A Mixed Bag

Posted: June 19th, 2014 under Craft, Life beyond writing.
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Surgery’s next Wednesday.   Good to know there’s only a 3%  chance of losing the vision in that eye, though as the person who’s benefitted from its vision (poor as it’s been sometimes) for 69 years, I could wish that % chance was lower.   I intend to spend even more time than usual in the next five days looking at things and maybe even photographing them.   However, life isn’t all about my eye, or even me…and though I’m in a writing gap right now (not only is it hard not to think about the surgery, but the eye in question is making it very clear its cataract is getting worse)   I am thinking about the craft of writing and the many ways writers try to bridge the gap between what we see in our heads, and what you get when you read what we wrote.

One of the reasons I’m thinking about that is the new computer, which allowed me to get back to websites that had become impossible with the old OS and out of date browser. …and one of those is Book Country, run by Penguin.   (Or, by Penguin/Random now that they’ve merged.)    A lot of people who want to write genre fiction go there looking for helpful hints on how to do it.   Because I’m a person with…um…some control issues I try hard to contain, this sometimes results in my wanting to reach through the intervening electronic space, grab someone by the ears, and give a good shake, until all the Wrong Stuff falls out of their head and there’s room for better ideas and quality knowledge.  This is arrogant and I know it, but sometimes one is unable to be perfect.  As in, oh, 99.9% of the time.   Robertson Davies, a Canadian writer I admire (from a distance–I think I’d have been uncomfortable around him) wrote in a book on reading and writing that if someone finds they can’t write, they should be grateful.   Writers, he said, are generally not as nice as most people, so if you can’t write, you’re probably nicer than writers, have more friends, and are easier to get along with.    I suspect I resemble that remark.   Then I ignore it.

So…what about craft?   What about talent?    Same old same old, in a way.   Writing anything is a skill that can be taught up to a point, and a skill set (the set varies a little with the kind of writing the writer wants to do–poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and categories within each)  that a writer develops by doing and failing and doing some more.  Lots more.  Lots more than I knew when I started (and I’m glad I didn’t know how much it took!!!)  and lots more than most people guess until they’re over the hump of their own ignorance.  As the craft develops, a writer can convey more–more accurately, more information–with fewer words, and can convey information that is different–feelings, not just facts.

At the low end, it’s the basic craft of conveying information using written words.    This is a  western diamondback rattlesnake.  Note the diamond shaped markings on the back, the black and white striped tail, and the narrow neck with a typical pit-viper head–wide at the back…(accompanied by a photograph or drawing.)   Two cups all-purpose flour, 2/3 cups cold lard or other solid shortening, 1 tablespoon ice-cold water.  Cut shortening into flour until lumps are pea-sized, add water drop by drop until it forms loose ball.  Too much water makes tough pastry.  Turn out on chilled lightly floured surface and roll  out to 1/4 inch thick…

To accomplish the transmission of information, the writer must know what it is that needs to be conveyed (field marks of a rattlesnake, a recipe for pie pastry),  arrange the ideas in the correct order for the purpose, then  use the right words, in the right order.    The basic structures for writing a field guide for snakes, or a recipe, or the directions for making a dress from a pattern, have been developed by trial and error, so at the (very important) low end of writing skills,  anyone with basic literacy can be taught to write this clearly and accurately. (No, this does not explain “directions” that leave things out.  That’s incompetence.)    Vocabulary can be taught, basic sentence structure can be taught, linear thinking can be taught, and the specific structure best for conveying the necessary information can be taught.    These are all skills; this kind of writing is a craft, which when done well makes life easier for those who read the books in which they occur.   Before videos (and especially YouTube) which could literally show how to do X,  those who did not have an teacher handy had to get the information from reading, and many people did just that.

But if you don’t happen to know that you would like to know something, you’re unlikely to read the book or article.  People who don’t think they need a cookbook don’t read a cookbook…until suddenly they’re caught by an exceptional cookbook writer who is funny, or exciting, or in some other way makes cooking their way unforgettable.  I liked to cook as a kid, but found cookbooks generally dull and too rigid.  Then I happened onto The Impoverished Student’s Guide to Cookery, Eatery, and Housekeepery.  The title caught my eye, as did the cover illustration (and the low price!) and suddenly there was a funny but very useful cookbook that suited my style of cooking (“a meat thing, a starch thing, a vegetable thing…”) and my understanding of student-level housekeeping–from  brick-and-board shelving to the use of old bedspreads to cover worn-out upholstery  on the only furniture you could afford.

So a step up from the very basic nonfiction “just the facts” level of writing craft is the one that shares personality with the reader.   Craft here consists not only of the right thoughts expressed in the right words in the right order, but projecting through the writer’s voice some emotional content that the reader finds a) attractive and b) useful.   The (b) part matters from here on out, as we go up the scale of craft towards art…because it’s easy to throw all of the writer’s self (the good, the bad, the ugly) into the work in a way that is not at all useful to the reader.    And for beginning writers it can be very hard (I know from experience!) to know when to quit with the personality stuff.  At the simpler level, all the writer has to prune away are the bits of knowledge that don’t belong in that form of informational writing (the complete life-cycle of a snake, extraneous to a field guide intended onto for identification, the benefits of a particular surface and rolling pin for pastry.)   But once the writer is allowed to put the writer’s own ideas, opinions, feelings into it…well, I’m sure you’ve read some works where this got out of hand, even in nonfiction.   I’ve read cookbooks–and seen cooking shows on TV–in which the writer/presenter spent as much time slamming another form of cooking as sharing why he/she loved the way he/she cooked.

For the fiction writer, the storyteller, this problem always exists, because no story is made up of simple factual information imparted to the reader.   Beginners tend to err on the side of fact-presentation to start with, although some fall right into revelatory overkill   As a child, when I wrote the first sentence of my first book,  the fortunately long-gone My Dog Tippy,  I made a typical beginner mistake.  “Tippy’s mother was named Tippy” and continued in the fact-listing way:  “Tippy’s mother was black and white.  Tippy was black and white.”  Ho, followed by hum.   A page and a half of careful printing in pencil later, I’d bored myself and stopped.

The equivalent for an older beginner is often an elaborate character description (and this is not a quote from any beginner’s work I’ve read, but a type of thing):   Sylvia had long, waving locks of tawny hair and piercing green eyes; she moved gracefully in her long plum-colored velvet gown.   When she smiled she had a dimple on her left check and her small, white, even teeth gleamed…    Gerald stood six feet two inches tall and had broad shoulders,  and slim hips, curly black hair, sparkling black eyes, and a strong-jawed face that revealed a manly character.   He always wore a sword and carried a dagger in his belt…  Sometimes this goes on for a page or more.   On the other hand (somewhat less common, in the beginner work I’ve seen, but common enough from those with strong political or religious opinions)  a work may start with a character description that’s really a rant about what the writer thinks of [choose your group target] that reveals far too much about the writer.   Just like every other Noklerian, the scrawny clerk at the passport desk was too lazy to look up with Cliff Mightyman entered.   That’s what comes of a political system in which everyone is guaranteed a job no matter how incompetent they are….  That’s author intrusion in a way that doesn’t help the reader–or the story.

Writing fiction requires the writer to both put himself/herself into it (can’t hide out just listing ingredients) but to control the amount of writer personality while at the same time creating characters with personality.  And yes, their personality exists only if the writer has some.  It is, as the movie Shakespeare in Love allowed characters to say repeatedly, a mystery.    So it’s harder to teach.  It’s harder to teach, because learning it requires the writer not to just pick up a new tool, but to change…to become a person who can set self aside, while letting self (or some of it) live in characters who then bring the writer’s voice to life.   Beginning writers do not expect to have to change themselves…they think of skills as tools you just pick up and start whacking away with.   As writers grow in their craft, as they read more and write more, they learn that the more their writing is true to themselves…the more their selves must grow,  must change.

To use my own first example, to write a real story, an interesting story,  about Tippy, I would have had to grow past what I understood of that dog, and that dog’s place in our family–understand why Tippy became my mother’s dog and not mine,  what my mother’s lifelong relationships with various dogs had been,  what in her genes made Tippy a ferocious hunter of opossums and other vermin,  why she reacted as she did to a particular cat, and then to a particular new dog (who was my dog and not my mother’s) and so on.  I would have had to grow out of the six-year-old and into an older writer.   To write the stories I tried to write in grade school, high school, and college, I had to grow (and did, though not enough) and expand both my knowledge and my understanding of people, cultures, the world as a whole, literature as  whole.  All my early stuff was derivative (nearly everyone’s early stuff is derivative and the stuff that isn’t is often unreadable) though I read so much, so widely, that it was difficult to see *exactly* what it was derivative of.

I had to learn to quit pushing stories around, let them go, follow them…not drag them around like a new best friend I hoped would make other people think I was important.  But the practice of writing–writing essays, writing long letters to friends, writing poetry and stories and everything that ran through my busy brain–helped along the way.   The bottom level of craft–the right words in the right order to convey some information accurately–was growing, providing a gradually wider and stronger foundation for what would come later.   The product (in fiction) was mostly worthless, but the practice was invaluable.   I understand it’s the same for musicians…and remembering my own attempts at piano, it was certainly true that first I played notes, and only played music later.  Same with singing, with dance, with all the crafts that might become art: first you do the exercises, learn the tools that can be taught, try and fail over and over and over…and then, when the tools, the movements, the handling of the skills becomes natural..then, if you’re lucky, if you were born with the right talents and have come in contact with the right masters of the craft and artists…then you may step past the point of craft into art.

Impatience can ruin it.  I was not a patient child (there’s a sequence of photographs my mother took when I was around two, of me trying to get the top off one of those little aluminum cans that 35mm rolls of film came in back then…smiling child trying to untwist the top…the glare when it wouldn’t come…the frown, the face clenched into a furious scowl,….and then the bright smile when it finally did come off.  But boy…no sign of patience there.)   Trying to skip the hard boring parts and get to “the good stuff”….trying to get published (or win awards or gain fame) before the skills are learned, practiced, engrained…leads to bigger failure than the many small failures endured by working through the process.   Which, for a writer means writing and writing and writing, preferably (I think) out of the public eye, for sheer love of storytelling, while writing crappy stories and less crappy stories and parts of stories and verse and plays and letters and rants…and while reading more and more and more, and living more and more and more.

So I read the questions over in the various spaces where I appear sometimes as a writer/teacher sort, and try to give responses that will help that person at that stage of his/her journey, and know (from my own background)  how unlikely it is that I’ll connect and do them any good.  Not for lack of wanting to.




  • Comment by Wickersham's Conscience — June 20, 2014 @ 12:11 am


    Amazing stuff. You’d be a terrific creative writing instructor, despite your claims of limited patience.

    Best wishes for a complication-free, wholly successful and uneventful cataract surgery.

  • Comment by Gareth — June 20, 2014 @ 3:29 am


    The impoverished student… wow – yes I remember that one – my brother had it and passed it on for me to read back in the 70s. Very good it was too! Haven’t seen it for ages though so sadly it may have got lost in a move.

  • Comment by Genko — June 20, 2014 @ 11:59 am


    It strikes me that the same thing is true in teaching. There’s a way that teaching is about establishing a relationship, and the temptation is to think it’s all personal, and the sharing of one’s personal story is important to the process. There’s some truth there, but it can go overboard. My personal story is really the most interesting to me, and may or may not have any relevance to anyone else. It has taken some time and mistakes for me to get a better sense of what makes sense to share and what doesn’t make sense, and I’m not sure I get it right all the time. But hopefully it keeps improving.

  • Comment by Annabel — June 20, 2014 @ 3:07 pm


    All good wishes for the surgery. A friend had hers done this week, and while she can’t see much yet, she is beginning to see how she is going to be able to, if that makes sense! Her doctors are very pleased with her. This time next week you’ll be seeing clearly, I’m quite sure.

    Interesting about the writing. I have always been able to write the way I speak (a gift, when it comes to writing sermons), but still find fiction almost impossible. I have done one or two little things, but nothing any good.

  • Comment by MaryW — June 20, 2014 @ 5:29 pm


    My cataract surgery was in 2012. My vision is now better than it was at age 14 when I took a baseball in one eye. It is difficult to describe what was missing but it is wonderful to see the shape and different colors of leaf. I think you will be surprised at how much brighter the world is. Your vision dims slowly as the cataract grows.

  • Comment by Walt S — June 20, 2014 @ 5:54 pm


    Thank you for creating Paksworld, and for sharing part of the creative process with us. I’ve followed Paks from Three Firs right through to Crown and have enjoyed every minute of it. I just discovered this blog from the link in the acknowledgements section.
    I am praying for a successful surgery. My mom had it done about 20 years ago and was able to see perfectly without glasses for the first time in her adult life. Technology has only improved since then, and I’m sure you’ll be glad you had it done.


  • Comment by elizabeth — June 21, 2014 @ 6:35 pm


    Genko: I think you’re right–but then, teaching is another thing that is a bag of skills that make it first a craft and then, for some, an art. And on the sharing thing…I think everyone gets it right sometimes and wrong sometimes.

  • Comment by elizabeth — June 21, 2014 @ 6:38 pm


    MaryW: I’m looking forward to the better vision everyone tells me about. It still won’t be glasses-free (astigmatism as well as myopia and presbyopia) but at least the disappearance of some things (where the cataract’s especially dense) will be gone.

    Annabel: I need to let my choir directors know that even assuming successful surgery, I may not be back right away because I may not see well enough to drive (or have the new glasses for a week or two.) From your friend’s experience, it may be days before the new vision settles in well enough to have a new prescription for glasses made, and then it’s another wait until they’re done.

  • Comment by Kathleen Hanrahan — June 21, 2014 @ 7:47 pm


    Best of luck on the cataract surgery.

    I had one done in 2012. What a difference in my vision! It was as if my glasses (eye?) had been cleaned after years of uck on them – so clear, crisp, and vibrant and without the yellow tinge.

    My surgery was done in the AM (around 8 or 9 AM). The eye was so dilated that it was still dilated the next day! My doctors didn’t give me a new prescription until a month (or so) after the surgery. I wore my (pre-surgery) glasses with one lens taken out in the interim.

  • Comment by pjm — June 22, 2014 @ 1:52 am


    I hope everything goes well for your surgery and recovery.

  • Comment by Ellen McLean — June 22, 2014 @ 8:44 am


    Prayers continue for your surgery and healing. May your new vision result in spotting new, delightful occupants of your pastures.

  • Comment by Linda — June 22, 2014 @ 11:18 am


    If I could, I’d send you a huge bouquet of the peonies, irises, and roses now blooming in my garden, even if you couldn’t see it very well, for the fragrance is delightful.

    I’m having to dig most of them up for work to be done on my house, and I have to remind myself that those which I don’t transplant to holding beds, or give to friends, will in the end have their places taken by other plants, and those offer the chance for marvelous surprises. I hope your operation gives you the chance to see things in new ways and to find them just as pleasant as an unexpected fragrance of formerly unknown flowers.

  • Comment by Naomi — June 22, 2014 @ 12:33 pm


    all the est for the surgery, Elizabeth and thanks for this snippet, very interesting!

  • Comment by MaryW — June 22, 2014 @ 9:40 pm


    My astigmatism was mild and correctable. I am also one of the 30-35% who can adapt to multi-focal lenses. After 50 years I do not need glasses. Most of those years glasses were only necessary for reading but that changed about 15 years ago. The lenses were the surgeon’s choice. My original expectation was that glasses would always be needed for reading.

    It was probably less stressful for me because the surgeon is a neighbor and he correctly diagnosed the cause of my severe headaches as acute angle glaucoma and was able to relieve the pressure with a relatively “simple” laser procedure. He was also comfortable using only local anesthetics. The procedure is over very quickly and I could read later the same day after removing a lens from my glasses. 2 weeks later when the second eye was done the glasses disappeared. I admit that I requested he do perform the surgery on my bad eye first. Trust but verify.

    I hope all goes well for you. No matter how many times you hear that every thing will be okay it is your eyes that are being operated on. Of course you are concerned. I have and aunt and grandmother who had retinitis pigmentosa and both had only peripheral vision left. It was amazing to be with them and see what they could do. They were amazing women. It helped me believe that I was lucky. It was only cataracts.

  • Comment by MaryW — June 22, 2014 @ 9:43 pm


    I still need to learn to proof read before posting. “do perform” should just be perform. It was much easier to ignore these errors when I really could not see them.

  • Comment by elizabeth — June 22, 2014 @ 9:59 pm


    Thanks, all, for your good wishes & prayers for successful surgery.

    I’ve worn some kind of corrective lenses since third grade–either glasses or contact lenses (the latter for about 15 years from age 15-30 or 31.) I have pretty solid astigmatism, and quite considerable myopia (less than thirty years ago, but nothing that’s likely to disappear in another thirty.) So glasses after surgery were pretty definitely in the cards. Apparently there are inserts that will correct myopia and astigmatism–but aren’t the dual-focal length kind–and ones that will correct myopia and give dual focal-length, but(again) can’t do all three things.

  • Comment by Nancy Whiting — June 23, 2014 @ 8:27 am


    So, yesterday, I was loading up a newly painted bookshelf in the dining room with cookbooks –and THERE was my copy of “The Impoverished Student’s Guide to …!”

    So I sat down and read it again. It IS fun–and I can see why I kept it.

  • Comment by Tuftears — June 23, 2014 @ 2:41 pm


    Good luck with the surgery! Crossing fingers that it is a pain-free experience.

  • Comment by Martin LaBar — June 23, 2014 @ 3:59 pm


    God’s best in this surgery. May He guide the surgeons, and you and your family, and comfort, and heal, and restore your sight. May He be glorified in this. In Christ’s name.

    Thanks for your musings, too.

  • Comment by Jeff — June 23, 2014 @ 8:52 pm


    Best of luck with the surgery.

  • Comment by Richard — June 24, 2014 @ 2:09 am


    Good fortune attend you.

  • Comment by Joyce — June 24, 2014 @ 6:13 am


    Praying for your surgery tomorrow. I have two close friends who have had this surgery in the last year. Both were somewhat fearful od it, both were amazed at how quick and easy the procedure was, both were delighted with the results and went eagerly to have the second eye done. “Oh, the colors!”, one said, “I didn’t realize that I couldn’t see colors anymore! How beautiful everything is!”

  • Comment by Iphinome — June 24, 2014 @ 7:01 am


    May the result be good, may the discomfort be minimal, may the healing be quick and may the force be with you.

  • Comment by Gareth — June 24, 2014 @ 9:16 am


    Best wishes for the surgery – its something I may have to have in a few years but for now they are not bad enough to need action.

  • Comment by elizabeth — June 24, 2014 @ 10:01 am


    Thanks again for the good wishes. I’m fortunate to be able to have the surgery before the cataract completely blocks vision in that eye. But for those of you looking toward the necessity for it…if you close your good eye and things disappear (cars, for instance, and traffic signals) it’s time to check with the eye doctor.

    I’m doing the day-before stuff today, though making slower progress than I should. I keep wanting to just LOOK at the yard, the land, etc. Today my glasses work; tomorrow, they won’t. Since I’ve been told I’ll still need corrective glasses, that means some blurry days ahead even with best possible outcome.

    No more shoving my glasses up on top of my head to fix knitting mistakes. But still. In earlier centuries I’d have been blind in another few years with nothing to do but learn to use a cane.

    Thanks again, all. Don’t expect to see a post from me tomorrow–I don’t know how long the sedative stuff will last, hence don’t know when I can be coherent at the computer. So not seeing one isn’t bad news…just no news because Writer is snoozing.

  • Comment by MaryElmore — June 24, 2014 @ 10:55 am


    God bless you and watch over you as you head in for surgery. I have not read in this blog for a week or so. I just read that you are having surgery. I will keep you in my thoughts and prayers.


  • Comment by Kathy_S — June 24, 2014 @ 6:58 pm


    All the best for tomorrow.

    I hope your results are like my Dad’s. He was heard to concede that newsprint quality hadn’t deteriorated after all….

  • Comment by Margaret Middleton — June 24, 2014 @ 7:46 pm


    I always enjoy your musings on the writing-craft, even though I am one of the few fen who does NOT have the writing-bug.

    Gordon Dickson was fond of saying that the book a writer tries to write is never quite the book that a reader reads; and that no two readers read the same book exactly the same.

    And on the subject of derivative writing, I had a bit of [Tom Lehrer’s?] “Lobachevsky” pop into my head: “Steal from one writer; is plagiarism. Steal from 50 writers; is RESEARCH!” There’s gotta be a parallel construction for style-copying!

  • Comment by Elizabeth — June 24, 2014 @ 10:37 pm


    I’ve just completed ‘Crown of Renewal.’ Thank you very much. I’m satisfied and happy, but sad that it’s the end. I’ve loved your people for so long.

    You should be seeing pretty well out of one eye now. Isn’t it amazing? I was horribly nearsighted and so glad when I finally got cataracts. Use your drops and don’t ever rub. It’s going to be wonderful for you to wake up and see without your glasses!

  • Comment by GinnyW — June 26, 2014 @ 7:07 pm


    Your cookbook comment brought back a fond memory of a low-budget cookbook I found in my later college years. True to its name, it only cost a dollar. The pastor’s wife who wrote it gave me two tremendous gifts: first, that shopping is a key part of the cooking process (you can’t cook what you haven’t got, and some things have very limited uses); second, that some things not only can use “left-overs”, but the recipe works better with them.

    Best wishes for the surgery and the readjustment to your new vision.

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