What is the secret to great writing? How do writers, both creative and non-creative, organize and convey their thoughts?
How do they actually work? Hilton Obenzinger, Associate Director of Stanford's Hume Writing Center for Honors and Advanced Writing is in a better position than most to answer these questions.
For the past eight years, Obenzinger has been coordinating the “How I Write” speaker series. Each quarter Obenzinger invites someone who writes, including all types of experienced writers in all sorts of genres and forms, to share their writing style, habits, pleasures and pains with an audience. Over the years, Obenzinger has heard it all, from a scientist who quotes Shakespeare in research articles to a novelist who only writes while wearing her favorite cowboy hat. As peculiar as some of these quirks may sound, Obenzinger has discovered that there are all kinds of ways to write, and he shares this mantra with the undergraduates who turn to him for assistance when tackling, what for many is their first long-form writing project, their honors theses.
In addition to fiction writers, writers from a wide range of fields, including political science, engineering, poetry and human biology have taken part in “How I Write” events. Past guests have included Stanford President John Hennessey, English professor and director of American Studies Shelley Fisher Fishkin and political science professor Terry Karl. Other speakers have included scientists such as Richard Zare and computer scientist Eric Roberts. Video and audio recordings of many past "How I Write" presentations are available on the Stanford iTunesU channel.
Obenzinger has observed that writing techniques tend to differ depending on the scholar’s academic area. "In the social sciences you've often developed an argument and have already posed the question or problem,” he said. “A humanities article often emerges in a different way. Writers of humanities research typically start with a hunch, an initial idea, and the argument develops during the writing process itself. In many of the sciences, researchers conduct an experiment and then write about it, almost like a report." Some scholars working outside of the traditional humanities disciplines, such as biology or physics, often draw upon the techniques of writing in the humanities, especially when trying to reach a broader audience, sometimes blurring the line between humanities and science writing, added Obenzinger. Physics professor Leonard Susskind and neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky, for example, have developed the skill of explaining complex scientific concepts to lay audiences.
According to Obenzinger, he established the “How I Write” series, in part, to foster the writing community at Stanford. Throughout the university people are writing day in and day out in all sorts of ways. Writing is not segregated to the humanities but is vitally important throughout the university. President Hennessy, during his “How I Write” conversation, explained the false ideas he had about writing while he was an undergraduate engineer: “We had a notion that engineers had to know how to use slide rules or calculators or computers, but not how to write. And that is the biggest falsehood you could possibly perpetrate on young people. I think writing and rhetoric [public speaking] are the two most valuable skills across any discipline in any field.”
But through his work with the Honors and Advanced Writing Program, Obenzinger learned that students often feel they have nowhere to turn when they encounter writing challenges. He explained that many students don’t realize that there is a thriving community of experienced writers, right here on campus whose experience they can draw from, particularly at the Hume Writing Center. For many students who feel isolated, the opportunity to attend a “How I Write” session can be an invaluable and even comforting experience. Obenzinger said that students are sometimes relieved to hear that even award-winning authors experience anxiety and writer’s block. English Professor Terry Castle, for example, amazed one audience when she showed them a photocopy of a legal-sized sheet of paper with miniscule marks on it. This was a sheet from her dissertation, written in the 1970s “in this imponderably tiny handwriting.” She explained, “I came up with this minuteness” because she was “worried that I wouldn’t have enough to say.” Her entire dissertation consisted of seven of these sheets. She thought she wrote this way because she wanted her work “to turn into something bigger than it appears to be,” that it would “exfoliate like an atomic bomb, explode into something dramatic.” When Stanford distributed computers to all professors in 1983, she stopped writing in her Lilliputian-sized script. She still considers her writing to be a “neurotic process,” but she does not need to get into that microscopic world of concentration.
In addition to their unique idiosyncrasies and anxieties, every “How I Write” guest brings new tips and tricks to the mix, but there are a few that Obenzinger consistently offers to the students. When political scientist Terry Karl discussed her writing habits, she stressed the importance of challenging her own arguments while she's writing. One professor made a habit of giving himself a five-minute deadline and writing his argument for whatever he was working on, forcing it out with no explanations. He would do this at regular intervals during a project, often discovering that he had subtly changed his argument without fully realizing it. Another professor suggested something similar – a five minute deadline to write out his counter-argument to undermine his case. “Trying to articulate an argument under pressure, with no procrastinating background or explanation, can reveal that your ideas have changed, even though you haven’t realized it,” Obenzinger explained.
These are tactics that Obenzinger encourages his students to employ because they help them build on their original positions, which in turn makes for a stronger thesis. He also praises what Karl calls her “Murder She Wrote” rule, which ensures that each chapter is mystery free. "At the beginning of each chapter Terry makes sure her readers know where they are. Each of her chapters could be read independently of one another."
Obenzinger likens his tutoring approach to coaching in that it incorporates psychological, physical and stylistic elements. “One student was an extreme perfectionist,” he recalled. “We seek excellence, but perfectionism is a great danger, since writing is a constant looping process of re-writing. The computer makes it all look too good. We figured out that in order to overcome this paralyzing perfectionism, she needed to report to a ‘boss.’ So I made a work schedule when she was required to report to my office and she wrote [unpaid] during her ‘shifts’ with the demand that she produce five pages of junk each day. Anything ‘good’ would be rejected. Within a few days of this, she became her own ‘boss,’ and she began to demand inelegant, imperfect rough drafts of herself. She could then work those ugly pieces into fine prose.” Obenzinger said that other students also desire structure and accountability, and that’s one reason why his writing workshop classes or regular individual meetings are often helpful in keeping writers on track with a project. “Every week each student reports to the whole workshop on her progress and what she expects to accomplish in the following week. You’re making commitments to other people. It has a positive effect, even if circumstances intervene and you can’t complete your plan.”
In a bid to share the collected wisdom of the “How I Write” series with a wider audience, Obenzinger is in the process of writing a book, entitled, How We Write: The Varieties of Writing Experience. The book draws on conversations from the “How I Write” series, as well as Obenzinger’s own experiences tutoring students. "Among others, there will be chapters on learning to write, the experience of writing, writer's block, fashioning an argument and writing as a performance,” said Obenzinger.
The book won’t be short of an amusing anecdote or two, either. “I've heard of some writers who sit in different chairs when writing, depending on the nature of the piece, in the kitchen or the bedroom or even the bathroom, or wear a particular article of clothing like a favorite neck tie,” said Obenzinger. “I know one young woman who wears her high school prom dress when she writes." Obenzinger posits that people create specific writing environments or rituals because it makes the time that they are writing feel special. How We Write: The Varieties of Writing Experience is expected to be released in 2011.
The next “How I Write” event will be held at the Stanford Humanities Center at 7pm on March 8. The guest speaker will be Gwyneth Lewis, Wales’s first National Poet. She’s also written non-fiction, including a remarkable personal account Sunbathing in the Rain: A Cheerful Book on Depression, along with radio scripts, plays, librettos, and more. And, just to blur the lines between poetry and science, she’s written a book of poems, Zero Gravity, based on her cousin’s voyage as an astronaut to fix the Hubble Space Telescope and her experience as Poet in Residence in the Department of Astrophysics at Cardiff University. Obenzinger said that Lewis's wide range of genres and topics will surely to learn offer many insights into the “varieties of writing experience.”