In China today, does poetry still matter?

VerseIn Verse Going Viral: China’s New Media Scenes, Heather Inwood unravels a paradox surrounding modern Chinese poetry: while poetry as a representation of high culture is widely assumed to be marginalized to the point of death, poetry activity flourishes across the country. She finds that this ancient art form has benefited from China’s continued self-identity as a nation of poetry (shiguo) and from the interactive opportunities created by the Internet and other participatory media. In today’s guest post, Inwood provides a glimpse into some of the myriad ways the digital revolution has impacted the role of poetry in contemporary Chinese society.

There’s a famous Chinese saying that “the misery of the state leads to the emergence of great poets” (guojia buxing shijia xing)–or more literally, “when the state is unfortunate, poets are fortunate.” These words come from a poem by the Qing dynasty historian Zhao Yi (1727–1814), observing the phenomenon in which classic works of poetry often appear during times of calamity: war, famine, dynastic downfall, and so on.

The poets Yu Jian and Mo Mo unveil a plaque celebrating the relationship between poetry and real estate at the Lushan Villas complex in Changsha, Hunan, June 2006.

The poets Yu Jian and Mo Mo unveil a plaque celebrating the relationship between poetry and real estate at the Lushan Villas complex in Changsha, Hunan, June 2006.

Zhao Yi’s saying sprang to mind for many observers of Chinese poetry after the Sichuan Earthquake of May 2008. The loss of nearly 70,000 lives spurred an outpouring of poems that were widely circulated on the Internet, in newspapers, on television and radio, and recited at fundraising events. As a form of writing that “follows from emotion” (shi yuan qing), poetry is ideally placed in times of turmoil and tragedy. When things go wrong, you can trust that poets will find a way to put into words what many are thinking and feeling.

Turn the saying around (when the state is fortunate, poets are unfortunate) and we might have an explanation for why the very existence of poetry in twenty-first century China has been brought into doubt. China as a whole seems to be flourishing, growing in confidence on the global stage and on the way to becoming the world’s largest economy. Does that mean it is the poets’ turn to suffer, robbed of their source of inspiration and ignored by a public who craves instant entertainment over contemplative reading? Such questions echo concerns around the world about the fate of literature under neoliberal conditions, in which success is judged primarily by the ability to make money. If poets aren’t contributing to China’s economic rise, why bother writing at all?

Poets sign their autographs upon arriving at Lushan Villas to attend the First Lushan New Century Famous Poets Summit, June 2006.

Poets sign their autographs upon arriving at Lushan Villas to attend the First Lushan New Century Famous Poets Summit, June 2006.

This is, needless to say, a distorted way of thinking about what it means to write poetry. Yet similar suggestions have surfaced again and again in critiques of modern poetry that swirl across the Chinese media. One outspoken attack came from Han Han, a popular writer and race-car driver with a knack for stirring up public opinion through social media. Joining in the spoofing of some colloquial language poems that went viral on the Internet in late 2006, Han Han proffered the provocative lines,

“My opinion has long been that there is no need for modern poetry or poets to exist, as they are of zero value. These days paper is pretty expensive, so why not write some decent prose and fill the whole page?”

Local school students perform on stage at the Lushan Tomorrow Poetry Recital in Changsha, Hunan, June 2006.

Local school students perform on stage at the Lushan Tomorrow Poetry Recital in Changsha, Hunan, June 2006.

In Verse Going Viral, Han’s words lead me into an exploration of the public status of poetry and internal workings of poetry scenes in contemporary China. It is a widely accepted fact that China is a “nation of poetry,” but often the same person extolling the importance of poetry will be oblivious to the fact that anybody writes it anymore. Happily, even the briefest search online, look in a bookstore, or venture into China’s burgeoning poetry event culture reveals that poetry is, in fact, in rude health. Despite its widely assumed marginality, poetry is everywhere—in the course of my research I attended events in schools, parks, cafés, bars, real estate offices, peach orchards, and concert halls, among other locations—and many people still care about it very, very much.

You might even go so far as to say that rather than caring too little, the public cares about poetry a little too much. The development of modern Chinese poetry has been driven by the need to open the gates of poetry by abandoning the literary language and stylistic conventions of classical poetry for a more free-form, vernacular style of writing. By doing so, early twentieth-century poets hoped that they might use their poetry to participate in the rejuvenation of China, much needed after a series of national humiliations that marked the last few decades of dynastic rule.

Yet the move toward accessibility hasn’t always pleased the public. Making written poetry sound like everyday speech was supposed to facilitate communication between poets and their audiences. Instead, it appears to have prompted a large swathe of China’s online population to adopt a gatekeeping mentality of their own, complaining that poems that are too easily understood don’t deserve the title of “poetry.” In doing so, they inadvertently address the question I began with. Does poetry still matter? If the question is being asked in the first place, I would venture that we already know the answer.

Heather Inwood is lecturer of Chinese cultural studies at the University of Manchester. Her book, Verse Going Viral: China’s New Media Scenes is now available from the University of Washington Press.

Earth Day 2014: Is thinking globally and acting locally really enough?

In this guest blog post, Joshua Howe challenges individuals and civic leaders to move beyond the popular “think globally, act locally” mentality and adopt more practical paths toward environmental responsibility. Howe’s book, Behind the Curve: Science and the Politics of Global Warming, explores similar civic-environmental quandaries, arguing that climate scientists’ failure to effectively engage politicians and the public has impeded our ability to respond to the climate crisis.

Think globally, act locally. Since its first iteration in the late 1960s, the bumper sticker exhortation has come to represent the heart of environmental awareness in modern American culture. The slogan tells us how we as environmentally responsible middle- or upper-middle-class Americans can live ecologically moral lives, and collectively do nothing short of “save the world.” In practical terms, the sticker on that Prius you saw this morning is telling you to compost your coffee cup, think about Bangladesh, and feel just a little bit better about things.

But “think globally, act locally” is actually a much bigger ask than composting your coffee cup and thinking about Bangladesh. The slogan demands that you construct a way of being in and thinking about the world that completely transcends the boundaries of normal human experience. That is, to think globally and act locally, you are supposed to use concerns about an abstract, largely scientific concept to guide your everyday behavior.

We do this in practical ways all the time. When you look at a map and use that map as a guide to navigate a city, for example, your bird’s-eye-view way of thinking about the city provides a framework to guide a series of much more direct human interactions with stop lights, pedestrians, and that Prius with the bumper sticker. Your ability to marry your cartographic perspective to your street-level experience enables you to get to Whole Foods and back again with only a minimal amount of circumlocution.

The planetary perspective is very different from a bird’s-eye view, however. It is awfully difficult to figure out how to bike to the store to buy organic pears by looking at a globe.

Denis Hayes, head of Environment Teach-In, Inc., the Washington organization coordinating activities for “Earth Day” on April 22, 1970, poses in the group’s Washington D. C. office.

There are good historical reasons that David Brower and company began to ask us to “think globally, act locally” in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and they dovetail with the reasons that Earth Day supplanted the much tamer Arbor Day as Americans’ celebration of the environment around the same time. The advent of Earth Day in April of 1970 followed on the heels of NASA’s iconic images of Earth from space, enabling citizens to understand the planet’s isolation and potential fragility in a powerful new way. Around the same time, scientists studying large scale natural processes began to articulate new forms of environmental degradation that actually operated at the scale of the whole earth. In addition to endemic problems of deforestation, toxicity, and pollution, these scientists began to identify problems like CO2-induced global warming and, later, ozone depletion as part of a global environmental crisis.

The climate crisis provides a neat example of the kind of problem at the global extreme of the Earth Day reach. As a problem resulting from global atmospheric change, global warming manifests in ways that we only understand as “global” if we subscribe to a scientific epistemology that links CO2 emissions to extreme weather, sea-level rise, or resource scarcity. Only scientists have the tools and techniques to measure, monitor, and model these global processes. Experiencing disappearing sea ice or water shortages or sea level rise as climate change requires a commitment to a scientific vision of an interconnected global whole. Doing anything—even local things—about climate change qua climate change requires that you think globally.

What “think globally, act locally” means to do is to bridge the gap between that global scientific vision and a set of local decisions imbued with a new global morality. It helps to explain why I rode my bike to the store and bought local organic pears.

The trouble is that the collective global and the individual local represent logical extremes of action, and there are some very important ways to engage with the environment in the space between them.

Photo by Surrealize via seattletransitblog.com

Think again for a moment about a map of your town or city. Where are the transportation corridors? What kinds of energy sources does the municipal or regional power company make available to its constituents? Does the city run a recycling service? To put it differently, at this municipal level—on your city map—how easy does your town or city make it not just for you, a committed environmentalist, to live a low-carbon lifestyle, but for a fair-weather light-green citizen to live a climatically responsible life?

Ultimately, these are the kinds of mid-level government structures that shape the day-to-day lives of large aggregations of citizens—that is, they represent the true point of confluence between the thinking globally and living locally. Change at this level requires hard work, political negotiating, and most importantly, civic involvement—and not just on Earth Day—but it is also both effective and fundamentally democratic.

The time has come to think about Earth Day in not just in terms of globes, but also in terms of maps. That is, the time has come to go beyond “think globally, act locally,” and to begin cultivating practical paths toward environmental responsibility that lie somewhere in the middle.

Joshua P. Howe teaches history and environmental studies at Reed College. His book, Behind the Curve: Science and the Politics of Global Warming is now available from the University of Washington Press.

“Joshua Howe’s conviction is that we must look beyond science for solutions to questions of human value that science alone can never answer. Only by placing climate change in a larger cultural and historical frame—as Behind the Curve consistently succeeds in doing—will we learn what we must from science without evading the ethical, moral, and political work that is no less essential if we are to find our way through the challenging choices that lie ahead.” —From the foreword by William Cronon

UW Press News, Reviews, Events

NEWS

University of Washington Press author and series editor Michael Nylan has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. Nylan is the translator of Exemplary Figures and coeditor of Chang’an 26 BCE (forthcoming Fall 2014). She also coedits our Classics of Chinese Thought series. The Guggenheim Fellowship will support Nylan’s research and writing of a translation of another early Chinese text, the Documents classic, for our Classics of Chinese Thought series.

MEDIA

Return to the Land of the Head Hunters: Edward S. Curtis, the Kwakwaka’wakw, and the Making of Modern Cinema, edited by Brad Evans and Aaron Glass, has been reviewed by the Seattle Times. Reviewer Michael Upchurch praises the book for “address[ing] the film from every angle while also placing Curtis (1868–1952) and his First Nations collaborators on the film in their historical context.” Read the full article here.

 

 

 

Skookum Summer: A Novel of the Pacific Northwest, by Jack Hart, was reviewed in Publisher’s WeeklyIn this “heartfelt and rewarding debut…Hart paints a vivid picture of the times…his sense of place is evocative and powerful.” Read the full review here.

EVENTS

Jack Hart, Skookum Summer: A Novel of the Pacific Northwest, Elliott Bay Books, April 18 at 7:00 p.m.

Kathryn Bunn-Marcuse and Robin Wright, In the Spirit of the Ancestors: Contemporary Northwest Coast Art at the Burke Museum, Village Books, April 23 at 7:00 p.m.

Annette Lu, author of My Fight for a New Taiwan, Town Hall Seattle,  April 28 at 7:30 p.m.
Town Hall in partnership with Elliott Bay Book Company and World Affairs Council, as part of the Civics series. Click here to see a book excerpt and  Annette Lu’s full book tour schedule.

Jack Hart, Skookum Summer: A Novel of the Pacific Northwest, Powell’s City of Books,  April 29 at 7:30 p.m.

Kathryn Bunn-Marcuse, In the Spirit of the Ancestors: Contemporary Northwest Coast Art at the Burke Museum, University Book Store,  April 30 at 7:00 p.m.

NEW BOOKS

Floral Journey: Native North American Beadwork
By Lois S. Dubin
Published with Autry National Center of the American West

Floral Journey: Native North American Beadwork is the compelling story of why Native floral beadwork became both a major means of artistic expression and a symbol of cultural resilience. It is also an important example of how two differing cultures—Native and European —established a common ground of economic and creative exchange.

Holy Days of Obligation: Essays
By Christopher Buckley
Distributed for Lynx House Press

The third part of Christopher Buckley’s memoir trilogy is a book about place and vocation. Set primarily in Santa Barbara and Montecito in the 1950’s and 60’s, among the woods and natural elements all around him, in the residue of light lifting from soda fountains, movies, surf boards, and old Chevrolets, the narrator of these crisp essays finds his consciousness forming a faith in the power of “place” and in the work of art.

 

My Fight For A New Taiwan: Annette Lu’s Journey from Prison to Power

Lu Hsiu-lien’s journey is the story of Taiwan. Through her successive drives for gender equality, human rights, political reform, Taiwan’s independence, and, currently, environmental protection, Lu Hsiu-lien (who also goes by Annette Lu) has played a key role in Taiwan’s evolution from dictatorship to democracy. Unlike such famous Asian women politicians as Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi, India’s Indira Gandhi, and Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto, Lu grew up in a family without political connections. Her impoverished parents twice attempted to give her away for adoption, and as an adult she survived cancer and imprisonment, later achieving success as an elected politician—the first self-made woman to serve with such prominence in Asia.  Below we feature an excerpt from My Fight For a New Taiwan: One Woman’s Journey from Prison to Power, which Lu coauthored with Ashley Esarey.

The wail of a thousand air horns, the crackling shower of fireworks, the undulation of a sea of banners greeted us as we left our party headquarters and approached the stage. A crowd stretched for half a mile in every direction, claiming streets and sidewalks, jamming intersections on Minsheng East Road. Bottle rockets shrieked from the windows of nearby apartment buildings. To an outsider observing the revelers on the night of March 18, 2000, the crowds in the streets could have been celebrating the Taiwan national team’s victory in some sort of world championship, but the pride of the Taiwanese was participatory, not vicarious: They had voted to remove the Nationalist Party (Guomindang) from the nation’s highest office after its fifty-five years in power and had stood up to China despite its threats to invade Taiwan if they dared vote this way. They had cast aside the successors of a regime that had ruled Taiwan by force and fiat, by threat and murder, by corruption and co-optation, by autocracy and exploitation. On March 18, the Taiwanese had, through their vote, peacefully “changed the heavens” in their homeland, as the saying went, and given birth to the feeling that Taiwan was experiencing its finest hour, that the wrongs of the past could be righted.

Speaking in Kaohsiung on the night of the Kaohsiung Incident, December 10, 1979

Speaking in Kaohsiung on the night of the Kaohsiung Incident, December 10, 1979

What a coincidence it was! On the very same day twenty years before, March 18, 1980, I stood in a military courtroom as one of the eight main defendants charged with sedition for leading a demonstration on Human Rights Day. An intense man unknown outside legal circles, Chen Shui-bian, had been among our legal defense attorneys.Even our lawyers’ valiant efforts had not prevented the court from sentencing us to lengthy prison terms on the basis of confessions elicited through torture. Who would have dared predict that two decades later, one of the defense lawyers and one of the codefendants would be elected president and vice president of the country at the crowning moment of Taiwan’s struggle for democracy?

The hope that the Nationalists would one day be turned out of power had sustained me while I served five and a half years in prison for criticizing their authoritarian regime. I had been waiting for the celebration of March 2000 since my childhood, when I had denounced my schoolteacher for changing the grades of the daughter of a Nationalist official because the teacher wanted to ingratiate himself with the government. Since my recovery from cancer in the 1970s, I had sworn to dedicate my life to equal political participation for all members of Taiwanese society and for all ethnic groups. I had prayed for the replacement of the Nationalist government with a democratically elected opposition since my realization, in prison, that the shock of my incarceration had cost my mother her life.

Lu as Vice President of Taiwan

Lu as Vice President of Taiwan

Although I had dreamed of such a moment, somehow I’d never imagined how victory might feel when it blossomed like a flower more fragrant than the evening primrose. Certainly not during the long months of campaigning in 1999 and 2000, when I’d appeared with Chen Shui-bian at six political rallies each night, speaking until my voice grew hoarse and cracked— I was too busy fighting to win the election. Yet the moment did come, with the decisiveness of nightfall in the tropics. From school yards and post offices across the island, election volunteers counted the votes signaling the Nationalists’ defeat. The Democratic Progressive Party had captured the presidential palace, formerly the bastion of power for Chiang Kai-shek and the symbol of authority for Japanese colonial governors. On the night of March 18, 2000, the specter of foreign dominance departed with the defeat of the Nationalists, a political party transplanted to Taiwan from China after World War II. For the first time in the history of Taiwan, a native Taiwanese man from a poor, landless family had become president. For the first time in five thousand years of Chinese history, I, a woman from an ordinary family, had been elected by the public to serve the number-two position in an ethnically Chinese nation [. . . .]

This is the story of how Taiwan came to such a crossroad in history, as well as the story of how a girl who was twice nearly given away as a child discovered a love for her country that would change her life. It is the story of how a woman who suffered from cancer, imprisonment, and torture found ways to love her country through democratic politics and to advance the cause of freedom in the world. This is the true story of my life.

_

Lu Hsiu-lien (Annette Lu) is a graduate of National Taiwan University, the University of Illinois, and Harvard Law School. She was vice president of the Republic of China from 2000 to 2008 and currently is president of Green 21 Taiwan Alliance.

Ashley Esarey, a former journalist, held the An Wang Postdoctoral Fellowship at Harvard University and currently is visiting assistant professor of political science and East Asian studies at the University of Alberta.

Hear Annette Lu and Ashley Esarey discuss the book at the following events:

  • Pomona College, Claremont, California, April 17 at noon
  • University of California Santa Barbara,  April 18 at 11:00 a.m. with book sales by Chaucer’s Bookstore
  • North American Taiwanese Women’s Association, New Orleans, LA,  April 19 at 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. with book sales by Garden District Books
  • Harvard Law School, Cambridge, Massachusetts, April 22 at noon with book sales by Harvard Book Store
  • Columbia University, International Affairs Building, New York City, April 23 at noon
  •  New York University, New York City, April 23 at 2 p.m.
  • Georgetown School of Foreign Service, April 25 at 12:30 p.m.
  • Town Hall Seattle, April 28 at 7:30 p.m. with book sales by Elliott Bay Books

Behind the Covers: “Citizen 13660″

Miné Okubo’s Citizen 13660 is the newest book in our Classics of Asian American Literature series. First published in 1946, it was acquired by UW Press in 1983 and has been a perennial bestseller ever since. In addition to a new introduction by Christine Hong, the book underwent a radical redesign, which UW Press senior designer Thomas Eykemans walks us through here.

Miné Okubo was one of over one hundred thousand people of Japanese descent—nearly two-thirds of whom were American citizens—who were forced into “protective custody” shortly after Pearl Harbor. Citizen 13660, a graphic memoir of Okubo’s life in relocation centers in California and Utah, illuminates her experience with poignant illustrations and witty, candid text. Reissuing the book created an irresistible opportunity to rethink the cover design and presentation of the illustrations of one of our most beloved and misunderstood publications.

Citizen 13660

Top left: First edition hardcover jacket, 6 x 9″, 1946.
Top center: First edition hardcover cloth, 6 x 9″, 1946.
Top right: First UW Press paperback edition, 6 x 9″, 1983.
Middle left: New UW Press paperback reissue, 6 x 9″, 2014.
Middle center: New UW Press hardcover special edition, 8 x 8″, 2014.
Middle right: Special edition titlepage spread.
Bottom left: Original edition spread.
Bottom right: Special edition spread.

The original 1946 jacket, lettered and illustrated by Okubo herself, was both classic and practical. However, it gave absolutely no clue as to the content of the book. The 1983 paperback did little to remedy this, simply appropriating the beautiful, but misleading, case stamp from the original cloth edition. The two new editions feature details of actual illustrations from the interior, while preserving the unique and memorable deco typography of the earlier title design.

Okubo’s original illustrations are in the collection of the Japanese American National Museum. Each drawing is approximately 15 x 10″, vastly bigger than the 5 x 4″ reproductions in the paperback. The new hardcover special edition is a comfortable 8 x 8″ and showcases the artwork at half its original size — much closer to how it was intended to be viewed. With a soft matte lamination, casewrap cover, black endsheets, and red headbands, Okubo’s important and stunning work has finally found a worthy home.

UW Press News, Reviews, and Events

NEWS

Weyerhaeuser-BookThe Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books catalog celebrates the first sixty titles published in the Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books series under founding editor William Cronon’s direction. Authors published into the series express their gratitude for Cronon’s visionary editorial guidance and for the generosity of Jack and Jan Creighton, who have supported the series since its inception over twenty years ago. Browse the catalog and you’ll begin to get a sense of how the Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books series has shaped the discipline as well as popular understandings of environmental history. For more on William Cronon’s recent retirement as series editor, see our post Editorial Changes to Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books Series.

MEDIA

The South China Morning Post has reviewed Joshua Howe’s book Behind the Curve: Science and the Politics of Global Warming. In Howe’s “fastidiously researched” book, “there are no clear heroes and villains…Howe relates a multi-layered conflict that is leading us to a catastrophe of biblical proportions.” Read the review here.

 

 

 

Diana L. Di Stefano, author of Encounters in Avalanche Country: A History of Survival in the Mountain West, 1820-1920, has written a guest opinion article in the Seattle Times. As a historian who studies disasters, Di Stefano is struck by the similarities between the recent mudslide in Snohomish County and earlier catastrophes. Read the article here.

 

 

 

Christopher Wells, author of Car Country: An Environmental History,  recently appeared on Minnesota Public Radio to talk about why we became ‘car country’ USA. Listen to the interview here. And watch for a new paperback edition of Car Country coming out in Fall 2014!

 

EVENTS

David Biespiel, Charming Gardeners, The Station, April 9 at 7:00 p.m. (A Stranger Recommended event!)

LA Times Festival of Books, April 12-13

  • David Biespiel, Charming Gardeners, Panel: Poetry: The Art of Place; The Place of Art, Saturday, 2:00 p.m.
  • Kinokuniya booth signings:  Kendall Brown, Traditions Transfigured, Sunday from 12:30-2:00 p.m. and Lane Hirabayashi and Marilyn C. Alquizola, coauthors of the introduction to the new edition of Carlos Bulosan’s classic, America Is in the Heart, Sunday from 2:00-3:30 p.m.

Jack Hart, Skookum Summer: A Novel of the Pacific Northwest, Elliott Bay Books, April 18 at 7:00 p.m.

Annette Lu and Ashley Esarey, My Fight for a New Taiwan: One Woman’s Journey from Prison to Power, Town Hall Seattle, April 28 at 7:30 p.m. Presented by Downstairs at Town Hall in partnership with Elliott Bay Book Company and World Affairs Council.

Katie Bunn-Marcuse, In the Spirit of the Ancestors: Contemporary Northwest Coast Art at the Burke Museum, University Book Store, April 30 at 7:00 p.m.

NEW BOOKS

Building a Sacred Mountain: The Buddhist Architecture of China’s Mount Wutai
By Wei-Cheng Lin

Wei-Cheng Lin traces the confluence of factors that produced this transformation and argues that monastic architecture, more than texts, icons, relics, or pilgrimages, was the key to Mount Wutai’s emergence as a sacred site. Departing from traditional architectural scholarship, Lin’s interdisciplinary approach goes beyond the analysis of forms and structures to show how the built environment can work in tandem with practices and discourses to provide a space for encountering the divine.

 

Citizen 13660
By Mine Okubo, with new introduction by Christine Hong

Mine Okubo was one of over one hundred thousand people of Japanese descent —nearly two-thirds of whom were American citizens—who were forced into “protective custody” shortly after Pearl Harbor. Citizen 13660, Okubo’s graphic memoir of life in relocation centers in California and Utah, illuminates this experience with poignant illustrations and witty, candid text. The cover featured here is the 8×8 inch cloth artist edition of the book; another paperback edition of the book can be found here.

 

China Watcher: Confessions of a Peking Tom
By Richard Baum
New in paperback
This audacious and illuminating memoir by Richard Baum, a senior China scholar and sometime policy advisor, reflects on forty years of learning about and interacting with the People’s Republic of China, from the height of Maoism during the author’s UC Berkeley student days in the volatile 1960s through globalization. Anecdotes from Baum’s professional life illustrate the alternately peculiar, frustrating, fascinating, and risky activity of China watching—the process by which outsiders gather and decipher official and unofficial information to figure out what’s really going on behind China’s veil of political secrecy and propaganda.

 

Secrets of Successful Drafting by Jack Hart

In today’s post, Skookum Summer: A Novel of the Pacific Northwest author Jack Hart provides some helpful writing advice, geared toward academic and non-academic authors alike. Jack Hart is a former managing editor and writing coach at The Oregonian and is the author of Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction and A Writer’s Coach: The Complete Guide to Writing Strategies That Work. This post is bound to inspire you to get out of your writer’s rut!

“Writing is easy,” Gene Fowler famously said. “All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” All you have to do to write, Red Smith said, was “open a vein.” Other wordsmiths have talked about bleeding at their keyboards, turning out words in blood, and producing poems “drop by drop.”

Writing is a process, of course. It starts with idea development, involves research and organizing, and ends with polishing. But there’s no doubt that drafting, the stage that Fowler found so daunting, causes the most agony, the kind of pain that has led to torrents of blood metaphors.

Most of those come from journalism and fiction writing, and I can vouch for the misery both can generate. But I’ve done my share of academic writing, too. And I fully sympathize with anybody who has to grind out a journal article, monograph, or convention paper. If anything, the precision that scholarly work demands makes the writing even bloodier.

Whatever the genre, writing will never be easy. But the research shows that certain tactics for turning out first drafts not only ease the pain, but also improve the work.

My own experience confirms that. I’ve worked as an editor in newsrooms big and small. And for decades I routinely administered writing questionnaires when I taught at newspapers, magazines, and professional workshops. Invariably, the writers who were happiest and most productive had a similar game plan.

Somehow they’d learned what both writing professionals and academics say is the secret to successful drafting — operating with a split personality. The pros say that the happiest, most productive writers approach their rough drafts as a literary version of Mr. Hyde. They cast civilized restraint aside, letting an uninhibited process of creation carry them quickly through the first version of the story. They don’t stop. They don’t revise. They don’t look back. They push relentlessly forward, seldom even consulting their notes as they rough out a draft.

Jack Hart. Photo by Wes Pope

Jack Hart. Photo by Wes Pope

Only when they’re finished with that first version do they slip back into a Dr. Jekyll persona. Then they sweat each detail, checking facts for accuracy, revising sentences for rhythm, and scrutinizing words for precise meaning.

Former Los Angeles Times writing coach Bob Baker heartily endorses this Hyde-and-Jekyll process. “What I am asking you to do,” he says in his book, News Thinking, “is to become selectively schizophrenic. I am asking you to shift gears after you finish typing and before you start editing.”

Bill Blundell draws the same distinction in The Art and Craft of Feature Writing. “The storyteller,” he says, “selectively becomes two people as he works. The first is the sensitive artist-creator, the second a critic who savages every weakness in the creation.”

The research backs up the experts. Two Harvard psychologists, V.A. Howard and J.H. Barton, summarize existing studies in their book Thinking on Paper with the observation that drafting involves “intuition, imagination, risk-taking, a headlong plunge down new corridors of thought and experience.” Only after the draft is finished, they conclude, does the writer give way to “cool detachment, doubt, skepticism, testing, rigorous assessments of logic and evidence.”

One thing virtually all observers say is that we should place fewer demands on ourselves when we’re drafting. If we let harping little voices pick, pick, pick as we write, they will sap our confidence, create tension, and paralyze our creative subconscious. At their worst, these hobgoblins of the keyboard can freeze us up entirely, creating the dreaded writer’s block. And, as poet William Stafford put it, “the cure to writer’s block is to lower your standards.”

In other words, don’t futz.

Trying to get every sentence perfect during drafting is a fool’s errand. Wait until the polish stage before sweating the small stuff. The important thing at the drafting stage is roughing out what will later become a finely finished piece of work.

A food writer who attended one of my workshops passed along this metaphor: Master furniture makers, she said, don’t cut out one leg of a table, sand it, stain it and shellac it before going on to the next leg. If they did, the completed creation would be a mess of mismatched pieces. Instead, they create the entire table out of rough lumber first. Then they sand and stain and polish to a high gloss.

Unfortunately, the way we’re trained to write often encourages the one-leg-at-a-time approach. We are urged to watch ourselves at every step of the draft, guarding against typos, grammatical mixups, and factual errors. We’re told to write the perfect first sentence before we write anything else. We’re taught to be cautious and critical, when we should be cavalier and creative. As a result, we work with imaginary editors at our shoulders, dwelling on the ways that mistakes can damage our careers, ruin our reputations, or embarrass our institutions.

But some writers manage to push all these gremlins to the side. They draft easily, naturally, armored against anxiety-producing distractions with tactics that keep them moving ahead along the paths they have set for themselves. If they have doubts about a fact, they flag it for checking later. If they need a quotation or some other tidbit from their notes, they mark the spot and move along. They stroll through their assignments at a steady, even pace.

And they never leave a single drop of blood on their keyboards.


Jack Hart’s latest book, Skookum Summer: A Novel of the Pacific Northwest, is a murder mystery set in the 1980s Pacific Northwest. In the book, Hart masterfully interweaves a suspenseful plot with richly observed Pacific Northwest history and a vivid picture of a community on the brink of change. Hear him read from the book at these upcoming events

Elliott Bay Books, Seattle, April 18 at 7:00 p.m.
Powell’s City of Books, Portland, April 29 at 7:30 p.m.
University Book Store, Seattle, June 10 at 7:00 p.m.
Village Books, Bellingham, June 14 at 7:00 p.m.