comparing the brain to the sky, the sea, and to God, in well under 100 words, Dickinson makes a clever argument in which the human mind is greater than natural and divine wonders, while also dependent upon both. If the brain had nothing to contemplate, it would be as dull as the world around it. Syllables and sounds may differ, but they don’t exist without one another.

Did Dickinson set out to write a poem comparing humanity to skies, seas, Gods and sounds? Doubtful. But through writing, and wrestling, and dancing with words, she did.

When it Comes to Words Per Minute, Less is More

“The Power of Handwriting,” a recent Wall Street Journal article by Robert Lee Hotz, argues what many teachers already believe: that students who handwrite their notes learn better than those who type.

According to Hotz, faster note-taking does not correlate with deeper or even adequate understanding of the material. Researchers have found that “the very feature that makes laptop note-taking so appealing — the ability to take notes more quickly — was what undermined learning.”

Interestingly, digital note-taking does appear to result in short-term gains for note-takers. But after 24 hours, those who type notes start to forget the material they transcribed. Researchers at Princeton and UCLA compared the work product of students who took longhand notes and found that they retained knowledge for longer and more readily understood new concepts.

Hotz reminds us that taking notes by hand has been a key learning strategy since ancient times and tells us that “writing things down excites the brain, brain imaging studies show.” Adds Michael Friedman of Harvard, when we take notes, we actually “transform” what we hear, making information acquisition both dynamic and personal.

Any notes are better than no notes, say researchers. But teachers can attest to the greater level of focus they see in students who write down their thoughts as they listen and learn vs. those who type transcript style notes. The sharpest edge still belongs to the student who can distill and synthesize information as he/she hears it, and commit it to memory through a practice of writing notes by hand.

There is a reason we are sometimes allowed to take a handwritten notecard into an exam with us — in deciding what is essential information to have with us in the exam room, we have likely undergone a very rigorous and helpful process of separating the wheat from the chaff, and committed to long-term memory those very concepts we are most likely to be tested on.

Look at Us


Jennifer Egan is one of my favorite contemporary authors. I loved A Visit from the Goon Squad and The Keep, and I think her short story in the form of tweets, “Black Box,” is one of the more brilliant feats of creative writing.

After reading a recent article that captured a great conversation between Egan and George Saunders  (“Choose Your Own Adventure”), I grabbed a copy of one of her earlier books, Look at Me, that I had never read before.

Published in 2001 but written over six years during the 1990s, Look at Me is a jarringly predictive novel — not only about the role of the internet and the way in which self-image is influenced by technology and social media, but also about terrorists, both foreign and domestic born, in America.

The novel, which was released before 9-11, is uncanny in the way it imagines and comments on the world as we have known it since 2001. I kept wondering as I read, how could she have possibly known the things she seemed to have known?

In her conversation with Saunders, Egan said that she had no inkling of what was yet to come. She thought Look at Me would be far-fetched, even funny.  “I had never been online when I imagined a lot of that novel, and I was projecting forward into what I thought was extreme, goofy satire.” But, she said, she “took a long time to write Look at Me, and some of what I imagined as wacky hypotheticals — for example, a type of self-branding reality-TV-ish website I called Ordinary People — had already started to come try by the time I published it.”

Of the character, Z, who comes to America to destroy it from the inside, Egan wrote in the afterword to the book, “Z had always worried me the most. I was afraid no one would find him credible … [W]hile it may be nearly impossible to read about Z outside the context of September 11, 2001, I concocted his history and his actions at a time when the events of that day were still unthinkable.” She concedes, “Had Look at Me been a work-in-progress in the fall of 2001, I would have had to reconceive the novel in light of what happened. Instead, it remains an imaginative artifact of a more innocent time.”

Whether or not we arrive at every terminus predicted in fiction is not the point. As long as we have the freedom to imagine the future, we may also have the power to shape it.

The Devil in the Details

One thing that teachers consistently tell student writers to do is to add details into their writing — details that paint a unique picture and effectively, sometimes even jarringly, communicate an author’s voice and perspective.

Students rise to meet this challenge in varying degrees. But detail is, in the end, the fuel that propels words from ideal to impact and, sometimes, action.

Take the work of Ta-Nahesi Coates, who earlier this fall was named a MacArthur genius and just last week the winner of the National Book Award for Between the World and Me, a memoir-manifesto in the guise of a letter to his son. I bought the book a few months ago but didn’t delve into it until after I heard him speak at Davidson College last week to a packed gymnasium of nearly 4,000 people.

At Davidson, Coates spoke about many things, including the “presumption of black criminality deeply written into the bones of this country.” Hearing him speak about the loss of his friend, Prince Jones, who was killed by a police officer for no reason other than the fact that he was a black male, and the man that police officer was looking for was also a black male, moved me to pick the book up and let Coates’ words wash over me again.

I don’t know that I’ve ever read anything so tragic as this, or as thoughtfully constructed through detail:

“Prince Jones was the superlative of all my fears. And if he, good Christian, scion of a striving class, patron saint of the twice as good, could be forever bound, who then could not? And the plunder was not just of Prince alone. Think of all the love poured into him. Think of the tuitions for Montessori and music lessons. Think of the gasoline expended, the treads worn carting him to football games, basketball tournaments, and Little League. Think of the time spent regulating sleepovers… Think of soccer balls, science kits, chemistry sets, racetracks and model trains. Think of all the embraces, all the private jokes, customs, greetings, names, dreams, all the shared knowledge and capacity of a black family injected into that vessel of flesh and bone. And think of how that vessel was taken, shattered on the concrete, and all its holy contents, all that had gone into him, sent flowing back to the earth.” (Between the World and Me, p. 82) 

In writing like this there is no shortage of lessons to be learned. First, the need to not only name but also fully describe injustice. Second, the importance of paying tribute to the dead by memorializing the uniqueness of their lives. And third, the lesson of creating impact through detail. Prince Jones, a young man with an infant who will never know him, was a fully realized person who loved science, played piano, and was the recipient of countless other people’s sacrifices.

It’s easy to understand why Coates felt he had to write this book — ostensibly to his son, and certainly in memory of his friend — but also for all of us.

Our Reflections, Ourselves

Each time I sit down to write this blog, I ask myself, “What did I learn today in school?”

Often, I have to admit that I don’t know. That’s not to say that I didn’t learn many things; I just don’t know for sure what those things were until I sit and reflect.

What did I learn today? What did I learn today? The question nags at me and pushes me to constantly reflect on my own learning. Sometimes, it churns up a solid enough idea to post here.

Reflection is undoubtedly one of the most important aspects of education. My students don’t all love the exercise, however. They often ask, “Why do I have to write an extra paragraph explaining what I was trying to do in my paper? I just told you, in my paper!”

Of course reflection is not merely an explanation of what we intended to do or believe we did. It is a sacred space where we can be honest with ourselves about why what we did is important to us, why it should matter to others, how we think we may have done well, where we feel we may have fallen short.

Start with a Single Thread

One of my favorite Emily Dickinson poems is “The Spider Holds a Silver Ball.” I’ve had some good discussions with students over the years about the poem’s meaning, most of which stem from a disagreement about the character of the spider who creates a web, something substantial, if ephemeral, from what appears to be nothing.

Is the spider devious in his design, enlightened as to its inevitability, or neutral to his art? Does he delight in surpassing our human incapacity for such meticulous and mysterious beauty, or is he oblivious to us, even after we destroy his work?

Dickinson often used nature to get at larger issues, such as in this case the issue of authorship, and what control, if any, an author has over his or her work. Dani Shapiro captures this issue beautifully in Still Writing, when she says, “writing… is an act of faith.” Like the spider, “we writers spend our days making something out of nothing.”

My students felt this acutely over the past month as they wrote their own dystopian short stories. As is often the case, I found that the simplest advice was the most resonant. I said, choose something small that, if different, would fundamentally change life as we know it. In Shapiro’s words, “build a corner.”

Or, in Dickinson’s, start with a single thread.

The spider holds a Silver Ball
In unperceived Hands –
And dancing softly to Himself
His Yarn of Pearl – unwinds –

He plies from Nought to Nought –
In unsubstantial Trade –
Supplants our Tapestries with His –
In half the period –

An Hour to rear supreme
His Continents of Light –
Then dangle from the Housewife’s Broom –
His Boundaries – forgot –