Roughness Part 2 supplement —Three versions of Anne Sexton’s “Moon Song”

Anne Sexton.  Image via .

Anne Sexton.  Image via


Consider these three presentations of the opening lines of Anne Sexton’s poem “Moon Song.”


Version #1


Moon Song


I am alive at night

I am dead in the morning—

an old vessel who used up her oil,

bleak and pale-boned.

No miracle.  No dazzle

I'm out of repair, 

but you are tall in your battle dress

and I must arrange for your journey.

I was always a virgin,

old and pitted.

Before the world was, I was,

. . .


Version #2

Moon Song typed.JPG

 Version #3

   image via .


image via

Note how with each step, the presentation takes on more personality and arouses interest.

The presentation of version #1, rendered through flawless on-screen lettering, feels almost without personality.  Such perfection suggests something nameless, at best institutional, “The Internet.”

Note, by contrast, the personality already detectable in version #2, the typewritten version.  Here, the unevenness of the ink saturation, the typewriter's clumsy kerning of the letters (the lack of adjustments of space between individual letters) and the slight skew of the horizontal and vertical lines instantly lend the poem a clearer sense of human authorship, even as this same shift in presentation also makes the poem more difficult to read. 

That tradeoff is most pronounced in version #3, which is in Sexton's own handwriting.  Whether or not one would want to read an entire book of handwritten poems, Christopher Alexander’s principle of Roughness can be seen here in the fact that of these examples the third is both the roughest in appearance and by far the most alive. 

Thank you for reading.

Critique Part 4d — Artwork has its seasons

The Harvest,  1915, by   Zinaida Serebriakova .  Image via .

The Harvest,1915, by Zinaida Serebriakova.  Image via

The Shoots of Autumn Crops , 1907, by Zinaida Serebriakova.  Image via

The Shoots of Autumn Crops, 1907, by Zinaida Serebriakova.  Image via

Veranda in Spring , 1899, by Zinaida Serebriakova.  Image via

Veranda in Spring, 1899, by Zinaida Serebriakova.  Image via

Most people have had the experience of encountering a song, a movie, or a book that they didn’t like, only to rediscover it later and wonder, “What was I thinking?  I love this!”

An artist would do well to keep this phenomenon in mind as she listens to responses from others and filters those responses through her intuition.  Sometimes the artwork is in Capricorn while the audience is in Mercury.

A famous case of this is the Hall and Oates song “She’s Gone.”  It was released off of their second album Abandoned Luncheonette.  It did well with the duo’s hometown listeners in Philadelphia, but did not connect as hoped with audiences elsewhere.  Two years later, after they had scored a nationwide hit with “Sara Smile,” the song was rereleased and became a top-ten hit.

It had found its season.


Thank you for reading.

Critique Part 4c — Questions

Legendary film editor and film sound mixer Walter Murch.  Image via .

Legendary film editor and film sound mixer Walter Murch.  Image via

Author Michael Ondaatje met Murch during the making of  The English Patient,  an adaptation of Ondaatje's novel that was edited by Murch.  The conversations they had inspired Ondaatje's book of interviews with Murch,  The Conversations.

Author Michael Ondaatje met Murch during the making of The English Patient, an adaptation of Ondaatje's novel that was edited by Murch.  The conversations they had inspired Ondaatje's book of interviews with Murch, The Conversations.

In the two previous posts, I suggested that artists do as little talking as possible as they listen to feedback and process it through their intuition.   

When a particular piece of feedback does not resonate intuitively, sometimes it pays to ask questions.  The resulting conversation may reveal that the critique in question had misstated things. 

A great example of this is found in The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, Michael Ondaatje’s book of interviews with film editor and sound mixer Walter Murch.  In this excerpt, Murch relates how the producer of the Godfather (for which Murch mixed the sound), responded to composer Nina Rota’s music score. 

Murch: There was an intense crisis with the music.  When Bob Evans heard Nina Rota’s music, he felt it would sink the film, that it was too lugubrious and didn’t have enough energy. . .  

Ondaatje: You mean the main theme music?

Murch: Yes . . . well, all the music.

Ondaatje: My God, it’s a trademark!

Murch: Well, nobody knew that at the time.  Remember, someone at MGM wanted to cut “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz

(Murch told Ondaatje that Evans actually wanted to replace Nina Rota with Henry Mancini, to give the score more of an American flavor.)

Murch: Frequently what happens in film is that people, especially distracted executives, will say, I hate—pick one—the music, camerawork, art direction, acting in your film.  But if you actually get under the skin of that prejudice, you can discover the particular thing they really hate — the pea under the mattress.  It often comes down to one or two small things that spoil everything else.  When I talked to Bob Evans, it turned out he hated the music for the horse’s-head scene, where Woltz pulls the sheet back and the severed head of his half-million-dollar horse is revealed in the bed.  Maybe because Woltz is the head of a studio and Evans was the head of a studio and it’s a particularly striking, grisly scene—the first violence in the film—he felt the music should be appropriate to that.

I tried to listen to what Nino had written with Bob Evans’s ears, and I thought he had a point.  The music, as it was originally written, was a waltz and it played against the horror of the event.  It was sweet carousel music.  You were seeing those horrible images, but the music was counterpointing the horror of the visuals.  Perhaps it needed to be crazier a little earlier . . . 

. . . You now heard, superimposed on each other, things that were supposed to be separate in time.  So it starts off as the same piece of music, but then begins—just as Woltz realizes that something is wrong—to grate against itself.  There is now a disorienting madness to the music that builds and builds to the moment when Woltz finally pulls the sheet back.   

We played this version for Evans, and he thought it was fantastic. . .

The result was that some of the heat was taken off the music. 

Michael Ondaatje, The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, pp. 99-102 

Murch’s intuition about the music, that it was great, prompted him to dig further into the meaning of the feedback from Evans.  One can only imagine what the film might have been with out Rota’s score. 

Composer Nina Rota.  Image via

Composer Nina Rota.  Image via


Thank you for reading.

Critique Part 4b — Let the witnesses testify

In my instructions for my writing workshops, I ask those whose piece is under discussion to remain quiet.

The writer does not take part in the discussion except by my invitation.  Though this may suggest a courtroom atmosphere where the writer and her work are on trial, the workshop is something else entirely—a chance for the writer to discover how her readers’ experience aligned with her intentions.   Her silence aids her in that process. 

Indeed, if anyone is the judge, it’s the writer.  The readers are witnesses whose testimony about the experience of reading illuminates for her what worked and what needs further attention. 

When your work is being discussed, listen and take notes.  Though you may be frustrated when readers have misread or misunderstood some aspect your work, leaping into the discussion stops you from discovering the extent of their misunderstanding.  By letting them air their misunderstanding and confusion, you will have a better sense of how to revise your work.

Only by listening can the artist make sense of what the testimony has actually told her.

Testimony worth listening to — The Dave Holland Quartet, "Conference of the Birds."


The witnesses . . . 

Bassist and composer Dave Holland.  Image via  .

Bassist and composer Dave Holland.  Image via

Reed and flute player Anthony Braxton.  Image via .

Reed and flute player Anthony Braxton.  Image via

Reed and flute player Sam Rivers.  Image via .

Reed and flute player Sam Rivers.  Image via

Percussionist Barry Altschul.  Image via .

Percussionist Barry Altschul.  Image via

Thank you for reading.

Critique Part 4a — Receiving Critique Through Intuition

Composer Maryanne Amacher.  Image via  sound-art-text .com.

Composer Maryanne Amacher.  Image via


As I watch students comment on each other’s work, I am sometimes horrified to see the writer scribble down every note of the conversation, nodding her head in anxious confirmation.

So many times I long to lean over and ask, “Are you simply going to act on every comment you receive here?   Most of them are missing the point of your piece!”

When receiving critique from her colleagues, an artist must remember to absorb the comments by way of her intuition.  Responses that resonate with her intuition may have something to tell her about how to proceed.  Those that do not might be set aside and if not discarded at least examined before they are acted upon.

Bad critique has the power to pull an artist out of dialogue with her intuition, whereas the best critique informs and deepens that dialogue.

Imagine how resolutely in touch with her own intuition composer Maryanne Amacher had to be to produce this piece.

  A detailed description of the piece can be found here.

Thank you for reading.

Critique Part 3 supplement — What about the blueberry pancakes?

Esther Lamandier.  Image via .

Esther Lamandier.  Image via


One tendency of workshop students is to expect a work of art to answer all of the questions it raises, even if those questions are projected onto the art by the respondents. 

So for instance, a student will respond to a piece of writing by saying, “I wanted to know more about the blueberry pancakes.  I found them really interesting and wanted to know more.”

And I ask, “Why?”

 “Because they seemed interesting.  I wanted to have them myself."

"Okay, but what does that have to do with the story?"

"Um . . . "

"What is the story about?"

"It's about a man going off to war."

"Then what will more information about the blueberry pancakes do to advance that story?"

"Ah, not much."

"Right.  So, as a reader, reading the story, what do you want?"

"I see.  In that case, I really don't care about the pancakes.  (But I really love pancakes.)"

"Which is fine, but the writer has the right to create a world and fill it with all kinds of things that might interest us.  As long as she doesn't make promises about exploring those objects, you may have to content yourself with the fact that the writer is merely doing her job and creating a vivid scene, one aspect of which may appeal to part of you that is not focused on the story." 

"You don't need to know about the blueberry pancakes!" became such a familiar refrain for my students that at the end of the semester, one of them gave me this replica as a token of appreciation .

"You don't need to know about the blueberry pancakes!" became such a familiar refrain for my students that at the end of the semester, one of them gave me this replica as a token of appreciation .

Though the question in this example may have concerned a trivial detail, art may confront us with larger questions.  And as respondents, we might consider that  . . .

  • Questions draw us into the artwork.  They pique our curiosity.

  • Great art often leaves us with unanswered questions that point beyond the artwork and engage our imagination.

Sometimes the questions are obvious, as in the case of Frank Stockton’s story “The Lady, or the Tiger?

More frequently, the questions live in the fabric of the work.  Consider how many questions this ancient Syriac chant, sung by French soprano Esther Lamandier, leaves in its wake. 


We may leave this piece with more questions than we had going into it.  And yet those questions open our minds to consider more than we had only moments earlier.

Thank you for reading.

Critique Part 3 supplement — Engaging the artist's imagination

George Martin.  Image via .

George Martin.  Image via


Just as art can leave room for the insights of its audience, critiques of art in progress can leave room for the artist to decide how she wants to proceed.

Critique that takes the form of a long list of detailed responses, while helpful, might not engage the artist’s imagination and the learning already present in the work.  For example, consider a singer recording a vocal track.  She sings a take, and the producer, seated behind the control-room glass, responds. 

Compare this response . . .  

“You were flat on the first Mary and lamb and also the second Mary.  (The second lamb was okay.)  You were sharp on the final fleece, and you rushed snow.  Let’s try it again.”

with this one . . .

“Let’s try another, and this time, see if you can focus on telling the story.”

The second response has several advantages over the first: 

  • It recognizes the deeper problem, which is that the performance got away from the singer.  She lost her concentration. 
  • It offers a single meta-task around which the singer can focus her next take, rather than presenting a series of little fixes to which she must attend. 
  • It sets free the singer’s imagination.  Rather than attending to a checklist of problems, she can now engage her imagination.
  • It leaves room for unexpected solutions. 

A great example of deeper communication between artists: After the Beatles recorded the basic tracks for “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” John Lennon communicated his vision for the finished recording to producer George Martin.  The conversation is reported in Mark Lewisohn's book The Beatles Recording Sessions.  

"Beatles songs were quite simple in the early days," says George Martin.  "You couldn't play around with them too much.  But by 1967 we were building sound pictures and my role had changed — it was now to interpret those pictures and work out how best to get them down on tape.  Paul was fine — he could express what he wanted, the sounds he wanted to have.  But John was less musically articulate.  He'd make whooshing noises and try to describe what only he could hear in his head, saying he wanted a song 'to sound like an orange'.  When we first worked on 'Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite!' John had said that he wanted to 'smell the sawdust on the floor' . . . 

Mark Lewisohn, The Beatles Recording Sessions, p. 99

Note that what Martin may have viewed as Lennon's liability, his lack of a proper musical vocabulary, may well have been a great advantage in his collaborations with Martin and McCartney.  See how the statement that he wanted to 'smell the sawdust on the floor' . . .

  • Identifies a deeper problem, the mood of the recording.
  • Sets forth a single meta-task, rather than a list of specifics. 
  • Frees George Martin to engage his producer’s imagination. 
  • Leaves room for unexpected solutions, in this case recording a sped up Hammond organ, chopping up the tape, and splicing it back together at random to produce something surreal that evokes a circus.

By way of this framing of his mission, Lennon engaged Martin’s artistic imagination, and the song came to life.

Thank you for reading.


Critique Part 3 — Helpful feedback begins with an honest “Yes.”


Above and left, Yoko Ono views her own work "Ceiling Painting" (aka the Yes Painting).  Viewers climbed a ladder and used a magnifying glass hung from the ceiling to glimpse her message: "yes"  Images via and

When responding to an artist’s work, it helps to on the side of the art.  This holds true for several reasons.

  • “How is this working for me?” (as opposed to “How is this failing?”) allows a respondent access the learning the piece has offered her.  By first identifying the elements to which she responds with the biggest “yes,” she is primed for further insights that will guide her toward a more productive critique. 
  • Likewise, feedback that starts an honest “Yes” reconnects the artist to the learning she has already undergone through creating the work.   By helping her keep track of the earlier learning, such feedback better positions her to consider her next steps.
  • Artists are prone to await feedback with a certain amount of anxiety, which can occlude their ability to listen.   By starting with an honest “Yes,” a respondent can help defuse some of these anxieties and help the artist listen more attentively.

A good example of why this works: Imagine a recording session.  A vocalist stands at the microphone while the producer stares at her from behind the control-room glass.  The producer, who is mindful not only of the finished product she has in mind but also of the singer’s vocal endurance and, perhaps, anxiety, will want to lead her artist through the recording in the fewest possible takes (though she may be ready to take as many as needed to capture the desired performance).

With that in mind, consider the difference between this . . . 

“I thought you were rushing the choruses.”

and this . . .

“I like how laid back and pocketed the verses are.  You are really feeling the rhythm there and it’s bringing the words to life.  Can you work that same groovy magic on the choruses?”

The second response affirms what the singer has already learned about singing the verses and invites her to bring that learning to the choruses.  It turns her learning loose on the problem.  The first response, on the other hand, makes no such reference.  Indeed, the singer may think she is singing the verses wrong, too.  If she is like most of us creative types, the first comment will invite unnecessary self-criticism.  The second invites self-affirmation, which is what all artists need to access their deepest learning.

Begin with "yes."  It's a lesson from improv acting that has relevance to the art of critique, and life at large.

Thank you for reading.

Critique Part 2 supplement — Workshops Connect the Dots

Image via .

Image via


The relevance of critiquing to making art can be understood by considering the insights of Alexis Wiggins, a high-school teacher, who was asked to become a learning coach whose job was to improve learning.   Her principal suggested she be a student for two days.

I was to shadow and complete all the work of a 10th grade student on one day and to do the same for a 12th grade student on another day. My task was to do everything the student was supposed to do: if there was lecture or notes on the board, I copied them as fast I could into my notebook. If there was a Chemistry lab, I did it with my host student. If there was a test, I took it (I passed the Spanish one, but I am certain I failed the business one).

She was surprised by what this process uncovered.

Key Takeaway #1

Students sit all day, and sitting is exhausting.

I could not believe how tired I was after the first day. I literally sat down the entire day, except for walking to and from classes. We forget as teachers, because we are on our feet a lot – in front of the board, pacing as we speak, circling around the room to check on student work, sitting, standing, kneeling down to chat with a student as she works through a difficult problem…we move a lot. 

But students move almost never. And never is exhausting . . .

Key Takeaway #2

High school students are sitting passively and listening during approximately 90 percent of their classes.

. . . I was struck by this takeaway in particular because it made me realize how little autonomy students have, how little of their learning they are directing or choosing. I felt especially bad about opportunities I had missed in the past in this regard . . .  

Key takeaway #3

You feel a little bit like a nuisance all day long.

I lost count of how many times we were told be quiet and pay attention. It’s normal to do so – teachers have a set amount of time and we need to use it wisely. But in shadowing, throughout the day, you start to feel sorry for the students who are told over and over again to pay attention because you understand part of what they are reacting to is sitting and listening all day. It’s really hard to do, and not something we ask adults to do day in and out. Think back to a multi-day conference or long PD day you had and remember that feeling by the end of the day – that need to just disconnect, break free, go for a run, chat with a friend, or surf the web and catch up on emails. That is how students often feel in our classes, not because we are boring per se but because they have been sitting and listening most of the day already. They have had enough.

— excerpted from “I Have Made a Terrible Mistake” by Alexis Wiggins.

Alexis Wiggins put herself out in the audience and made huge discoveries about how to teach.  Though she had taught for years, these insights were not available until she tapped into the experience of being a student.

Participants in art workshops are primed to make parallel discoveries.  Writing students, for instance, make discoveries as readers of work by others that had eluded them while writing pieces of their own.  The problems that hamper their own writing are invisible to them until they encounter them in work by others.

Stepping out into the audience as an artist—it can be enormously instructive. 

Thank you for reading.

Critique Part 2 supplement — What is on the page?

Pianist Marilyn Nonken.  Image via .

Pianist Marilyn Nonken.  Image via


One of the hardest lessons for workshop students is to respond to only what is before them.  What is on the page?  On the screen?  On the stage?  On the canvas?

The lesson is important for both respondents and artists: let the work accomplish its goals under its own power, by its own means.  Lengthy notes of explanation from the artist, if they are not part of the work, encroach on a respondent's ability to evaluate the work’s success.  Likewise, responses to things outside of the work (the artist’s process, her level of effort, her other work) distract the artist from hearing how the work itself has been received and gauging how it might be received by those she may never meet. 

One tipoff that the response looks outside of the work is the presence of moral judgment.  

Compare this . . . 

            “I just don’t feel like you tried very hard.”

Or . . .

"I felt like the writer was trying to get me to feel sorry for her."

With this . . .  

“I couldn’t figure out what the piece was really about.  At first I thought it might have been the arson.  Then there were five paragraphs about the brother’s troubled past, but then it returned to the arson and the investigation.  So I found myself unable to grab hold of the story, because I couldn’t determine which storyline was the ultimate focus, the brother or the arson.” 

Note how the gratuitous moral language in the first two responses offers nothing about the art, only speculation about the artist.  The third response highlights the source of the respondent's confusion and stays within the bounds of the art.

Respondents do well to confine their attention to what the artist sets before them. And artists do well to learn to let their art speak for itself.  Well-conceived work can stand on its own.

Consider, for instance, how strange and yet perfectly articulate this piece of music is.  It's an excerpt from Morton Feldman’s Triadic Memories, performed by Marilyn Nonken.  Feldman's composition and Nonken's interpretation require no introduction, even though a listener may be unfamiliar with this kind of music.  The logic of the piece is sufficient unto itself.  And understanding it does not require us to reflect upon anything outside of the piece and its performance.  

Thank you for reading.


Critique Part 2 supplement— The Hazards of Prescription

Anoushka Shankar.  Image via .

Anoushka Shankar.  Image via


Creating art requires an artist to channel the mysteries of her intuition into something others can behold.  It requires her tune out chatter from within and without.

In my writing workshops, I ask students to avoid prescribing solutions to their classmates.  I do this for several reasons:

  • The main goal of the workshop is to get the students to listen to their experience as readers, and if they begin to offer prescriptions, they shift out of listening and into broadcasting.
  • The artist is the person most in tune with what she is trying to make.  Attempts to interfere with her process are likely to disrupt the learning that is bringing forth the artwork.

This does not preclude the students from considering possibilities.  But note the difference between this . . .

“I think you should end it at the third paragraph from the end.”

and this . . .

“I was really captivated by the description of the parachute ride back to earth, but the closing paragraphs after the landing felt less compelling.  I wondered if you considered ending the piece at the third paragraph from the end, when the narrator is still in the air.”

The first response offers prescription without experience.  It leaves little room for the writer, who might know that the final paragraphs are crucial to some purpose not yet evident to her readers. 

The second reports on the reader’s experience, and rather than prescribing a particular solution, which might conflict with the writer’s ultimate purpose, merely invites the writer to consider one valid option.

In order to create work that will reach her audience, an artist must tune out the chatter of the audience members (real and imagined) and descend into her own intuition.  It requires the kind of focus and deep attention so evident in the following clip of sitar player Anoushka Shankar, tabla player Tanmoy Bose, and tampura player Kenji.

Thank you for reading.


Critique Part 2 — Reporting Experience

Image via

Image via


In my writing workshops, I invite students to skip the question “What do you think?” and answer a different question instead: “What did you notice?”

Consider some of the differences between these questions:

“What do you think?” invites opinion.  It invites grand pronouncements, verdicts, and thereby situates the conversation outside of the work instead of within it.

“What did you notice?” invites a report on a reader’s experience.  See how the verb notice makes room for even the smallest observations, ones that may seem trivial at the moment of being offered but which may turn out to contain important information.

“What do you think?” produces a conversation where respondents argue over their opinions, whereas it’s nonsensical to disagree with someone’s experience.   “I was confused as to who was talking during the stretch of dialogue on page seven.”  Though others might report having no such difficulty, they can hardly disagree with this report.

“What do you think?” invites the others in the workshop to become reviewers, a pursuit beyond the scope of a creative writing workshop, whereas “What did you notice?” keeps the participants rooted in the question of making art.

Because “What did you notice?” keeps the conversation rooted in the work, it invites the respondents into discovery.  The conversation, I have found, continues to uncover aspects of the work that escaped the first response.  “What do you think?” invests each respondent in a position.  Changing her mind comes at a moral price.  By contrast, “What did you notice?” allows the respondents to remain fluidly engaged and leaves room for backtracking, “Now that I think about it, what I actually noticed was . . .”

For all of these reasons, I have found that “What did you notice?” offers a more fruitful framing for discussing work by someone else and, of equal importance, for reading one’s own work. 

Thank you for reading.

Critique Part 1 supplement — What is the piece about?

Image via .

Image via


One of the important lessons students take from an art workshop is that their work might miss the intended mark.   Thus, the first response fellow workshop members might make is to address the question, “What is this piece about?”

The question will be addressed differently according to art form. In my nonfiction writing workshops, I invite students to use the framework presented by Vivian Gornick in her book The Situation and the Story.

Every work of literature has both a situation and a story.  The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.  

— Vivian Gornick, The Situation and the Story, p. 13

Thus, when my students comment on a piece by one of their classmates, they are asked to begin by identifying the situation and the story.  They have an easier time identifying the situation, which might be as simple as . . .  

“The narrator, a high-school senior, goes with her family to Thanksgiving at her grandparents’ house, and a big argument about politics and family history breaks out.”

They have a harder time identifying the story.   I ask them to describe the arc of the narrator’s insight.  Something like . . .  

“The narrator braces herself for a holiday with the family, especially given her tense relationship with her father.  He has always been critical of her, most recently about her plans for college.  Over the course of the weekend, she sees her father bracing himself for his encounter with his own parents.  Never before has she taken note of how much criticism they dish out to her father or of how much her attachment to her grandparents might reflect a sense of mutual alliance against her father.  By the end of the weekend, when she rides back home with her parents, she wonders whether these discoveries into her father’s psyche will inspire renewed connection or simply enlightened detachment.”

Or perhaps . . .

“I couldn’t find the story.  I wasn’t sure if what the narrator was describing was a series of revelations about her father or her evolving plans for life after high school.”

When students dig out and articulate the story (or report on the absence of a clear story), their critiques reflect a more organized understanding of the piece’s successes and problems.  More importantly, the process of asking and answering the question “What is this piece about?” drills into them the fact that their readers will be attempting to answer the same question. 

Thank you for reading.

Critique Part 1 supplement — The Distinction between the Artist and Her Voice

Vivian Gornick.  Image via .

Vivian Gornick.  Image via


As I mentioned in the previous post, one of the advantages of the workshop format is that it helps students become more critically aware of their own work. 

For my writing workshops, I’ve adopted the pedagogy that Vivian Gornick presents in her book The Situation and the StoryOne of Gornick’s emphases is the distinction between the writer and the narrator:

The writing we call personal narrative is written by people who, in essence, are imagining only themselves: in relation to the subject in hand.  The connection is an intimate one; in fact, it is critical.  Out of the raw material of a writer’s own undisguised being a narrator is fashioned whose existence on the page is integral to the tale being told.  This narrator becomes a persona.  Its tone of voice, its angle of vision, the rhythm of its sentences, what it selects to observe and what to ignore are chosen to serve the subject; yet at the same time the way the narrator—or the persona—sees things is, to the largest degree, the thing being seen.

To fashion a persona out of one’s own undisguised self is no easy thing.  . . . The persona in a nonfiction narrative is an unsurrogated one.  Here the writer must identify openly with those very same defenses and embarrassments that the novelist or poet is once removed from. . . .

Yet the creation of such a persona is vital in an essay or a memoir.  It is the instrument of illumination.  Without it there is neither subject nor story.  To achieve it, the writer of memoir or essay undergoes an apprenticeship as soul-searching as any undergone by novelist or poet: the twin struggle to know not only why one is speaking but who is speaking.

Vivian Gornick, The Situation and the Story, pp. 6-8

With this in mind, I ask my students to observe the distinction between the writer and the narrator.

Instead of this: “When you escaped the burning building . . .”

This: “When the narrator escaped the burning building . . .”

And instead of this: "When you told your boss you hated your job . . . "

This: "When your narrator told her boss that she hated her job . . . "

It takes the workshop participants a while to get used to this.   But as they develop this habit and cultivate awareness of the distance between the writer and the speaker, they bring a keener awareness of this distinction into their own work.  Their writing sharpens and sound more real, more vivid, because they are now aware that the speaker on the page does not exist until she has been created by the writer. 

The distinction holds across art forms.  Though their work speaks for them, it is worth considering the distinctions between . . . 

  • A composer and the compositional voice in her music.
  • A painter and the voice alive on her canvas.
  • A dancer and the voice alive in her movement on stage.
  • An architect and the voice alive in her design.

In each case, the artist creates a speaker, someone whose sole job is to express the art.  Her being does not perfectly overlay the being of the artist.  She might do or say what the artist would never think of.  The power and freedom she gives to the artist is available only upon recognition of her separate existence.

Thank you for reading.

Critique Part 1 — Critique as an element of artist training

Vivian Gornick.  Image via .

Vivian Gornick.  Image via


A lesson I learned as a drummer: one show is worth ten or twenty rehearsals.  The presence of an audience raises my critical awareness to a place higher than where it had been in rehearsal.

I noticed this, too, as a songwriter.  Only at the moment of handing off a demo to a listener would I realize "Damn, I never figured out the bridge."   Handing over work and getting in front of an audience raises the stakes and our attention.

Artist workshops, where fellow artists exchange and comment upon each other's work, provide an opportunity to share one's work regularly and to learn from that sharing.  As a writing teacher who works in the workshop format, I can say that most of what the students learn doesn't come from the other students or their professor; it comes by way of their deepened connection to their artistic intuition.

In The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, Vivian Gornick describes how she teaches her writing students:

". . . I have learned that you cannot teach people how to write—the gift of dramatic expressiveness, of a natural sense of structure, of making language sink down beneath the surface of description,  all that is inborn, cannot be taught—but you can teach people how to read, how to develop judgment about a piece of writing: their own as well as that of others.  You can teach them how to puzzle out the experience buried in a mass of material and to see whether it is being shaped on the page; how to search out the link between a narrative line and the wisdom that compels it; how to ask, Who is speaking, what is being said, and what is the relation between the two? . . ."

Vivian Gornick,  The Situation and the Story, pp. 159-160

I have adopted Gornick’s approach and found that it contains great wisdom.  When students become better readers, they learn to read their own writing and see its problems and potential. They begin to understand, for instance that . . .

Good writing is aware of the reader. 

It seems like an obvious fact, but many writers lose sight of it.  They become absorbed with getting their thoughts onto the page, which is hard enough.  Encountering work by others, especially work by fellow students who are still figuring things out, they become more attuned to the fact that a reader will have to pick up their writing and make sense of it.

Good writing trains the reader how to read it.

This question is invisible to many writing students.  A student may not yet have realized that her essay about her travels in Croatia could be read as a portrait of Croatia, but also as a story of the dissolution of a relationship with her travel companion, or a story of finding a sense of mission in life, or a story about realizing what she left behind at home.  She herself might have had clear intentions, but she hasn't yet learned that the writing didn't help her readers intuit those intentions.  By reading and critiquing work by her fellow students, where similar problems hover over the page, she is more likely to attend to the problems her readers might have.

Good writing knows the difference between a portrait of confusion and a confused portrait.

Many writers want to capture the sense of being muddled, unclear, lost, and so forth.   Only after reading successful (and unsuccessful) pieces by other writers do students come to realize how much clarity is needed to portray the lack of clarity they hope to capture. 

These are only a few examples of how the act of critically engaging work by others puts an artist in conversation with her intuition, a lifelong source of her learning.

Thank you for reading.

The Audience Learns Part 4 — Surprise

Jo Ann Beard.  Image via .

Jo Ann Beard.  Image via


Jo Ann Beard, one of the great non-fiction writers of our time, advises her non-fiction writing students to ask four questions of each sentence they write:

1.  Is it grammatical?
2.  Is it true?
3.  Does it contain new information?
4.  Does it include a surprise?

Note the important difference between questions 3 and 4.  A surprise is more than new information; it asks us to make a mental leap.  Those mental leaps are what characterize the insights of the work.

Listen to the opening phrases of “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered,” performed here by Ella Fitzgerald and the Buddy Bregman Orchestra.


Note how each line considers Jo Ann Beard’s questions.

1.  Each line is grammatical (in that we are able to make musical sense of it).

2.  Each line is true (in the sense that the melody feels plainly stated, without deception).

3.  Each line contains new information (in that our understanding continues to deepen).

4.  Each line contains a surprise. 

After one whole quart of brandy

The surprises include the downward leap on the second syllable of after and the up and down leaps on “of brandy.”

Like a daisy, I’m awake.

The second syllable of awake adds a delicious and surprising tweak.

With no Bromo Seltzer handy

The span of the upward leap on the second syllable of Seltzer is a big surprise. 

I don’t even shake. 

Another surprising leap between the first two syllables.  Also, that last pitch provides surprise and intrigue.

My guess is that what sticks in the ears of most listeners are those surprises, especially the big leap in the third line.  The surprises are sticky.

Another example . . .


Joni Mitchell's songs are full of surprises.  As you listen to the first verse of "Help Me," hear how each phrase comes in for a landing on a surprising chord.

Help me
I think I'm falling

In love again ⬅︎

When I get that crazy feeling
I know I'm in trouble again ⬅︎

I'm in trouble
'Cause you're a rambler and a gambler
And a sweet talking ladies man

And you love your lovin' ⬅︎

But not like you love your freedom ⬅︎

The constant changing of key creates the sensation of riding along a hilly road where each hill crests with a surprising vista.  Those surprises are what make the song’s sense of discovery so palpable, so that the listeners can hang onto and learn from them.

"Does it include a surprise?"  Thank you, Jo Ann Beard.

Thank you for reading.

The Audience Learns Part 2 supplement — Cumulative songs and tales

We have seen how repetition draws an audience member’s attention inward, to a place where she can begin to manipulate what she has been given and begin her own creative work.  We’ve also seen how repetition helps an audience absorb work that is full of challenging twists and turns.

Another, related use of repetition is accumulation, wherein the audience memorizes one phrase and then adds on to it.  A famous example of this is the nursery rhyme “This Is the House That Jack Built.”

This is the house that Jack built.

This is the cheese that lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the rat that ate the cheese
That lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the cat that chased the rat
That ate the cheese that lay in the house that Jack built.

The verses get longer and longer, starting at greater distance from Jack’s house. 

This is the horse and the hound and the horn
That belonged to the farmer sowing his corn
That kept the rooster that crowed in the morn
That woke the judge all shaven and shorn
That married the man all tattered and torn
That kissed the maiden all forlorn
That milked the cow with the crumpled horn
That tossed the dog that worried the cat
That chased the rat that ate the cheese
That lay in the house that Jack built.

"The House That Jack Built" is what’s known as a cumulative tale.  (Another example might be Green Eggs and Ham.)  There are also cumulative songs, one of the best known being "The Twelve Days of Christmas."  Cumulative tales and songs keep returning to a simple root image by repeating a lengthening set of details.  Part of the thrill for the audience is discovering the surprising capacity of the human memory.  Also, each recitation of the ever-lengthening refrain allows them to observe what happens to their attention.


Danish poet Inger Christensen.  Image via .

Danish poet Inger Christensen.  Image via

You can see these same principles at work in alphabet, a book-length poem by Danish poet Inger Christensen.  The book proceeds through the letters of the alphabet, and the length of each section follows a pattern know as a Fibonacci sequence, in which each number is the sum of the previous two numbers—0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, and so forth).

Thus it begins . . .


apricot trees exist, apricot trees exist



bracken exists; and blackberries, blackberries;
bromine exists; and hydrogen, hydrogen



cicadas exist; chicory, chromium,
citrus trees; cicadas exist;
cicadas, cedars, cypresses, the cerebellum


doves exist, dreamers, and dolls;
killers exist, and doves, and doves;
haze, dioxin, and days; days
exist, days and death; and poems
exist; poems, days, death


and a little later . . . 


given limits exist, streets, oblivion

and grass and gourds and goats and gorse,
eagerness exists, given limits

branches exist, wind lifting them exists,
and the lone drawing made by the branches

of the tree called an oak tree exists,
of the tree called an ash tree, a birch tree,
a cedar tree, the drawing repeated

in the gravel garden path; weeping
exists as well, fireweed and mugwort,
hostages, greylag geese, greylags and their young;

and guns exist, an enigmatic back yard;
overgrown, sere, gemmed just with red currants,
guns exist; in the midst of the lit-up
chemical ghetto guns exist
with their old-fashioned, peaceable precision

guns and wailing women, full as
greedy owls exist; the scene of the crime exists;
the scene of the crime, drowsy, normal, abstract,
bathed in a whitewashed, godforsaken light,
this poisonous, white, crumbling poem

alphabet by Inger Christensen.  Translated by Susanna Nied.


Note here the cumulative feel of the lengthening sections and role played by repetition.  As we encounter the poem’s recursions, we feel we are learning something about the workings of our minds, much as we do when presented with a cumulative tale or song.  Though each section is different, the repeating language, tropes, and sense that the line-length of the sections point back to their predecessors yields a particular form of insight that would be lost without the repetition.  Through the repetition, we discover connections and resonances between disparate elements and enter into the deeper learning of the poem.


Thank you for reading.

Creative Process Part 4 supplement — The Audience Innovates

El Matador State Beach, California.  Image via .

El Matador State Beach, California.  Image via


I’ve suggested that audiences take what they are given and do their own creative work, which follows the process outlined in Clark Terry’s formulation for learning jazz improvisation: “Imitate, assimilate, innovate.”  In the case of an audience member, someone absorbing a work of art, her innovation lies in her attaining a new understanding of something that lies outside the artwork.

The process might be quite similar to what happens when sitting on a beach and listening to the waves.  It inevitably produces some insight beyond what is happening in front of us.  The rhythm of the waves starts a process that might lead the person on the shore to realize what’s going on with a particular aspect of her life.  That insight is her innovation, the product of her creative imagination.

Likewise, when she listens to music or reads a book, she reaches insights about herself or life that are not part of what she heard or read.  The music or writing she encounters launches her on a process of discovery that soon becomes her own.  Her access to that discovery may rely on the particular workings of the music or writing, but the discoveries are hers.  Indeed, her discoveries may be quite different from someone else’s. 

The nature of the discoveries may remain too abstract to put into words, but her attainment of them feels palpable.  She listens to the Jupiter Symphony or “Midnight Train to Georgia” and discovers something by way of taking in the various images and then imitating and assimilating them with herself and her experience. 

Thus, when we peruse favorite albums looking to find what it is we want to hear, we are not only asking ourselves a question about what music we want to keep us company, we are asking ourselves about which place within ourselves we might want to access through the innovative creative work we do as listeners.

Perhaps audience members know less of their own creative powers than artists do, for artists study audience responses to their work.  They inevitably find that just as the rhythm of the waves inspires all kinds of thoughts about life beyond the shoreline, some of the most successful art simply gives the audience a point of departure for a journey of its own devising.

Thank you for reading.


Creative Process Part 4 supplement — The Audience Assimilates

We’ve been exploring the creative process of the audience.  I’ve offered Clark Terry’s advice to those learning to play jazz —“Imitate, assimilate, innovate” — as a framework for understanding the creative work we do as listeners, readers, viewers, and so forth.

Yesterday, I offered the idea that our attraction to idiosyncratic works of art testifies to the fact that those absorbing the art engage in some act of imitation (because the more idiosyncratic a work is, the more easily it can be imitated).  Today, I offer snapshots of audience assimilation.

I met one friend of mine, Kelly, while she was carrying five copies of Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity.  She explained that she was buying up all the copies she could find before the movie version was released.  “I want to get copies for all my friends before they print up new copies with John Cusack’s face on the cover.  I hate when publishers do that.”  She wanted her friends to have the freedom to imagine the story’s protagonist, Rob Fleming, on their own. I am not sure if the book was actually ever issued with a new cover featuring John Cusack’s face, but Kelly’s concern still holds.  Readers feel a certain right to work with what they are given, and they are protective of that right. 

My ever-insightful friend, Kelly.

My ever-insightful friend, Kelly.


It seems to me she identified an important aspect of audience creativity, our assimilation of the work.  Our assimilation of the work requires a bit of freedom to embellish and augment what we have absorbed.  In the case of High Fidelity, my friend had noticed how a movie version of a book can encroach upon one’s own mental version of the story, thus implicitly valuing the work of her own imagination.

We can find many parallels.  When MTV emerged, music listeners started seeing videos images of the songs in their heads, and to some of them this also felt like an unwelcome encroachment.  The sense was that the video got it wrong.  The song didn’t look that way inside one’s head.

Most common of all might be when fans of a book encounter the movie version and feel that the film, even if it has accurately reproduced the plotlines, disagrees with too much of what they had imagined.

In all of these cases we are encountering the fact that an audience not only imitates the work but also expands upon it.  Indeed, they feel protective of what their interpretive powers have produced.

Thank you for reading.

Creative Process Part 4 supplement — The Audience Imitates

One of the most enduring albums of the 1990s and also one of the most idiosyncratic—Liz Phair's  Exile in Guyville .  Image via .

One of the most enduring albums of the 1990s and also one of the most idiosyncratic—Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville.  Image via


It’s interesting to note that works of art with the widest appeal are in some way the strangest, the most unique.

On the list of the greatest rock, pop, and R&B offerings, we might find Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Live at the Apollo, Highway 61 Revisited, “Mississippi Goddamn,” Are You Experienced, Clouds, “Baba O’Riley,” Innervisions, First Take, Tapestry, “Radio, Radio,” Horses, Remain in Light, “Running Up That Hill,” Nevermind, Exile in Guyville.  All of these are marked by their distinctiveness. 

A list of the great plays might include Hamlet; a list of great novels might include Mrs. Dalloway and Song of Solomon; a list of great films might include The 400 Blows and The Godfather.  In the case of these and other entries on lists of widely loved works, we would not be surprised to see works that featured distinctive characters, settings, image systems, and so forth.

“The most widely loved works are idiosyncratic”—on the surface, it’s a conundrum.  Yet the explanation might lie in idea that our first task as the audience is to recreate the imagery inside of us, to somehow imitate the art.  The more specific the object we attempt to imitate, the greater success we will have.  Think of how we have the easiest time doing an impression of the odd characters in our lives, even when those we are imitating feel different from us.  The people whose traits stand out the least are the most difficult to imitate.

Likewise with art, the more original the creation, the more distinctly it will strike the imagination of the audience and the more easily it might be imitated within them as they absorb the work.  Another way of thinking about this: there is a reason that the most loved albums are also the most imitated by other artists, and it might have to do with something beyond the desire for replicating the success of the original.  Artists who hear distinctive work have an easier time imitating it.  So it is with the audience.

Thank you for reading.