By Cheryl Bardoe
Talk about the power of word choice. My MFA faculty advisor said that my critical essay analyzing the layered details in Daniel Pinkwater’s book The Neddiad was generally fine, but that I had “ducked” when it came to answering the question of how writers might achieve this effect. Ducked? I doubt my advisor—successful middle-grade novelist Alexandria LaFaye—knew the impact that word would have on me. My husband did. He smirked as he backed away from the computer after reading the e-mail. No one had ever accused me of “ducking” before.
Or perhaps, being a seasoned teacher as well as a writer, Alexandria did choose that word on purpose. It came with the encouragement I needed to delve deeper into the writing process by revising the paper. I picked up the gauntlet. No, I didn’t find out from Pinkwater himself how he approaches his writing, but I read enough into the words of his books and author interviews to generate a hypothesis that was concrete, actionable, and meaningful to my own writing process. When I resubmitted the paper, Alexandria responded that it had become one of the most thorough analyses that she had seen. Like I said, I’m not a big one for ducking.
The writing life doesn’t allow much room for ducking, anyway. If you write anything at all, then you’ve stood up to the bully of the blank page. If you share your work with others—whether through critique groups or the process of publication—then you’ve braved the risk of public review. If you revise, then you’ve overcome the disappointment that the words weren’t already perfect. And just by doing the process over and over again, we repeatedly vanquish the inner critic and specter of self-doubt. Over time, the less we duck, the more powerful our writing becomes.
Learning to write critically is another example of this process. I would never have guessed how critical writing would become a regular part of my creative process, and I recommend experimenting to see how it might fit into your writing life, too.
We hear a lot about “reading as writers” in order to learn techniques of our craft. This means not to just read a story, but also to recognize the choices authors make, and the effects of those choices. Why did E. B. White choose for Charlotte to describe Wilbur in her web as “some pig,” “terrific,” “radiant,” and “humble,” rather than “special,” “magnificent,” “healthy,” and “meek”? In Ruth Krauss’s The Carrot Seed, how does the appearance of several naysayers influence readers’ feelings about the young boy who patiently tends his seed? Asking such questions cultivates our senses for the power of words and literary elements. I advocate going beyond reading as a writer to writing critically as a writer as a method to deepen our questioning and synthesize what we’ve learned to benefit our creative work.
Reading as a writer isn’t a full immersion into story—the breathless turning of pages, the not wanting to put the book down to eat or sleep until we find out what happens to the characters in the end. After such a delicious read, when we turn our attention to examining the book, writing about what we observe encourages us to slow down and pay attention to details of craft. Like with other forms of research, if we don’t look closely enough, we won’t have the information we need when we go to write.
Writing critically can help us shape our observations into strategies that are concrete enough to try in our own writing. Albert Einstein once said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” What is true of astrophysics is also true of writing—if we don’t understand a literary technique clearly enough to explain it, then it will be difficult to apply that technique in our stories. We know the power that comes from putting pen to page to reveal hidden secrets of characters or explore themes in our own lives. This same writing-as-discovery process works in critical writing, too, as the sustained effort to transcribe general, hazy instincts onto paper transforms them into clear, articulated ideas.
The act of writing critically also calls on us to synthesize information and relate it to our own well of writing experience. This is where my original paper about The Neddiad had fallen flat. I had written nearly three double-spaced pages about how the details Pinkwater chose for his first three sentences served multiple purposes in establishing character, setting, and tone. But because I couldn’t find any interviews with the author specifying how he goes about creating such rich details, I didn’t speculate about his writing process. If I had been writing an essay for English class, the original draft would likely have been sufficient. But I was writing as a writer, for the purpose of learning as a writer. Without hearing an author’s own perspective, it would be presumptuous to state exactly how Pinkwater created those sentences. My advisor’s feedback, however, helped me to realize that it isn’t presumptuous to link examples of a writer’s published text to craft advice written by others, or to lessons from my own writing experience, and to keep pushing until I had enough evidence to support a theory on process. More casual observation or conversation often does not compel us to probe as deeply into a question as does answering it in writing.
In the first two semesters of my MFA program at Hamline University, I wrote a new critical essay of about five pages each month. Each essay originated in a question of craft that related to whatever I was writing at the time, so anything I gleaned from the critical writing could be immediately applied to my creative work. In the third semester, I wrote a critical thesis that was almost forty pages. Whew! The fourth and final semester of the program was devoted to my creative thesis, so no critical writing was required. And yet, I found that after having integrated critical writing into my creative process, I couldn’t leave it behind. I continued to seek out and make notes from published works that offered insights into solving problems in my manuscripts. Sometimes examining one model was enough to stimulate ideas. Other times, I checked out every related book on the library shelf and made a small inventory of different ways each handled a literary element.
Luckily, outside the bounds of school, this endeavor doesn’t have to take the form of monthly, formal essays. I’ve been keeping critical analyses (some as short as a paragraph, others a few pages) in notebooks devoted to the projects to which they relate. Another idea is to combine entries into a reader’s journal, which could become the go-to reference of books that you’ve read and techniques they model. Sharing such writings among a writer’s group or critique partners is also a wonderful mechanism for learning from one another. If you are so inclined, such musings may also develop into another route to publication—in newsletters such as the Prairie Wind or magazines about the craft of writing.
So now, I throw down the gauntlet to others to see how critical writing might influence your creative writing. Try it out. These writings can be as short or as long as you like. They can be written purely for yourself or to share with others. They can tackle a question in your current manuscript or replenish the well in between projects. Like so many aspects of writing, this practice can be adapted to fit each individual’s process. What’s most important is not to duck but to keep challenging ourselves—for the benefit of our writing lives, our stories, and our readers.
Cheryl Bardoe is the author of Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age and Gregor Mendel: The Friar Who Grew Peas. Her first fictional picture book, The Ugly Duckling Dinosaur: A Prehistoric Tale, will be released in May 2011. She enjoys school visits with young readers and leading hands-on writing workshops. Visit her online at http://www.cherylbardoe.com.