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Responding to my manuscript (#1022)

Topics/tags: Writing, longer

Each time a piece gets workshopped in The Craft of Creative Nonfiction, peers in the class provide each other with detailed notes on the manuscript. It’s enlightening, overwhelming, and perhaps even a bit affirming to receive those comments. I don’t think that I can ethically share my peers’ comments on my piece with you. I certainly can’t share them with attribution. And, as both Prof. S. and I have said, What happens in ENG-207 stays in ENG-207. I suppose we can say that we’ve had a wonderful experience and learned a lot.

I’ve found that responding to my peers’ manuscripts is a challenging task. There’s the inevitable balancing act of providing just enough feedback to be helpful without providing so much that it feels like too much of a challenge. (My Tutorial students might suggest that I balance toward too much; I recall them comparing the amount of red ink on their manuscripts.) And it takes time to absorb the manuscript, to choose what to respond to, and to respond helpfully. I have difficulty responding to a piece in less than an hour; perhaps forty-five minutes if I’m lucky. That’s not a surprise; it’s often how long I spend on Tutorial papers, too.

What do my comments look like? I certainly can’t share my comments on my peers’ pieces. That would be even less appropriate than sharing their comments on my work, with or without attribution. Instead, now that I have a bit of space from my manuscript, I thought I’d provide sample commentary on that piece. I’m doing my best to avoid the influence of my peers’ comments, and treat it as if it were something I was reading anew. I’m not sure that I can completely succeed. It’s worth a try.

For this class, I’ve primarily written numbers on the page and then typed (word-processed?) the comments. It makes things much more readable. In a few cases, I make short marks on the page, crossing out a word, noting that they might consider their word choice (WC), suggesting a re-arrangement of words. In this musing, I’m going to try to use my endnote system, in reverse (front-notes?) to achieve the same goal. I hope it works.

Comments on Office Hours

Dear Samuel,

Thanks for sharing your writing for workshopping!

I have broken my notes on your piece up into three sections. In the first section, I have notes from my read-throughs of your piece; they correspond to the numbers I have written on the manuscript. (My handwriting is not necessarily readable.). In the second, I have shared some general thoughts about the piece, based on my readings. They are not necessarily in any particular order. In the third, I include some final comments. Feel free to let me know if you have any questions about my comments or think that I’ve missed or misread something.

I should also mention that I sometimes have a tendency to read and comment too closely and too critically. Let me know if you want me to be a bit less detailed (or a bit less critical) in future responses.

– SamR


[1] The opening is weak. Strive for a stronger one.

[2] The repetition of board is awkward. Perhaps, There’s a board outside the door, containing … or It contains …. (After reading the whole piece, I think you might want to make it more explicit what is happening: Outside, waiting for your appointment, you glance at the board, attempting to unpack the public face your Professor presents. Perhaps I present.)

[3] Who is your audience? Someone outside Grinnell will have no idea what this means.

[4] How many people know this? Do you want to quote some of the parts of the poem? Are you relying on your reader to look things up? Are you, perhaps, planning a Web document with appropriate links.

[5] Who?

[6] I would assume that some parts of your audience know Knight and some know Trudeau, but what part knows both. And does giving the artists names alone share enough detail?

[7] Do you need to explain why it’s incongruous?

[8] An awkward sentence fragment. Would it make sense to make this a sentence? Two vases of flowers stand guard on the ends of the desk or something like that. Come to think of it, would you be better off dropping the noun phrases with periods approach in exchange for full sentences.

[9] Thanks for continuing the drill theme from the stories we just read. Do you really have one in your office?

[10] I like the transition from random crap to something of interest to the you in the story.

[11] I understand why the you character would deflect. But why would the I character? Would this be better as You deflect. Or perhaps I do, noticing your discomfort. That replacement doesn’t have the same rhythm as yours, but you should probably consider the issue of why?.

[12] Are you mentioning your mother too much? What’s your goal with this? Are you expressing pride? Trying to bring up maternal issues? Reflecting on privilege?

[14] Unclear.

[]4] I like the sequence of adjectives, but I worry about the conjunction of deflated and substantial.

[16] I realize that you’re trying to be gender-neutral, but they seems to refer more to the soccer balls than your fellow student. Perhaps My peer.

[17] It’s hard to tell whether this is part of what you are saying to the you here or part of the omniscient narrator’s statement

[18] There are a lot of objects here. Do you need so many? Consider each carefully.

[19] Why? That is, why does the you character or the I character keep asking? They’ve already talked about a lot of stuff.

[20] Who? Where? Do you want your reader to have to repeatedly turn to Wikipedia for information? Perhaps you do, but it seems like a risky move. You may also just be making your reader feel under-informed.

[21] Given the many ways in which this work reflects our class, I would hope you would include something about The Almighty Return Key.

[22] These seem less relevant or detailed than the rest of the pieces. I was surprised that you never came back to them. Consider removing them or returning to them later in the piece.

[23] I like the paired alliteration. You might play with the structure; plastic and perky, unnatural and unachievable. It’s also a fun way to describe a Barbie doll.

[24] Who is Tux?

[25] I don’t think it’s what you intend, but I think of Lucha Libre here. Should you mention Masked Wrestler Barbie?

[26] I’d like to know more about why you’ve chosen to use direct quotations here, where you haven’t done so elsewhere in the piece. You also seem to have shifted into a bit of an omniscient narrator role, which is a bit strange, given that you are also in the piece. Elsewhere, you’ve been doing a less omniscient description.

[27] Self-flagellation rarely works well.

[28] I love this image. However, it feels like you could play with still and sill, particularly since still can have multiple meanings: still as in remains and still as in unmoving.

[29] Did you really need to use the same adverb as Abbey?

[30] Self-flagellation rarely works well.

[31] The repetition of large seems awkward.

[32] While the liberated isn’t an adverb, it seems to work better than the naturally.

[33] You seem to be trying a bit too hard here. How does it relate to your broader piece? Is this more about privilege?

[34] I don’t know a polite way to say this, but your piece raises some questions about mother issues.

[35] Try to avoid the word interesting; it says very little.

[36] I kind of expect these to come from your piece, but they do not. What is their point here?

[37] The parallel here doesn’t work. I don’t have a good suggestion on how to make it better.

[38] Would Gothic-revivalist have more of the religious feel you use elsewhere in ts section

[39] Are people supposed to recognize these places, other than Mears Cottage?

[40] There’s a lot of religious imagery here, particularly the ending Where two or three are gathered in my name. Is Ralph there with them? More seriously, it might be useful to consider how you might carry this theme of writing as religion throughout the piece, or at least the section of the piece that appears to be on criticism of writing.

[41] I like the repetition of from in this list. You have a lot of lists in the piece, and it helps distinguish them.

[42] I find it strange that you don’t include the Iowa Writers Workshop in the list of places you mention.

[43] Funny. See note 35.

[44] I’m bothered by the exclamation point after each Ambiguity. Do you think it might work better with Ambiguity. Ambiguity! and Ambiguity? to give some variation.

[45] It sounds like you’ve had some bad experiences with overly critical instructors. I’m sorry. But I share your pain, and I think it works well with the sense of anxiety bout getting grades. Does it work well in terms of following Abbey’s power inversion, that you seem to be trying to mimic? I’m not sure.

[46] I mostly like how you incorporate the Short sentence. Short sentence. Short sentence, extended in some way model. But the with me at the end does not work well. Could you drop it?

[47] And somewhat boring. Is there a real point to this, other than your desire for meta-writing and the need to lead in to the Dylan lyrics?

[48] Would it be worthwhile to list some of them or is your goal to get the reader to list them.

[49] A bit cruel. Is it necessary? It also seems to interfere with the clarity of the sentence.

[50] I like the variation of the Dylan rhyme. I wonder whether you should punctuate differently.

[51] I like the alliteration here. Will others?

[52] It’s Mortal Kombat.

[53] When I see quotes like this, I again wonder about your choice to use quotes, attributed to the you character, in the Barbie paragraph.

[54] Once again, a name that not many will know. More will probably know LeWitt than, say, Pinkwater. But I expect you’ll get less than half of your audience. However, I do appreciate the conceptual walls inside joke.

[55] Funny. Also a bit insulting to anthropologists. Cultural anthropologists observe; they don’t (or shouldn’t) conduct experiments.

[56] A nice return to the Ambiguity spoken by the voices.

[57] Consider restructuring this sentence.

[58] Is that really true?

[59] Is that really true?

[60] I like the ending. It’s clever. But it’s easy to forget that there is an exam to discuss. Consider ways to incorporate the student’s nervousness about the exam throughout the piece.

General Comments

I’m not sure what this is about. Is it just about the chaos of your office? The sweet sentiment of I do this all for you, dear student? Your (seemingly great) privilege? Writing in The Craft of Creative Nonfiction and Professor Savarese’s responses? Your problems with hoarding? (I apologize if you don’t have such problems, and this is mostly imaginary.)

I like your experiments in repetition. However, I worry that there are a few too many of them. You might find it useful to mark where you’ve repeated and consider what structures you are and are not using.

It feels like you’ve tried to put too much into this piece. I appreciate your enthusiasm for including multiple ideas, but I think it would be stronger if you focused a bit more and cut a bit more. Choose an overall focus (see above) and then ask yourself whether and how each part contributes.

I’m still struggling to decide what I should say about the references that few readers are likely to understand. It’s okay that the Dylan/Hendrix song is a hidden gem, of sorts; people can enjoy the piece without seeing it, just as it seems few heard Route 66 in the Abbey piece. But LeWitt, Trudeau, Simes, Pinkwater, Leonard, Methodist temple, Hog Butcher, Tux, Libre, etc. Don’t you think that most readers will be put off by so much they don’t understand? Does it make you seem educated, or careless? (Okay, most people should know Sandburg’s Hog butcher to the world, but maybe I think that because I’m from Chicago.) Or, as I asked at the beginning, are you thinking of this as a Web piece, with links that reveal your underlying meaning. If so, you should talk to Prof. S about whether or not that is reasonable.

Final Thoughts

Thanks for bringing back my nightmares of college. More seriously, I appreciate your willingness to share personal reflections of yourself, the perspective of a faculty member, and, especially, the knowledge that faculty, too, share some nervousness at being critiqued. I look forward to seeing the next version of this and your next work for class.

Postscript: I had not intended to be more critical of my own work than I am of others’. However, in making notes, I discovered that I had many more things to note than normal, with somewhere between two and three times as many comments as in other papers. Does that say something about my writing (particularly as compared to my peers’), my willingness to critique myself, my deeper understanding of my own piece, my inability to limit myself, or …?

Postscript: I know that some of my readers are bored with my writing about this particular piece by now. My intent was as much to write about responding as to write about that piece. Of course, I expect that I’ll also benefit from my somewhat detailed critique when I next return to that work.

Office Hours

There’s a board outside the door [1]. The board [2] contains an unexpected variety of ephemera: a piece of cloth reading Faculty for Self-Gov [3], a colorful 8.5x11 inch sheet of paper saying Safe Space, an envelope full of Title IX resource cards, a reproduction of Zoe Leonard’s I want a president [4], a Daniel Pinkwater [5] standardized test (on it, a student has scrawled I took this!), the ubiquitous No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor, cartoons by Keith Knight and Gary Trudeau [6], a manifesto that suggests As citizens and computer scientists we are obligated to assess and understand the impacts of computing on society, a photograph of a faculty member in a Tigger outfit, the cover of a book entitled Experiments in Java.

The first thing you notice as you enter the room is the sheer volume of books. Or the oriental carpet, incongruous [7]. A red stapler. The paper, piled everywhere—on the table, on the desk, on chairs, on that carpet—piles, on piles, on piles. Some playing cards, alone and in decks. Vases full of flowers at both ends of the desk [8]. A drill from a dentist’s office [9]. Paintings and photos, displayed on high and at angles. A Barbie® doll. What appear to be two red, deflated, soccer balls, perched on a shelf. Candy wrappers. A green plant, overflowing the top of the file cabinet by the door. A slab of marble. Your exam, carelessly strewn but nonetheless sitting patiently on the table, awaiting discussion [10].

You deflect, or perhaps I do [11]. The large round stone, filled with holes, perched on the shelf? A fossilized whale bone, or so my mother told me, found beachcombing on the Vineyard in the early 1970’s, back when we still went to the Vineyard. The Tang Horse, perched on its fading box, displayed proudly on the too-high window sill? Mom was invited to give a speech in China soon after it opened to the west; she brought that back [12]. A giant, hand-painted, uneven, somewhat oval, orange smiley face, tacked to the south wall, and only visible once you sit down at the table? One of my kids made that; it makes me happy. Which child? I’m not sure. Six garish pink boxes labeled What’s your point? One of my favorite alums helped design that game, a hybrid of an improv activity and a PowerPoint presentation with a previously unseen deck [14]. Those red, appetizing, glossy, deflated, substantial [15], soccer balls? I took sculpture during my last sabbatical. One of my fellow students cast them. I think they [16] left Grinnell for architecture school after that semester. In any case, I liked their work and they were willing to share. I may have traded them a few of the half-pyramids (more precisely, Lower half, horizontally bisected square pyramid with 45° slope) that I sawed, molded, formed, and cast. Another peer’s piece lies on the floor outside the office. Perhaps you noticed it [17]. [18]

The questions continue [19]. The stack of keyboards, piled in the corner? ITS was going to throw them away. I thought I’d pry off the keys and use them for an art project. I’ve since had the good fortune to visit an exhibit of Elias Sime’s work at the Wellin [20]. Now, I may be too humbled to start [21]. The slab of marble? Rescued from the discard pile when the sculpture near East Campus was made. The mailbox face? Trash picked when the bookstore was closing; I recall Kington making a joke when he saw me in the dumpster. In any case, I appreciate the aesthetics and its ties to a Grinnell of old. The unassembled boxes, leaning against one of the many bookshelves? I’m moving offices, a smaller space [22].

Some items seem somehow detached from the sentiments expressed in the signs tacked outside the office. Why the plastic, perky, unnatural and unachievable representation of the female figure [23]? You think, It’s somewhat creepy that an adult has that doll in their office, still in the packaging. I explain that it’s Computer Engineer Barbie® and I bought it because I appreciated the effort to encourage young women to consider careers in computing. Plus, Computer Engineer Barbie® has Tux [24] on her shelf. Libre! [25] I hate the children’s book they released at the same time, a book which completely undermines the doll’s positive message about women and computing. I prefer the feminist remix, which I have somewhere else in the office, but pull up on my computer instead. You think, They’ve said way too much about this doll, or at least have too rehearsed an explanation. [26] Perhaps creepy is right [27].

You ask about the flowers and plants. I must admit that they are plastic. But they do brighten up the place. Once upon a time, an alum, having recalled them, brought me a live plant. It died within the month. Its corpse remains on the window sill [28]. Naturally [29].

An inspirational poster labeled Challenges reminds you of your high-school guidance counselor’s office. Surely college faculty would be more sophisticated than that. Then you read the underlying message: I expected times like this – but I never thought they’d be so bad, so long, and so frequent. You empathize, but continue to wish your faculty would exhibit more sophistication [30].

Is that large framed poster containing a large [31] photograph of a metal object also intended to inspire? And why is the glass cracked at the bottom? You lean closer to read, and learn that it quotes Bishop Desmond Tutu, We don’t want our chains made more bearable; we want our chains removed. Perhaps you’ve heard that quote already. Liberated [32]. You also learn that the accompany photograph is by Reginald L. Jackson, Ph.D. and is entitled The Shackle. Is it appropriate for me to have such a poster? Have I appropriated? [33]. You don’t want to ask such questions. I notice your puzzlement and point you to the plate in the lower-right-hand corner: Presented by Community Change, Inc. to Dr. Freda Rebelsky in appreciation for a lifetime commitment to racial justice. [34] Interesting. [35]

You glance back at the table. Your eye strays to a page of hand-written hieroglyphs, seemingly scrawled by a left-handed doctor after three consecutive nights of call, failing to notice their pen is running out of ink. You decipher some sentences. The first two read: You enter the office, and query about Klein’s bottle. They regard your question, and respond using Magritte’s Pipe. [36] Your brain speaks critiques—first quietly, then louder, then unbearably [37]—critiques echoing from a small classroom in the northwest corner of a cottage on the southeast corner of campus, from one or more rooms up the stairs from that classroom, from a seemingly comfortable living room down the hall, from a Methodist temple to writing promiscuous in its spirituality, from a seemingly quiet oasis of wisdom deep in the belly of a hog butcher, from a metaphorical Little Red Schoolhouse in a large lecture hall in a faux-Gothic [38] cathedral of knowledge in the pit of that butcher’s belly, from a desk or small round table with but two or three people gathered around. [39] [40] [41] [42]

Too much symmetry makes this piece seem like it’s written by a computer. Know your audience. Explain; not everyone will understand your terms. Vary your sentence length. Vary your sentence structure. Eschew obfuscation. This piece is sophomoric, perhaps even puerile. Ambiguity! Don’t feel compelled to use the second person just because that’s from the most recent piece you read. Fewer adverbs! Infuse your objects with meaning while acknowledging their provisionality. Don’t feel like you have to fit everything in. Ambiguity! My two-year-old daughter, in the crib, could write better than this. Don’t use the word interesting [43]. Know your genre; place is not memoir. There are at least twenty basic sentence structures; learn more than one. Even competent writers struggle to make meta-writing seem natural. Thank you for this piece, it will serve as a useful example of habits other students should avoid. Ambiguity! [44] [45]

You ignore the voices. You ignore the voices. You ignore the voices, but they insist on being heard, raising new points, finding additional flaws, encouraging the author, encouraging you to ignore the obvious power dynamic [!!] in the room and share their words with me [46]. You grab a fidget from the table to quiet the voices lest you speak their truths. They insist that you address at least one of the critiques, at least to yourself, before they fade.

You enter … They regard. They enter … I regard. I enter … You regard. Phil enters … Prof. R regards. Student enters … Professor regards. Ashley enters … I regard. Professor enters … Student regards. The combinations are nearly endless. [47]

You settle on You and I for reasons you enumerate [48]. That quiets the voices, at least for a time. But why haven’t I done the same? Unlike the president, who you’ve heard avoided writing courses in his B.S., M.D., M.B.A., and Ph.D. (so many letters!) [49], I seem to embrace writing. I must hear similar voices. We’ve been through that, that experience of detailed critiques. You’re tempted to suggest changes. But this is not our fate. The power differential is too great [50]; comments seem too risky. You search for something else to say. You consider the volumes around you.

Have I read them all? I’ve finished a few, perused parts of many more, rely on the rest as references, save some that serve to support students [51]. From Barbie to Mortal Combat [52]: Gender and Computer Games? That’s there because many of my students want to write about computer games and I know it serves as a good resource. Or, more precisely, it once served as a good resource; gender and gaming has changed significantly in the past decade. A biography of Hallie Flanagan? Most students don’t know that Grinnell’s Flanagan theatre was named after her. I appreciate a quote from Harry Hopkins near the beginning, President Main taught us the value of the arts, and the WPA will reflect that value. [53] That’s what made America great. Sol LeWitt: A Retrospective? I am enamored of his concepts, want to live within those conceptual walls [54]. Experiments in Java? No, it’s not an anthropology text [55]; it’s a CS lab manual I wrote in the distant past. I wish my publisher had chosen cover art that embraced that ambiguity.

You page through the lab manual. Computers are precise. Computers are organized. Computers expect humans to be organized. Zeros and ones, neatly categorized. Computers will not abide ambiguity [56] or subtlety or disorder. How to explain the space which faces you?

Some peers have told you that they’ve heard me say that I’ve tried to make my office look like the typical dorm room so that students feel at home [57]. You ask anyway. I might tell you that it’s an art installation, in progress, entitled Entropy, for reasons that I consider obvious. Or perhaps I’ll say it’s a scientific study, in progress; is there really a difference? Speaking of studies, I might pull one out from a stack (always organized) and show you that researchers discovered that some people can achieve clarity only by filling their lives with distractions; sensory overload forces them to focus [58]. Are you convinced? Perhaps not. You’ve watched enough TV to know that there’s a more obvious answer: Hoarder. You don’t know that buried deep—somewhere amidst the piles of papers, or perhaps tucked in one of the books[,] or under a tchotchke—is an article that says that students become more comfortable when they can find an object in the room to fixate on, ask about, or use to initiate an extended conversation [59].

Now you’re ready to discuss the exam [60].

Version 1.0 of 2020-02-19.