NDJ:1 Susan P. Willens

Comments Delivered at New Directions’ Writing Group Leaders’ Retreat on September 23, 2001

The Vanishing Dinner Party

— Susan P. Willens —

I began writing this talk in August with a story that explains the title, about why we need to write. Since then the terrible events of September 11 brought forth an outpouring of writing: survivor’s stories; advice; political theories; expressions of fury, compassion, and faith; poems; inquiries; journalism; calls for help. Hundreds of messages on the New Directions Listserv itself testified to how much people need to say what they are thinking and to reach out to each other – to write.

I will start with the dinner party and why people need to write, and then define a few ways in which teachers of writing can help students do it as effectively as possible.

A couple of months ago, I had a busy social Saturday. My grandchildren and later an out-of-town friend visited, and I dropped in on a neighborhood cocktail party. I came home, looked through the mail, changed into a bathrobe, turned on the computer, and answered the phone.

“Are you coming?” a good friend asked quietly.


“To my house. For dinner. Everyone is here. Shall I wait for you or go ahead and serve dinner?”

I was stunned. I had completely forgotten about it. Completely. Gone. Not “oops, it just slipped my mind, and now I remember,” but “what dinner party?” Almost, “Who are YOU?”

When I realized what I had done, I went cold, excused myself from her dinner on the grounds of mortification, got off the phone, and turned to my desk calendar. Of course! I HAD NOT WRITTEN IT DOWN. There was a blank at the bottom of the week’s calendar after the visits and the cocktail party.

I have not quite recovered from that mental trick. Maybe it was Freudian –

secretly I did not want to go – or geriatric – I am slipping mentally. But I keep

returning to the practical: I didn’t write it down. As a result of that omission, the

dinner party slid into an abyss deeper than the Grand Canyon. Its slide illustrates one answer to the question “why do people write?”

My dinner party vanished. So does most human experience. Whether it is an event to attend, a sight to describe, a business transaction to record, or a thought to convey, we have to write it if we want to catch it as it passes, to remember it. In cultures that retain an oral tradition, a griot memorizes the tribal history and recites it without pen and paper or stone and stylus. In our culture, however, writing derives from an urge to make our transient lives more permanent. The poet Wallace Stevens writes, “Death is the mother of beauty,” meaning that we create art because we know we will die. In the same way, we write things down to keep them safe from time and forgetting. We write to know what we think, forcing half-formed notions into the light of day so we can get a good, objective look at them. We also write to communicate with others. Reaching another person, bridging the terrible distance between one mind and another, takes us beyond the note on a desk calendar. We consider an audience, a purpose, and a form for our ideas. If we do it well, we manage to touch another mind with our own.

These are mighty goals for any endeavor: preserving and shaping life’s impressions, and reaching other people with our words. A writing teacher is perhaps invited to help writers in this work. How does the teacher actually do this? We help students generate and clarify ideas. Then we offer ourselves as a sample audience, trying to understand and respond to students’ writing. And we look at new drafts to watch them grow more powerful. Here are some thoughts about each of these tasks:

Generating material: No matter how urgently students want to write, that blank page freezes even the most ambitious. In writing workshops, and at home, free writing gets the words flowing. Free writing is a ten- or fifteen-minute exercise of responding to a “prompt,” a suggestion of a topic, with uncensored writing.

No punctuation, capitalization, paragraphing, erasing, coherence, or sense  needed, since no one else will see the resulting writing. In New Direction sessions in Vermont this summer, Denise Orenstein, Leah Johnson, and I suggested  some prompts that seemed to turn on the faucet of words at 9:00 a.m. One day, “write about an article of clothing that seems significant to you.” Other days, “write about a hidden place; make a list of items on someone’s desk or coffee table, in a medicine cabinet or garage, that reveal the personality of the owner; respond to this arrangement of an orange in a glass on a table with autumn leaves; describe a ‘passionate endeavor’ of yours, a hobby that engages you.” In all cases, heads went down, pens scooted across papers, nails clicked on laptop keys, as writers told stories, made theories, reclaimed memories. The exercises produced powerful spontaneous writing to which the writers could return later, as on returns to an attic storage closet: “look what we have here!”

Other free writing opportunities can connect with clinical reports. Students want to write about patients in all their pulsing reality. Since no supervisor is in the writing workshop, the writers can let it rip. “How does your most fascinating patient take his/her place in the consulting room?” In this exercise, we watch the verbs, as patients sidle, storm, tiptoe, bustle and sneak into the writers’ spaces.

These exercises satisfy the first hunger of a writer: to catch and record experience, to write it down.

Clarifying ideas: Even the smartest person gives birth to ill-formed ideas. In fact, we write to discover what we mean. So the writing teacher and colleagues in the workshop lend themselves as a laboratory experiment in a special kind of listening, sympathetic and critical at the same time. We may say, “I don’t understand what you mean on page one; how does it relate to page three; the ending can be much stronger; brilliant comparison on page seven quote.” These conversations must be respectful but tough and always about the writing. The question on the table is NOT “do I agree with you,” but “do I understand what you are saying?” If Adolf Hitler brought Mein Kampf to a writers’ workshop, we would have to tackle its logic.

Part of the task of clarifying ideas is managing technical research. Sometimes these sources drown out the voice of the primary writer, when they should amplify it. When the writer reads to the workshop, then, we have to ask, “what does the quote, the technical term, the professional reference add to this work? A helpful exercise is to take all the reference material out of the paper, to state the writer’s thesis and proof, and only after the point is truly made, to go back and put the theorists in. We have the ideas flowing and becoming clear. Now, we should consider the audience. Who is reading this work and why?

Defining audience: Who will be reading this writing? I write differently when I leave a note for my housekeeper than when I write a book review for a professional journal, yet again when I e-mail my children. Defining the writer’s audience determines some subtle judgements about vocabulary, sentence structure, allusions, technical terminology, and forthrightness.

A first question the writer asks about the reader is “does he or she want to know what I am writing, or must I entice him/her? The answer to this question  influences the first paragraph, conversational, business-like, funny, or alluring.

Beyond the opening, does the writing grab the reader? As members of the workshop, we are responsible for noticing our minds wandering and our tempers rising. Then we can roll up our sleeves and mess around with the plumbing.

Are the sentences varied in length and structure? Are there lively details? Is the language fresh, verbs muscular, adjectives few and clever? Does the writer refer to books, plays, history we share? Is there a joke where appropriate?  Readers look for grace and charm, persuasion, erudition, pleasure in the written word. As representative readers, the workshop members listen for beauty as we do for truth.

Tone: The relation between the reader and writer also shapes the tone of the  writing,  the way a writer would sound if he/she were speaking: instructive, sarcastic, angry, humorous, dispassionate. To describe an hour with a psychotic patient to a supervisor, the appropriate tone is serious, careful, professional. The same hour described to a close friend might convey fear, hilarity, or confusion. Same experience, different audience, different tone. Interest and tone, we address these concepts of audience when listening to writing in the formative stages.

Another issue in the relation between writer and reader concerns relative power. It is called ethos: is the reader superior to me, an equal, a subordinate? Ethos defines why the writer deserves the reader’s attention. “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him” is Marc Antony’s false statement of his ethos. Some writers have only to sign their names to merit the reader’s attention – the President, Michael Jordan, Allen Greenspan – and others establish their authority with a sentence about their experience or a list of their degrees. Besides these credentials, most writers establish credibility by the level of their language, their cultural and professional references, and the proof they supply for assertions.

Vocabulary: Like the tone they choose, every word a writer uses has to reach a comprehending mind at the other end of the transaction of reading. It has to travel a rickety bridge from one person’s experience to another’s. Within English, we all speak many languages: philosophers talk baseball, rappers pray in a home church, teenagers talk to each other and to parents. The best writer chooses the correct language for the aspect of audience he/she is aiming at and remains consistent in that language. Under “vocabulary,” the workshops will address the question of jargon. It’s not automatically evil. Among colleagues, as in a family, jargon, which is actually shop talk, shorthand, inside jokes, is an efficient means of communicating. Outside the family, though, it may only convey snobbery. Try this exercise: use a term like countertransference or trauma in a sentence intended for a ten-year-old. In the precious commerce between the reader and the writer, choosing words can estrange or embrace.

Revision: So that’s all there is to it: produce the ideas, organize them, shape them for a well-defined audience, and write them in an interesting way. Simple. But if by chance the first attempt that we read together, needs a little work, we can help with good suggestions for revision. Positive words. “That’s good, keep that, more of that; try it without paragraph five; see if you can summarize the research more succinctly; I think your central idea is . . .am I right? — how about returning to that idea in the conclusion?” Revision is “seeing again,” this time through the eyes of real-life readers. After a draft or two, or twenty, the writing takes its rightful shape and tone, the result of formulating original ideas and shaping them for the delight and edification of others. That process, with the writing workshop as midwife, keeps us from losing dinner parties. In fact, it keeps us human.