How to write a sentence: An interview with Stanley Fish

Stanley Fish at Pitt

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What makes a stellar statement? A simple sentence, or a mysterious malapropism?

Alone among his academic peers, Stanley Fish is notable for his incisive analysis and straightforward summations of the most complex topics.

In this interview with Neal Conan on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation,” Fish draws principles from his new book, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, demonstrating that meaning follows structure and structure reveals relationships.

What I… What I really… What I really Mean!

Desire - 08Feb05, New Orleans, LA (USA)

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Instead of focusing on your meaning – because that will arise organically when your structure supports your content – focus on what you really want. Desire drives intent drives meaning.

The magic of writing is that by doing it you find out more about yourself and your message as you actually do it. The paradox that seems to be created is this: If I sit down to write something in particular, I already have a point to make – a meaning – before I start. How, then, can the process reveal new things?

When you sit down, you have a desire: to communicate, to land a job, to reveal something, to land a place in a program, to reveal your heart, to remember something lovely or poignant – there are myriad underlying goals, but what they have in common is desire.

If you connect to what your deepest driving desire is, you won’t stop until you’ve explored it sufficiently for your task, and you won’t be deterred by playing small. Remember that until you get to a late editing stage, this is truly yours and will be best served by you getting it all out an onto paper.

Let the meaning reveal itself. You focus on revealing yours.

 

Squeeze out the last drop, throw most of it away & end up with more of what you really want

 

Freewriting. grapes, pen, notebook, progress....

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[N+1] + [N-1] = >N
Only in a writing blog, right? Consider:

N+1 signifies  “pure optimism sprinkled with tenacity” manifest when we find that one last bit of strength after we think we’re completely washed up, according to Fred Wilson. Seth Godin’s N-1 suggests that among the weeds growing in our calendars, on our desks, agendas and even in our minds, we let a few die from inattention. Godin asks “What if you repeated N-1 thinking until you found a breakthrough?”

And I ask, What if you wrote and wrote and wrote until you thought there wasn’t any more to say, and then wrote that “one more” thing? And then, What if you dropped a word here, a paragraph there, a clause later on, “until you found a breakthrough?” What if your lead was in your fifth page, and your conclusion the first sentence you wrote? What if your seven pages made three powerful paragraphs after the application of [N-1]?

Then the process of [N+1] together with the process of [N-1] would produce something more than the original “N.” When people are unused to writing, and sometimes when we are over-used to it, we get attached to those pages and those words on the page because they refer to not only the experiences they describe, but the experience of remembering and processing those events. First of all, the important part is the processing, and that’s not in the words. Secondly, your reader doesn’t care unless it relates directly to your art.

[N+1] is your first draft, and you do it for yourself. [N-1] is one way of looking at the revision process, and you do it for your art and your reader.

Re-vision

A worker mixing the pulp at the Florida Pulp a...

Image by State Library and Archives of Florida via Flickr

Write it down, get it out, get it all on paper. Cough, spew, gush. Cross out, ramble and blather.

First drafts are all about finding out what you really think and know, where you need to learn more, and what it all means. First drafts are nothing like blueprints. First drafts are the gathering of the available raw materials so you can consider what kind of a structure to build. Why plan for a log cabin in the desert? If you want a log cabin after gathering materials devoid of wood, you have two options: find new materials (research) or move locations (choose another project).

For instance, most people have to tell a story chronologically the first time. After that, you have the opportunity – though too few people take it – to make it about something other than  yourself. In most chronological tellings, the story is about the author. If your intent is to make a larger point or reveal something important about yourself, you must look at the chronological telling and find themes around which to organize your report. Then you have a story instead of a monologue.

One & the same set of facts can have myriad applications. Getting it all out on paper is your first step, and allows you to sort out the various moving parts so you can choose to relate them to a central point.When the bag of legos has been upended on the table, you can allow your vision to be emerge organically.

Hidden emotion may be underneath, or all over, your first telling. Emotion can begin as creepy undertone, but is really just one more moving part, one you may choose to highlight or remove in service of your theme. Being overt in your intent clarifies hidden emotion.

Whether you begin with a clear vision or a murky need, use your first draft to identify the moving parts. As the natural connections emerge, allow the structure to emerge organically. Your log cabin may end up an adobe with a courtyard – all the sturdier and easier to live in for the change.

Whoa, whoa, whoa Feelings…. Really: Whoa!

Can You Feel It

Image via Wikipedia

I feel that saying you feel that something is true is redundant.

More importantly, it covers something up. Why tell your reader you feel that the Party In Power is wrong? Why say you feel that the sky is blue? Or that you feel that people shouldn’t do such and such things?

Because we’ve learned that when you use the word “feel” what comes next is supposed to be unassailable. Guess what? It’s assailable… and you want it to be. What you offer is meaningless in the public commons, or most discourse, unless it’s possible that you’re wrong. It’s possible that you are wrong – nearly always, and every time you’re saying or doing anything interesting.

So provide your reader with clarity about what you mean, and give the reader some reasons to care, maybe to believe. Caring is more important, because then you’ve engaged and communicated.

When you look over something and see you’ve introduced a sentence by saying “I feel that…” first just drop those three words. Next look for the deeper truth you were covering up by using them. Then write that truth, and consider the relation between those two sentences. Now you have a structure.

That’s the way to revise your work. I don’t feel it’s true. It just is.

Find the genius in your writing

 

Peer Review

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Put down your pen, smooth your hair over that chunk you pulled out and take a deep breath.

Now, drop me an email, because I’m here to help.

Drop me an email with your writing in an attachment, and we’ll find the genius in your words. I need practice, and you need help – what a match!

Your Message

 

The Columns at the University of Missouri

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Passionate about you finding your message, your voice and your best representation.

Experienced in editing and formatting.

Brilliant at showing you the hidden genius inside your writing.

The key is to find the form in your content, make it explicit, wend it elegantly, reveal your message.

I can help you. I learned the craft of coaching writing at Mizzou’s Camping Writing Program, an innovative cutting edge program in the 1990′s  where we helped students to respond to, and teachers  create, entire classes structured around inspiring writing assignments.  I assisted Dr. John Kultgen in the editing of his book on the Morality of Nuclear Deterrence, and assisted him in teaching Ancient Western Philosophy and Existentialism while in the PhD program at University of Missouri at Columbia. I have taught or assisted in Writing Intensive courses on Ancient Western Philosophy and Logic.

I used to keep one book handy above my desk: Hemingway’s A Movable Feast. It was the perfect antidote to the rambling, laconic styles of the philosophers I studied, and contained the only writing instruction I ever found helpful: “Write one true thing.”

Writing has been my lifeblood since I first got my chubby little hand around a big fat pencil and scratched on that Big Chief writing pad. You can peruse my current writing at yogaeveryday.wordpress.com or alignmentyoganm.wordpress.com.

I look forward to working with you and showing you the GENIUS in your writing!

Contact: alignmentyoganm at gmail or 505-506-0136