8 Writing Lessons from the FLOTUS

“How we urged them to ignore those who question their father’s citizenship or faith. How we insist that the hateful language they hear from public figures on TV does not represent the true spirit of this country. How we explain that when someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level.”

Lesson four: Unleash the power of three. Notice how often the speaker relies upon a pattern of three to make her point. This is one of the oldest tricks in the orator’s book. In literature, three is always the largest number. “Of the people, by the people, for the people.” Four examples or 40 become an inventory. Three encompasses the world, creating the illusion we know everything we need to know.

“Our motto is, when they go low, we go high.”

Lesson five: Express your best thought in a short sentence. This is one of the best lines in the speech for a number of reasons. It’s a short sentence, only seven words. Each word is a single syllable. There is parallelism between “they go low” and “we go high,” emphasized by the repetition of the word “go.” The sentence is complex, that is, it begins with a subordinate clause “When they go low,” which describes the opponent’s weak move, followed by a main clause that gives greater weight to the speaker’s values.

“Kids like the little black boy who looked up at my husband, his eyes wide with hope, and he wondered, Is my hair like yours?”

Lesson six: Find a focus. Stick with it. In the story “The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson, the winner of the town’s annual lottery gets stoned to death. It is a surprise ending, but there are several mentions of the word ‘stones’ as foreshadowing — never “rocks.”

If I had to choose one word to describe the speech, it would be “kids.” It is repeated five times on a single page. She also uses words like children, sons and daughters, but the informality of kids draws you in: “So, how are the kids?” There is a significant literature in African-American culture about the issue, the problem, the glory of hair. Of “good” hair, and “bad” hair. It feels almost daring for Michelle Obama to refer to this incident, to turn a taboo into a parable and a blessing.

See Roy Peter Clark’s full piece at Poynter here.

See Mrs. Obama’s speech here or below.

Thanks, Ed!

Little Images

I wrote this four years ago and came back to it in my draft folder. The storage unit is not ours anymore since we’ve moved, but the sentiment in this post remains.

Photo Thanks to Nuno Silva

Photo Thanks to Nuno Silva

The other day I spent a few hours rummaging through old things. I went into our basement storage unit and opened a few boxes. I’ve avoided those boxes for two years. My last real vist was soon after the boy came along. Since then I’ve stacked and restacked boxes. I’ve thrown out a couple bags. I’ve given books away.

But I needed to look through things. I need to remember. I needed to let some things go.

I do this regularly: letting things go. My wife is the keeper of things. I’m the one who discards the unused. I used to give boxes of books away–after U of I, after Wheaton, and then after Garrett. I am of the mind that books are worth sharing, especially when they’ve given their gifts to you.

Still, it’s been awhile since I’ve actually gone through the articles and stuff of earlier days, since I convinced myself that I didn’t need as many things as I once did. It’s interesting how what we keep can be its own record.

So I waded through things. There are those cards and letters from my college days and there’s something Mr. Everett gave me in high school. I found a picture with a friend from a dance, the program from a wedding, a hand-written letter from my pastor, a note from my niece, and one of the most creative pieces of writing I’ve ever read, which happens to also be one of the most troubling lies I’ve read. That was from a letter written by a friend impersonating a physician when we were in college.

Each one of these things is a little image of me, a small indicator of the routes my life has taken.

Sitting with Edits

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Photo Thanks to Tram Mau Tri Tam

I’ve been spending a lot of my edge time editing. Edge time is time that I have on the edges on my schedule. Frankly there isn’t much. But every few years I get to edit something meaningful. I’ve been working on someone else’s stuff while also writing a few things of my own in the last months. More on that later.

One thing I’ve noticed about editing—my own and other people’s work—is that the space between the readings is the space where the writer grows. That’s particularly true if you sit with the edits long enough to learn from them. The same is true in a verbatim seminar, in a class, or in a meeting with members or stakeholders or friends. The longer you sit with what’s said, the more impact what’s said has.

Feedback is only as good as you allow it be. If it’s dispensable, you’ll dispense with it. Of course, my post is about editing. All those tracked changes can instruct you, change you, improve your ability to communicate. But you have to take the risk and let that happen.

You have to choose to be vulnerable, to admit to poor word choice, to accept that your phrase was confusing, and to surrender to another option. That option may not be what the editor suggests, what you at a different time might choose. But another option may be the route toward clearer, tighter sentences.

Another thing I’ve noticed about editing is that it helps the editing process to pause. There is always space between words in a sentence. Even though there’s only one space after periods, it’s still a space worth respecting.

Giving myself time to think through the questions of my editors or to notice my own literary proclivities or to see how many times I use passive voice will make me a stronger communicator. It’ll make me a poet. It’ll charge my words. It’ll engage me, and an engaged me eventuates into a engaged sentence.

Differences in Worldview

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Photo Thanks to Ryan McGuire

Working across cultures can provoke strong negative responses and reduce trust. The outsider or stranger may appear even more strange and untrustworthy. Those of us with training and expertise in communication skills, such as pastoral care providers, may find it hard to bridge certain cultural gaps and resist becoming siblings in a common struggle when differences in worldview appear to threaten cherished beliefs and values. The differences in worldview may appear insurmountable when there is a single, limited, or exclusive focus on one’s own cultural group. Where this is the case, it will be impossible to build trust and face the complex issues of interethnic group oppression.

(From Siblings by Choice, 28-29)

Cecilia Galante to Writers

Photo Thanks to Markus Spiske

Photo Thanks to Markus Spiske

My writing is a selfish venture, because I do it for myself, to help me find my footing and secure my place in the world. Some people would consider a childhood filled with fear and loneliness to be a detriment, but I have come to value it because it has made me inordinately curious about the world and the people in it. What kind of things do we find ourselves thinking about, and why do we do what we do, and how do we live with the consequences of our actions? The ideas for my books stem from those kinds of questions after meeting certain people, or hearing about their own experiences and then taking them to the next level.

I used to be terrified to get what I was really thinking down on the page, sure that no one else had the same strange, convoluted, sometimes even dark thoughts that I did. But the longer I’m alive, the more I realize that we are all in the same boat, that none of us are all that much different than the next person. Our fears, anxieties, hopes, and dreams all come from the same place, a kind of sacred space that each of us, every single day, is trying to fill or strengthen or maybe just comprehend. I write to honor that sacred space, and in the process, to gain a better understanding of who I am today, tomorrow, and the next day too.

Read the full interview at Forbes here.

“…you can be creative…”

So I wrote something that I probably couldn’t have written anywhere else. This place where I live now, that I love dearly, is just full of interruptions. But I have succeeded; what I have been doing here in this last few years as my hobby is editing this material. And I find that this material helps me enormously. My own high moments help me. I would say that one of the things that has come to me in the immediate last few days is that this Cosmic Flow, which is God, call it what you will, is the life back of every cell in the body. It’s a nice metaphor, the river is the flow, because it has come to me more deeply that I am just sort of porous. That this is refreshing, healing love of God is flowing through me, and that’s a very marvelous thing to believe, if you are seventy-eight and you’ve got arthritis, and you’re burdened with the racial concept of old age that everybody gets sick and peters out and gets carried away. But it doesn’t matter where you are physically, if you’re sick or if you’re well. That this Reality, of this actual life, all spelled with capital letters, LIFE flows through you at every moment of your waking-sleeping experience. Consequently you can be creative to your last breath.

From Miss T in an interview as reported in Fowler’s Stages of Faith, pg. 197

Thanks to Szolkin

Thanks to Szolkin

 

“Writing…an often painful task”

Michael Eric Dyson’s brilliance with many things glows in this and other paragraphs as he writes about the fractures in his relationship with Cornel West. In this quote, he’s talking writing. If you’re interested in what else he says, visit here. Among our other impressions of his overall critique, we should pray for the folks mentioned here. They are part of an intellectual community that shapes and influences the opinions of our best practitioners. My point is to underline what Dyson says of the work of writing.

The ecstasies of the spoken word, when scholarship is at stake, leave the deep reader and the long listener hungry for more. Writing is an often-painful task that can feel like the death of one’s past. Equally discomfiting is seeing one’s present commitments to truths crumble once one begins to tap away at the keyboard or scar the page with ink. Writing demands a different sort of apprenticeship to ideas than does speaking. It beckons one to revisit over an extended, or at least delayed, period the same material and to revise what one thinks. Revision is reading again and again what one writes so that one can think again and again about what one wants to say and in turn determine if better and deeper things can be said.