Writer’s Diary #32 – Creating Structure/Finding Structure

Block. It puts some writers down for months. It puts some writers down for life. A not always brief or minor form of it mutes all writers from the outset of every day.

—Draft No. 4, Replacing the words in boxes, John McPhee, April 29, 2013.

John McPhee has an article in The New Yorker about his writing process that became part of his book [Draft No. 4] (https://www.amazon.com/Draft-No-4-Writing-Process/dp/0374142742). McPhee tells a story of lying on a picnic table with all his notes, research, interviews, and everything else in manila envelopes, but he’s distraught because he doesn’t know the structure. He says this is no way to write. I agree with him, and yet structure is the hard part.

Good structure is easy to describe, after the fact. But, how to find it is much harder. I am working on a chapter. I have all the material. The question is how to put it together in a way that makes sense, that is compelling, that draws the reader in. In short, the challenge now is to find a structure.

I can think of two approaches.

One is where the order emerges by fiat. Through a decision I make to structure it in a certain way, in the form of a draft, a sketch, a story arc, or something else.

The second, a second in which the order emerges as a sculptor might find the shape of a piece of stone or wood. There is a vague idea, but the actual structure emerges through the iterative application of the art of sculpture.

My process is a matter of both, with an emphasis on the latter. I find form, by sculpting into that form. However, over the weekend, I did a lot of thinking, trying to work out the structure, which was a mistake.

Instead, I’ve prepared the material, and now the task is iterate, make decisions and let the structure emerge.

This week’s task: do the work, carve the text, find its structure, organically. I wish it were easier, but whenever I try to shortcut it by thinking too hard, I get blocked.

Writer’s Diary #29 – Large Language Models as Writing Assistants and First Readers?

Years ago, when I first discovered Wendell Berry, I remember reading a 1988 Harper’s article by Wendell Berry titled “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer.

When the article was published, I was five years old. That was the same year my mother, a professor, brought home an Atari ST 1040 from work. I cherished that computer, using it for the better part of the following decade. In 1997, my parents purchased a Macintosh Performa 6400. On both machines, I learned to type, program, hack, tinker, and write.

However, I‘m unsure whether my writing process has been the best. Two years ago, Peter Elbow’s book on freewriting was a revelation.

Anyway, in that 1988 article, Berry writes:

As a farmer, I do almost all of my work with horses. As a writer, I work with a pencil or a pen and a piece of paper.

He continues:

My wife types my work on a Royal standard typewriter bought new in 19~6, and as good now as it was then. As she types, she sees things that are wrong, and marks them with small checks in the margins. She is my best critic because she is the one most familiar with my habitual errors and weaknesses. She also understands, sometimes better than I do, what ought to be said. We have, I think, a literary cottage industry that works well and pleasantly. I do not see anything wrong with.it.

He goes on, noting that a friend suggested he buy a computer, and change his workflow. As of 2019, Berry hasn’t purchased a computer.

His reluctance to buy a computer, and his support of his wife as a first reader, sparks professional envy.

One the one hand, Berry is a gifted and prolific writer, and has crafted a thoughtful, respected body of work around agrarian themes without the aid of a computer. Yet, of course, this success can be attributed, in no small part, to the work of his wife, Tanya[^2^]. I suspect, in the way, a good first reader makes a writer strong.

While I hesitate to form opinions about a couple who have lived together for sixty years, creating a thriving literary cottage industry, there is a feminist critique that many acclaimed male writers have relied heavily on uncredited female secretaries, assistants, wives, and family members.

I’m thinking of Eleanor Marx, who edited many of Karl Marx’s manuscripts. Simone de Beauvoir, whose un-attributed efforts shaped Jean-Paul Sartre’s work. Zelda Fitzgerald, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife, was the source of many of his ideas, and even, it seems, of un-attributed scenes, in other words plagiarism.

While such unacknowledged collaboration raises questions about attribution and recognition, it also raises questions about writing as a process, involving first readers and, frankly, the work of a typist.

Since the 1990s, society has replaced secretarial staff with computers. Many writers, including myself, have effectively become our own first readers, typists, and copy-editors. My method of writing hasn’t changed much since childhood: I draft, rewrite, revise, correct spelling and grammar, and revise, revise, and revise. I might go through a few dozen drafts, fixing and adding spelling errors as I go.

For my first book, I employed a copy editor and a substantive editor. Friends and family members read my earliest drafts, and offered suggestions.

As I attempt to write my new book, juggle my responsibilities as a professor and a father, I find not only that there‘s too much going on and the writing isn’t happening, but that I have a much smaller pool of people who can help out.

Part of this issue, as Cal Newport‘s work suggests, is that administrative and secretarial roles that used to exist in offices and white-collar jobs were replaced by technology in the 1990s. Funds that previously paid for support staff now end up in IT departments, ultimately benefiting Big Tech.

Berry’s critique of this transition is prescient, as he starts his argument by expressing his disdain for dependency on oil companies.

Part of the issues, is I’m older, and everyone is busier.

But, the challenge of writing and finishing remains. Finishing requires a combination of hard work, creativity, and perseverance. Some elements of the process are iterative. Some of it requires a good first reader.

The work of a first reader, editor, and copy editor is hard to fill. In my experience, I have no one to fill this role and have done this work myself.

But, over the last six months, I’ve begun to see artificial intelligence and large language models from OpenAI and Anthropic as competent copy editors and first readers, when prompted carefully.

While AI will drastically disrupt many industries and jobs wreaking havoc on society, for my writing, I can see a roll for it.

Not to generate words, ideas, scenes, narratives, or text, which is plagiarism. but, to copy editor.

Perhaps some writers will use AI to cross a boundary of what is moral. Perhaps what is seen as moral will change? But, in the mean time, I’ve found a role for AI to clean up my typing, as a first reader, and as a copy editor.


Writer’s Diary #22: Crafting “Stone by Stone”

One of the hardest parts of writing, or maybe everything is hard, is starting something new. The possibilities are endless, and therein lies the difficulty. If a chapter can be anything, then what is it? No. I mean, what is it exactly? What’s the order? What comes first? Where does the introduction go? What is the next bit? What comes at the end? The problem is that you can do a lot, but a chapter is not finished until it is.

Consider the first chapter, which I will start again tomorrow. I wrote the first draft a year ago and planned it on a large seminar table. The structure is there, but not finished.

My first instinct is to read it all, try to figure out the structure, write it out, make a plan, and then implement the plan and see where it goes from there. But experience tells me it’s going to be slow, with a lot of procrastination, repetition, and trying to work out the point.

I’m not going to try to plan it or figure it out, instead I’m going to work with what’s there and let the structure emerge.

Perhaps a metaphor will help.

Think of a chapter as a stone wall.

A stonemason knows their material, they know the shape of the wall they’re trying to build; they know its dimensions and all that. But to actually build the wall, they have to build it. That’s the work. The work (and the skill) is in choosing from the stones that are available, and putting them all together in a way that works. The trick is in the craft of how the wall emerges. If the wall is built well, it is because the stones fit. If they fit, it’s because of the iterative, skilled work of making them fit.

I think that’s how walls are built, mind you. I only know a little, from watching a basement wall being repaired.

But this diary is about writing. How does the metaphor fit? To work on this chapter, I know a few things. It’s subject (fieldwork) and topic (field notes), and the argument is that research is improvisational. With that in mind, I need to spend a few weeks editing what I’ve done for this section to see how the structure emerges.

It is through working and reworking and making things fit that the structure will emerge.

This way of working is not fast or efficient per se. But it’s the work. The work is the revision, and through the revision the order is found.