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The Writing Life: How Do You Do it?

I went to New York City last weekend to attend the most recent Commonweal Conversations, "THE WRITING LIFE: WHAT'S FAITH GOT TO DO WITH IT?" Paul Elie, Alice McDermott, and Valerie Sayers gave thought-provoking presentations, prompted by piercing questions by Rand Cooper.One thing that struck me: Both Alice McDermott and Valerie Sayers remarked that they wrote in order to figure things out--they did not know where their writing will take them. It was fascinating to hear how they, really, are the recipients as well as the agents of the creative process.The parallels between fiction writing and non-fiction writing struck me in a way that they hadn't done previously. I find the same thing is true of my writing process --and I'm a non-fiction writer. (Okay, Okay, laugh, laugh. I realize some of you think law and ethics are fiction too.) But I write in order to figure out what I think. I wish I had had more time to ask all the panelists about the mechanics of the writing process for them. It's always interesting to me to find out the "how." I tend to rely upon Word Perfect's wonderful outline program (may peace be upon it), moving around ideas and blocks of text, and gradually producing an argument whose structure I can see clearly, and work on the prose too. Keeping it in outline, I think, lets me not think it's finished too early--enabling me to see the structure, and to play with it.The hardest thing, I thing, is to rip up pages that really don't work. Keeping it in outline as long as possible lets me do that more easily. It doesn't convey the illusion of being finished--which even draft prose does these days, given the ubiquity of laser printers.I love Word Perfect's outline function--and it's the biggest single thing that has kept me from moving to a MAC from a PC.What do you all write, and how do you write?

About the Author

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.



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"I write in order to figure out what I think"I'm so glad it isn't just me. This is true for me, whether it's writing a homily or a comment at dotCom.

"how do you write?"For me, in no particular order, it's: read, think, pray, contemplate, research, draft, outline, revise, tear up, start over again, repeat until done.

I didn't even know that Word Perfect is still available.As soon as my latest version of an hp pc dies its final death (way too many interim deaths so far), I'm switching to a Mac.

When I write history (or my one published work of fiction), I reach a point where I think I've done enough research and thought to to put together the main story, and I set it down on paper or the computer. Now I begin to see where more research is needed, and helps me to do the kind of analysis I need -- what does all this stuff mean? and so forth. Then I revise, revise, revise, reorganizing where necessary, doing more research when necessary, all the time trying to tighten things up since the first draft is far too long and boring. (This is the way I've always worked; the first draft of my Ph.D. thesis in 1960 -- typewritten, of course -- came to almost a thousand single spaced pages). But at least you get all the stuff down, and then can whittle, prune, and reorganize as need be. The computer, of course, makes it far easier than it was in the old days. Everything I've written has gone through roughly a dozen revisions, and some parts more than that.And, when I think it's in more or less OK shape, like Count Dracula, I go on the prowl looking for victims who might be willing to shed their blood by reading it and giving me their ideas. My wife Deborah (my chief victim, of course, as I was hers) was a writer too, and she worked in a very different fashion, not slapping things down like me but carefully polishing each paragraph before going on to the next. So her first drafts were always a bit too short, a bit too tight, which gave her the enormous luxury of expansion, while I was forced to cut my winged words. In the one book we did together, she insisted towards the end that we leave home and go off somewhere alone where we could concentrate on finishing the work. It was her idea to take off for some days for Mount Savior, the Benedictine monastery near Elmira, NY, away from telephones, newspapers, and the internet, and there, wrapped around in the rhythms of monastic life, we read the manuscript out loud to each other, to pick up mistakes, clumsinesses, infelicities of phrase, repetitions, and so forth. Reading out loud, even if only to yourself, is essential.But there's no right way of doing it. Different people have different rhythms and work different ways. As for the program, I use Nota Bene, which is designed for scholars, and treats you like a grownup, unlike MS Word, which thinks it knows better than you how to do things.

What a great topic!When I write mathematical proofs, I proceed much like Nicholas Clifford's description: I reach a point where I think Ive done enough research and thought to to put together the main story, and I set it down on paper or the computer. Now I begin to see where more research [or arguments] is needed, and helps me to do the kind of analysis I need what does all this stuff mean? and so forth. Then I revise, revise, revise, reorganizing where necessary, doing more research [or calculations] when necessary, all the time trying to tighten things up since the first draft is far too long and boring. As to the instrument: no one I know uses the computer and typing for their first draft. Typing and interacting with the application is far too distracting when we are trying to focus on the object of our research. But recently I have discovered that stylus-based tablets are a great aid to thinking: see commenting on dot commonweal, I have started to learn to write non-technical writing. It has inspired me to start a blog, half technical, half random incidents in the life of a professor of computer science, and I'm enjoying it greatly. The best thing about a blog is that you don't have to be organized: there is no classification other than chronological, so it does not require self-discipline. There is no expectation of minimal quality, so you can just write what's on your mind without worrying too much about how it is written. It's pure fun.

I looked up information on Nota Bene but it didn't look like anything special. What features do you like about it?Most of my papers have several authors, and we are using DropBox for our draft. The current draft is in a DropBox folder, and, whenever one of us updates it, it gets automatically updated for everyone. The next time I open DropBox, I see the latest version. No more sending manuscripts back and forth in emails and getting lost between several versions that start to diverge! Even just for myself, to communicate between the author Claire-at-home and the author Claire-at-work, it is a convenient way to avoid getting confused.One thing I really like, these days, is the possibility, in the pdf, to click on a reference in the text and be immediately redirected to the corresponding full reference in the bibliography, or to the corresponding equation or lemma. Nice!

I write what my editor tells me within the requisite word limit (500 is about average for a book review these days). Or, if I've pitched a story, I already know where it's going. If there's money involved, I write it as quickly as possible, and a computer makes that easier.Mostly I write book reviews, and, I find Dorothy Parker's old Constant Reader column full of inspiration, not for the snarkiness (though you have to admire that), but in her ability to convey as much about her own aesthetic notions and POV as she does information about the work.If I get too clever, however, I remember that I am NOT Dorothy Parker and follow Dr. Johnson's admonition to cut out the parts you like best. I used to keep a scrapbook of self-expunged passages just to impress myself, but they don't anymore, and I threw it away.

If theres money involved, I write it ... the story, not the money. Duh, you can see why I'm not in high demand ...

I don't write professionally but do write blog posts and I have a pile of short fiction stories. I write on the computer. I do have a mac and use Microsoft Word for Macs for fiction, but for the blog posts just type in the blog interface. I figure out what I want to write first in my head - imagine it, if it's fiction - then do the research, then start typing.

Forgot to mention - one thing that helped me a lot with my writing was belonging to an online writers community/BBS ....

My first five or six books were written longhand in spiral notebooks with text on the recto and notes on the verso; then typed (I was a horrible typist); then corrected in pencil; then handed over to a real typist. When I finally got brave enough to get a computer I switched to the Brave New World of composition on screen.In general: I write every morning with lunch marking the end of the reading/musing/ writing day.No writing on Sunday or football weekends.Over my desk this motto: nulla dies sine linea - I think it is from Pliny the Elder - "Let not a day pass without a line." I still write in my journal/notebooks in longhand following Thomas Merton's dictum "Contemplate with a pen."

I find something therapeutic in keeping a longhand journal (a la Anais Nin, who once compared laying out her pen and notebook to a junkie's getting out his needles and spoon, or something like that). I've always been interested in why people keep journals and who the audience is. I'm sure someone has covered this in a book somewhere and that the answers are varied and interesting. (Please make suggestions.) My great-grandmother and her sister both kept diaries. They lived next door to each other, and reading their takes on the same events makes an interesting read.I keep a journal for the same reason Harry Truman wrote letters he never sent--to deal with anger and frustration. I burn them in the garden as soon as they're full and ask for God to make me better.So far, it hasn't worked. Or maybe it has worked in that a certain amount of meanness is channeled into the journals, and so I at least appear nicer and more reasonable than I am. Perhaps one of the pitfalls of blog writing is that there is journal filter for the spleen. Mea culpa.I have a motto I write on the front of all my journals that will eventually be consigned to the flames. It's from "Dolores Claiborne" by Steven King: "Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman's got."

It has been so long that I've had to write anything extensively in longhand that the muscles in my hand and fingers are no longer up to the task. I attended evening grad school through a good chunk of the '90's, and had already transitioned so completely to email and word processors in my everyday work that the necessity of filling up a blue book during exams left my hand cramped and sore.

I'm closer to Nicholas Clifford than to his wife. I hardly ever know what I'm going to write before I write it, and first drafts are done very quickly and with not much care for precision or elegance. (A preface usually is the last thing done--after I've discovered what I was going to do.) For the same reason I wouldn't know how to make use of an Outline software.But I have had colleagues who couldn't leave a sentence until it was perfect. It took them forever, it seemed, to write an essay or a chapter. In preparing homilies, I try to read the biblical texts for the next Sunday early in the week, so that I have time to consult commentaries, both ancient and modern, to let ideas percolate in my mind, and to let associations with contemporary events or incidents suggest themselves. Then when I sit down to write the homily, the key is usually the first sentence and usually things flow from there.

I also hated changing over to bossy Word from sensible Nota Bene which we had used ever since it first appeared. (My husband still uses it because he needs the multiple languages it is so good with.) The only bad thing I can say about it is that once when an article I wrote was supposed to be supplied to the publisher copy-ready, the printing process changed every instance of the letters fl into one of those little circles that turns up in Swedish. Affluence, influence, etc. all had those weird little circles. And no proof reader caught it. I think that somehow fl must have been one of those hidden mark-up signs they had in Nota Bene at the time.

I write fiction to serve as advocacy. Colombian Nobel Prize laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez once said that, if you want to make a political point, write a good book.I hope I've written a passable one. The conceit of my novel is the move of a Latin American country during the Sixties from cautious optimism to the edge of tinieblasabysmal ignorance, darkness. It is a love story woven around union organizing in a fictitious country in South America.

In answer to Claire's question, above, about Nota Bene: I took to it in large part because I had loved (and still do) its ancestor, XyWrite, a WP program from the 1980s and 1990s, which was blazingly fast and still today does things that MS Word can only dream of (and therefore decides you don't need). NB's weakness is in graphics; it's easier to bring pictures into Word, and see how they're going to look, so if you're doing something like designing a brochure, NB probably isn't for you. I still keep a copy of XyWrite IV on my Windows computer, and use it all the time.NB handles things like footnotes far better than Word, giving you much more flexibility. Try separating footnotes out of a chapter into a separate file in MS Word -- it's almost impossible, though this is what publishers usually want. NB also allows you to put all the chapters of a book (for instance) into a single file. It also allows you to do word searches through as many files in as many folders as you like (though it can't directly read documents in Word). It can allow to work in Cyrillic or Greek fonts, if you like (not that I can), and if you are are a biblical scholar, like some on this list (not me!), you can even work in Syriac, Coptic, Ugaritic and Akkadian with the appropriate fonts (not that they do me any good). Oddly enough NB still hasn't brought Chinese and Japanese in, though they promise to do so).Unfortunately, if you do a manuscript in NB, and send it off to most publishers, it will be met with head scratching, and so you have to translate it into Word through .rtf files. Which is OK, but tedious.

I am a lawyer but also a permanent deacon in the Catholic Church. When writing homilies I like to follow the advice of George Burns (of Burns and Allen fame). When asked his definition of a good sermon, Burns replied: "It has to have a good beginning and it has to have a good ending; and they can't be too far apart."

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