Posted by Andrew Brown
I love the structural approach Garret Keizer takes in his essay And Such Small Deer. He divides the essay into seven sections, each of which revolves around a character from literature, such as Gatsby or Job. This simple structural decision elegantly takes Keizer’s mundane task of keeping deer away from his trees and ties it to some of the most important themes in literature.
For example, Keizer uses the section on Job to illustrate that “nature was not made for Job. He has his place in it, but it is not his place. His suffering can be no more comprehensible to him than a hippo’s dung-broadcasting tail.” The parallels between Job and Keizer are obvious and the reader begins to understand the universal nature of Keizer’s futile quest.
I hope that I can use this structural technique in my own writing. Often when I begin writing a particular story or essay I know that it is important to me, but I can’t quite figure out why. There is usually some fleeting kernel of truth in the story that remains just beyond the reach of my outstretched arm. Hopefully the process of trying to tie my story to larger themes from other literary works can help clarify my thinking and illustrate the larger importance of what I am trying to say.
Posted by: Andrew Brown
I often struggle with writer’s block- actually I always struggle with writer’s block. No matter how trivial the assignment, those first few sentences never come easily to me. I stare at the blank computer screen, writing and re-writing sentences in my head, but refusing to commit them to paper. In bird by bird Lamott gives a variety of advice on how to overcome this problem, but mostly her advice boils down to sit at your desk, force yourself to write, and don’t worry how terrible it is. Now I don’t know about you, but that advice doesn’t help me very much. I already know that I should just sit down and write, but I still can’t make myself do it. On the rare occasions when I do manage to write a “shitty first draft” I almost always delete the whole thing the next day, disgusted with myself that I wasted so much time.
With that in mind, I found Lamott’s chapter on letters incredibly helpful. When you are really stuck, Lamott advises, “you might try telling part of your history- part of a character’s history- in the form of a letter. The letter’s informality just might free you from the tyranny of perfectionism.” This concrete piece of advice is elegant in its simplicity. First the informality of a letter helps you get in the “shitty first draft” frame of mind, because you know the letter will only be read once. But I think a letter’s informality is only a small part of why it is helpful.
The real value in writing a letter is that you are inherently telling a story to a particular audience, a single person. You can never please everyone with your writing, and a letter forces you to stop trying. Don’t worry about what your professor will think, or your editor, or your best friend- only the recipient of the letter matters. You have done your job if that person understands the letter, is engaged by it, and walks away feeling that their life is better for having read it.