Monday, July 11, 2011

Stuff My Writing Students Say, Part 11 -- On getting casual, lazy, sloppy.

"I realized that I had become a very casual writer. With texting, emails and Facebook, I've gotten sloppy and lazy."

So many writers have, and of course, it's helpful to be aware of this tendency and guard against a too-casual, even sloppy approach to the creative work we write in the hopes of publication. Just as we take care that the easy, sketchy, rough-note aspects of first drafts don't cross over into more polished pieces, it's also a good idea to create a mental boundary around the kind of sloppy, casual way we write in emails and social media, and the way we approach how we write when we are writing for real.

But it's perhaps not all bad news. In fact, several times over the past six months, I've actually advised a few writers to look to their casual, sloppy, social correspondence in order to get to a new place in their memoir manuscripts and/or personal essays.

Some nonfiction writers find it difficult to dig down deeper than surface level and express sometimes uncomfortable feelings, or to describe potentially embarrassing or painful personal moments in an essay or memoir form; and yet, sometimes these are the very same people who tell me they can however, easily express themselves and tell the real story underneath a surface situation, when writing an email to a very close friend.

When I hear this, I make what to me seems a very logical suggestion, but one which many seem to find a bit odd: Gather up those emails -- they are kindling, fodder, the ingredients for a from-scratch creative meal. Yes, they will be wordy and rambling and not always on point. But that's okay. It's in the spaces between the tangents and the sprawling, long-winded rants and prose pity parties, where the valuable stuff resides.

It's not that I want these writers to copy and paste this material directly into their pieces, but I do want them to take a look at it, think about what they've written there, and consider what they've told their best friend and why and how they first wrote it. If they are lucky, those emails go back to the time in question they are trying to write about. Why wouldn't you study them? The way, say, you'd go back and re-read personal journals? What better memory trigger?

In this way, I've seen a few writers make the leap from hiding behind vague descriptions and imprecise emotional language, to getting their more elusive, emotional stories on the page.

Sure, we want to be aware that today's modes of communication encourage sloppy writing, and keep our standards high for our more meaningful work. One effective but oh-so-difficult habit is to clearly separate the time we spend really writing, from the time we are participating in any online activities (as in, turn off the damn internet when writing!). But these newer communication methods also encourage writing, period. And encourage us to tell our stories, sloppy as they may be, to our first read readers, our confidants. Sometimes, sloppy – in an emotional sense -- is what you want, at critical points in working as a creative nonfiction writer.

You can read the rest of the Stuff My Writing Students Say series here.


Miss Good on Paper said...

As a writing teacher, I hear and see this issue come up quite a bit. Your advice makes complete sense. All that informal writing (for lack of a better phrase) that students do isn't only fodder for ideas, but it is also a way to discover their voice. Even without informal writing, diction and syntax vary.

So glad to have found your blog and this post! Thanks.

-Miss GOP

Lisa Romeo said...

Miss GOP - good point, about voice. Thanks for stopping by and reading and for noting that. - Lisa