Friday, February 5, 2010

Of E.B., Natalie, and Me or Is That, I? - Guest Artist Holly Dietor

Of E.B., Natalie and Me, Or Is That, I?
[Holly Dietor]

Grab a beverage of choice and sit with me a spell.  Imagine that we're in a late afternoon sunlit classroom.  A classroom from our past.  One with a huge blackboard, or maybe yours is green, stretching across the front.  An alphabet chart creeps over top of that showing the correct form and direction to pen each letter in our lexicon.
Smell the chalk dust.  Smell the books on our library shelves.  Which one is your favorite?  Examine the few green plants that march on the top near the windows.  The smell of wax on the furniture.  Then there's the floor.  Look at it:  is it carpeted?  Or are we sitting in a classroom with one of those odd geometric patterns of linoleum or tile?

Okay, got it?  Are you sitting in a classroom again?  Great.  So now, let's pretend that I'm standing at the chalkboard.  While I talk with you, I push the long piece of chalk back and forth in my hand.  I walk about a bit.  We're talking about the craft of writing.

I ask, "Who likes writing?"  Only two hands raise.  Then I ask, "Okay, well, who really hates writing?"  Most, including me, raise our hands.  When you see my hand up, some of you start to chuckle.

"I know, it's crazy, isn't it?  Here I am talking to you about writing and I just admitted I hate it.  But, even though I'm very good at it, it doesn't mean that I like the process of it.  The difference between you and me is that I push myself past my natural resistance and just write.  I simply write."

You sit there considering that idea.  Then I share, "Look, a major reason you hate writing is what happened to you while sitting in class.  Let me give you an example."  I turn and write in big letters, "The sky is blue."

Turning back, I ask, "Can you all read that sentence?"  All heads nod in the affirmative.  Next I ask, "Can you understand it?"  Again, complete agreement.  Finally, I ask, "Can you all get a very clear picture in your mind when you read it?"  I watch as eyes shift focus to the internal process of conjuring a blue sky and I see heads nod, "yes".

"Okay," I continue.  "Now here's where you first started hating to write.  Because I promise you that when you wrote that perfectly clear, wonderful sentence in your composition, you got less than a good grade.  Your teacher, who was trying to teach you to expand your vocabulary, may have written, 'Not good enough!  What color blue is it?  What does it look like?  You didn't paint a clear picture!'  C+ ... And you so wanted an A.

From that point after, instead of writing clear, natural sentences to express yourself, you went for things like this:  "The stunning azure expanse rolled onward over my head in varying shades making my world a clear place of unimaginable beauty."  And your teacher swooned because she had taught you to finally use vocabulary and paint with words.  "A+!  I am so proud!"

And that, my friends, is how you learned to hate writing, because it became artificial and contrived and just too much effort to always attempt to be crafty instead of being clear and straight forward.  Writing became a form of unnatural communication.  So, yeah, thank your composition teacher for turning you from a natural writer into an individual who will do anything to avoid it.

And then there are all the rules.  Punctuation, syntax, tense .... crap!  Who can keep all the rules straight?  I certainly can't.  Unless you're a Grammarian, most of us can't or even care to!  Oh, no, I just ended that sentence in a preposition, didn't I?  Hide me; the Grammar Police are on their way.

Who needs all that pressure?  No wonder you think you don't like to write.  So let me liberate you; if you truly don't like to write - don't.  However, that's almost never the case.  For most, it isn't that we don't like to write; it's really about feeling not-good-enough.  Not worthy. Your inner child, who has lots of imagination and ability to spin a tale, has been relentlessly bashed by your inner-critic.  The story telling child has learned to sit down and shut up rather than be constantly picked at.

What a shame.

As a Public Relations & Copy Writing teacher, I was often struck by the irony that I was teaching others about the craft I resisted all my life.  As long as I can remember, my father said, "Holly, you're supposed to be a writer, a storyteller."  And I'd think, "No way!  So not exciting."  Yet, in my professional life, I was a writer in publications and magazines, an editor; and again I was struck, "How am I being paid to do this when I really don't like it and I'm not even certain I'm any good at it?"

Let me tell you a secret:  when I was uncertain of my worth as a writer it was because, in my mind, the only Real Writers were those who wrote books -- a novel, a biography, a history.  Yeah, only book writers, or journalists, or columnists were true writers.  Then, one day it occurred to me that I was being paid to write.  My stuff was being published in our publications.  People were reading it and responding to it.  In the classroom, I was instructing others how to debunk the process and break through their resistance.  Holy crap, I am a writer after all!

I am absolutely no different than you.  Can you do it, too?  Yes.  You can.  You should.  Who makes you thrill when you read their work?  Do you know why you respond to their particular voice?  Have you analyzed it?  Could you copy that style?  For me, it's E.B. White.  The guy who wrote Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little, and Trumpet of the Swan wasn't well received by the children's literature set at first.  Can you imagine that?  Even the most brilliant can be met with cool reserve.

I didn't read his children's classics until I was an adult.  Nope, for me it was the essays that White wrote for The New Yorker Magazine.  He is, also, the voice behind The Elements of Style, which in my opinion is the best text for learning the nuts and bolts of writing.

White had a flow and easy way with words that makes me feel as though I am sitting and talking with him instead of reading lines and squiggles on a page.  He always paints a clear picture.  He evokes emotion without playing on my emotions.  I find myself often nodding, "Exactly," and "That's absolutely correct; I wish I had thought to say it that way!  It's brilliant in its simplicity." 

To be a good writer, you must be a keen observer of the Human condition as well as be willing to share your humanity with others.  E.B. White taught me that no topic is boring so long as it is of genuine interest enough to be written.  No Human Being is without a story, but so few are asked to share it.  Color is where you find it.  Any experience well penned can be worthy of reading.

Writing doesn't need to be forced or contrived.  And, if you tell a story in a straightforward manner, the truth rings out.  By avoiding the maudlin, you won't have the embarrassment of reading your work years later and cringing at the melodrama.  You'll never whisper with your face growing red and a hand over your eyes, "Gawd, what was I thinking when I wrote that tripe?"  If you want an example, go back and read some of your diary from when you were a teenager ... you'll know exactly what I mean!

Twenty years ago, Natalie Goldberg came along and when I read her now-classic Writing Down the Bones, I knew that if I was ever asked to attempt to teach others, it would be the text, because she frees one from the tyranny of the classroom and gives hope that one can write.  But it all starts with putting a pen to paper, or fingers on a key board.  If you want to write, you have to pick up the pen.

After lots of years, I've become comfortable with my talent and see it as my particular gift.  I stopped hoping to be gifted in other areas in lieu of being a writer.  I always wanted to be an artist, but it's not my path.  I wanted to be a musician, but I don't have what it takes to become one.  I wanted to be a singer, and although I have a pleasant voice, I'm not special.  I wanted to be a photographer, but that's not my gift either.  I am somewhat good at any of those things, but I am GIFTED with words and expressing myself with them.

You may not be as gifted with the writing muse but she shuns no one who wishes to be her voice!  I promise that you can and should express yourself in the written format.  Do it for yourself, if for no other reason than to leave a permanent record of your footprint in this ephemeral lifetime. 

So with that, let me give you Holly's rules for writing:

> Always write in present tense.  When we write, we have a tendency to write as though we're recording what has already happened, past tense.  However, that makes us witnesses to events instead of participating in the story as it unfolds.  Past tense writing is passive; present tense writing has more energy because it is active.

>Write for the ear whenever possible.  Write the way we speak unless, of course, you're writing a textbook or some formal piece.  Even then, bend the rules so the tone is more user-friendly.  Don't ever use shall/shall not unless God has asked you to expand The Ten Commandments on His behalf.

> Learn the rules of grammar, but don't live and die by them.  You have to know the rules and know when you need to break them.  Don't hesitate to break them if it's the best way to tell the tale.  Oh, and stop using your lack of familiarity with them as the excuse for why you don't write.

> Do not pepper your work with exclamations.  Only three exclamation marks in any story, please.  If everything is emphatic, which is the reason for an exclamation mark, then nothing is emphatic.

> Write in straightforward, clear, declarative sentences.  Don't try to impress me with your vocabulary.  If the sky is blue, tell me that, allowing me to see the blue sky with which I'm most familiar.  Don't force me to see you as Webster's dictionary instead of a storyteller.

> Grammar and language are living entities.  That means they can be changed and the rules can be modified.

> You can write or you can edit; you CANNOT do them simultaneously.  Different parts of your brain are engaged in those processes.  When you write, you are creating.  When you edit, you are refining and that takes a different skill.  So write until you're done.  THEN edit.

> Let your writing get cold.  Meaning:  write and then don't look at it again until 24 hours or longer have passed.  Why?  Your eyes and brain will see the words as new and find the errors or the places that need modification.  So learn to use the 24-Hour Rule.

> Do not write to make me feel.  That's not your job.  Your job is to tell me the tale in such a pure, clean, clear, true way from your perspective that I have no choice but to relate or share your experience.  Take me along with you in the telling and I promise, if you do, I will feel.  And you will be a success.

> Final Rule ... just write.  Write.  Write.  Write for yourself and don't worry about who might be reading it.  When we do something from a place of love, the ears that need to hear the love will be drawn to it.

And with that, class dismissed.  Go write now!

Namaste 'Til Next Time,

To enjoy more of Holly's thoughts, essays, humor and wisdom,
visit her blog at Your Mother Knows But Won't Tell You



  1. Well Holly this explains to me why I adore your writing so very much. I do, but you know this already though my friend!
    I see several of your rules that I break on a regular basis..but then I tend to color outside the lines a lot. Although the exclamation points are something I have been watching more and the other ideas I find give me some things to consider.
    I am curious to know - yes am asking - what you think of my writing? I pretty much Let Fly without a real editor in my head and often not at the end either. Of course, I do check it a bit for grammar and spelling as I am the worst speller ever!
    Beautifuly written, delightfully informative..I want to take a class with you now and I need to talk about this. Wonderful article..may I copy and save it? LOL almost put three question marks in there..geesh!
    Hugs and love and this was amazing, Sarah

  2. sorry....maybe I'll be back when I have more time to read :)

  3. Yes, you can copy and save any of my stuff...but Toni, please let Sarah know if it's all right with you.

    Sarah, your writing is like visiting with you. Homey, comforting, supportive, nurturing. I find these qualities best represented in the Quilting Bee's in those that I can see you really putting your thoughts out there, and then before you do, taking time to carefully edit your work.

    Sometimes, I find your writing to be scattered and disjointed. But, it's generally when you're feeling uncertain about a topic. Your writing sounds as though you're thinking out loud. And, I find nothing wrong with that because, for most of us, that's what our blogs are...a forum for pondering out loud.

    The bigger question you should be asking is: What does Sarah think of her writing?

    Love To You,

  4. Sarah --

    Thanks for asking; Holly says YES and so do I! That's what I want this blog to do for whomever visits -- be useful and helpful and inspirational!


  5. Wow, Holly! That was a very encouraging and informative lesson. I'm so glad I had the opportunity to read it. I wish you would read a few of my posts and give me a little critique. You make a great writing teacher.

  6. Holly, you never cease to amaze me! What a fabulous post that speaks volumes to me. And I think it will to many others-- Like Godson's teacher who I'm sending this link to. Maybe he'll read your words and give the poor kid a break.

    LOVE your rules too. I'm going to bookmark this page and reread it every few weeks since I am guilty of some of them and it makes perfect sense to correct my bad habits.

    I know for sure that I would have loved to be a student in one of you writing classes. I would be a far better writer if I was.

    Love and Holly and a million thanks to Toni for her great choice in guest bloggers.

    Happy weekend to you both.

  7. Oh Holly! How I wish you had been my teacher so many years ago! I strayed away from writing as I pursued drawing. Got the same attitude about my artwork. As I got older, and could not draw as much (physical limitation) I turned to writing. But for years, I got hung up on following the rules of grammar and perfection. I believed I could not write because it was wrong. I just like Sarah, have always wanted a critique by you, but I also like your answer to her. It's what I think.
    And today, I think I need to learn to practice the 24 hour rule.
    Thank you Holly for the post and YES! Now I have a new blog to follow!

  8. That was cool, I'm printing the post out so to help me when it's time to record the minutes to the department meetings at Towson U. In fact, today's meeting was cancelled due to the weather, lucky me, I thought!!!

    Interesting post, take care ladies.....

  9. I loved the whole article. Very informative , and well thought out, that must be why sho are such an amazing writer.

  10. Holly, what a wonderful post. I chuckled at the exclamation points of only 3. Boy am I wrong. I am going to bookmark this page too. I am always up for learning new things, although I admit openly that I am no writer!It was very interesting. thanks to Toni for having you here. Take care to both of you.

  11. What a wonderful article, Holly1 It is so informative, in a friendly, straight forward way that lets me use my imagination.

    I laugh when you describe the English Comp teachers, because that was each of mine, to a "T". Especially Miss Brittenbach. She had to be in her 70's, which seemed SO old at the time, and the more flowery the language, the higher your grade. I would sometimes lose all train of thought in those strings of adjectives, but I received A+'s all year. I felt like I was selling my soul.

    Thank you Toni, and thank you Holly for sharing the wisdom of your Gift. It was an exceptionally insightful and beneficial post. I took copious notes!

    Hugs to you both!

  12. Ahhhh the smell of chalk dust in the morning.

    Holly, I loved this piece. It's brilliant. And it reminds me why I love to string words together. I am not a rules follower. I love run-on sentences. I love abbreviated sentences. I love non-sentences. I love to misuse all the standards of grammar and syntax. I love to toy with structure and make up words. That is what fulfills me. Rules are for learning. Non-rules are for writing.

    Love you my Queen.

  13. Hmmm I enjoy writing and feels like it is disjointed from time to good call. I do love writing and would like to expand to better work. Thank you for your input hon...And thank you Toni for the wonderful blog and chance to see Holly shine!!
    Hugs, Sarah


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