How We Write:
The Varieties of Writing Experience
By Hilton Obenzinger
The How I Write Project at Stanford, CreateSpace, 2015
The “How I Write” Project
On September 26, 1996, Renato Rosaldo suffered a stroke. Within a couple of weeks, “Poems started coming to me,” he said. “I was sitting there and these lines would start coming to me. I didn’t know exactly what they were, and so I started writing them down because I thought I should do that.” Professor Rosaldo is one of the world’s leading cultural anthropologists, but he had never written poetry before.
His doctors told him that he would have to do not only physical therapy but also cognitive therapy, employing both hands and both sides of his brain. So although he was right-handed and it was only his left side that had been affected by the stroke, he would now try to use both hands to write. “And I thought, ‘Well, a poem—that’s something I’ve never done before.’”
As he began to write poems using both hands, Dr. Rosaldo drew pictures along with them. “On my fortieth birthday I [had] started painting and drawing. And I remember my first class, where they showed us a grapefruit and I drew a circle,” he laughed. “But I had loved to draw when I was a kid, and I would just get completely absorbed in this. And so I [had] worked at that for quite some time—since I was forty. But the last thing I expected was for poems to start coming to me.” He’d had no ambitions to become a poet. “It was just something that happened to me,” he explained.
“I realized that if I write left-handed, things happen that don’t when I write right-handed,” he said. “Sometimes these things will come to me in Spanish and sometimes in English and sometimes both combining.” He had grown up in Tucson in a bilingual family. “Sometimes I write a Spanish version first and then translate it, and then work back and forth.” Writing took such a long time, the languages playing off of each other, that he would often end up writing parallel poems. “Even if I did a complete version in Spanish and then translated it, I think of them as written bilingually. And sometimes I have found that I don’t want to get them to match, so I produce two versions because I feel that they are almost like two plants growing differently.”
He described writing in this entirely new way, using two languages as well as both hands, as “almost like working two sides of a street.” The English would lead him to make some changes in the Spanish, then the other way around. “It is hard to tell which one is leading and which one is following. It gets very strange. That’s maybe because I grew up speaking Spanish with my father and English with my mother at home; and then there was a period where I lost my Spanish and got it back when I was still young.” Working two sides of the street was not easy. “I guess that’s the theme: hard work, patience, attention.”
Despite the difficulty, Dr. Rosaldo saw writing poetry as deeply healing, and it brightened his day. In fact, he became addicted to the practice of poetry, finding that he couldn’t stop. “When I don’t write, my day is grayer,” he explained. “The world just gets grayer.” As he began his healing by means of poetry, he thought he would end up writing a book of poems called Healing Songs. But while the poems just “came to him,” he also had to learn how to make them work—to craft them, take them seriously. He knew he had to revise his poems paying the same attention to craft as he would when revising his scholarly writing. But he also realized he needed help. “I can rewrite prose—I’ve worked at it for a long time. But I don’t know how to even begin rewriting a poem. . . . I lined up somebody to be my poetry tutor because I figured I wouldn’t try to play the violin without a teacher, and I thought it seemed like new terrain, so I knew I needed help.”
Still, needing help “was a very strange feeling,” Dr. Rosaldo confessed. After all, he was a professor—a seasoned scholar, not a novice—and he was famous in his field. “I was a veteran cultural anthropologist and an infant poet—a kind of helpless infant.” His new situation really struck him when he went to a reading given by some well-known poets. “I went in and I realized I could walk freely in the room.” Nobody stopped him, no colleagues crowded around him. “I’m in a place where I’m a complete nobody. This is terrific! Look at how easy it is to walk around!” In contrast, when he’d go to anthropology meetings, he would be lionized. So many admirers would crowd around him that “it was just very hard to get from one room to another. It made me wonder how a centipede walks.”
In the poetry scene, he was alone, uncelebrated, naked, which was refreshing; but he needed help, needed a community—people who would respond to his work, give him critical feedback. He joined a poetry workshop that met every month in his neighborhood, and over the course of years of sharing his work he did learn to write poems. He ended up publishing a book, although with a different title, with considerable success: Prayer to Spider Woman/Rezo a la mujer araña received an American Book Award in 2004.
Renato Rosaldo told of his journey into ambidextrous, bilingual poetry during one of a series of public conversations on writing I’ve been holding at Stanford University since 2002. I thought it would be valuable to learn about how people work—all kinds of writers: those who produce fiction and poems as well as those who write lab reports, histories, computer science textbooks—the whole gamut. Professor Rosaldo’s story was stunning—but it turned out that it wouldn’t be the only time I would be astonished.
For many, it was exhilarating to talk about what playwright Amy Freed called “a chaotic and mysterious adventure.” For quite a few, writing is simply an instrument, not the main focus of their work as chemical engineers or sociologists—even though everyone at the university, from math professors to musicologists, must write; even if it only means cranking out mundane, uncreative word-stuff like memos or grant proposals. While some professors are very aware of their own writing process, many said they hadn’t thought about it in years or they hadn’t really paid much attention to it. Some were startled: they told me no one had ever asked them about it.
I decided I would ask.
Here was a major university, with thousands of people involved in discovering, creating, debating, and imparting knowledge, burrowing themselves deeply in libraries and labs—and other than those people who take personal interest in or make a special point of studying writing, there wasn’t much of a self-aware community of shared inquiry and insights about the writing process itself. By asking about it, I hoped one benefit would be to help cultivate that shared awareness, to foster a community of writers. Since the project began, the university’s writing program has been revamped and reenergized, and the Hume Center for Writing and Speaking was established, where I taught honors and advanced writing. The Hume Center was where many of these conversations were held.
“How I Write” conversations were informal, with no pretense of plumbing the depths of anyone’s scholarly expertise or of attempting empirical thoroughness. Rather, these talks probed what the writing part of these scholars’ and artists’ work entailed—whether their field was physics or anthropology or fiction—in an easygoing, meandering fashion. The first announcement summed up the goals:
“How I Write” is a series of conversations with faculty and other advanced writers to explore the nuts and bolts, pleasures and pains, of all types of writing. While content is always an issue, the conversations will primarily focus on work styles, such as where, when, and how a writer composes, allowing us to examine habits, idiosyncrasies, techniques, trade secrets, hidden anxieties, and delights. We will discuss how a writer generates ideas, sustains large-scale projects, combines research with composition, overcomes various impediments and blocks, and cultivates stylistic innovations. Writing communities share experiences (even bad ones) so that all writers can learn and grow, and Stanford is an exceptionally rich community for gaining such insights.
Join Hilton Obenzinger in a conversation on the techniques, quirks, and joys of advanced writers producing work in all fields and genres.
I really didn’t know what to expect. I figured that I would hold the first few conversations with people with whom I had worked, colleagues who would feel at ease, and in that way I would discover what to ask and how to allow my guests to bare their inner writing selves with as little interference on my part as possible. I would invite writers to say anything they wanted at the outset, then we would engage in conversation, and finally I would open the floor to the audience to join in with their own questions or observations.
I got thrown for a loop. After just the first two conversations it became abundantly clear just how wildly different were the ways writers approached the “nuts and bolts, pleasures and pains,” and everything else.
Mary Lou Roberts, a professor of French history who now teaches at the University of Wisconsin, is gregarious and voluble, and her conversation is frequently punctuated with laughter. I couldn’t imagine anyone better to start the series. Early on in the conversation she described her writing process with an analogy:
I saw this painting a long time ago at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and thought, “This is my writing process.” It was five panels: the first was incredibly blurry, the second panel was a little clearer, the third was a little clearer, the fourth was crystal clear, the fifth had started to fade a little bit. To me it feels like I always know what I want to say instinctively, because when you research, you make choices—you read some things and not others. I tell my graduate students, “Don’t think; just go on instinct,” because I think it’s a very underrated human resource. So I have an incredibly vague idea—and then, when I begin to write, slowly it becomes clear.
As part of this process of traveling from blurry to clear (and back to slightly blurry, but on a higher level), she would have to write prodigious amounts before she could figure out what she actually wanted to say. Consequently, she would toss out large quantities of writing. And this didn’t come easily:
I’ve thrown out whole chapters—sad, but true. And it is a really unfortunate thing because I am a real type A personality. That was the single hardest thing for me to come to terms with: how much time you waste. You can’t sacrifice quality by including something when it is wrong; you just have to realize that the path from A to Z is never going to be straight. The way my writing has changed is that it has gotten better—not just my writing, but my whole thinking as a historian. I’ve gotten a lot more patient, more tolerant of waste. Because of that, I think my work is better.
The audience gasped. Some were shocked at the notion that instinct could play such a major role in scholarly research. But many more groaned at the idea of throwing out whole chapters, pages and pages of precious work. Professor Roberts is a particularly fluent writer—the words come to her easily, and I could see students in the audience who were much less fluent shuddering at the image of themselves painfully squeezing out a few pages and then blithely throwing them away. Such self-immolation was inconceivable.
My next conversation was with David Abernethy, a political scientist, and his approach stood in stark contrast. While he had written many articles and two books years before, Professor Abernethy was only just coming out with The Dynamics of Global Dominance: European Overseas Empires, 1415-1980 after years of not publishing anything. This book certainly had a major historical quality to it, but for a political scientist, the key word was “dynamics.” Professor Abernethy was searching for patterns and models he could extract from all of the many different colonial histories, not from just the particular, individual characteristics of the histories of single countries such as New Zealand or Paraguay or Vietnam.
Interdisciplinary work has its difficulties. But I was more shocked to learn that The Dynamics of Global Dominance took fifteen years to write. “I decided to ask a fairly large and intractable question,” he explained. “Why did people from a tiny part of the world (Western Europe) dominate so much of the world for half a millennium? I had a huge question, the answer to which, it seems to me, helps to define the modern world—so it was an important question.” Certainly, he had a lot at stake, and a vast scope, but does that account for why it took fifteen years?
Professor Abernethy explained that he would devote himself to teaching and administrative work during the academic year, and he would only write during the summers and during bits of sabbatical time. It was a long haul, and he didn’t publish articles in journals along the way as many scholars do. A lot of people in his field thought he was a completely unproductive scholar—perhaps one of those professors who get tenure and then rest on their laurels, cozy in their sinecures. But he was far from lazy. Several times in our talk he called himself a loner, and it seems clear that he insisted on following the Paul Anka/Frank Sinatra “I Did It My Way” school of thought. Yet, just as Mary Lou Roberts would allow herself to write at length until she understood what she wanted to say, Professor Abernethy had his own method for formulating his argument:
The first seven or eight years were spent just doing research, asking the question, “How did Europeans expand in various parts of the world?”—and then the other side [of that question]: “How did these empires collapse?” Research is writing: you are always taking notes. In note-taking, I find if I carry out a dialogue or conversation with the writer, rather than passively recording what the writer said, I can present my own voice, use my own reactions, as the basis of what I write later on. My own device is parentheses: I am reading something, taking notes, add a parenthesis: “This is nuts,” or “Greatest point I ever heard, but what about the other one three pages ago?” I am directly engaging the author with parentheses. And the parentheses mean I know that I am speaking. And then I run through the parenthetical notes and that becomes, in part, the argument. So the process of seven or eight years of taking notes produced my own reaction, which I used later on. You start at some point after maybe eight or twenty years trying to write something up, a first chapter.
Once again, the audience gasped. Waiting to write, then actually writing the book after eight or twenty years? He was, of course, writing all along, producing his running commentary, growing his analysis. But he waited and waited, holding back before he actually began the book itself. He seemed to follow the dictum put forth by another professor: “Don’t write until you see the whites of their eyes!”
There was more: after fifteen years, he had produced 1,100 manuscript pages, and his publisher told him it was unmanageably large. He needed to cut it. “So I spent fifteen years marching up the hill, and then another three years marching down. The book would not have seen the light of day had I not cut it by 30 percent or so. And the painful process of deleting words that took all those years to get on paper was pretty tough.”
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised by David Abernethy’s method of persistent incremental Talmud-like commentary or Mary Lou Roberts’s easygoing, effulgent free-writing. But I was taken aback by how very differently they and others worked, and how strong-willed and idiosyncratic they could be about their writing process.
What I learned from all of the conversations is that the unexpected is a given in all aspects of people’s writing and intellectual lives. Eric Roberts, a computer scientist, refuses to have a computer or even a TV at home; home is the place where he goes to read books, which line the walls. Eavan Boland, a celebrated Irish poet and director of Stanford’s creative writing program, devours high-tech magazines, and for relaxation she writes computer programs. So much for stereotypes.
I was surprised in so many other ways: some people described how much they hated writing (or how much they suffered to make words work right); others revealed hidden disabilities; still others provided powerful and sometimes strange insights. For example, English professor Terry Castle, author of The Apparitional Lesbian and The Professor, responded that she wrote “very neurotically.” As it turned out, a lot of faculty writers could say the same thing. But then she held up a sheet of paper with microscopic-looking scribbles—one of the sheets of paper on which she had written the first draft of her dissertation many years before. To my astonishment, the entire draft of her dissertation consisted of just seven such sheets, with tiny scrawls on both sides—the kind of writing someone would employ if they were copying the Bible on a grain of rice. She had little explanation for why she felt compelled to write in such “an imponderably tiny handwriting”—just that she had to write that way and that it worked for her. Then, in 1983, every professor at Stanford received a computer, and she left the world of Lilliputian script.
How We Write: The Varieties of Writing Experience can be ordered from Amazon: