How I Write - Conversation Transcript
Transcript of How I Write Conversation with Andrea Lunsford
A: But you do have a long videotape, so…
HO: Yes, and we are making copies of these from digital video to VCR and people in the PWR program and others who have a need will be able to use these tapes in classrooms and in other kinds of a formats. So a real valued…and I know at least Alyssa O’Brien, from PWR, has used it in one class, and it’s a very valuable resource. Well, today we’ll be talking with Andrea Lunsford. Before beginning, though, I want to point out our next conversation is Tuesday, January 28, and that’s going to be with John Bravman, Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education and professor of materials science and engineering. Now it’s going to be interesting as, of course, he’s an engineer and does a lot of the engineering writing—besides the dissertation work, he produced a lot of scientific papers that he’s done, and, as well, done in collaboration, done in all kinds of ways, a whole type of writing. But as Vice Provost, he also does something that’s probably the closest here at the university to business writing: having to do lots of reports, lots of memos, lots of working with people who draft things that he has to then review. So he has a whole other aspect of writing that would be really very interesting. And if you do regularly come to these events or ultimately check things on the website, you’ll see all those varieties of types of writing and approaches to it.
Well, OK. Andrea Lunsford is professor of English and director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric (PWR) that out of which this place, the Stanford writing center, blossomed. So a really wonderful place; this is now the second year for it. Andrea is an incredibly prolific writer, and I’ll just read a couple from…either that she’s written or collaborated or edited various different projects. For example, as somebody who writes about writing, or studies rhetoric, or studies composition and compositional theory, and then actually engages in the teaching of writing, she has a unique angle for looking at the whole process, and I’m really curious to know how she approaches her own writing after being so busy teaching other people how to write. So, you know, she’s written, and in collaboration, The St. Martin's Handbook, Everything's an Argument, The Everyday Writer, Reclaiming Rhetorica: Women in Rhetorical Tradition—I actually just read that and a whole seminar of women, mainly, I think mainly, or all…
HO: …all women, tried to investigate and reclaim the women’s traditions in rhetoric—The Presence of Others: Singular Texts, Plural Authors, Perspectives on Collaborative Writing. And that just scratches the surface, in fact, of the incredible production. And just to see her importance: the National Council of Teachers of English produces a conference—those of us in the writing business know very well—Four C’s conference on college composition, on the back of the conference booklet is the advertisement for The St. Martin's Handbook, and what’s really neat and kind of funny is their advertisement slogan is “The difference is Lunsford.” Drive Ford, right? She's now branded, so it’s really quite amazing to get to that level . . . I know I've used her handbook in writing classes that I've taught, and they’re succinct, clear, non-pedantic, you know, all the things that you want from a writing textbook instead of all those things that you remember, those of you who used those books years ago, a real transformation of the whole genre of the writing handbook. So the way we do this is that I’ll ask Andrea some questions, we’ll have a conversation, and we’re going to open it up and you can ask whatever questions and any concerns that have about the writing process and Andrea’s engagement in writing. And generally the way we open is really very open-ended, which is—I mean, I could begin any number of ways—but is there anything that you wanted to say about writing?
AL: I are writing, or writing are me. I would like to say that in my experience, writing differs, the writing process differs radically according to what you’re working on. So I think you need to take that into consideration. I was really struck with what Hilton said about John Bravman, you know, all of the different kinds of writing that he has to do, and those different kinds of writing really call on different sets of skills and abilities. So if I had to say something about myself just in general as a writer, I'm a fast writer, I’m really fast—that doesn't say I'm good; that just says I’m fast, I can get stuff out, and then I have to work on it quite a lot.
HO: So, OK, things come out, things come out kind of easy and then you have to work on it quite a lot. What does that mean?
AL: When I start a project—I'm writing an essay right now on the future of doctoral studies in English and it’s due like next week, and I've been thinking about it for quite a while and making a series of notes but I haven’t really started to write. I'm intending to write the whole thing this weekend. And I'm going to do what you guys do, which is to start at the last minute, except I'm not starting at the last minute because I've been thinking about it and making notes. And when I'm starting on a project that is just an essay, not a whole book, but something that’s more manageable, I don't like to really start writing until I can feel, what I call, the shape of my argument: I can see where I’m going to start, and I can see kind of an arc in my head and can see where I’m going. If I have to start writing before I can see that, I'm in terrible trouble. I can write—and I don’t know, but those of you who are students, sometimes you just have to write, you don’t know where you’re going, you just have to force yourself to do it, and I can force myself to do it, but it’s not my preferred mode. So I like to have that shape in my head; I like to have that sense of a feeling that I know where I am going, and then I can pretty much get my draft out, unless something really cataclysmic happens, and then go back and begin to struggle with it. I hate revision; I despise it. I mean, once I’ve written something, what I want more than anything else in the world is for Hilton or somebody to come and say, “That, every single syllable, is perfect. There couldn’t be anything better to say about the subject, and it’s so beautifully said, you don't have to change a comma.” And in my sixty years of living nobody has ever said that to me. So I’ve learned that I just have to accept the really arduous revision process, which I don't like, but which I do.
HO: You know, I wanted to mention before we go on that, you know, on February 26 we’re also going to be talking about different genres. Scotty McClennan, who’s Dean of Religious Life, and what’s interesting is that he’s written two books about religion—Finding Your Religion When the Faith You Grew Up With Has Lost Its Meaning, and in collaboration with someone he’s written Church on Sunday, Work on Monday, you know, a guide to a kind of ethics in business—but he has another genre: he has to write sermons as well as organizing the rhetoric of public ceremonies. And then, of course, on top of that, he’s the model for a Doonesbury character, the Doone of God, so he’s lived a parallel life as a fictional character, which few of us have experience of doing. So that’s yet another kind of writing experience we’ll be talking about. Well, what does it mean that it’s incredibly painful to do revision? I mean, now, somebody gives you feedback, but do you also give yourself feedback? Do you read things out loud and hear it? Do you…
AL: I always read out loud, and that’s something I recommend the students do, that you read your prose out loud and hear how it sounds. You’ll often find something in your writing that is not right, that is not saying what you want to say, and you hear it. You don’t see it; you hear it. So, yeah, I do. I’m not going to read a fifth edition of The Saint Martin’s Handbook; that’s a thousand pages. You want me to come into your dorm and read that to you, a dramatic reading I would be glad do it. But I have different ways of revising for different kinds of projects. My long-time and fairly dear friend and long-time editor Marilyn Moller happens to be here visiting right now. She was my editor on the first edition and many editions of The Saint Martin's Handbook and is now my editor on another project at Norton, and Marilyn has been through the revision process with me. I brought a couple of things with me, maybe, and I’m not going to belabor this, but I have two examples here of work: one is from the handbook, and I'm just going to hold up these pages so that you can see how extensively marked up they are. Now I do think I’m not a bad writer—I’m not always good, but I’m not really…I don’t stink as a writer—and this is a book that’s already been through a couple of editions; many people have reviewed it and worked on it, and I've worked like a dog on it, and look what it looks like right now. And what I wanted to point to particularly is that, you don’t get to see it in living color because these things are post-it notes that have been clipped on—they are different colored post-it notes and different colors of ink—so if I have an editor, somebody like Marilyn, I have a copy-editor and then I might have a reviewer and then I have me. And there are all these notes from various people. This one says, “The reviewer asks for imperatives rather than gerunds here. Understood, if we change it, though, we'll have to do it throughout. What's your advice?” And then somebody else says, “These heads are always either noun phrases or gerunds; I think we should keep it with gerunds” and I said, “I'm sick of gerunds.” And [we] just go back-and-forth like that. And then here’s an entire paragraph that’s marked out, and the post-it at the bottom says, “I suggest making this just one of the marginal cross-references, even though brief,” and another person says, “I agree. OK, Andrea?” And I say “No, not OK, I do not like that, I don’t want to do that.” It’s not that I don’t have an opinion of my own, that I’m not going to stand up for what I think, but in my experience editors are really smart and they’ve got a tremendous amount to contribute to a project. So if an editor’s taken the time to really look at something I have written, I'm going to listen to everything. I might not agree with everything—Marilyn and I, we have never had any wrestling matches, but we’ve certainly disagreed about things—but I'm going to always listen very carefully. The other page I brought is—you can’t tell as well from just looking at this—but this is out of a scholarly article. You can just see that there’s lots of marks on it. And this is an article that has been published in the PMLA, the Publication of the Modern Language Association, which is a large body, a very prestigious, scholarly journal and they are known for their severely obtrusive and intrusive editing. And they challenge a writer on everything. And I had to go through their many, many, many, many, many queries, and they really pushed me down on some things that I didn't want to do. And they’re very, very picky. Here’s a sentence: “Bill Gates is trying to corner the world’s market in images. Disney is working hard to extend the copyright to well over a hundred years before Mickey Mouse moves into the public commons.” They changed that to say, “Disney is working to extend the limits of copyright to well over a hundred years so that Mickey Mouse’s move into the public commons is postponed.” So they put in a passive verb, and they would not back down on that. They just insisted that that’s the way it had to be. I didn't like it that way. Now I do know people that won't send articles to PMLA because they know that this is the kind of incredibly intrusive editing that they are going to get; but, again, I think that in my experience ninety percent of the time editors’ suggestions are really good, and so they’re always worth listening to. But that means the revision takes a long time, back-and-forth, just answering these post-its takes, it seems like, forever.
HO: Well, you convinced me not to submit to the PMLA.
AL: Unless you want a work-out!
HO: And now, you also explained why so many of the articles sound alike.
AL: Yes, yeah, they have a house voice and a house style. They really do.
HO: So it’s important to know when you do get into an editorial relationship what that relationship might be before you embark upon it. What’s interesting about that, though, in terms of their editing or any of the editing, we’re talking about on the level of style, sentence structure, et cetera. Does anyone ever interject in terms of content?
AL: Yes, both editors and reviewers work. And that if it’s a scholarly article, like for the PMLA, editors send those articles out for peer review—generally, in my experience, to two or three reviewers, and the reviewers do critiques of the content and of—they might say something about style—but they talk about the content of the piece and they make criticisms and suggestions. If the article is accepted, as this one was, they send the, they are called “readers’ reports” to you; and then you have to write a response to the readers’ reports. And this article was written collaboratively, so my co-author, Lisa Ede, and I wrote a response to the readers’ reports. And then we revised in response to the readers’ reports, and then we got some of our friends and colleagues to read it, and they made criticisms, and then we revised again, and then we sent it in, and then it came back from the editor. And in my work on textbooks, my editors have been instrumental in coming up with really good ideas for the books: not just worrying about the format or the style, but really thinking about the ideas and what’s in them. So I really do think that—I’ve written a book called Everything’s an Argument—but I believe that all writing is collaborative, that no matter what you’re doing, even if you’re sitting by yourself at your computer you’re collaborating with somebody, something you’ve read, or some voices you’ve got in your head, or your friends, or something, there’s some kind of collaboration going on. So I like to honor that, whenever I [and] as much as I can.
HO: You know, you’re actually very lucky because at a lot of trade presses and even academic presses the most amount of editing you get is copyediting and no Maxwell Perkins, you know what I mean? There’s no real relationship. But you raised something right now, which is collaborative writing. How is that different and how do you, let’s say, embark upon a project? Does somebody come up with a, one, two discussions, someone writes a draft, the other…what’s been your experience with that process?
AL: Long, very long. How many of you in here have written something with somebody else? There are all kinds of different ways to collaborate, and one of the reasons that Marilyn is here is that we’ve been working on a project, The Norton Anthology of Rhetoric and Writing, and there are going to be lots of people contributing to that, and it’s going to be a huge project and so the work has to be divided up. And I call that kind of collaboration “division of labor,” where it’s just impossible for one person to do it; you have to divide it up in some kind of way. But kind of in an opposite extreme of that is the work that I do with my friend Lisa. We’ve been friends since 1972, and we’ve written a whole lot of different things together. We’re also really, really close friends, and we like to get together. And so we often write literally together at the computer, sitting together at a computer where one of us is talking and the other one is typing. And the one that’s typing is not the one that’s writing, if you get what I mean; the one that’s writing is the one that’s talking. And then we stop and go back and argue and fiddle around. And Lisa is a print-queen of the universe. She has to print things just constantly, and I don't want to print anything, so we have arguments about whether we should print up or not. And we have very different styles of writing, and we’ve had to learn to accommodate one another: I’m a drafter and blast it out; Lisa wants to go a sentence at a time, a paragraph at a time, go back, and then she has different writing rituals. One of Lisa’s writing rituals is to clean the house. You know, and I don't care about cleaning the house. So we’ve managed—I mean this is kind of like a marriage; I will say that Lisa's husband is a very long-suffering man to put up with these bouts of writing that we go through. So we have these different rituals, but we’ve managed over the years to try to make our differences complement one another, rather than cause a difficulty. And we enjoy one another’s company. And the other thing I’ll say about this more intimate form of collaboration, which is why I think it works, is that we trust one another. There is a very, very strong bedrock of trust. I know that if Lisa says she will write X or do X that she will do it and that she will do it when she says she’ll do it within reason, and she knows the same thing about me. That's very different from working on a project where four or five people are working on it and somebody’s trying to coordinate and everybody’s doing different things, and at the end you hope it comes together. And I don’t know if that’s another question about whether something that’s written by multiple authors should come together: do you want the voices, do you want it to sound homogenous—this is one voice—or do you want different voices to come through? It has an ideological edge to it about what you think about authorship.
HO: Obviously this has been, you know, thirty years of successful collaboration. Did you ever have any collaborations that didn't work?
AL: Oh yes.
HO: And what went wrong?
AL: My worst experiences have been with people who didn't follow through on what they said they were going to do, so that it was a collaborative project in name only, and it seemed, it felt to me like I ended up doing the bulk of the writing. Now, there’s something I call, “the martyr syndrome”, and if you’ve ever worked in any group on a group project, I often find that everybody in the group says, “I'm doing all the work.” So I take that, I take the point. I may think that I was doing all the work, and the other person thought that he or she was doing a lot of the work. But, no, I've had some pretty bad experiences. And one very recent experience: a person I was collaborating with on an edited volume, both of his children fell very severely ill, his wife became so depressed that she had to be hospitalized, and there just wasn't any choice. So we wanted the book to come out, and I just had to say, “I’ll do it.” And you make those choices, but that’s not the happy kind of collaboration.
HO: You talked about the writing rituals, you clean house or not. Where do you write; do you have a preferred place where you like to write? Are you easy-going? And on what do you write; do you use a computer?
AL: I still do some writing in longhand, especially I do a lot of writing on planes, on airplanes, because the phone’s not ringing and I feel kind of quiet on an airplane, which may seem odd. But I don't like to take a computer with me on the airplane because it’s too heavy and I never check any bags. So on an airplane I might write a draft of an essay, or I might write a lot of materials for my courses, or I might work on a chapter, and do it by longhand. And still if I’m really worried about something, if I feel like I don't have a complete grasp of it, I like to begin in longhand. But I’ve also trained myself—I got my first computer in 1984, and it was about the size of this room, and it couldn't do anything. And it took me months to learn how to even do the simplest word-processing tasks. So I have learned over the years to compose on the computer, and I do a lot of writing just right at the computer. I like to work in my office here rather than at home because I have a pretty extensive library, and I can just jump up and pull things down that I need. And I like having all my stuff around me. Lisa, of course, is exactly the opposite and prefers to write at home.
HO: What happens when you get stuck? I mean, do you ever get stuck, as I imagine we all do?
AL: Yeah, I do. I threaten myself. And Lisa treats herself! It just is…but I remember when I was very early in my career, I had been asked to write a review of a book that I admired deeply, but I wanted to write an edgy kind of review. I didn't want it just to be all adulatory. So it was really hard for me, and I didn't know how to get started. So I made, I said, “OK, Andrea, you cannot get up from this sofa,” where I was sitting, “until you have written at least ten pages.” And I want to tell you I was there a long time, like, twenty hours, but I would not let myself get up. I just said, “I’m bigger than this,” but it was awful. I kept wanting to get up, but I didn’t. Maybe I got up to go to the bathroom, but I stayed up all night, and I was just…
HO: You just sat there?
AL: I just sat there, and eventually I’d write something. And there is nothing like writing to make more writing happen. So if you just get yourself writing, more writing usually follows.
HO: Did you hear Diane Middlebrook when she was here?
AL: Yeah, I’ve heard part of the tape.
HO: Yeah, well, that's her technique too. She just sits there until…Well, let me change a little bit gears. What have you done to develop yourself in terms of writing style, stylistically? Have you sought out reading certain things, have you given yourself exercises? You know, it’s probably not at this stage, but an earlier stage in your development, but…
AL: Well, I'm very interested in style, and I admire style. I love words, and I love what you can do with words. I'm not satisfied with myself as a prose stylist. I'm good at certain kinds of style and then I’m not very good at others. So I'm always very attentive to style and trying to learn more about style, both from what I read but also from going back to my own writing. And I often will take a piece—just a few pages, about two or three pages—and really analyze it, make myself sit down, and count numbers of words in sentences, you know, something as silly as that. Or see how do the sentences open, what kind of clauses and phrases am I using, do I have any metaphors, what sorts of figures of speech, am I quoting other people, what kind of people are they, why am I quoting them. And I just really take that nitty-gritty look. And I learned about myself really early in terms of style that I loved these big left-branching sentences that just start out and go off here forever and might be sixty or eighty words long and still haven’t gotten to the main clause—well that's no good. You can’t do that very much, so you can learn to pick out stylistic ticks that you have, and identify them, and then learn to try to work around them. I’m also, I really don't like to use the passive voice, and when that woman made me use the passive voice it really got on my nerves. So I watch out for things like that. And I love balanced sentences and things that have nice parallelisms. I think it was in a New Yorker article, a man talking about wanting to be a writer for the New Yorker more than anything and sent in his first big article to this editor and he had worked so hard on his parallelism, and the editor wrote, sent it back and said, “Work on these sentences: tap any one on one end, and it will never stop rocking!” And they were so balanced that they were just not going anywhere. So I try not to do that.
HO: When did you start writing? When did you realize that writing was something that you wanted to do? Was it in high school, or…?
AL: Well, when I was in middle school I did a research assignment on Albert Schweitzer, who was my hero at the time, and somehow I found out that I could write to my state library—I lived in Florida—and that they would send materials about Albert Schweitzer. And so I wrote off, and they sent me this package of Xeroxed materials. I was never so happy in my life. And I thought this was the most wonderful thing, and so I just started copying out of all this stuff they had sent me. I just plagiarized right and left. And I made my report on Albert, my big paper, on Albert Schweitzer. I had all these pictures of him, and I designed it, and I colored the cover, you know, I really, I was so proud of that piece of writing. And I’ve always been grateful; I got [an] A+, and my teacher—if she did know that I had been copying things out of the library—she decided that it was part of my learning and she wasn’t going to punish me for it. And I’ve always been glad that I didn’t get punished because I think it would have made me less interested in writing. So I always look back to Albert Schweitzer and my little research paper. But I didn't become serious about trying to write until after I finished my master’s degree, and I started writing reviews for my local newspaper, book reviews, and I thought that was just lots of fun. And I would work so hard on a little, tiny little one-column book review, and then it would come out, you know, it had my name on it, and I thought that was just so cool. And those, I think, are the things I think about that really got me intrigued with what I could do with writing, and I do think writing is a means of making change happen in the world, and I'm interested in that too. So, you should be interested in writing for that reason.
HO: If nothing else. Well, let's open it up for any kinds of questions and concerns. I mean, I have at least another fifteen or twenty questions, but I’m sure you do too.
A: You said something about you need to see the arc before you begin writing. How do you develop that process: do you sit and think at that same sofa, do you walk around? How does that happen; what’s that process?
AL: For me, it’s very sedentary; I don’t get up and walk around. I do a lot of what I think looks like sitting and staring at the wall: very unproductive, but it is unproductive, I mean, it can be, but it isn’t necessarily. And eventually I’ll make some notes. It’s like putting those dots—you know those things you get in cereal boxes and make the dots and see what the picture is—and I’ll start making the dots that will make the arc. But, essentially, I think of everything I’m writing as a kind of story I want to tell or argument I want to make, and so it has to have a beginning and it has to go somewhere. And so as soon as I can feel that I’m alright, I can start, but until I feel it I am very uneasy.
HO: You know, Corrinne [graduate student who participated in an earlier conversation], if you heard her speak too, when she has to think of her argument she throws herself on the floor, and basically, people say, “What are you doing?” and she says, “I’m working on my dissertation.” Thinking, thinking a lot. And when you said connect the dots, do you actually develop an outline or do you draw a kind of diagram?
AL: I do work from something that’s more like a scratch outline or a series of notes. I don’t ever come up with A and 1 and 2 and B, although Marilyn and I were trying to do that today for our very big project, to get it down in real outline form. But I will always make some kind of notes and then try to follow them. But if they don’t work, if it’s not working out, you have to change. I won't follow a plan slavishly if it doesn't feel like it's working.
A: What kind of role does other writers’ writing play in influencing you, and when you read do you look for rhetorical styles? And how do you let that affect you and how do you let that play out?
AL: Well, there are voices that I can't get out of my head. Actually one of them is my co-author Lisa's. I can always hear her saying, “You know, you should put a dash there,” or something like that. And another writer who has influenced me profoundly is a philosopher of language, Kenneth Burke. And I’ve read much of his writing. I wouldn’t say it’s his style that’s influenced me, it’s his ideas. And I can always sort of hear him in the back of my head. But when I was in school—have any of you ever gone through phases where you wrote like someone? Who have you been influenced by?
A: Well, not particularly a person, but I would say last year my AP English teacher would always use a lot dashes, and now I use dashes constantly when writing.
AL: When I was in college, I think it might have been my sophomore year, I went into my Hemmingway phase. And I had decided for some reason to read all of Hemmingway, which I did, and then I was going to write a paper about him, and of course it came out sounding like really horrible Hemmingway. And I didn't realize it at the time until my teacher looked at it and disabused me. And I think I went through a Faulkner phase because I wrote a master's thesis on Faulkner. And so I’ve been through several phases. But, I mean, we all have those voices, those voices in our heads. I like reading essays quite a lot. I’m a big fan of I guess what’s called “creative non-fiction.” Is that the correct term? I really love reading a beautifully written essay, so I’m always on the lookout for those, maybe not for something specific but just because I enjoy that genre so much.
HO: Have you consciously, at various times, imitated consciously—not being influenced—but, “I think today I am going to try to write like so and so”?
AL: Not on the scale that I went into with my inadvertent Faulkner and Hemmingway stages, but sometimes I’ll see a sentence—Toni Morrison has got some really just glorious sentences—and I might try to see if I could write a sentence that was in anyway even evocative of what I get out of Toni Morrison. One of the fun things my students and I do sometimes is to take a well-known fairytale or story and see if we can tell the story using somebody else's voice and style. In The St. Martin’s Handbook there’s an example from a time when my class and I took The Three Little Pigs and we all tried to tell The Three Little Pigs in the voice and style of somebody. And the little excerpt that’s in the book is from a student—a chemistry student—who chose Edgar Allen Poe, and wrote what was this wonderful, absolutely wonderfully…he had Poe down. And somebody else did Catcher in the Rye. What’s the narrator’s name?
A: Holden Caulfield.
AL: …Holden Caulfield's voice. And so that’s a lot of fun if you just want to entertain yourself.
HO: Well, I think you actually learn something…
AL: Oh, absolutely, yeah, but it’s also fun.
A: Andrea, after a long time of doing both, how does your role as a teacher connect with your role as a writer?
AL: I really try, when I’m writing about writing, I really try to be true to my own experience. In other words, I don't try to tell students to do something that I would never do. But it's hard sometimes. For instance, the fact that I don't like revision, yet I know I have to revise and I need to revise; I don't say to students, “I hate revision and don’t do it,” but neither do I wax overly enthusiastic. But I bet there are plenty of times when I don't practice what I preach, or don't preach what I practice, more to the point. You could probably catch me out on that a lot, if you were watching. You have something else in mind; I didn’t answer that very well.
A: No, that’s great. Yeah.
AL: Most of our parents always said, “Do what I say, not what I do.”
A: Andrea, do you have a favorite writing teacher, and an experience with a writing teacher that you want to share with us?
AL: Now, I had some really bizarre teachers. And I had Miss Footerer in the ninth grade, and my assignment in Miss Footerer’s class was to copy out every alliteration in the poem Evangeline. That is a long poem. Now, even worse than the fact that she asked me to do this—that was my assignment—I liked doing it. I thought it was fun. So that was one of my writing teachers that I will never forget. And then I had another really interesting teacher, my Latin teacher. We had to write in Latin, and I was absolutely terrified of this teacher. But I did everything I was supposed to do, and she made us go up to the board and write in Latin “none nula, none nula”—which is “know nothing, know nothing”—“mea culpa, mea culpa, mea”—“maximum culpa” because we were bad, we were very bad, we did not know what we were doing. So that kind of…I mean, I think I have had negative experiences with writing teachers, but somehow they didn't do really bad things to me, and I somehow was able to pick up and go along. But when I was working on my Ph.D., I worked with a professor who was himself quite a noted stylist, and he was wonderful about talking about—even at the sentence level and word choice—and I did learn a lot from him and appreciated so much the time he took with me. I think as students, if you have a professor who will sit down and look at your writing with you in the tiny grained, you know, the minute look at it, it can be really valuable. I don’t know if that…
A: Andrea, I have two questions for you. One, you’ve written so many different kinds of books and articles, and I was wondering where you get new ideas or ideas for new projects?
AL: They come to me in the shower.
HO: Oh really? C'mon, you’re kidding.
AL: I’m not kidding. How many people get ideas in the shower? Tell the truth. There’s something about water I think!
A: And if any of those ideas are research-type of projects, what is your approach to research, dealing with all of the possible sources, and crafting that into an article or something?
AL: Boy, that’s a tough question. When Lisa and I began the article that I was just talking about, we did a huge literature review about collaboration and then we decided what we wanted our major points to be, and then we started looking for examples that would support those points, we divided it up, we went out looking, doing database searches and so forth, and eventually amassed much more evidence than we could possibly use, and then it was a matter of winnowing and sorting and saying, “This is a much more powerful example than this,” and being very critical about the sources that we had gathered up. Generating research projects—Marilyn and I were just thinking up a new one yesterday—so I guess when you’re interested in writing—maybe it’s different if you’re not thinking about writing—but there are so many ways to do research about writing, there’s so many interesting things about how people write, the kinds of things they write, how writing changes, how technology intersects with writing, where does writing come from, what's its history. I mean, I am a nut about writing, I guess. So in terms of thinking about research projects about writing—perhaps I’ve worked my way into it over the years of concentrating on writing, and talking with people about writing, watching students write, paying attention to how students write and how students develop as writers—I've always got a lot of questions that are in my head: “Ooh I'd like to answer that. Well that could be a research project.”
HO: You know, I was very surprised what you said about getting ideas in the shower because when I'm doing workshops a lot of times with students I talk about how people get ideas—showers, you followed that example perfectly. And David Abernathy, for example, writing his grand book that took him fifteen years to write, got stuck on the ending of the book, and he managed to work that out in the shower, you know, after all those years. And there is a professor here who gets so many ideas in the shower that she put up a grease pencil board in the shower. Is that you?!
AL: No, it isn’t me! I remember, I was at that one. So I remember. I thought, “What a great idea!”
HO: And it is a great idea, and, in fact, there was a product where you can take a small grease pencil built for the shower. And I do ask students this in workshops, those of you who have been in honors writing workshops, and there’s invariably several people who do get ideas in showers. Very hard in the dorm—you know, running out naked, “Eureka!” down the hallway. And then of course if you do bring a little grease pencil board with you, your brain will say “Nah-na-na”, and, you know, it will take several times where you won’t get any ideas; your brain will go on strike. But it really does work, and there’s been scientific research—I’ve been told—that hot water on the back of the head releases certain, you know, chemical reactions.
AL: I do keep a notepad on my bed because sometimes if I’m struggling with a problem, a writing problem, somehow when I wake up, I’ve done something in the night. An answer has come to me, and I can reach over and write what that is down.
HO: Have you consciously done, you know, lucid dreaming techniques.
HO: No. Hey…
AL: I don’t know how to do that. Do you know how?
HO: Well, there’s a professor—I’m trying to remember his name—at a workshop who, yes, it’s actually very simple. You don’t agonize. I mean, it’s not those things where you twist and turn at night, [thinking] “Oh God, I got to write this thing.” But you think, “Oh, gee, I’ve got to think about this thing around gerunds,” whatever, right? This is the issue. You revolve around it in your mind, and then you say, “OK, that’s the issue that I want to think about.” You put it aside—don’t think about it. Of course, you have paper and pencil by the bed. You wake up in the morning, and, as you wake up in the morning, you say, “OK, now what about that issue I was thinking about?” And then, he said, sixty to eighty percent of the time he makes progress on thinking through something. Now that’s not writing in your sleep, but thinking out things.
HO: So that’s pretty remarkable.
A: From your teaching experiences, and especially with bilingual and multi-lingual students, in what ways have you found speaking another language could help a writer or hurt a writer?
AL: That’s a wonderful question. And I think that, especially if you know multiple languages, it can both hurt and help, depending on what your task is. But there's an article that I admire quite a bit called “The Poetry of ESL Writing,” and the researcher there is arguing that the turns of phrase and especially the kind of figurative language that can come up in a speaker of multiple languages that a non-native speaker will not say that, that there’s power in that. And the person writing the article was writing it to teachers and arguing that teachers should look for those moments not to say, “Oh, this is not what a native speaker would say,” but to say, “Look at this new way of saying that you’ve come up with out of your storehouse of knowledge.” But I have several friends who know four or five languages, and I can often see them struggling; I can sometimes see a person speaking in English and then suddenly a French word comes in or a Spanish word or a Chinese word. I think that’s wonderful. I mean, I wish I knew bunches and bunches of languages, but I think it can be a hindrance. If you have a deadline, and you’ve got something really straightforward that you’ve just got to write, and you’re having trouble working in this particular language, I think that knowing a whole lot of languages can seem like it puts barriers in your way. But for the most part, knowing different languages gives you different ways of experiencing and knowing the world, and that’s got to be good. That’s got to be really good. I think the United States should be much more interested in multilingualism than it is. But if George Bush spoke Arabic…nevermind! I never thought about that before, but I mean it really would, he’d have to have somewhat of a different perspective. So, good example.
A: I just wonder…I know I started writing when I was four or five, my first piece was about a mouse in our house who went to the bathroom all over our paper napkins and it was published in the Palo Alto Times.
AL: Why am I not surprised?
A: So I was wondering if you had any leanings this way earlier on: did you write stories or plays or create pieces when you were young, or did it come later?
AL: What I can remember, and I don’t remember a lot—I don't remember a single teacher in my elementary school, I don’t remember any teaching until middle school, I don't remember my friends, I don’t know what I was doing. But I suspect that I was reading because as soon as I could learn to read, I was always reading. I have a trauma around writing that had happened to me. How many of you have an early memory of writing that’s bad, something bad about writing? Nobody!? Nobody in here had to sit on their left hand and write with their right hand even though they’re left-handed and had to write a thousand times, “I will not do this or that” or whatever. When I was in second grade my family moved and when I got to the new school they could do cursive writing, and I couldn’t do it—I was, well, still printing. And my teacher made me sit by myself that day, and said, “You know, I’ll show you this some other time, but you just sit over there and read.” And I went home that night just sobbing. I just threw myself on my mother and father and said, “I'm never going back there until I can do this weird thing that they’re doing.” And, of course, my parents were really kind and sat down and immediately started working with me on these letters and I picked up it. But so really my earliest memory that is specifically about writing is a bad memory. And I think many people have memories like that, that have something to do with not doing it right or being humiliated because you had this in the wrong place, but—I’ve asked people for twenty years about their early memories of writing and I can tell you from this research that—the most frequent early memory of writing people have is of writing their name. That’s a very important moment. I don't remember learning to write my name, but I've interviewed thousands of people who can remember the moment when they could put their mark on the world, make letters that were both them and not them. So this is I’m there but I’m here, and it’s that moment of differentiation where you being to see yourself from a new perspective, and you’re taking in the beginnings of a self that is separate from your family, your mother, whatever, and that’s a really important moment. Do any of you remember learning to write your name? Yeah. John does. I interviewed a guy who…
A: [I wrote it] on the staircase wall; my parents weren’t thrilled.
AL: I was just about to say, I interviewed someone one time who had painted it on, painted—with real paint—on some wall and then [was] punished. So his memory was both good and bad: good that he had written his name and bad that he got punished for it.
A: My younger brother carved it into a piece of furniture, and then tried to deny that he wrote it.
HO: Somebody stole his name, right?
AL: Well that naming, I mean, naming is really important. Your name is an important thing.
HO: OK, here we go. One more.
A: Well you mentioned a “Do as I do and not as I say” kind of thing. And you can find other books by – Is it Mary Elizabeth Gordon?—The Transitive Vampire—and there’s another book too. And I’m just trying to refresh my memory about it—I haven’t looked at one of her books for a long time—but my recollection is that when she was explaining what a complex sentence was, she wrote a complex sentence.
AL: Yes, absolutely right.
A: And when she explained a compound sentence, she wrote a compound sentence. And if you ever just kind of got weary at the end of the day and wondered what kind of sentence you’ve been using you could look in there and make it work. And I love her books.
AL: I do too; I’ve got them upstairs. There’s another favorite book that I got. If you have any little people that you want to give books to, there’s a fantastic book called A Pop-up Grammar Book. You’ve got, don’t you have a copy of that now? And I’ve given copies—we gave one away at a PWR party a year ago. And it’s a big picture book. And it’s one of those where you pull tabs. And so it has a punctuation page, and when you pull the tab, all the punctuation springs into place. And I’ve given it to some three-year-old friends of mine, who are very fascinated with the Pop-up Grammar Book. Again, it’s a similar principle: it does what it’s talking about right in front of your eyes, but aimed at a very young audience.
HO: OK, one more.
A: You talk about writing research papers and writing about ways to write, but do you ever just stop and just let your thoughts flow and free write? If you write creatively, what would you write about? Does it show more of your style than other types of writing do?
AL: There is now a growing body of evidence about writing and well-being, writing and health, both mental and physical, and there’s just an enormous amount of evidence to support the idea that writing is very, very helpful in maintaining equilibrium. And I have used writing in that way on a number of occasions in my life. The most powerful recent example was the death of my younger sister when she was 47. And I quite couldn't take it in. I wouldn’t accept it; I was there; I was her caregiver; I was there when she died. It just didn't compute: my sister was not supposed to die. And I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote, and a lot of it didn’t even make any sense. I just wrote, and I still have those notebooks. And I’ve had several other times in my life—I don’t know if you call that free-writing. It's kind of a writing that has to get done, and it’s part grief, and it’s part puzzlement and anger. I was just furious—I didn’t know who I was furious at—but I was furious. And I just poured all that out onto the page. And there’s something cathartic about being able to do that. It’s not, you know, it's no great work of art, that’s for sure, but it’s a release of some kind, and I think writing is extremely useful for that.
HO: Just one last question. You know, having read student writing here at Stanford, what’s your reaction or how do you think writing is happening here?
AL: Well, a lot of writing is happening at Stanford, but not as much as I’d like. There always could be more writing. I was talking to a student the other day; he said he’s taking that “Sleep and Dreams” and there’s no paper in there. I said 'What!? There has to be a paper. There should definitely be a paper.” I've taught at six or eight different universities, and so I’ve got some experience with teaching students at many, many different universities, and my experience is that writing ability in the college years is very fluid, very malleable. Every single person who’s in college has got strengths as a writer and weaknesses as a writer; that’s just the way it is when you’re beginning your college career and throughout your college career. So I haven’t seen…that doesn’t seem different to me about students here than about at any other university. But students here are so intellectually curious and so keen to find things out. That’s part of the great joy of teaching at Stanford is getting to know students, finding out what students are interested in, and trying to help further those interests. And I don't think I’ve run into a student here who said, “I don't have anything to write about” or “I don’t have any ideas.” I have run into students who’ve said that in other places but not at Stanford. But the writing skills and abilities are just all over the place because this is a very fertile, malleable, changing time in your life. And if your experience at college goes like most people's, the four years of college are such a time for the ripening of writing abilities. You should be so much better and more confident, more powerful as a writer by the time you graduate than you were when you started. And that’s not a criticism of you in your beginning; it’s where you are developmentally and in terms of your age and everything else. But it’s a good thing, a good thing about college and writing.
HO: Well, wonderful. Thank you very much, Andrea.