Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Writing With Power (Peter Elbow)

Writing With Power
Peter Elbow
Oxford University Press
Nonfiction, Writing
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: In learning how to write, many learn the importance of complete sentences and the parts of speech and other mechanical fundamentals, lessons drilled home by English teachers and grammar books and the dreaded red lines and margin notes on an essay. What too often falls through the cracks are concepts like voice and energy and power, the forces that transform a flat string of words into a memorable reading experience, that take a by-the-numbers essay and create a truly persuasive piece, that transform a string of ideas into poetry. Teacher and writer Peter Elbow discusses the writing process, from early drafts through final polish, and how to discover one's own voice.

REVIEW: Reading this book, written by a university professor, I kept thinking of the line in Tad Williams's Tailchaser's Song, where the main character Fritti attempts to capture what irritates him so about the inhabitants of the feline capital city. To paraphrase, he says that they'd happily spend their whole lives talking about water bugs, thinking about water bugs, and discussing water bugs with other water bug enthusiasts, only to one day realize they'd never actually seen one, but by then they wouldn't want to, because it would spoil all their lovely ideas.
Teacher Elbow writes labyrinthine lectures about multiple writing methods, several of which bleed over into each other; he expounds upon multiple methods of editing, which also bleed over and contradict each other; he sets multi-syllabic snares in search of the elusive concepts of voice and power; but I have to wonder, in all those lectures, how much actual writing (outside the classroom) he's actually done, let alone read. He seems to exist in a tower above the land of literature, high in the rarefied academic atmosphere, where only the trained initiates may approach after years of studying writing about writing, a place where one may philosophize, ramble, and chase streams of consciousness for their own sakes, freely doubling back and meandering and drifting upon eddies of edification, without need or worry about practical application. It made me want to claw my eyes out by the third chapter - and that was just when he was discussing early drafting, concepts that still had some connection to us poor, uneducated outsiders actually crafting words in the shadow of his high tower. By the end, he was blatantly contradicting himself (such as when he tells students that, in order to find the best words, one mustn't write until one has a vivid image in one's head of what one is saying... only, not a couple paragraphs later, to tell students that stopping to create mental images might just keep them from writing altogether and to just put words down anyway if they can't), a technique that has academic merit, perhaps, but isn't particularly helpful in a book purporting to teach writing to the general public.
Is it necessarily wrong, to discuss writing on this level? No, nor is all his advice useless beyond the college classroom; there are some decent ideas and tidbits here and there, shiny objects even a plebeian hack like myself could appreciate. But the cover promises "Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process", and a prominent review quote from the Boston Globe further promises that this is a "practical handbook for anyone who needs to write." No, no it is not.
While I can see, more or less (if I squint and step sideways and skim - as I had to do copiously in order to finish), the general shape of the ideas Elbow was trying to convey, the verbose, circular, navel-gazing manner in which he attempted to convey it, refusing to commit to a concept or idea without immediately flipping sides, left me cold. I suppose I'm just too undereducated to appreciate his treatises about the water bugs of writing... or maybe I'm just more interested in catching and observing actual water bugs myself than listening to Elbow and his peers discuss them as philosophical concepts.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Sometimes the Magic Works: Lessons from a Writing Life (Terry Brooks) - My Review
Writing Down the Bones (Natalie Goldberg) - My Review
Bird By Bird (Anne Lamott) - My Review

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