Annotation as Writing Teacher

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Commonplace Book

You probably have at least one favorite writer that you read a lot because you love something about her or his style, voice, use of language or details, a crazy-good sense of place, whatever.

Among others, I love Lydia Davis’ work. I love the wry voice, the terse writing style in her collected Stories. Some of them are a single sentence in length. One of the first things I noticed is that she avoids the use of dialogue.

I just bought a copy of her newest, Can’t and Won’t. I also have a copy of Peter Turchi’s “Reading Like a Writer: A Guide to Annotations” one of my grad school instructors handed out (I can’t recommend this resource highly enough–it’s still free online).

I never knew what the hell annotations were other than comments in the margins or footnotes to expand and explain text in a book. I looked at the handout and scratched my head. I wasn’t at all clear about what to do with all this information. Enter the commonplace book. I had no idea what a commonplace book was until just a few weeks ago. How could I go through an MFA program and never hear about commonplace books? Rhetorical question. If you’re reading this and already have one of these tools, good for you. But if you’re not familiar with them, read on.

What’s a commonplace book?

A commonplace book is where you collect other people’s words. Some people leave it strictly at that. Others will include their response to the things they quote, perhaps a reason for including it, or any questions it might make them ask. I’m with the latter group. I wouldn’t want to collect passages merely for the sake of collecting, because while it might make sense at the time, I may not remember five years later why it was important. {source}

[Further recommended reading: Marks in the Margin labeled "Commonplace Books"]

Personally, I find such a book perfect for a writer who wants to improve her writing. For example. Take Lydia Davis’ three-paragraph story, “Idea for a Sign.” The first and second paragraphs explain the use of the third as an example of a sign she suggests making to alert other passengers on a train about our habits as we ride a train. The third paragraph, about two pages long, warns us about her habits and makes heavy use of semi-colons (personally, I avoid semi-colons whenever possible, but that’s the topic of another post):

….may do nothing but read a book through most of the trip, except for one walk down the aisle to the restroom and back seat; but, on another day, may put the book down every few minutes, take a small notebook out of my purse, remove the rubber band from around it, and make a note in the notebook; or, when reading through a back issue of a literary magazine, may rip pages out in order to save them, thought I will try to do this only when train is stopped at a station….

Davis rarely includes the first person pronoun and omits words in favor of brevity. The tone is about as dry as it gets. No flowery or wordy language here. No modifiers. Best of all, she’s pulled out some kind of weird future conditional tense for this story. What’s your tense repertoire? Present? Past? Maybe a little future here and there?

But you could study any technique, device, or element in any writing–short stories, novels, novella, chapter, excerpt, poetry, non-fiction–using annotations. Whatever gives you trouble in your own writing, whatever writing you come across in your reading that puzzles you, something you’ve held back trying to do, things you gloss over in your writing that you see need more attention, whenever you stop and explore for yourself how a writer achieved the effect.

So you could make your own book to record annotations. Keep it with you as you read. Copy passages and study them. Make lots of notes for yourself for future reference. Annotating other writers’ work (or deconstructing your own) goes beyond reading for pleasure. It’s all about reading as a writer, and it can teach you more than any craft book or instructor because it’s tailored to your own particular needs.





What Scares You?



“Nightmares” by Manuel Estheim

The received advice from on high has long been, Write what you know, or  some variation of that advice: Write what you don’t know. Or, write what you want to know.

But let’s get real. It’s a hazy concept for most beginning writers. Even for those past the beginning stage. For one thing, we don’t always know what we know. We don’t always know what we don’t know. Or as Donald Rumsfeld once put it so intelligibly,

Reports that say there’s — that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things that we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

At any rate, I think there’s another way to enter the writing. How about this: How about write what you’re afraid of? Or write about what haunts you. What keeps you awake at night while everyone else is asleep? What are you avoiding? Dig down into the hard stuff that people pay good money to get rid of in therapy. Okay, you might not even know what you’re afraid of. But you have to admit, fear is a powerful motivator.

I’m not talking about inventing radioactive monsters or cops who moonlight as chain-saw murderers (although horror writers do have a place on the bookshelf). I’m talking about garden-variety fiction focused on real stuff you’d rather not look at. The dark corners of your childhood. The edges of your so-called sane life, the scary stuff you’ve been avoiding or pushed into the closet with all the other scary stuff. Images you can’t explain, but they stay with you and transform themselves into other things.

You take that stuff and push it as far as you can take it. Be surreal. Go with humor noir. Or not. But dive into the layers of your character’s psyche. Because that’s where the truly good stuff is. That’s the material that will outlive you.



Follow Your Obsessions

The harsh reality is that we sell out, thinking we must drop our integrity, our visions, our chaotic dreams. In this digital age, it’s nearly impossible to hold on to your own visions, nearly impossible not to conform to logic’s pressure and a culture of rational materialism.  The financialization and commodification of everything has made us all desperate whores in a highly competitive market. Go lock yourself away in a dim and quiet space and, like a flock of caged birds, set free your obsessions across the page.