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Thread: week 2011.06.18

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    ESE Student iPropose's Avatar
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    Default week 2011.06.18

    Writing and Teaching for Surprise
    Donald M. Murray

    My students become writers at that moment when they first write what they do not expect to write. They experience the moment of surprise that motivates writers to haul themselves to their writing desks year after year. Writers value the gun that does not hit the target at which it is aimed.

    Before they experience surprise students find writing drudgery, something that has to be done after the thinking is over—the dishes that have to be washed after the guests have left. But writing is the banquet itself. As Louis Nevelson said, “My work is a feast for myself.”

    Writers seek what they do not expect to find. Writers are, like all artists, rationalizers of accident. They find out what they are doing after they have done it.

    Students should share in this purposeful unknowing, for writing is not the reporting of what was discovered, but the act of exploration itself. John Galsworthy said, “I sit. I don’t intend.” E. M. Forster added, “Think before you speak, is criticism’s motto; speak before you think is creation’s.” The evidence from writers goes on and on. Speaking of his play, The Birthday Party, Harold Pinter said, “The thinking germinated and bred itself. It proceeded according to its own logic. What did I do? I follow the indications, I kept a sharp eye on the clues I found myself dropping.”

    When you read what I have written it may be the agent that causes surprise in you. But that finished text which gave me the satisfaction of completion is far removed from the moment of surprise when I learned what I did not even know I had to learn. Let me try to take you backstage, no, not even backstage, but far beyond that into that almost always private moment when the writer is alone with language and the words escape intention.

    I am sitting with my daybook on my lapdesk, and my notes at the top of the page—notes I had forgotten until I read them now—say, “Lack of faith—read previous text and feel nausea—physical revulsion.” I have come to confront a novel I have been working on for years. Drafts have been completed and abandoned, and there is no hope or anticipation of surprise.

    I start again the new first chapter that must precede the chapters already written. I write four lines and strike it through, then start again. It goes well enough, but it is a journeyman’s job. The writing seems terribly expected, and as Robert Frost said, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader,” I slog on knowing that the slog can be changed if ever a surprise occurs.

    I write, “He could remember when he first became aware of the sadness. He had come back from a swing through the west coast offices and realized he had the usual post-business trip sadness.” I can remember the despair at the triteness of that sentence. Then my pen wrote, “’Daddy’s wearies,’ Lucinda told the children”—the sentence isn’t finished, but I must interrupt, for that phrase that Lucinda uttered was a small surprise, because I had never heard that expression, and it seemed right, revealing of her and their life. But the sentence went right on, “… and he set up his paints in the backyard to paint the woods. It was May, but he saw no colors.”

    That was an enormous surprise. I was inside the skull of a man who would, before the chapter was out, murder his children. I had no hint that this is what he saw, but having received that surprise the text became alive to me.

    A few weeks later I was directing a session for teachers on writing in public, and so I went to the board to write in public. These fragments I started writing in such workshops are pulling me with a powerful force towards a book I will attempt on my sabbatical. It is a book about World War II, and I don’t know whether it is fiction or autobiography or poetry or history, but the continual force of surprise tells me there is a book to be written. I put down the word “boots” on the board, thinking I will write about the Nazi jackboots or my own paratroop boots, and then see that my hand has written below it “bones,” and I am digging a foxhole in that field in France when I realized that I was digging in the buried bones of soldiers from World War I. And so I start to write and, again, it is not what I expected to write.

    “I am practicing in the side yard and slowly wind up, look over to first base, then turn to the plate and shoot the tennis ball in on Lou Gehrig. Before it hits the garage door I hear the back bedroom cough next door. It coughs with experience, a cough that sounds as if it comes from an empty room. All spring and summer and fall the room coughs while I play, when I try to sleep at night, when I go out to get my bicycle from the garage in the morning dark for my paper route the room coughs. In winter the window is shut and the storm window went over it, but in the spring the room coughed again.”

    The man next door, whom I never saw, had been gassed in World War I. That remembered cough, so much louder now that I have experienced war, surprises me. I hope it will surprise and haunt my readers.

    Through my daybooks there is a trail of small surprises that led me to give the talk that surprised me enough to draft this article. I had lots of notes about how teachers and students recognize when they were making progress. But the material seemed ordinary to me, when this fragment appeared on the page, “Student breakthrough when achieve surprise.” And several days later this almost sentence occurred, “When a student is surprised by what he or she is writing then the student becomes a writer central act breakthrough” and although I did not know what would be the lead sentence of this article I did know it would be this surprise turned on my lathe and shaped for publication.

    I’m tempted to go on, to recover for myself the surprises of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction—even the surprises in a grant proposal—that I see on those pages. But I think that the case may be made that the writer’s reason for writing is primarily to read what the writer did not expect to write. The carrot on the stick turns out to be a strawberry or a parsnip or a Granny Smith.

    Of course there is false surprise, the vision is a mirage; and there are the new surprises that lead palace coups against old surprises and keep the writing in a continual state of disorder. The experienced writer always has the problem of the excess of surprise and must learn how to decide which mermaid is real. These are problems for experience and craft, but first there must be the possibility of surprise. That is the starting point for the effective writer and the effective teacher, and it seems to me there are six elements that help us achieve surprise.


    The cart does have to come before the horse. We are much more likely to perceive surprise if we expect to see it. Once we have the experience of surprise then we must remember and build on that moment when language leaves the mind and moves the hand.

    The wonderful thing about surprise is that the more you experience surprise the easier it becomes to experience it. Surprise breeds surprise. And you can learn to be patient at your desk waiting for surprise to land.

    You can also project surprise onto your students. If you are a writing teacher who writes—who lures and captures surprise—then it becomes easier for you to expect your students to achieve surprise themselves. And once a few students experience surprise in their writing and share it with their peers surprise becomes epidemic in the classroom.

    The more you become knowledgeable about surprise through your own writing and teach experience the more you will learn how to create an environment that will attract and make use of surprise. And your belief that your students can capture surprise on the page will be reinforced.


    I have the habit of writing. My simple tools are always with me: pen and paper. I try to follow the ancients’ counsel nulla dies sine linea, never a day without a line. A line, however, may not look like a line to a non-writer. It may not be a sentence. It is most likely a phrase or a fragment, a word, a list, a diagram. As a writer I must become used to such literary compost.

    My habit involves the use of fragments of time, a moment here and a moment there. I treasure those moments, such as this one, when I can write at a swoop. But those few hours are fertilized by what I accomplish writing for a few minutes or even a few seconds in a parked car, in a meeting, waiting for a class to start, during TV, at a lunch counter. I will be surprised by what I write if I’m in the habit of putting words on paper even if I do not have the time to write.

    And, in writing this, I realize my habit includes the stimulation I receive from those with whom I can share my early drafts. These people change by circumstance and, to some degree, by the genre in which I’m writing. But they have two elements in common: they write themselves and can accept the draft as a draft, and they make me want to write when I leave them. These are very special colleagues, these test readers. They can be tough, they can be supportive, they can attack and comfort, often at the same time. They are important because they allow me to stand back from my work and gain distance on it, and because, through their faith that I have something worth saying, they can draw me back to my work.

    I must, as a teacher, encourage (force?) my students to develop their own writing habits: to write frequently, at least once a day; to write much more than they will complete or publish (maple syrup is the product of boiling thirty or forty gallons of sap to get one of syrup, and in writing there’s a great deal more sap that needs to be boiled down); to read writing that doesn’t look like writing but which often contains the essential surprise; to make it possible for the student to share unfinished writing with myself and the other writers in the class in such a way that the habit of writing will be reinforced.


    When Tilly and John Warnock studied one of my daybooks they were surprised that there was so little evidence of struggle and frustration, that it seemed so easy. I like the martyr pose—writing is so terribly hard for us writers—and was a bit angered at their response. I was surprised at their surprised, and had to look at my daybooks again, and I found they were right.

    It takes enormous effort to get to the desk—to shut out the world, to turn off the telephone, to put aside the manuscripts to be read, the letters to be answered, the expense accounts to be filled out, the books and articles to be studied—but I do not write unless the writing comes easily.

    I used to force writing, to try to make mashed potatoes pass through a keyhole. But it didn’t work. If I am prepared then the writing will flow. If I’m not prepared I’d better return to that reflective state where I may play with language, connecting and disconnecting, listening for voice, fooling around, starting out the window, letting my pen, the blind man’s cane, tell me where I’m going.
    To free my pen I must develop a special kind of ease. It’s ease with intention. It’s not retirement or indolence, but a calculated letting that is essential if you are going to be effective in battle, while giving the speech, after the kick-off of the big game. There has to be a deadline, and there has to be an achieved calm before the deadline. There is nothing easy about this ease; it is an acquired naturalness.

    To be ready for surprise you have to have both discipline and freedom, compulsion and forgiveness, awareness and receptivity, energy and passivity, a strong purpose and a disciplined purposelessness.
    And I must make such ease an essential part of my students’ curriculum. I must allow them space in which to fool around, to have fun, to aim in one direction and hit a target in another. They must learn not to force writing but to let writing build within them so their pens may have the freedom of saying what their brains did not expect them to say.
    “You can smell the poem before you can see it,” says Denise Levertov, and she is right. We must recognize the aura that precedes surprise the same way I recognize the aura that precedes a migraine. It is the sort of thing that can be only learned through experience. I sense that a surprise is on its way, and I make myself quiet, the page blank and on my knee, the pen uncapped and in my hand.

    One of the nice things about surprise is that after you’ve had one or two or three surprises happen then you become a veteran of surprise and will begin to recognize it.

    It may be helpful to categorize some of the types of surprise the writer experiences. There is the surprise of perception that I experience when the character in my novel saw no color. There was the surprise of recollection when I heard that terrible cough left over from a previous war. There is the surprise of connection when I related my surprise in writing and my students’ surprise to their development as writers.

    There is the surprise of resolution when we see the solution to a problem we have been circling in our writing. There is the surprise of celebration when we recreate something—a moment, an event, a person, a scene—and can stand back from it. There is the surprise of implication, the surprise of understanding, the surprise of caring when we feel more than we expect to feel, and the surprise of pattern when a whole complex of connections click into place on the page. And there are those especially significant surprises: the surprise of authority—I know what others need to know—and the surprise of voice—I can hear myself on the page.

    Our students will recognize surprise when we share our surprise at what we are writing, when we allow members of the class to share their writing and their surprises with us, and when we, as teachers, are surprised by what they are writing. They must see the great range of surprise that is possible when writing becomes exploration.


    “Art gropes,” writes John Gardner. “It stalks like a hunter lost in the woods, listening to itself and to everything around it, unsure of itself, waiting to pounce.”

    The writer, surprised by what is appearing on the page, must cultivate the craft to take advantage of it. The word, the pattern, the fragment, the sentence appears, and the writer must learn how to follow the clue towards meaning.

    Again the tension between freedom and discipline. Most of all the craft of making use of surprise is the ability to let the writing flow, to develop the potential of the surprise. Peter Drucker calls it the “zero draft.” Whatever it is named, the writing has to get ahead of the writer.

    But not too far ahead. The writer has to have an easy hand on the reins, but the writer cannot let the reins go. The craft of the sailor is to make use of the wind, of the painter to make use of the brush, of the cabinetmaker to take advantage of the grain. The writer must learn how—through experience—to develop and exploit the surprise that was only a hint, a revealing snap of a twig, a shadow in the bush before the writer pounced.
    The writer will never learn to write, for the craft of writing is never learned, only studied. But the teaching writer can share the continual apprenticeship to craft with the writer’s students. And they will be motivated together to practice pounceability, lured on by each new surprise. One of the most exciting things about writing is the fact that surprise is much more than idea. Surprise is experience in seeing the vision of the text come clear. Surprise is felt in the working out of the order, direction, proportion, and pace of the text. Surprise is the reward for the line-by-line crafts of revision and editing—the writing keeps saying what we do not expect to hear.

    Surprise, though exciting, maybe a discomforting gift. When we are surprised we often do not like what we discover. I am surprised to find I am writing a novel in which the “hero” kills his own children. I do not want to live within his skull, but apparently I must. I do not want to write about World War II, but my trade is paying attention to what appears on the page, not what I want to appear on the page. I do not want to write another poem that forces me to re-experience the death of my daughter, but the poem stands there before me. I do not want to order the writing process, but as I study the writing process through writing about it I must report the order I perceive.

    And that voice on the page is surely not my voice. In the novel it is a convoluted voice that turns back on itself and questions itself. In the text book it is a bit too clear. In the poem it does not free itself in the way I intended. I think of all the writers I would like to write like. I hear in the distance my own voice, so much better in my imagination than it ever seems on the page. But I must accept my voice as I accept my size thirteen feet, my mother’s heavy step, my father’s receding hairline, myself surprised in the mirror after the bath.

    If acceptance is hard for the writer, it is harder still for the teacher, for education is geared up for sameness. We want our students to perform to the standards of other students, to study what we plan for them to study, and to learn from it what we or our teachers learned.

    Yet our students learn, at least in writing, if they experience difference. The curriculum calls for sameness, and we unleash them into an activity that produces difference.

    They do not write how we expect them to write or what we expect them to write. We are surprised by what they say and how they say it, and we are made uncomfortable by our surprise. And we can make them uncomfortable. And if we do the game is lost. We must learn to accept and delight in the difference we find in our students, for surprise is the most significant element in writing. It is the motivating force that makes writers of us and of our students. Surprise is the measure of the importance of writing. We do not write to repeat what others have written, but to discover our own surprises, what we have to say and how we can say it.

    I have plants for tomorrow’s writing, but if I am lucky my writing will surprise me and destroy my plans. I have plans for my students’ writing, but if we are lucky we will be surprised at what they write and how—and all our plans will be abandoned as we pursue surprise.

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    Last edited by iPropose; Jun 19, 2011 at 08:17 PM.

  2. #2
    ESE Student iPropose's Avatar
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    Story #1:

    Red Sox lover Colleen Kennedy proved she's a die-hard fan during last Monday's grapefruit league game between the Bo-Sox and the Orioles. The 52-year-old's favorite player, designated hitter David Ortiz, dramatically ended his spring-training slump by hitting a two-run homer in the third inning.

    Kennedy, who was in the middle of enjoying a City of Palms Park sausage dog, got so excited that she started to choke. “I saw Big Papi's ball headed right at me, and I guess I just forgot to swallow,” Kennedy says.

    Triaging her desire to get her hands on Ortiz's ball over her desire to breathe, she lunged forward, tackled by other fans desperate to make the catch. It turns out that Major League melee saved her life. Kennedy didn't get the prize ball, but the scrum did dislodge her wiener, shoving her against the stadium railing in an inadvertent mass Heimlich maneuver. She tearfully credits her fellow fans with saving her life. “Red Sox Nation is full of such big-hearted people.” Her near-death experience hasn't diminished her love for Ortiz. She gushed, “I may have choked, but Big Papi didn't.”

    Story #2

    Green Bay Packer games have always meant more than football. For example, they have mean civic pride, huge hunks of sausage, projectile vomiting, and hatred for people from Chicago. Now, though, it seems, Packer football may have saved a life.

    Jim Becker has been a season ticket holder for 58 years. Back in the day when money was tight, Becker would sell his blood for $15 a pint to pay for his family's season tickets. Much later, a doctor discovered that Becker's father had died young from a condition by which the blood retains too much iron, and the only specific for which is to donate blood.

    Becker's 145 donations probably spared him his father's fate. The only drawback, of course, came during Brett Favre's tenure as the Packer quarterback when mysteriously, every December, Becker's blood always went to the wrong person.

    Story #3

    Since the age of about 7, Dylan Brody of Fargo, North Dakota, has been collecting baseball cards. The collection was Brody's pride and joy, despite his wife's pleas to grow up and get rid of all that junk cluttering the attic.

    Then the floods came, unable to evacuate in time, Brody and his family ended up stranded in their attic for over a week before any help could get to them. With no food and little water, they sat amidst 35 years of mint-condition, unopened baseball cards, each package holding a piece of bubble gum.

    Containing enough sugar and carbohydrates to keep the family going until their rescue, “that stupid collection ended up saving our lives,” said Dylan Brody's wife. “I only wish I had thought to collect Ball Park franks as well.”


    What does Shakespeare have to do with punk rock?

    A musical culture began to take shape amid the unrest of Great Britain during the mid nineteen-seventies. With the emergence of bands like the Sex Pistols and the Clash, the punk rock movement sparked a nihilistic ethos and a new sound that would change the musical landscape forever. While the modern day use of the word ‘punk’ might suggest anarchistic youth, William Shakespeare used the term quite differently over four hundred years ago. So how did this word evolve from a derogatory term aimed at a woman to a derogatory term aimed at a young man?

    Although its exact etymology is not known, the term “punk” has survived numerous changes in meaning throughout the centuries. The first recorded use of the term (unknown origin) occurred in the early 1590s, with reference to a “prostitute, harlot.” The term “taffety punk,” a reference to “a well dressed whore,” appears in William Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, penned between 1604 and 1605.

    The Scottish, spunk, meaning “a spark,” is a 1530s reference to burning embers and ashes. A similar use of the word can be found in a 1618 account by native inhabitants of Virginia as a reference to overcooked corn: “Some of them, more thriftye then cleanly, doe burn the coare of the eare to powder, which they call ‘pungnough,’ mingling that in their meale, but yet never tasted well in bread or broath.” Native peoples throughout the Delaware region of the United States used the word ponk around this time to reference “rotten wood used as tinder.”

    By 1896, and perhaps fueled by the “rotten” connotation to the term, punk had become synonymous with “something worthless” and “young criminal” — specifically in relation to a male youth. It is perhaps the latter definition that Dave Marsh had in mind when he coined the phrase “punk rock” in his May 1971 column featured in Creem magazine.

    Last edited by iPropose; Jun 19, 2011 at 06:47 PM.