“So what I do now is essentially help students escape from their education. That's my enterprise every year. And it's always fun, because they escape quite readily. They all know that what they're making in their classes is an artificial product that doesn't actually have any particular interest for anyone except them.” – Verlyn Klinkenborg
In this episode of Outliers, I’m talking with Verlyn Klinkenborg about what he’s learned from years of farm life, his reading habits, and why writing simply can be so difficult.
Verlyn Klinkenborg is the author of six books, including The Last Fine Time, winner of the American Book Award, and The Rural Life, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. He was a member of the editorial board of The New York Times for 16 years, where he published a regular column on rural life. His articles have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, Esquire, National Geographic, and Mother Jones. He has taught literature and creative writing at Fordham University, Bard College, Harvard University, and most recently at Yale University.
- 00:00:35 – Rural life and the “home place”
- 00:03:56 – Raising animals and eating meat
- 00:09:20 – Learnings from farm life and work
- 00:13.48 – Verlyn’s reading habits
- 00:19:51 – Physical vs. digital books
- 00:26:53 – Verlyn’s book Several Short Sentences About Writing
- 00:33:01 – What is academic prose?
- 00:38:21 – Why people should use shorter sentences in writing
- 00:42:56 – Finding rhythm in writing
- 00:47:01 – Self authorization and noticing the world around you
- 00:53:38 – Writing cliches that are untrue
- 00:58:16 – What to expect from a class with Verlyn
- 01:04:56 – Writing is rooted in experience more than language
Links from the Episode
- Connect with Verlyn: LinkedIn
- Verlyn Klinkenborg |Wikipedia
- Verlyn Klinkenborg | Yale University
- 'Rural Life' Adds Natural Color To 'The Grey Lady' | NPR
- Quarter horses
- Hudson Valley
- Pig Earth: Book One of the Into Their Labours Trilogy by John Berger
- Harvard University
- Buck Brannaman, American horseman
- Ray Hunt, American horseman
- Jane Austen
- Yale University
- The Morgan Library & Museum (formerly the Pierpont Morgan Library)
- Erle Stanley Gardner
- Fathoms: The World in the Whale by Rebecca Giggs
- Selected Writings: Charles Lamb
- The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of John Milton
- William Cobbett
- Benjamin Franklin
- Fordham University
- Yale School of the Environment
- Academic prose
- Wall Street Journal
- King James Bible of 1611
- Jerry Seinfeld
- Joan Didion
- John McPhee
- Thick: And Other Essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom
Verlyn Klinkenborg’s books:
- The Rural Life (2004)
- The Last Fine Time (2004)
- Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptile: A Novel (2007)
- Several Short Sentences About Writing (2013)
- More Scenes from the Rural Life (2013)
- Making Hay (2018)
A selection of Verlyn Klinkenborg’s articles:
- All editorials in The New York Times
- All articles in The American Scholar
- All articles in The New Yorker
- Books to Have and to Hold |The New York Times
Make Reading Work for You
Verlyn explains that reading can be episodic. There are periods when you might read a lot, and those when you may not read at all, and both are okay. You don’t have to finish every book that you start, and you don’t have to read only one book at a time—you can have several books going at any time and read based on the nature of your attention. While physical books tend to be better designed for a great reading experience, digital books have the added benefit of a global search, allowing you to look up any word or concept you’re unfamiliar with. There is no right or wrong way to read; so do whatever works for you and keeps you reading.
A Few Tips on Writing
In Verlyn’s creative writing courses, he strives to help students unlearn what they’ve been taught about writing. Many students start with what he dubs “insincere writing”—assignments with a given word count on topics they aren’t interested in. Writers are often sold into academic prose, with long sentences, lots of clauses and dependent phrases, and anxieties about transition between sentences. As Verlyn says, “In this country, the assumption is the longer the sentence is, the smarter you are. As you grow older, you begin to emulate the sound of your professors more, and more, and more. But what if your professors can't actually write, which most of them can't? What if most of them are afraid of writing, which most of them are?”
To get past this, writers can:
- Remove the need for formality and academic prose. Without the anxiety of these rules and strict formats, writers can actually reveal their own authentic voices. If a writer sounds relaxed, confident, and interested, and they engage the reader, they create just as much sense of authority on a topic as formal writing would.
- Use short sentences. It allows you to control the language and keep a sense of rhythm to the writing.
- Read your writing aloud. This helps ensure that you are writing for the reader, and that you’re aware of any clunkiness or lengthy sentences.
Write about what interests you. Verlyn notes, “What you notice is important, and it's important because you noticed it. What if you pay attention to the pattern of the way you notice the world around you? What if you pay attention to the perceptions that you have and the character of them, and trust their validity?”
Verlyn, I have been looking forward to this interview for weeks. Thank you so much for your time and welcome to Outliers.
It's a pleasure to be here.
So I wanted to start with a little bit of a tangent, but the things I was excited to cover today is you've done a lot of writing about farm life. And I want to try to get some of that wisdom. And then I want to talk a little bit about reading as well as writing. And specifically with writing about your book, Several Short Sentences about Writing. But just quickly on the farm life piece, one of the things that you talk about in some of your pieces is the home place, which sounds like it has a lot of significance. Can you share a little bit of the story there?
Well, it's a complicated story in a way, because the home place tends to mean the home farm, which was my grandfather's farm in Northwestern, Iowa. It's where my dad grew up. And I spent a lot of time there when I was a kid. Visiting cousins, hanging out, being a nuisance because I was a town kid and didn't know anything about animals or tractors, that sort of stuff. But it's like most of the things that have happened in American agriculture, the home place feels very distant and remote now because the landscape around it has changed so much. The nature of farming has changed immensely since I knew it when I was a kid. So in a sense, that deeply nostalgic sense of the countryside that feels so important when people think about rural America is mythic in a way. It's there for people as old as me, but it's astonishing how radically it changed after about the mid-'90s when genetically modified crops came in. So I can say that I'm one of those people who lives in what I've always thought of as a dislocated landscape. I lived in the East Coast in the Taconic Range, North of New York City. And it's beautiful, absolutely lovely place. But I think I'm much more of a Mediterranean personality in a way. So we built a house a couple of years ago that really would just look perfect on the coast of California somewhere.
Is that a lot of glass and wood?
A lot of glass in wood. And actually, kind of a big courtyard at the center that faces south. So it's like there's a terrarium in the center of the house. There's so little light in so much of the year here that we have to do everything we can to capture it. It's not like Colorado where you can be sort of blasted out of your house by the sun shining down.
Oh yeah. The intensity of the sun in Colorado, I think it takes a lot of people by surprise. And you live on if I have my facts, correct, you live on a farm in Upstate New York. Can you talk a little bit about that farm?
Well, it's the second farm. The one I wrote about most of the time for the New York Times and all the stuff I've written about animals was a very tiny farm, four acres, about nine miles east of here. And very rocky, very ledge-y, rolling, hard to do much there except grow some grass for horses to graze on. After I left the times and after I remarried, it just felt like it was really a time to do something different. So we moved to a much, much bigger, we're on 53 acres of grassland and forest over here. And we run it really more as a butterfly preserve than anything else. We don't have animals. The soil is heavy clay, and it would require a lot of fencing. And I spent 20 years with pigs and chickens and horses, and I loved every minute of it. But also, it's nice to be able to take a break from it too.
Yeah, it's a tremendous amount of work to keep up especially something like 50 plus acres. So on the farm that you used to have, how many animals would you have there typically and what kinds of.
[inaudible 00:03:14] there were three horses, four horses. And the number of chickens depend on the number of predators. So at our peak, it was probably 24. And every summer for about six summers, I would have a couple of pigs come in May, early June about 30 pounds and leave metaphorically, at about 280 pounds in September, October. And it was a chance to get to know something that my cousins all knew, which is what's the life cycle of a farm animal? What does it mean to actually eat the meat that you produce? What is it actually like to eat meat where you know everything the animal has ingested, and you've been responsible for its welfare? It was a lovely experience, I have to say.
Just that last point you were making there, that definitely seems profound to me. I will eat pork, I'll eat bacon, I'll have an occasional burger. And it's always struck me that clearly in most of America, we are so detached from the process of what it was like to raise these animals and where they spent their time. What is it like when you actually helped raise that animal? What do you take away from that experience?
It's especially weird, because you get to know each animal quite individually, even the chickens, which most people think of as not being quite that separate as animals in a way. And you become fond of them naturally. And the pigs, it was important to build a friendship with them because it's hard to be in a pen with a 250 pound animal. It's very rambunctious. It's very powerful if it doesn't trust you, know you. So there was always a really tremendous emotional shock, of course, when it was time to butcher them. And we did it on the farm. We had a guy who was very skilled come to the farm. And people don't like it when I talk about it, but they killed the pigs right there where they had lived. So they never got hauled and anywhere, they never had a moment of tension before that. And the course cutting, the basic butchering was done there. And then they were taken off to be finished cut elsewhere. But it meant that they lived lives with as little stress as a pig could have. And if you've seen pigs in the stress, you know that it's not something you ever want to see again.
So it was really very much for their welfare. And the only reason we changed, we stopped doing it was because at first, it was just hard to find anybody doing anything like this up here in the Hudson Valley. And suddenly over the last 20 years, we're surrounded now by little farms where you can go out and buy pasture raised pork and locally raised chickens, and all that sort of stuff. This has always been a sort of farm to table neighborhood in a way, but it's really expanded so much over the last 15 or 20 years. It's just unreal.
I'm guessing part of that too is there would be an extra element of gratitude because you know so much more about the animal. Does it affect at all what it was like to eat the animal?
It's funny because I've often thought about writing an essay about this. When a horse dies, it's always a tragedy. I mean, it's just a terribly sad, horrible thing. And when a pig dies, it's tragic too, until the butchering gets to a certain point and then it becomes a comedy. Because suddenly there's all this food and the winner is fat. And there's sausage being made, and there is all sorts of stuff going on that really changes your sense of the beneficence of the pig essentially, what they're giving to you in a way. The part I regret about it is that I don't live in a culture that actually understands the ceremonial nature of this. If you live in the South, if you live in South Carolina, Georgia, North Carolina, there are plenty of places where a pig butchering is a communal, collective event.
And if you live in villages in France, John Berger has a wonderful essay about this. What it's like when a rural French village comes together to butcher a pig. And what we don't see is that everyone is involved and that everything that's going to be made out of that pig is made in that one day. In the morning, there is no pig, or there is a pig. In the afternoon, there is no pig. But there's sausage, and there's bacon. And there's all this stuff that's being salted and stuff in the freezer. And with it, there's this tremendous sense of community, which the pig has participated in.
I had no idea about some of those communal gatherings. I need to look at that essay. I want to ask two more questions as it relates to just your experience. Part of it, I'm sure is shaped by growing up with kind of a deep sense of place on a farm. And then obviously spending time there throughout your life. But I guess one of those is just, what do you think it is? So clearly, much of your writing has revolved around observations of life on a farm. And I think that one, that's typically not something that's covered. And two, I find a lot of those essays and observations just really moving and really connecting. What struck you about it and made you want to write about it, made you fascinated with it?
When I first left New York to come up here to live 30 years ago now, it wasn't about farming at all. It was really just I wanted to live in a place if time was going to pass in my life as inevitably it would, I wanted to watch it filtered through nature. I didn't want to be in a city where I knew the years were passing just because the buildings got torn down, the restaurants that opened and closed, that sort of thing. I wanted to watch the seasonal changes taking place around me. And once I got up here, it was like oh wait a minute. We've got a place that's perfect for raising some chickens. And wait a minute. What about some pigs? And in a way for my farming cousins, it was always kind of a joke because I come East, I got the PhD. I taught at Harvard, wrote at the New York Times, all this stuff. And yet I was raising pigs just like they did. And they thought it was absurd. "Why would you raise a pig when you can go out and buy pork?"
But for me, it was just another way of connecting to the land. And also the more important thing for me was that part of what made it happen was that I begun to get really, really involved in the horse world. And when I say the horse world, I mean, Wyoming, Colorado, Montana? I don't mean Eastern. I spent a good part of the '90s every summer going to horse training clinics with people like Buck Brannaman and Ray Hunt. And some of the great, great horse men on the planet. And I just began to understand that there was a world of awareness in animals that I had never paid attention to. So living with these animals on my own small place was a way of essentially getting another education. A different kind of education than the one I'd been given.
I love that. And part of my curiosity there is somewhat similarly, my wife and I spent about 10 years in San Francisco. We moved to Colorado five years ago. And we live pretty remotely about 30 minutes outside of Boulder, Colorado. It was very intentional choice to be more in nature. And things are harder. Things are not any easier living remotely. We have to plow all the time. There's always stuff breaking down. There's large wild animals. But I have learned a tremendous amount. I don't know, a lot of it just through osmosis of being more in nature. So I'm curious, what do you feel like you've gained and taken away from that relationship and that experience?
Well, the first thing was to understand how limited my own perceptions were in a sense. How much more aware of the world around them, the animals I was among really tended to be. If you spent any time on horseback at all, you'll know that there are times when you're riding. And the horse, you can tell from the way they're moving, or the way they stop, or the way their ears are moving. They're aware of something that you're not aware of. They're aware of something, and you're not picking it up. It's astonishing. And you'll see a lot of humans in a situation like that. They'll say, "Well my intelligence dictates I'm sorry, I'm smarter than you. So I know what's going on." Not at all. It's the opposite.
And I found that particularly true. One example of this was I had some pet heritage turkeys that I was raising just for the fun of it. And they made this weird gurgling kind of electronic noise when they were alarmed. It's really a very interesting and quite beautiful sound. And I remember going out into the pasture one day with them and they were making a sound. And I could not figure out what on earth they were responding to. And I finally saw up in the sky literally at the limit of my vision a hawk that was circling. And they were aware of it, alarmed by it. To them, it was visually present, right close to them in a way. And for me, it was just as far away as it could possibly be.
You can't go through the experience of having the animals around you say, "You may think you're smarter than we are, but we're paying attention." Okay? That's a transformative experience. And to surrender to that, to actually say, "All right, that's true probably. So show me what you're saying." That's really been my experience ever since I moved up here.
That's a wonderful observation to piggyback on that. It's like maybe our general level of intelligence is higher, but it feels like we've just gotten so far away from understanding our instincts and being in touch with just more of our ancestral kind of wisdom.
And as my friend Buck Brannaman the horse trainer would say, it all depends on who's giving the test. Who's smarter? Well, it depends on who's writing the intelligence test. We would fail on the horse's terms, and the horse would fail in our terms. But if we actually figure out how to depend upon each other, something else happens.
Yeah, no that's a wonderful idea. So now I'm guessing obviously the farm sounds lower maintenance. But in your previous world, there's a lot of work involved in having animals. So did you learn and take anything away from just all of the hard work involved in caring for those?
It's something I didn't actually realize until we moved to this place where the chores are much really hardly headache comparatively. We had 14 inches of fresh snow last night. That would normally mean that I would be out checking fences, making sure the water was running, making sure the chicken water was fresh, hauling hay to the horses. Just basically, I would be forced to be out in it. And there's a way in which my relationship with the outdoors world has become more optional. When I was living with those animals, there was no choice involved. I had to be out twice a day every day at least, nevermind the maintenance aspect of it.
So for me, a lot of it was actually learning how good you get at fixing things, how good you get at improvising in a way when there are problems. And you also realize how mysterious things like electricity and water are to people who've never lived in a way where they have to make sure the power's running and the water's running. It's very hard to have someone come house-sit a place like that, because you have to say to them, "Look, it's absolutely critical that the water is running smoothly and perfectly all winter long." And for example, if you leave a hose on the yard hydrant, it's going to freeze solid. That's all there is to it. You have to remove the hose every time. I mean, basic stuff like that. So it becomes part of your system essentially.
Yeah. It's like that house setting is no longer a vacation, and it is a literally a job to come and house sit.
Also for the person who's leaving, it's a source of constant worry because it's like, is the water okay? Is the power on? Have you checked everything?
Thank you so much for indulging me and talking a little bit about that. I want to change courses and talk a little bit about reading, and then we'll move on to writing. But one of the things that struck me as I was doing research for this interview is I forget where, but I think it was in one of your opinion pieces. You talk about reading 800 books in a year, which for me was just like oh my God, I didn't know you could physically get through that many number of books. And it kind of puts my yearly reading to shame. How many books do you read a year? And do you have a system for reading?
Gosh, I hope I didn't say that. That sounds really awful. I mean first of all, I'm not sure if it's accurate. And second of all, it sounds like I'm boasting. It's really episodic. For example in this year, the pandemic year, like a lot of people in March and April and early May, I found it almost impossible to read. The way I got myself started reading again was going back and doing things like rereading Jane Austen. Something very familiar, something that novels that I love. Essentially reminding you that there is a another world, another past, in a sense. And all I can say is that when I'm sort of project-driven when I'm working on a piece, the reading tends to be pretty intense. In a semester like the one I just finished at Yale, it's hard to do that because I'm essentially just keeping up with the students for 13 or 14 weeks.
When you get trained as an English literary scholar as I was, the assumption is you know how to sit still and read for hours and hours and hours. That's how it's always been really.
There are periods where I'm reading three and four books a week easily. And there are periods when I'm reading no books a week, depending on what I'm up to. So I'm not worried about the fluctuation at all. I know that there are these phases where sometimes, the written word just doesn't actually connect.
Just I don't know, weird little questions. But do you start one book and just focus on one book at a time? Do you allow yourself to kind of pop between a bunch
I'm always amused by students who say, "Well I've started the book. I have to finish it. Or I can't start another book until I finish this." It's like, who told you that? Whose rules are those? No, I assume that the nature of my attention is going to fluctuate over the course of the day. Some parts of the day, it'll be much more serious for say serious environmental readings. Some days, detective fiction will make much more sense. It doesn't matter. So I'm sure that by some realistic count, I always have five or six books going. That would be my guess.
And going back to earlier this year, so it sounds like clearly you like me, like everyone was I don't know, in a state of shock come March, April, May. So you, it sounds like your reading literally dropped off and then your thought was, "Okay I need to go back to it. Let me pick stuff that's soothing, that's comforting." So in that way, it's almost I don't know, a form of a medicine or something like that.
It was actually more narrowly therapeutic than that in the sense that I knew I needed to start reading again. What I actually did, this will sound ridiculous, but I taught myself how to knit about eight years ago. Because I live in a world where I spent all my time handling lines, whether it's either the lines on a sailboat, or a fly fishing line, or the ropes that connect you to a horse. And I realized, "Well, this looks interesting." There's a lot of traditional knowledge embedded in knitting. And literally when the pandemic started, I sat down and I knitted hats for all of my nieces. Because there's something about that, that is actually a little bit like reading. It requires a special kind of attention. But because it also involves that manual dexterity, that hand brain connection, it also felt very useful. But really I started reading again just because I felt like I have to get back to work. Even if I'm working at a lower level, I have to get back to work.
And actually, the first things I wrote after the pandemic started, actually the first thing I did for the first month and a half was get in touch with all my old students and just remind them that if they were finding it hard to write, it was okay. It didn't matter. It was really okay. Just their abilities were not going to vanish. Their skills were not going to corrode. They were going to be fine. They just had to be patient. That's all.
Did you get any interesting replies back from that email or that note?
No, they all said, "Yes, we're having trouble writing." And it ranged from the, "I'll never be able to write again. What's wrong with me?" To, "Yeah you're right. Well, I'll just be patient." I mean, we've all heard stories of people who kind of began to hibernate in a certain sense and really had a hard time coming out of it. And even now, we can all pretend that we're farther down the road. And actually we're not. The vaccines are coming, but they're not here. And human behavior has not altered appreciably for the better, I would say. The only good thing we have to look forward to is a raft of astonishing vaccines and an administration that will restore science at the center of medical care, which will be a lovely thought.
I spent most of the fall talking with students who more or less openly because they were writing for me every week were acknowledging the nature of their own trauma. And it ranged in severity all over the place, but it was all quite real. And none of it was self-inflicted. It was all essentially an internal adjustment to the strangeness of the world around them.
Maybe a weird question, but because this has been such an emotional experience. And my sense generally is I don't know, thinking before is that it felt like people could get pretty detached from their emotional state. Or I don't know, not be in touch with that as closely. Did you find that for the students that were using this as a writing prompt or were writing about this, that all the things they were writing were more connecting and more real and deeper?
Not necessarily. I think actually, the difference was that it was harder for them to leave the first person, harder for them to leave their personal experience. I don't teach people how to write personal essays or anything like memoir. I'm not interested in genre per se, but I do try to push my students after the middle of the semester to, "Let's look at the things that really interest you in the world around you that you'd like to write about." And it was much harder for them to do that this year I think. I mean, I have no control group to measure it against, so it could just have been the particular complexion of these students. But I think that a lot of them were staying very close to home, very close to questions of personal identity. Because risky as that is for young people, it's still a safer place to be than thinking about a global pandemic and the strangeness of this election.
Yeah. It's been a weird year for sure. One of your opinion pieces that you wrote for the New York Times that I love and resonates with me a lot is books to have and to hold. And it was basically just kind of a love letter to physical books and why after trying as you might to embrace digital books, you find yourself gravitating back towards physical books. I would love for you to talk about that for a little bit and just share some of your thoughts there. I also want to ask, I know that was written now a few years ago. Has your thinking there changed at all, or are you still ...
I think what I was doing was honoring the nature of my own education, which was in rare books and ancient manuscripts. So when I was just finishing graduate school, I was a curatorial assistant at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, which is an amazing collection of rare books, and drawings, and ancient manuscripts. Behind my desk, there would be letters of Jane Austen. The actual letters themselves. So I was used to handling these physical objects that were just filled with history, filled with the actual living presence of the author in a certain sense. So it was a way of honoring the continuity of that.
No, I read a lot on my iPad. And the thing that astonishes me about reading eBooks is the fact that publishers, I think still think of them as just kind of a cheap way to distribute a book. And they've done nothing, almost nothing with the possibilities. It just drives me out of my mind. I mean, it's different if you read graphic novels, for example. They're pretty good about that. They really have a sensibility of how the panels move. But it amazes me to pick up for example, an illustrated history book. A history book with good illustrations. You click on the illustration, it grows by about 10%. It's like we can have the whole page. It's just like why are we not using the graphic possibilities here? I don't understand that at all.
And I would add one other thing about it. That because the history of the physical texts, the actual books tells us something about the nature of the author's intentions as various additions were republished, part of the work of a really skillful historical textual editor is trying to decipher what those additions tell us. You get into the realm of electronic publishing, and chaos erupts. We have no idea what's what. We don't know what's based on what. I mean there are exceptions of course, lots of them. But in terms of actual book and reading technology, it's obviously a step forward in terms of immediate accessibility. But it's a step backward in terms of the actual cultural properties embedded in the book.
There were a few things you said in that really resonated with me. And I think one is that reading is ephemeral in nature. And that when you read digitally, once you're done, it's just kind of gone. And one of the complaints in my house, and it was true growing up. I grew up in a house where most of the house was filled with bookshelves and bookcases, and that just was a normal natural thing. So now at our house, we've got books all over the place. And I think probably my wife's top complaint is that I just have too many physical books. But my rationale for that, which is I think part of my bias from why I like that piece was that one, I feel an emotional connection to physical books that I don't feel with digital books. But two, I also think that the best books in my mind are like voices. And I want to spend time with those voices and go back to them. And I find that that's really only possible with physical books.
The one thing I will say about electronic books that is kind of a magical thing is you have global search. It's astonishing. I mean, honestly. I think about how my education would have been different when I was writing my dissertation if I had global search to any book I picked up. It would have been just amazing to me. It's one of the things that fascinates me about students. Not so much at Yale, but at other places I've taught. That when they read something that they haven't read before, they seem a little reluctant to look up new words, new ideas, things they haven't heard. Which just fascinates me, because it was never in the history of humanity been easier to look things up than it is at this point. Why you would not look up absolutely everything you didn't know is a mystery to me. I can't understand it.
I had one other question just about I guess your approach to reading. And that is as someone that's spent just the majority of your life writing and reading, but doing a lot of writing, do you have different reading modes? Is there a mode where you're reading a book and you're really paying attention to the sentence structure, and the tone, and the feel, and then a mode where you're just kind of letting it wash over you?
They're directly related. Which is if the text invites me to pay attention, I will. And if the text invites me to not pay attention, I will do that too. It really depends. It's not so much that I pick up a book and think, "Well this is Proust, so I really must pay attention." Or, "This is Erle Stanley Gardner, so I must not pay attention because it's going to be a light detective novel." It's actually just essentially being in a responsive mode that allows you to detect changes that are taking place, things that are happening in the texts that are really worth paying attention to. And most of the time, those alarms are not going to be set off.
But a good example is there's a new book out by a woman named Rebecca Giggs G-I-G-G-S called Fathoms about Wales. She's an Australian science writer. And the opening chapter of that called Whale Fall is, I picked it up just thinking well this should be good. And halfway through, I'm sorry, this is literature. I have to slow down. Every metaphor is working just the way, and suddenly my entire manner of reading changed as a result. But it's not up to me to say how I read. It's up to the book to tell me how to read.
Yeah. I need to go check out that book and definitely need to tell my wife about it. Is there any other maybe more classical example of a book that you just love? The metaphors, the sentence structure. I don't know, just examples of things that you also really enjoy or that you really feel drawn to when reading.
Well, that's hard to specify because so much of the literature I was raised on does that. Whether it's the essays of Charles Lamb, or the poetry of John Milton. The whole idea of my education almost accidentally was just to be as immersive and historically deep as I could be. So one of the things I often talk to my students about is that they're very good at reading in a very thin band across time, right at the present. Okay. So you read a lot of the good stuff that was published in the last three years. But what about the places our language actually comes from? So for me, going back to those earlier sources is really an important thing.
A good example and a kind of arcane example is a writer named William Cobbett, C-O-B-B-E-T-T, who was an early 19th century agricultural reformer. He lived in America for awhile. He was a printer in Philadelphia, in the generation after Benjamin Franklin for example. And came back to England. And it's the rare example of somebody who grew more and more radical as he got older. And for years, almost 30 years, he ran the only non politically aligned newspaper in England. And his prose from that time is as readable today as it was then. He wrote a book called Cottage Economy in 1820, which was designed to teach people how to brew beer, and bake bread, and raise pigs. Things that their grandparents knew, but they might've forgotten. The prose is staggeringly simple, and direct, and plain, and very moving in a way. And those are the kinds of things I'm always looking for.
Yeah. It's like a timeless writing style where something that clearly speaks just as well to you in the present as it did back in the early 1800s. We'll focus now kind of primarily around writing. Just to share a little bit of the backstory, I mean, one of the reasons I was so excited to have you on the show is I never enjoyed being taught writing growing up. I really enjoyed reading, but I didn't really enjoy just the formal structure of that. So when I read your book and I came across this I think in 2017, Several Short Sentences about Writing, it just really connected with me. Because here's somebody who's done a lot of writing professionally, that teaches writing. That's saying that the way that we're taught writing is completely broken. And it feels like just reading that book, it comes across like you were on a mission when you wrote that book. Can you share a little bit of the origin story or backstory of what led you to write that?
It's based on my own transition out of academics. Because in the early 1980s, I was teaching 18th century literature, English literature at Fordham University. And my first book came out in '86. It actually starts about '82. I realized, I didn't know how to write for a general public. All I knew how to do was write academic prose. I'd written a dissertation, I'd done all the things I was supposed to do. And I was good at writing academic essays. So I took apart my prose, really broke it down into pieces, and tried to figure out how to write in a way that people would enjoy reading. And I thought well as usual, I don't know how to do it. So why don't I teach somebody else how to do it, that we I'll have to figure it out.
So I started to create a writing class that was really instrumental in helping me figure out what my own habits were, the ones that I'd been taught through a really excellent education. And the fact is that I realized that the students I dealt with them, the students I deal with now, their writing experience is so focused on producing an immediate result. Getting into college, getting an internship, getting an A. And they are almost all of them writing in response to prompts that have been given them by someone else. Something that I call insincere writing. Somebody hands you a subject and asks you to write 500 words on it, and off you go. It's boring. It's just not interesting. And it pays no attention to what you might know about the world, or what you might care about.
So I found actually that the more I understood the difference between the academic writing I had been taught to do and the way I wanted to write, the clearer the separation seemed. So what I do now is essentially help students escape from their education. That's my enterprise every year. And it's always fun, because they escaped quite readily. They all know that what they're making in their classes is an artificial product that doesn't actually have any particular interest for anyone except them and the professor. So they move with real speed and alacrity toward a new way of writing.
And what I have to do is actually take them back in time. Let's go back to a place where you're able to make very short sentences, simple sentences. Because if you think about the way we're taught to write in this country, the assumption is the longer the sentence is, the smarter you are. As you grow older, you begin to emulate the sound of your professors more, and more, and more. But what if your professors can't actually write, which most of them can't? What if most of them are afraid of writing, which most of them are? Well, you're in this terrible bind where you're essentially looking for a model, but you can't find it in the world you want to be entering. So what I'm really trying to do is create the sort of radical cell that slowly sends young writers out into their various professions with a little more skill, a little more linguistic aplomb. Slowly start changing the language so that it's more responsive to all these things that are going on in the student's own minds.
And what really lay at the root of it too was realizing that basically students are taught, they have to be taught this. They're taught that what they notice is not important. That the things they pay attention to really don't matter, because they're going to be taught how to handle what other people notice, what other people have written, what other people would have said. Well, what if you say to a student, "No actually, what you notice is important and it's important because you noticed it." What if you pay attention to the pattern of the way you notice the world around you? What if you pay attention to the perceptions that you have and the character of them, and trust their validity? Something different happens all of a sudden, and academic prose will just not handle that. So we try to make a livelier, fresher prose that's simpler, but is profoundly rooted in the rhythms of the English language.
I love so much of what you just said. And I love the mission that you're on of helping people kind of escape this formal education that's I don't know, just created this very constrained artificial writing style. But what I also love is you teach creative writing at Yale. So you're both helping people escape from their education, but doing it at one of the best higher education places in the world. Was that a tough sell to anyone at Yale? What was the process?
There was a moment when I was getting ready to leave at the times, and I was looking for a place to do some teaching, and it just all sort of fell together. But no, Yale has a very strong creative writing contingent. Both on the journalism side, but also on the pure creative writing side. So it's really deeply embedded in what the English department normally does. What was different was that I was also teaching at the forestry school, which is now the Yale School of the Environment. And it gave me a chance to work with a different kind of student, because normally I would teach English undergraduates. Whereas these were people coming back to school for a two year master's degree in the environment. Many of them with just astonishing experience out in the world, doing all sorts of incredible things. So with a world of things to write about. But also, more insecure than the undergraduates tended to be because the undergraduates, it was just play. We're just making stuff. It's fun. For them, it was about professionalization. So they actually figured out, my graduate students figured out for themselves how to sell themselves on my class. Which is, "It'll give us a new skill. It'll give us something that we can take out into the market and will be valuable."
And that's actually proven to be the case, because if you can write about the complex environmental issues that surround us, and the complex ethical issues that are attached to those environmental issues in a way that's clear, and persuasive, and not polemical and not strident, that's an important thing.
No, it's huge. I definitely think that's one of those topics that yeah, if you can approach it with a lot of tact and thoughtfulness, you're clearly going to be able to break through to people. Because I don't know, everyone's got their own opinions formed about that for better or for worse. One thing you talked about there was academic prose, and I'm not super familiar with that. I guess can you give me an example of what that is like compared to the kind of prose you're teaching?
Well first of all, all the sentences are really long. I mean, we're talking about two and three lines on a normal sheet of paper, but sometimes quite a lot longer than that. There are many clauses within them. There are many opening dependent phrases, many closing dependent phrases. There's absolutely no sense of rhythm at all. No awareness the language has a pulse that you can pay attention to. There's an anxiety about transition, which is basically every sentence must be carefully coupled to the sentence next to it. Because what? Somehow the reader will get confused and lose track? I don't know.
But profound anxiety about transition. A deep concern of course, about how you appear in the hierarchy of academic prose, which is am I writing from low down on the totem pole, or higher up on the totem pole? There's this anxiety about position that goes with it as well. Very little humor, almost unable to be funny. And when they try to be funny. It's just so pathetic. It's just so sad.
No informality ever. And really actually you just feel like whose here? And it goes from the extreme, and it's a very useful extreme in some ways, a scientific journal where the format is very fixed, very established, and very purposeful to the kind of writing that gets done in all sorts of other departments. Where the feeling is that we need to have our own vocabulary, our own jargon in a certain sentence. And in many cases, that's certainly justified because they are naming the world differently from other departments around them. But underlying it all is just this strong sense that unless it's a long sentence, unless it's an involved sentence, it can't be conveying how sophisticated my idea is. And I find that hilarious because actually how long is a good idea. It doesn't make any sense.
So part of the fun for me, the most fun I've had in my classes over the years, I mean I have wonderful students of all kinds. But I especially enjoy when a professor takes my class. Because they feel terrified that they'll be shown up in some way by all these young people. And it takes them a while to get out of those habits. But it's wonderful to see what happens when they do, because all of a sudden you can hear them. You can hear their authentic voice, and you can hear their opinions. And you can hear what they're saying about the world. And you realize they're noticing really tremendously interesting things. But the language in which they're required to write it is a little stiff.
Some of that is almost a matter of how style. For example at the New York Times editorial page, which I wrote for, for 16 years, we were not allowed to use contractions. It's like what? Even the Wall Street Journal editor uses contractions, what's that all about? And that's the feeling you get that there are these conventions that are about how can I seem as authoritative as possible in the nature of my prose? Well, my feeling is that if you sound relaxed, confident, and interested, and you engage the reader, the authority that you generate that way is going to be every bit as profound and probably much more moving in a way than anything you can create by putting on a three-piece suit and a tie.
Yeah. I mean just hearing you describe that academic prose, it sounds like the worst thing possible to read. So it sounds very I don't know, self-centered or kind of writer-centric, where it's clearly about you're kind of way in your own head trying to appear and project all these things, and not really thinking at all about how it's being perceived on the other end of it. Which is the point you make at the end.
There are a lot of anxieties contained within anxieties about sequence, anxieties about audience. But really fundamentally, the root problem is writing is not fun for them. They don't enjoy it. It doesn't bring them any pleasure at all. And I'm generalizing wildly here, of course. Because within the realm of academics, more and more and more, there are many really good writers. And it's fun to see who they are and what they're able to do.
There's a kind of weird moment in the 20th century, late 20th century, where academic prose became particularly unintelligible in a way. That I find just kind of strange and inexplicable. I'm sure somebody could actually analyze and figure out why it happened the way it did, and I have some guesses of my own.
But the main thing for me is just I get to work with these very young people who are experts in the nature of their own lives. Who know more about what it's like to be 20 and 21 than I will ever know at the moment. I knew it once, but I don't anymore.
So for me to encourage them to show me what the world looks like for you, to be a witness to the nature of their own existence and of the things they care about, it has a profound effect on them first of all. It gives them a sense of confidence and authority. And you can just see it blooming in them over the course of the semester. But it also teaches me so much about the world we actually live in as opposed to the world that any large gathering of people my age thinks we live in. It's a really important thing for me.
Yeah. It's kind of the direct line of sight, I guess I want to talk about some of my favorite ideas in your book or some of the favorite kind of principles. One of those which you start out with. And for me, it was to be honest a little bit of a revelation was just all the points you make about why people should write shorter sentences. And one, all the bad things that removes by just forcing people to write simply and directly. But also things around that. Like you can start a sentence with but, you can start a sentence with and. I don't know, can you just riff on the value of short sentences and why that's so critical?
The basic thing is, do you actually know what your sentence has said? And the answer for so many writers is, "Well, I think so. I'm pretty sure." But I know from my own experience again and again and again oh no, you don't. You think you said this, that was your intention. But actually, the language got in the way. And as a result, your sentence says something wildly different, and very funny, and often quite oddly sexual in a way. Just this a double entendre that you didn't even see coming, you know? So at the very least, let's go back to a place where you can control the language enough so that you can actually look at the sentence you made. And you're pretty sure you know exactly what it says. Well, that's a huge gain right there, because suddenly you've gotten controller was something that you didn't have control over.
The second thing is that if you write the kind of long, long prose that people tend to write as they get educated toward a college education, then beyond that, gradually the rhythms diminish and eventually you can't find any rhythm. But when you have short sentences, there are rhythmic possibilities within the short sentence, but also between sentences that are much richer than were available in those longer kind of occluded sentences you were making.
The other thing that's really important too is that with short sentences, you can actually feel the space between the sentences. In other words, this sentence could be writing about over here. And the next sentence could be five miles away. And we don't get lost. We feel completely comfortable with that. And that fear that somehow I have to keep all my sentence closely tied to each other, they have to allude to each other as they go past. Lies in this fear that the reader get lost, but I might get lost. Well, my feeling is this is a magical trick we're performing, we're using words to create a world for the reader. So why not use all the magic we have? We can make time move in any direction we want. We can make it stop. We can make it flow backwards. We can do anything we want. We can move around in place in any way we want. We can move around ideas in any way we want. All of these things have to do with regaining control in that way.
Another more important thing though, is that when you begin to write a lot of short sentences, you begin to give up the idea that your prose is actually logical. You're not actually making ... I mean, most people are not using actual logic when they write. They put things next to each other and they assume that there's a sort of relationship among them. That's how it works. But actually, what we love in reading is the discontinuities as much as the continuities. So there's just all sorts of ways in which you begin to break your idea of how reading works, how good prose works. My students will often say, are we going to have to write short sentences forever? It's like absolutely not. The goal is just get you back to a place where you can control everything. And now you can start making longer sentences, but don't forget that a longer sentence is just a combination of two really, really good short sentences. You're doing it mainly for reasons of rhythm and perhaps slightly reasons of logic every now and then. But mostly, you're just allowing yourself to play in a way that you couldn't in a longer sentence.
What I say with the students is they write after they've been trained as college writers, getting A's as a junior and senior. They're writing at a level of what I call sustainable confusion, which is the sentences are just on the edge of falling apart, but they just don't quite, "Well that's a very risky way to write." So all I know is that I had to cure myself of my own academic habits by writing short sentences. And it was very effective. Suddenly I realized oh, it's a really good teaching method too, because everyone passed through that phase. It's embarrassing and weird, and they feel stupid when they make really short sentences. But that's part of the point too. They need to be uncomfortable about what they're making so they can be fully aware of it. I haven't even begun to dissect what all is involved in it, but there's a lot in it that happens experientially that I don't think I can actually really talk about. It just sort of happens quietly within the writer.
Yeah. If you ever end up writing a sequel several More Short Sentences on Writing, I'll be focused on that topic. I will definitely read it. One of the things that I would just love to talk about a little bit more is you've already said multiple times just the word rhythm. And I know that that's in the book several times. And clearly as someone that reads a lot, there are books where I really enjoy the melodic or the rhythmic qualities of it. But generally in writing the rhythms there, but I don't ever know if it's being used intentionally. So I guess thoughts on, for anyone as we're writing, thoughts about how to think about rhythm, how to incorporate that in a more successful way?
Sure. Well I mean, the first thing is your comment about you don't know whether it's being used intentionally. Well, if your prose is really clear, if you're not making any mistakes, if everything's just the way it should be, if there's a rhythm there, it will be intentional. You can trust that. And it's only in prose where you're just not sure is it really working? Is it really not? That becomes problematic? First of all, rhythm is one of those things that it's embedded in language. It's just inherent in it in the sense that it's a physical part of us. We breathe, and the exhalations we make are paced in a certain way, and they carry words upon.
But it's also, good strong rhythm in prose actually helps cognition. It's actually a way of helping you understand in a preliminary way what the actual words are saying. I'm sure you could probably devise some kind of psychological test that would help test this. But to me, the main thing is that so much of our habit of reading historically comes from reading aloud. At a time, say in the early 18th century or late 17th century, when really people did not own many books, what they did was they read aloud to each other. If you got a letter from a family member from across the country, you read it to the whole family aloud. You read Shakespeare aloud at night. And in other words, there was a performative aspect to all of this. And if you go back to the origins of our language, which tend to lie in many places, but one of them is the King James Bible of 1611. That is a profound work of rhythmic prose. It's just saturated with rhythm.
And to me, it's like saying, "Well I can understand this painting as well in black and white as I can in color." But why would you? Why would you actually remove that dimensionality when you can have it as something present in your life? A lot of people don't know how to think about rhythm at all. And my suggestion is always first of all anything you pick up to read, read a couple of paragraphs aloud, just so you can start hearing it. And if you don't read poetry, just pick up a good anthology of poetry. Go to the Poetry Foundation site and just read through it. Find some poems. One you like, one that interests you for some reason. It doesn't matter what it means. Read it aloud, maybe memorize it because that will help you sort of flex a muscle that you don't use all that often. It will remind you that you can actually write in your head because you can remember things in your head. All of these things have to do with just essentially reawakening a sense that I think we all possess, but have allowed to become kind of latent [inaudible 00:46:03].
Yeah. No, I love that. And I've definitely heard before is just yeah, a kind of a general rule or recommendation for writing to try to read what you've written aloud. It's almost like your brain processes it differently and you notice different qualities about it.
Completely. Well, think about it. If you're reading with your eye, your eye is very fast. It's able to skip over words everywhere. But if you're reading with your ear, for me the best example is some of the best editors I've ever had have been radio editors. I used to do a lot of reading for NPR when I was working at the Times. And their edits were just astonishingly good. Because they understood that the radio audience can't look back. It could only take in the current word, the current thought. And any pause to go, "What was that?" Then you lose the next few words. So you have to be so clear as the words move past. That's both a rhythmic thing, but also again, a cognitive thing. It's really an interesting thought.
One other point that you make in the book that really hit home for me was this kind of relationship between the way to think about writing is one, kind of the first stage is noticing. So just observing the world around you. And then the things that you need to do in order to make that possible in a successful way. And one of those, you talk about this concept of self-authorization. Where because you notice something, sure maybe other immediately in your mind, I think for everybody we go to but other people won't find this interesting, all of this is too niche, all of this isn't big enough, is this interesting enough? But just giving yourself that permission. Can you talk about why that's so important, and how people get hung up, and I guess ways to kind of embrace that, lean into that more?
Yeah. There are a lot of ways to get hung up with that. One of them is to believe that if you're a creative person, it all just sort of bubbles up inside you. That somehow your genius floats out of you and everything is just an emission from you. But I think that's a really unhelpful model because it's inaccurate for most. And second of all, so much of what we learn about how to be creative is based on what we perceive in the world around us. If I were talking to any young writer or, the issue wouldn't be, would you sit around and wait for inspiration for something to sort of flow from inside you? Or would you just go and walk down the street, see what you notice, see what leaps out at you. Why are you paying attention to the reflection on the bumper of that car? What is that? Is there something about the way it resembles a fish eye? What's going on there?
This gets back, I mean self-authorization is something I talk about primarily when it comes to the question of how to become a writer, because there is no way. There is no single method. And yes, you can go off and get an MFA. And that will authorize you to do certain things that require you to have an MFA to do it. But writing is not one of them. There were no MFAs 50 years ago, Shakespeare did not attend a graduate school to do what he did. It's all been reading and writing all along.
So my feeling is that your job is to continually work at your prose, continually be regenerated by the discoveries you make as you write. Continually experimenting with the ways you relate your language to the world around you. And out of that grows a kind of confidence and authority that is that self-authorization.
At the end of my class, I always have this conversation with my students about what do you do now that class is over? Where do you go? And a lot of them, their first instinct is to sign up for the next writing class. Okay. At a place like Yale, where there a lot of writing classes, and they're all really pretty good. That may not be such a bad instinct. But I've met too many aspiring writers who have been chasing just that one extra class for years. And my feeling is the answer doesn't lie out there. It doesn't lie on somebody else's instruction.
Because actually, most of what gets passed along as writing knowledge is pretty useless actually. We live in a culture filled with cliches about creativity and about being a writer that are fundamentally false and actually worse than false or actually disabled. So the whole point of all of this is to set aside that question of who will authorize me. I will authorize myself. But the other question you asked was how will I know if the reader's interested in this? Well you can't know, and best way to know is not to write a book, and sell it, and see if anyone's interested. That's not very effective. Why don't you actually perform the very simple sort of mathematical act of assuming that you are identical with the reader? I know that conflicts with the idea that I'm a tortured genius who's unique in my own personality. But actually, since most of us are roughly built on the same plan, why don't you actually just pay attention to what you're interested in? And if you really pay attention to what you're interested in, chances are really good somebody else is going to be interested in it.
I mean, that was the major discovery for me as a young writer was just I don't actually have to worry about what they care about. I just have to care about what I care about. And then I'm their proxy. It's amazing.
I love that idea. And in part, because I think it goes back to, I don't even know if it's a quote. But something that runs through my mind pretty repeatedly is if you want to be interesting, just be interested. And it feels like obviously if you're interested in something and you're writing in simple, clear, engaging language, then people don't need to necessarily care about the idea you're talking about. They can just engage with your passion, and your interests, and your curiosity.
The trouble is that we don't really know how to talk about being interested in this country. But people will say things like follow your passion. What? What does that mean? That sounds so disabling to me in a certain sense. Because being interested in something has many different degrees. I mean, there's the thing, "That's interesting. I want to pay attention to that." Versus the thing, "I want to go to the library and read everything I can about this."
And I'm actually surprised by, there's two problems that I run into. One is students who actually don't know when they're interested. They don't really know. Nobody's actually said to them that it's okay to be interested, and let us help you be interested. And then the other students who filter their interests based on where they are. For example in this semester, I'm going to use a sort of made up example because I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings. But I have a student who was kind of writing mostly about his girlfriend. And it was just like okay, you're not getting anywhere with this. Let's do something different.
And it turned out that he was astonishingly interested in identifying trees. He was a tree watcher. If he'd been a birder, it would have been one thing. But he was a treer. He was just somebody who wanted to know the identity of ... and he was really good at it. And it was related to his professional discipline in a way. I mean, it was both an amateur pursuit, but it also had turned into a kind of academic pursuit in a way that's very fascinating in its own right. It was like well, you do see that what you've done is you've filtered this. And you said, because this is kind of academic or because it's something that I really care about in a way that I don't know how to talk about it really, then it's not appropriate to write about. But to me, that's exactly the thing to write about. Just chase that down. And don't worry about whether anyone else cares about it or knows about it. Don't worry about whether anybody else is going to be interested in it.
We use all these words like passion, inspiration, genius, that are really troublesome words. Because they assume that unless you're carried away on a tidal wave of inspiration, or passion, or genius, that you can't do any of this stuff. But most of the work I've done has come from these momentary impressions I've had while I'm outside doing chores. Or when I've been working on a book, it's just from momentary reflections in my mind. It's very small, tiny, subtle things that happen within us that are the inspirations we need.
I would love to talk for a little bit about some of those cliches you refer to around creativity and writing. And one of the things in your book you just talk about, that writing is difficult and it's tedious. And one of the ways you described that is that what anybody sees written down on a page or on a screen is the result of thousands and thousands intimate, minute decisions. And the reason I love that is kind of for a few things. One, I've often thought about how to describe what the design process is like for me, and what a lot of people see at the other end is like this pristine little jewel. But actually, if you were to try to visualize what it actually was, it would look like a crazy complex decision tree. Where it's like at each point, there was five, 10, 15 different places you can go. So can you talk a little bit about what the writing process is in reality, and then some of those cliches or just some of the parts of that you hate the most, or that you really want to rally against it?
Yeah. I'll start with the one that's the most problematic, which is the idea of flow. Which is again, it's attached to the admission of a genius. You sit down and you start to write, it just flows. Well to me, that means you're plagiarizing. It means you heard it all before somewhere, or you're echoing a pattern you've seen elsewhere. It also means you're not paying attention to your prose. Because really, unless you're just amazing, which is pretty rare-
It never flows.
It never flows. And also it also assumes that the reader's psychology is directly connected to the writer's psychology. In other words, let's say you're writing a book and you want the book to flow in the reader's mind, to move in that seamless way that we love as readers. Well you assume that somehow psychologically, that means that I have to flow as I'm writing. Absolutely not. I mean, things get pieced together in all the weirdest ways. And the end result, the writer's mind and the readers might have no connection except through the language itself. There's no similarity at all.
So the other problem with flow is that it's a word like creative that's actually more prejudicial than it is anything else. Because students start to think, "Well, it didn't really flow. So it couldn't be that good." So often, a student will come in and say, "Well, this was really hard to write." And I'll read it and it was terrific. It's like, who cares if it was hard to write? The end result was terrific.
The idea that you are in some sense setting yourself up to fail by assuming that it must flow. If it doesn't flow, well that means you're stupid or something. Right? Well, why would you create that psychological experiment every day? "It's not flowing today. So something must be wrong with me." If you accept the fact that I have to look at each word, each sentence. I have to think about rhythm. I have to think about structure. I have to think about the way these sentences work. I have to become very technical about how all this works, and it's really hard work. And I'm going to make thousands, and thousands, and thousands, and thousands of decisions. And ultimately, most of them will have been good ones, but there'll be a lot of ones that were jettisoned along the way. And that's just the nature of the work. If you believe that and the work is hard, then it's okay. But if you believe that it's easy somehow and the work is hard, then you're in trouble. And that's where most people end up. They end up in trouble.
Yeah. It seems really related to, I listened to an interview recently with Jerry Seinfeld. And his process of he sits down every single day. If you listen to any standup comic, they're all trying to do the same thing. They get up on stage. They want to pull off what feels like this effortless magic trick. But behind the scenes is an insane amount of work, and revisions, and all the things that go into that. But yeah, those two things aren't mutually exclusive. In fact, to pull off that magic trick, you have to go through that kind of process.
And what are they thinking about? They're thinking about rhythm and timing. Humor's the hardest thing to write there is because it's absolutely critical. Timing is absolutely everything. And again, it's one of those things where I love my students, but their main question is how soon will we be good? And it's like, "Well, don't be too impatient here. This is actually one of the things you can do for your entire life. And guess what? You get better, and better, and better, and better all your life long, unlike so many other things we can do. So why don't you just relax a little bit, and keep working hard, and just give yourself a realistic time plan that doesn't say you have to be good tomorrow?"
Yeah. It seems like that modern, just completely unrealistic idea that everything's a destination, and nothing is a process. And in fact, it's the exact opposite. There's no destination.
I've had students who were 20 years old ask me, "Is it too late for me?" It's like, you're out of your mind. One of the things I have to say to them is, "Look, you may not write. You may leave and do something else for a good chunk of your life, but you can always reenter at any point in your life." And in fact, the number of people who come back to writing or who become writers late in their lives is huge. Because what are we using? We're using our minds, and that's it. It's always available.
I want to ask a couple of closing questions. And one of those is we've talked about a lot of the ideas that are in Several Short Sentences about Writing, which I would highly encourage everybody listening to go and buy. For me, it's definitely a 10 out of 10. It's one of my favorite books. But my guess is that a lot of those ideas show up in your writing course at Yale. So I'm curious if you could just kind of talk about what that writing course looks like as a process or what that experience is like for a student.
Well, they're come in and they're all very nervous, because of course they think everyone around them is a genius. And who are they to be in this class? So one of the things I try to explain to them is we have a very short weekly requirement. Everybody writes two pages a week, just two pages. Double spaced. So maybe 500 words maximum. And the hard part is of course it has to be deathless perfect prose. And I don't give them anything to write about. I give them no subjects, no exercises, nothing. All they can write about is what they're interested in. And as I say to them, "I'm always happy to help you figure out what you're interested in. If you have an idea, I'm happy to help you figure out how to twist the idea or break the idea apart, or turn it around and find a new way to approach it." And if you come to talk to me about this stuff, the first thing I'm going to say to you is, "Well, tell me all the bad ideas you threw out first." And we'll go through those. And invariably, there's a couple of great ideas in there, but they just didn't know how to frame them essentially.
So what we do then is everybody writes. Trepidatiously, they send their pieces to me on a Google Drive folder. And I carefully line edit every one of them. As much attention as I can give to every word, the placing of every word. And then when we in class, what we do is we spend the first hour of class talking about a writer like Joan Didion or John McPhee. We used a lot of wonderful people this year, Tressie McMillan Cottom for example. I don't know if you know her book thick, but we used part of that. It was just astonishing. Really lots of fun, and radical in a way. But my question about that reading is always, "Well, what do you notice?" It's not, "What does it mean? What's the writer's intention." It's just, "Show me some words that interest you, or show me some moments in the sentences. Let's stay right down on the ground level, look at what's happening there."
Then I hand them a list of sentences. Each one is terrible, and they come from their pieces. I've taken one really bad sentence from each student's piece. It's called some sentences. And we go through them one by one and we just go, "What the hell happened here? What's wrong. What's the problem?" Because they all want to know how to revise, but nobody's ever taught them how to do it. So what we do is we look at just this problem of how do you fix this? What do you do here?
Then we usually look at two or three of their pieces, which I read aloud. And I read them aloud because as I say to them, "I can make even your worst pieces sound really good. You'll all sound equal if I read them aloud. And you won't be trying to edit it as you read aloud." And then we do the same thing, which is what do you notice? What do you see here? What's working? Especially, we always start with what's working. A chance really to sort of compliment each other and really pay attention to the desire that's apparent in the piece. And then the question is, well what's not working here? And we start to pull that apart.
The one big difference between this pandemic year and all other years is that we spend a lot more time on the what's working side. Because people really just wanted to support each other. They really wanted to really hold each other's writing up and honor them for what they were being honest about, or confessing, or showing us to pay attention to. But that's really the gist of it.
And a couple of things happen. One of the main things is I'm not really teaching these students how to write, I'm teaching them how to read. So they become much, much more sophisticated readers of other people's prose in the course of the semester. I never used my book as a textbook because what would be the point of that? In fact I say to them, "Don't buy the book until the semester is over if you want to, because it's better as a kind of aide-memoire than it is as a guide to what we'll be doing." And since I wrote the book, we've found many, many other ways to talk about all these problems that don't appear in the book itself.
But really what happens is that we build a community of very supportive writers who are really eager to listen to each other, really eager to help each other out. And just the knowledge that I will read them with affection and great care, and that so will their colleagues liberates them. Frees them up to feel like they can begin to speak out in a way that's more confident and more outspoken than it might ordinarily been the case.
Yeah. They can no longer write from a place of fear. They get to kind of lean into it.
That's the thing. What is there to be afraid of here? And I think that's the biggest thing that happens in the course of the semester is that one of my students said, "I got to the end of the semester a professor of mine invited me to join her on a writing project that I would normally have said, 'Oh my God, no absolutely not.'" And she said, "I said yes immediately. I was just ready to go." And to me, that's a huge thing to have happen.
The point here is, it wasn't that I taught her how to do that. It was the clear nature of her own prose, the recognition of her own mind that taught her how to do that. It was her own hard work that taught her how to do that, which is really the lovely part of this class.
Sounds incredible. I mean, even just hearing you, I thought I was going to get something interesting from that answer, but there were a ton of great ideas there. And what I love is it seems like so much of your, I don't know your perspective or the way you approach it is really about staying on that ground level, noticing and being direct. And making sure one that there's no place to hide. Because it feels like a lot of writing as you talked about when you get into long sentences, it's unclear what you're saying. It's almost like you're hiding by the words. And instead, it's just communicate simply and directly. And let's practice that, let's look at individual sentences and figure out how to tweak them. Yeah.
And not get lost in abstraction, not get lost in theory, not be anxious about intention. But just talk about what's there. Really, one of the phrases I use is I'm trying to teach you how to be patient in the presence of your own thoughts. Which is a very scary thing for a lot of students. One of the biggest issues they have is what if I have no good ideas? What if the sentence maker in my head doesn't work? Well, of course it works. But you have to be patient enough to let it work, because nothing in your life so far has said to you, "You'll be rewarded for what you notice and for your own patience." But that's what this class is saying. This class is saying you will be rewarded not by me, but by your own miraculous regeneration of your prose. By your perceptions, and by your patience.
So I'm going to try a little bit of a different closing question this time around it. We've talked about a lot of your ideas around kind of reading and writing. So the question I wanted to pose, and this could totally be a shot in the dark, but we're going to give it a go. If you had this magic wand, and you could either kind of do an over the air update to everyone's brain to either remove an idea or a preconception they have about writing, or put in a new thought into everybody's brain about how to think about writing or reading, what would that be?
Well, I think it would be actually rooted less in language and more in experience. There's so much in our lives that causes inattention. So much built into the way we move through our lives. That basically says that our awareness of what's around us at the moment is not important. And I'm not a particularly zen kind of guy. I'm not a very mystical person in any way, but I know from living with the animals that I've lived with that they're in the moment at every moment. The moment is where perceptions occur. It's really as simple as that. And I think that the fact that we all harbor inside our skulls this astonishing brain that's paying attention to the world around us. And yet we clutter ourselves with this question of what does it mean? What is its worth? How does it connect to what anybody else does? How do I stack up with them? What if we just tried to actually say something serious about how exists looks to us?
I mean, one of the things I often say to my students is that the purpose of what we're doing here is to bear witness to the world around us. That is our job. It's fundamentally an ethical job, but it's also a literary job. It's the work of the poet, essentially.
So I would say there's a way in which because the way we talk, the way we use language is so freighted with social dimensions. In England for example, the kind of accent you have says a lot about how you're educated and how you'll be respected. People get very nervous about what language they possess. And my feeling is that this is not about correctness. This is not about obeying the rules. It's about accuracy. It's about witnessing, it's about paying attention. And it's about trusting that your perceptions, that you are responsible firsthand for are really fundamental to your understanding of the world, and ultimately can be captured in some way in language. That's the hard part. The hard part is that how do I make my language responsive to what I've begun to notice in the world? But the two as they begin to work together produce some miraculous transformations. I wish there were a switch I could flip that would basically ... but the one thing I would say is that so much of the writing we do as we can get educated is, our writing is always about how, I'm writing this so I can get further educated. Well, okay. But what about the aspect of writing that's fundamentally playful, fundamentally intuitive? What about the aspect of writing that pays attention to all sorts of other things and is not merely a qualification for the next hierarchical leap?
Anyway, the lovely thing about this kind of work and this kind of way of paying attention to writing is that almost anyone can do it. Almost anyone can be improved as a writer dramatically. I don't mean to be a great writer, and I'm certainly not in the business of training professional writers. Most of the students that I've worked with over the years just go off. They have very different kinds of lives, but writing remains essential to them. Some have become wonderful writers. But the fact is that anybody can make a dramatic change in the nature of their own writing, the nature of their own reading, and the nature of their own response to the world around them perceptively, just with a little practice.
That's a beautiful note to end on. Thank you so much Verlyn. This has been one of my favorite interviews ever. This was wonderful.
Well, thanks Dan. It was a real pleasure. Those were great questions.
Good. I'm glad. Okay thank you.
All right. Well take care.
On Outliers, Daniel Scrivner explores the tactics, routines, and habits of world-class performers working at the edge—in business, investing, entertainment, and more. In each episode, he decodes what they've mastered and what they've learned along the way. Start learning from the world’s best today. Explore all episodes of Outliers, be the first to hear about new episodes, and subscribe on your favorite podcast platform.
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