Better writing through forced retelling

I once wrote a tongue-in-cheek post called “How I Write“. (Answer: In the Lotus position.)

Well, it turns out that there is a more serious project by that title going on in the English Department at Stanford, where successful writers talk about how they write. One of them is Robert Sapolsky, the same genius neuroscientist I mentioned in the previous post.

Of note in the long transcript is the crucial importance of rewriting — editing yourself. Compare what Sapolsky says below to how Khaled Hosseini, author of the Kiterunner (which is also published by Riverhead, as my book will be), talks about rewriting in successive drafts.

Here goes Sapolsky (emphasis is mine):

… I was not particularly into writing, and it was not until after I finished college—right after, a week after graduation—I went off to Africa for a year and a half to begin to get my field work started, which I have been doing ever since for twenty-five years and it was fairly isolated site, where a lot of the time I was by myself. I would go 8 to 10 hours a day without speaking to anyone, I would get a mail drop about once every two weeks or so, there was no electricity, there was no radio, there was no anything, and I suddenly got unbelievably, frantically dependent on mail. So as a result you wind up sending letters to every human that you have known in your life in hopes that they would write back to you. …  So you would write to somebody about it, and then you would write to the next person about it, and you would realize that before the end of the day, you had just written 25 versions of it, each of which was a page and a half long. … I would get incredibly bored with the damn thing and would thus start editing and make it more concise, and all of that, and you could sort of see it shrinking until it was half an aerogram, and then I would have to come up with something else to say. So I think just sort of in passing it kind of forced me to start editing.

Interviewer: And so, yeah, you started editing and went through a process of revision actually forced by duplication…

RS: Yes.

Interviewer: …rather than the need to get it right. Just the need to do it again

RS: And the need to get it shorter and get out of there….

Another thing of note to me — an avowed generalist and never a specialist (not even in the subject matter of my own book) — is how Sapolsky explains his incredible skill at translating complex science into storytelling for non-scientists:

Umm…well this is going to sound silly, but I was actually not terribly well-trained as a scientist in college; I was much more of the social science type, so I actually never took any chemistry or physics in college and don’t have a very good fundamental grounding. So I am easily panicked in my science and I think thus I can easily imagine more readily than most people in my position how somebody else can be. …

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19 thoughts on “Better writing through forced retelling

  1. I enjoyed reading this post. I like thinking about the writing process. My favorite book about it is Stephen King’s “On Writing”, but every book about writing I’ve read agrees that writing generally becomes “great” through the re-writing process.
    I guess there aren’t many first-draft Mozarts.

    • Stephen King’s “On Writing” seems to be rather popular of late.

      Anyway, King briefly goes into how different writers write. For instance, he describes how the British novelist Anthony Trollope would write for precisely 2 1/2 hours each morning before leaving for work:

      If he was in mid-sentence when the two and a half hourse expired, he left that sentence unfinished until the next morning. And if he happened to finish one of his six-hundred-page heavyweights within fifteen minutes of the session remaining, he wrote “The End,” set the manuscript aside, and began work on the next book.

      By contrast, he tells the story of how a friend of James Joyce’s once allegedly visited the famous author and found him all crestfallen at his desk. Joyce explained that he had only managed to write seven words all day. The friend remarked that seven words was pretty good, given Joyce’s average daily output. Whereupon Joyce responded, “I suppose it is … but I don’t know what order they go in!”

    • Yes, indeed, I notice a certain synchronicity in mentions of King’s “On Writing.” I wasn’t even aware of it until you guys brought it up.

      So, is it worth it? I’m not a Stephen King guy otherwise.

    • As you are now in the process of rewriting Hannibal you also might try Neil Simon’s Rewrites: A Memoir. It’s in part the story of his struggle to polish and finish The Odd Couple, as well as other plays. Of course he needed the feedback of a live audience, a somewhat different situation.

    • I can’t speak for Invisible Mikey–he calls it his favorite book on writing, which could mean either (a) he thinks it is worth it (whatever it may be) or (b) that he considers it the least worthless of all the worthless literature on the subject–but as far as I’m concerned, it’s worth it, i.e., the %7.99 plus tax.

    • The Stephen King writing book offers a frank account of his descent into success:  

      “For years I dreamed of having the sort of massive oak slab that would dominate a room. . . In 1981 I got the one I wanted and placed it in the middle of a spacious, skylighted study in the rear of the house. For six years I sat behind that desk either drunk or wrecked out of my mind. . .”

      Success for him proved to be a damned defeat.   

  2. rewriting shows me the path to the core of what lies within my thought. I think that by rewriting we ‘learn’ what we may not know we wanted to say.
    Thanks for your blog, love its freshness.

    • Yes, I understand that the Greeks wrote this way (and others, I presume). It amazes me but explains why one needed to be well-educated in order to be literate. Recognizing each word when using an alphabet (rather than pictographs) can be problematic. Digressive thought: We often speak in that strung together form, especially when excited, but we teach our children to speak by over-emphasizing the pauses between words.

  3. I once belonged to an organisation dedicated to the use of plain, comprehensible language in legal documents. Legal concepts are distilled to their essences, words stripped of ambiguity by close definition and historical or novel word use abandoned.

    The result is analogous to a computer program, but without that separate identity which software acquires.

    Of course there is a need for clarity, but what’s left is like a wrung-out rag, the more incomprehensible because that quality which enables language to communicate ideas is lost.

    Thus is language is another victim of compulsive litigation.

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