How We Write:
The Varieties of Writing Experience
By Hilton Obenzinger
The How I Write Project at Stanford, CreateSpace, 2015
Meredith Sue Willis’s Books for Readers # 183
March 28, 2016
One of the things I’ve read since the last issue is a wonderful book about writing, How We Write: The Varieties of Writing Experience by Hilton Obenzinger. This is based on many years of Obenzinger’s interviews with people through the “How I Write” Project at Stanford University. I had assumed that this would be interesting comments from poets and fiction writers on their process, and indeed they appear in the book.
I especially enjoyed a wonderful passage about David Henry Hwang’s process of structuring his famous play M. Butterfly– how an idea took form as a drama.
But perhaps what I liked best here were the other writers–the scholars and professors. Writing is– why don’t we think more about this?– an essential part of many, many professions. For scholars, as for so-called creative writers, a great deal is explored and discovered in the process of writing. Included here are writers from the social sciences, but also from the hard sciences, in which visuals like graphs and charts become the backbone of an article, and words are mostly used to link the parts. Data, in other words, is the structuring element of the piece of writing.
How We Write also has, along with excellent examples of the great variety of processes of writing among various people, an interesting subplot, as it were, about the tensions for scholars between writing articles acceptable to the scientific world of journals and other scholars and the desire to share their insights and writing with lay people.
There is, according to several of these writers, a danger of being “Saganized,” which is having your career taken less than seriously in your profession (as apparently happened to astronomer Carl Sagan) if you become a popularizer. Claude Steele, who named “stereotype anxiety” (the destructive socio-psychological force that can trammel members of racial and gender minorities), talks well about the division between the experiments and research in his work and how he gets his work out to the public.
Generally, Obenzinger himself takes a back seat here, featuring his admirable and delightful guests at what must have been a terrific series of live interviews. He is himself, of course, an accomplished and excellent writer (see my review of his memoir Busy Dying ), and there are a number of hints of techniques he has developed in his teaching of writing to all kinds of students, including a passage on editing out over-used words that is really about how the over-used words are part of the process of thinking through writing.
This is an exciting and useful book for teachers of writing and anyone who writes. You’ll dip into it often to refresh your thoughts about one of the most deeply human ways of exploring and sharing experience.
My curiosity about the methods of other writers never ends. This volume provides a precious insight into the creative process of an incredibly diverse group of authors. If you have thoughts of putting pen to paper, Obenzinger’s lovely book belongs on your shelf.
—Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone, My Own Country, and The Tennis Partner, and Professor for the Theory and Practice of Medicine at Stanford University Medical School
How We Write unravels the mysteries of how we write with grace, wit, humor, and perfect pitch. Filled with insights into the writing process that are surprising, eloquent, riveting—and remarkably useful, this unique, beautifully written book bubbles with ideas and inspiration that have real practical value. Hilton Obenzinger’s investigation of the varieties of a practice that can be solitary or social—and a source of pleasure or pain—is simultaneously charming, poignant, playful, and profound. It is also a delight to read.
—Shelley Fisher Fishkin, author of Lighting Out for the Territory: Reflections on Mark Twain and American Culture and Writing America: Literary Landmarks from Walden Pond to Wounded Knee. Joseph S. Atha Professor of Humanities, Professor of English, and Director of American Studies, Stanford University
We had a notion [in college] that engineers had to know how to use slide rules or calculators or computers but not how to write. And that is the biggest falsehood you could possibly perpetrate on young people. I think writing and rhetoric (public speaking) are the two most valuable skills across any discipline in any field.
—John Hennessy, President, Stanford University, from his “How I Write” conversation