Sabbatical Notes From Underground: Writing with Power

powerPart of my sabbatical plan was also to read Peter Elbow’s cookbook, which my brother Karl told me years ago was the best book about writing he ever read. Granted, it may have been the only book about writing he ever read, but he was an English major before he went to seminary, so maybe he read others. It is a good book. I’m thinking about having my students buy it.

Did I say cookbook? I did, and that’s Elbow’s own metaphor for what he’s written here. Sitting down to read it straight through is a little like sitting down to read…

a cookbook.

As much as the reading could be tedious, I really like Elbow’s advice to writers. I’ve tried out a few recipes. They’re practical, various, and never the last word. Like he says in the end, “The precondition for writing well is being able to write badly and to write when you’re not in the mood,” (373) (which is my mood right now, but look at me go). Just sit down and write, ya morons!

He says a lot more, so here’s a smattering:


on Power

  • Power means the power to make a difference, to make a dent. (280)
  • “you want the power of the Ancient Mariner to transfix readers and make them hear what they don’t want to hear and give them an experience they didn’t set out to have” (280)

on Meaning

  • Meanings are in readers, not in words”You must walk up to readers and say, “´┐ŻLet’s go for a ride. You pedal. I’ll steer.”? (315)

on Motivation

  • We are often told to drive defensively; assume that there’s a driver you don’t notice who is careless or drunk and my kill you. Good advice for driving, but not for writing. (xix)
  • How can I get myself to put in the daunting time and effort I need for more consistent good results? The answer, I think, is to cheat — to look for pleasure and shortcuts. (xxi)

on separating Creation from Criticism

  • Writing calls on two skills that are so different that they usually conflict with each other: creating and criticizing. (7)
  • I’m arguing that we can make a better plan if we plan for nonplanning; we can write better if we build in periods where we remove goals from our mind; we can meet the needs of readers better if we sometimes put readers of out mind — especially at early stages. (xii)

on freewriting (Creation)

  • The goal of freewriting is in the process, not the product. (13)
  • Write fast”.If you can’t say it the way you want to say it, say it the wrong way. (27)
  • Who hasn’t had the dismal experience”of sitting there trying to transform one uninteresting thought into an architecture of Roman numerals, capital letters, Arabic numerals, and small letters. (40)
  • …don’t be held back by lack of data. You are mind stretching, not trying to be sure. (80)

on revision (Criticism)

  • You shouldn’t start revising till you have more good stuff than you can use. (10)
  • Now you should read through this draft as a reader. The best way to do this is to read your draft out loud” (36)
  • When it comes to words, ideas, feelings, and insights, there is plenty more where that came from. The more you use and throw away, the more you have available. (126)

on Grammar and Usage

  • I hate following rules. Nevertheless, the important question is not “Should I follow rules?”? The important question is, “Do these rules help me write?”? (xxvi)

on Argument

  • Try hard to find good arguments for your position, but then try even harder to find arguments to refute yours. (201)
  • The best you can hope for — and it is hoping for a great deal — is to get your readers just to understand your point of view even while not changing theirs in the slightest. (203)

on Audience

  • Teachers are not the real audience. You don’t write to teachers, you write for them. (220)

on Feedback

  • When you get conflicting reactions, block your impulse to figure out which reactions are right. Eat like an owl; take in everything and trust your innards to digest what’s useful and discard what’s not. (264)

on Voice

  • “the attainment of real voice is a matter of growth and development rather than mere learning. (302)

Perhaps he says it best in his final chapter about the intangible magic of the written word when he writes, “Use the truth whenever possible. Real events. Real names. In addition, however, practice lying whenever possible.” (370)

Any questions?

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1 Response to Sabbatical Notes From Underground: Writing with Power

  1. Sarah says:

    Take in feedback like an owl!!! I love it. Some of those bones can be hard to swallow, and that’s not the end of the difficulty…

    I’m going through an oldie (c. 1983) by Gabriele Lusser Rico titled “Writing the Natural Way.” I think that the ideas of clustering and word webs were derived (aka bastardized) from this book. Dunno, but the exercises are helpful and provoking.

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