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The Daily Routines of Famous Writers

By Maria Popova, from Brain Pickings:

“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”

Kurt Vonnegut’s recently published daily routine made we wonder how other beloved writers organized their days. So I pored through various old diaries and interviews — many from the fantastic Paris Review archives — and culled a handful of writing routines from some of my favorite authors. Enjoy.

Ray Bradbury, a lifelong proponent of working with joy and an avid champion of public libraries, playfully defies the question of routines in this 2010 interview:

My passions drive me to the typewriter every day of my life, and they have driven me there since I was twelve. So I never have to worry about schedules. Some new thing is always exploding in me, and it schedules me, I don’t schedule it. It says: Get to the typewriter right now and finish this.


I can work anywhere. I wrote in bedrooms and living rooms when I was growing up with my parents and my brother in a small house in Los Angeles. I worked on my typewriter in the living room, with the radio and my mother and dad and brother all talking at the same time. Later on, when I wanted to write Fahrenheit 451, I went up to UCLA and found a basement typing room where, if you inserted ten cents into the typewriter, you could buy thirty minutes of typing time.

Joan Didion creates for herself a kind of incubation period for ideas, articulated in this 1968 interview:

I need an hour alone before dinner, with a drink, to go over what I’ve done that day. I can’t do it late in the afternoon because I’m too close to it. Also, the drink helps. It removes me from the pages. So I spend this hour taking things out and putting other things in. Then I start the next day by redoing all of what I did the day before, following these evening notes. When I’m really working I don’t like to go out or have anybody to dinner, because then I lose the hour. If I don’t have the hour, and start the next day with just some bad pages and nowhere to go, I’m in low spirits. Another thing I need to do, when I’m near the end of the book, is sleep in the same room with it. That’s one reason I go home to Sacramento to finish things. Somehow the book doesn’t leave you when you’re asleep right next to it. In Sacramento nobody cares if I appear or not. I can just get up and start typing.

E. B. White, in the same fantastic interview that gave us his timeless insight on the role and responsibility of the writer, notes his relationship with sound and ends on a note echoing Tchaikovsky on work ethic:

I never listen to music when I’m working. I haven’t that kind of attentiveness, and I wouldn’t like it at all. On the other hand, I’m able to work fairly well among ordinary distractions. My house has a living room that is at the core of everything that goes on: it is a passageway to the cellar, to the kitchen, to the closet where the phone lives. There’s a lot of traffic. But it’s a bright, cheerful room, and I often use it as a room to write in, despite the carnival that is going on all around me. A girl pushing a carpet sweeper under my typewriter table has never annoyed me particularly, nor has it taken my mind off my work, unless the girl was unusually pretty or unusually clumsy. My wife, thank God, has never been protective of me, as, I am told, the wives of some writers are. In consequence, the members of my household never pay the slightest attention to my being a writing man — they make all the noise and fuss they want to. If I get sick of it, I have places I can go. A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.

Photograph by Tom Palumbo, 1956

Jack Kerouac describes his rituals and superstitions in 1968:

I had a ritual once of lighting a candle and writing by its light and blowing it out when I was done for the night … also kneeling and praying before starting (I got that from a French movie about George Frideric Handel) … but now I simply hate to write. My superstition? I’m beginning to suspect the full moon. Also I’m hung up on the number nine though I’m told a Piscean like myself should stick to number seven; but I try to do nine touchdowns a day, that is, I stand on my head in the bathroom, on a slipper, and touch the floor nine times with my toe tips, while balanced. This is incidentally more than yoga, it’s an athletic feat, I mean imagine calling me ‘unbalanced’ after that. Frankly I do feel that my mind is going. So another ‘ritual’ as you call it, is to pray to Jesus to preserve my sanity and my energy so I can help my family: that being my paralyzed mother, and my wife, and the ever-present kitties. Okay?

He then adds a few thought on the best time and place for writing:

The desk in the room, near the bed, with a good light, midnight till dawn, a drink when you get tired, preferably at home, but if you have no home, make a home out of your hotel room or motel room or pad: peace.

Susan Sontag resolves in her diary in 1977, adding to her collected wisdom on writing:

Starting tomorrow — if not today:

I will get up every morning no later than eight. (Can break this rule once a week.)

I will have lunch only with Roger [Straus]. (‘No, I don’t go out for lunch.’ Can break this rule once every two weeks.)

I will write in the Notebook every day. (Model: Lichtenberg’s Waste Books.)

I will tell people not to call in the morning, or not answer the phone.

I will try to confine my reading to the evening. (I read too much — as an escape from writing.)

I will answer letters once a week. (Friday? — I have to go to the hospital anyway.)

Then, in a Paris Review interview nearly two decades later, she details her routine:

I write with a felt-tip pen, or sometimes a pencil, on yellow or white legal pads, that fetish of American writers. I like the slowness of writing by hand. Then I type it up and scrawl all over that. And keep on retyping it, each time making corrections both by hand and directly on the typewriter, until I don’t see how to make it any better. Up to five years ago, that was it. Since then there is a computer in my life. After the second or third draft it goes into the computer, so I don’t retype the whole manuscript anymore, but continue to revise by hand on a succession of hard-copy drafts from the computer.


I write in spurts. I write when I have to because the pressure builds up and I feel enough confidence that something has matured in my head and I can write it down. But once something is really under way, I don’t want to do anything else. I don’t go out, much of the time I forget to eat, I sleep very little. It’s a very undisciplined way of working and makes me not very prolific. But I’m too interested in many other things.

In 1932, under a section titled Daily Routine, Henry Miller footnotes his 11 commandments of writing with this wonderful blueprint for productivity, inspiration, and mental health:

If groggy, type notes and allocate, as stimulus.

If in fine fettle, write.


Work of section in hand, following plan of section scrupulously. No intrusions, no diversions. Write to finish one section at a time, for good and all.


See friends. Read in cafés.

Explore unfamiliar sections — on foot if wet, on bicycle if dry.

Write, if in mood, but only on Minor program.

Paint if empty or tired.

Make Notes. Make Charts, Plans. Make corrections of MS.

Note: Allow sufficient time during daylight to make an occasional visit to museums or an occasional sketch or an occasional bike ride. Sketch in cafés and trains and streets. Cut the movies! Library for references once a week.

In this 1965 interview, Simone de Beauvoir contributes to dispelling the “tortured-genius” myth of writing:

I’m always in a hurry to get going, though in general I dislike starting the day. I first have tea and then, at about ten o’clock, I get under way and work until one. Then I see my friends and after that, at five o’clock, I go back to work and continue until nine. I have no difficulty in picking up the thread in the afternoon. When you leave, I’ll read the paper or perhaps go shopping. Most often it’s a pleasure to work.


If the work is going well, I spend a quarter or half an hour reading what I wrote the day before, and I make a few corrections. Then I continue from there. In order to pick up the thread I have to read what I’ve done.

Ernest Hemingway, who famously wrote standing (“Hemingway stands when he writes. He stands in a pair of his oversized loafers on the worn skin of a lesser kudu—the typewriter and the reading board chest-high opposite him.”), approaches his craft with equal parts poeticism and pragmatism:

When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that. When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.

Don DeLillo tells The Paris Review in 1993:

I work in the morning at a manual typewriter. I do about four hours and then go running. This helps me shake off one world and enter another. Trees, birds, drizzle — it’s a nice kind of interlude. Then I work again, later afternoon, for two or three hours. Back into book time, which is transparent — you don’t know it’s passing. No snack food or coffee. No cigarettes — I stopped smoking a long time ago. The space is clear, the house is quiet. A writer takes earnest measures to secure his solitude and then finds endless ways to squander it. Looking out the window, reading random entries in the dictionary. To break the spell I look at a photograph of Borges, a great picture sent to me by the Irish writer Colm Tóín. The face of Borges against a dark background — Borges fierce, blind, his nostrils gaping, his skin stretched taut, his mouth amazingly vivid; his mouth looks painted; he’s like a shaman painted for visions, and the whole face has a kind of steely rapture. I’ve read Borges of course, although not nearly all of it, and I don’t know anything about the way he worked — but the photograph shows us a writer who did not waste time at the window or anywhere else. So I’ve tried to make him my guide out of lethargy and drift, into the otherworld of magic, art, and divination.

Productivity maniac Benjamin Franklin had a formidably rigorous daily routine:

Image by Nick Bilton

Haruki Murakami shares the mind-body connection noted by some of history’s famous creators:

When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4:00 am and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10km or swim for 1500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9:00 pm. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.

William Gibson tells the Paris Review in 2011:

When I’m writing a book I get up at seven. I check my e-mail and do Internet ablutions, as we do these days. I have a cup of coffee. Three days a week, I go to Pilates and am back by ten or eleven. Then I sit down and try to write. If absolutely nothing is happening, I’ll give myself permission to mow the lawn. But, generally, just sitting down and really trying is enough to get it started. I break for lunch, come back, and do it some more. And then, usually, a nap. Naps are essential to my process. Not dreams, but that state adjacent to sleep, the mind on waking.


As I move through the book it becomes more demanding. At the beginning, I have a five-day workweek, and each day is roughly ten to five, with a break for lunch and a nap. At the very end, it’s a seven-day week, and it could be a twelve-hour day.

Toward the end of a book, the state of composition feels like a complex, chemically altered state that will go away if I don’t continue to give it what it needs. What it needs is simply to write all the time. Downtime other than simply sleeping becomes problematic. I’m always glad to see the back of that.

Maya Angelou shares her day with Paris Review in 1990:

I write in the morning and then go home about midday and take a shower, because writing, as you know, is very hard work, so you have to do a double ablution. Then I go out and shop — I’m a serious cook — and pretend to be normal. I play sane — Good morning! Fine, thank you. And you? And I go home. I prepare dinner for myself and if I have houseguests, I do the candles and the pretty music and all that. Then after all the dishes are moved away I read what I wrote that morning. And more often than not if I’ve done nine pages I may be able to save two and a half or three. That’s the cruelest time you know, to really admit that it doesn’t work. And to blue pencil it. When I finish maybe fifty pages and read them — fifty acceptable pages — it’s not too bad. I’ve had the same editor since 1967. Many times he has said to me over the years or asked me, Why would you use a semicolon instead of a colon? And many times over the years I have said to him things like: I will never speak to you again. Forever. Goodbye. That is it. Thank you very much. And I leave. Then I read the piece and I think of his suggestions. I send him a telegram that says, OK, so you’re right. So what? Don’t ever mention this to me again. If you do, I will never speak to you again. About two years ago I was visiting him and his wife in the Hamptons. I was at the end of a dining room table with a sit-down dinner of about fourteen people. Way at the end I said to someone, I sent him telegrams over the years. From the other end of the table he said, And I’ve kept every one! Brute! But the editing, one’s own editing, before the editor sees it, is the most important.

Anaïs Nin simply notes, in a 1941 parenthetical comment, in the third volume of her diaries:

I write my stories in the morning, my diary at night.

She then adds in the fifth volume, in 1948.

I write every day. … I do my best work in the morning.

Lastly, the Kurt Vonnegut routine that inspired this omnibus, recorded in a letter to his wife in 1965:

In an unmoored life like mine, sleep and hunger and work arrange themselves to suit themselves, without consulting me. I’m just as glad they haven’t consulted me about the tiresome details. What they have worked out is this: I awake at 5:30, work until 8:00, eat breakfast at home, work until 10:00, walk a few blocks into town, do errands, go to the nearby municipal swimming pool, which I have all to myself, and swim for half an hour, return home at 11:45, read the mail, eat lunch at noon. In the afternoon I do schoolwork, either teach of prepare. When I get home from school at about 5:30, I numb my twanging intellect with several belts of Scotch and water ($5.00/fifth at the State Liquor store, the only liquor store in town. There are loads of bars, though.), cook supper, read and listen to jazz (lots of good music on the radio here), slip off to sleep at ten. I do pushups and sit-ups all the time, and feel as though I am getting lean and sinewy, but maybe not. Last night, time and my body decided to take me to the movies. I saw The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which I took very hard. To an unmoored, middle-aged man like myself, it was heart-breaking. That’s all right. I like to have my heart broken.

For more wisdom from beloved authors, complement with Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules for a great story, Joy Williams on why writers write, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.





August Macke

First appoint a group leader who keeps time and who has access to these guidelines during the workshop. The group leader is in charge making sure everyone sticks to the rules, that everyone gets equal time, that everyone listens and is respectful of the work of others, etc. If any member of the group only has very short pieces, this person can workshop several short pieces instead of one longer one. If a member of the group has a piece longer than 10 pages, he/she can workshop the entire piece with the consent of the group OR workshop a selection of the essay and fill the audience in re. the rest. All of this should be decided in a democratic way within the group under the direction of the group leader.

The group leader reminds the author not to talk during rounds 2 and 3 (see below)! Please stick by this rule! You will learn a lot more, because you want to know how your audience interprets your essay, not tell your audience how they should interpret your essay.


The author reads his/her essay (up to 10 pages maximally first round; if it is less than 5, the group member can workshop 2x). Take advantage of the opportunity and don’t read something that is barely a page long. Do remember that there may be less time to discuss a piece that takes much more time to read out loud.

Before continuing with rounds 2-3, each student takes at least 5-7 minutes to write up notes in the margins of a copy of the author’s essay (if a copy is available) or on a loose sheet of paper if no copy is available. You can take more time and keep scribbling as you discuss. If you have a copy, it may help to put numbers in the margins of the essay to indicate certain passages that you either loved or that you did not understand; that way, you can more easily refer to the exact passages you are talking as you are writing up notes. If you don’t remember a specific sequence or passage during discussion, you can ask the author to re-read a passage as an example as you make your point.


Positive feedback: Everyone in the group will share things that work well in the essay and that are particularly successful, moving, interesting, effective. Be specific! Refer to questions at the end of this workshop description for specific ideas.


Room for improvement: Everyone in the group will share questions, confusions, and point out what maybe needs more work or more editing, so the essay as a whole will be stronger. Again, be specific, and be positive! In this round, it is very important to not demoralize but to instead encourage and inspire the author so he/she will be excited to revise.


ONLY in the last round is the author allowed to talk and ask questions!


Maurice Prendergast

* Voice of the author: Is it unique, consistent, personal?
* Flow of the essay
* Organization of the essay: Do all parts fit with and add to the whole?
* Balance: Is there enough information, too much information, too little information?
* Is the message consistent, if there is a message?
* Is there a clear theme?
* If it is a story, is the story well told? Does the plot build to a climax?
* Character development: Are all characters painted clearly so you get a feel for them? Do you know their motivations, something of their appearance, age range, mannerism and behavior? Is there too little or too much information on a character? Does a character seem inconsistent, and if so, why?
* Setting: Is setting described in sensory detail? Do you get a feel for location, background, atmosphere, weather, time of year, time of day?
* Sensory perceptions: Are all of your senses engaged in reading the essay?
* Point of view: Are interesting point of view choices made in the essay? Is the point of view consistent, or is there any confusion?
* Beginnings and endings: Is there a strong beginning and a strong ending? Do the two relate and connect? Do they work together? Does the opening make you want to read more and does the ending leave you satisfied?
* Dialogue: Is some dialogue or some speech used to enliven the essay?
* Is some of the essay told in scenes? If so, is this handled well? Do you have setting and character development in each scene? If there are no scenes, does that feel like a lack, or does the essay work well without?
* Abstraction: Are all abstractions made concrete or anchored in detail in some way? This can be done through use of personification, metaphoric language, or through illustration/story.
* Is there a clear relationship between abstract thought and illustration/story or concrete detail, or do the two seem poorly integrated?
* Is metaphoric/figurative language used effectively? Are there moments when a strong metaphor would help bring out a detail that is significant? If so, where?
* If research is included, how is it integrated with the rest of the essay? Does it add or detract? Does there need to be more or less of it?
* Is the essay emotionally effective? Does it change you as a reader? Do you feel that the author goes through a transformation?
* Do you feel the author’s passion in this essay? Does the author invest something essential of him or herself in this piece? Or does the author hide in certain places? If so, where, how?
* Is the essay intellectually stimulating? Does it make you think?
* Is there any humor, wit, irony used in this essay? If so, is it handled effectively? Do you need more, or less? Any observations?
* Language: Does the essay use interesting diction and vocabulary? Are the sentences beautifully and clearly written or is there confusion?
* Grammar: Are there chronic grammatical issues? If so, what are they? How do they get in the way?
* Spelling: How is the overall spelling handled in this essay?

The Last Week



Here the information I sent you per e-mail about your last week of class:


  • You have Monday PM, all of Tuesday, plus Wed. AM to finish your writing/reading work.
  • On Tuesday evening, there will be a peer workshop in Argiro, probably after dinner. Details will follow to those who have expressed interest. If you want to participate and did not say so in class, let me know.
  • On Wednesday PM, we have a mandatory check in. I will count you absent if you don’t come. This is just to finalize and clarify all requirements, do the last presentations, and make sure everyone is fully on track!
  • On Thursday we have an all day sharing/celebration with our class. Please bring snacks so we can make it a fun day. We will finish when everyone has had a turn.
  • If you have any questions re. the schedule, let me know asap. Your schedule handout is the same as the schedule above.


  • Do I have to hand in drafts with my portfolio? Answer: Not the drafts I’ve already seen, but do give a sampling of your other drafts so I can see your process. You can do “save as” to keep track of some earlier drafts. This is useful anyway, because sometimes an earlier draft actually ends up working better, so keeping some record helps.
  • Where do I put drafts in my final portfolio? Answer: At the end. You submit your portfolio in one document (electronically or hard copy) and the drafts can follow the portfolio (at least a sampling of them).
  • Can I submit electronically at the end of class? Answer: Yes you can. Then put “Final Portfolio” in the title of the email and collect your entire work in one file, which you send me. Please send in Microsoft Word if you can, so I can more easily read. Some text files are somewhat garbled once I receive them. Keep the portfolio together so I don’t end up with piles of files by each student. And PUT YOUR NAME ON IT. Also title your pieces. You can submit drafts at the end of your portfolio file OR separately. Title your file “final portfolio” followed by your name. I don’t want nameless documents, which can get confusing.
  • Can I submit a handwritten portfolio? Answer: No. It’s sometimes tricky to read handwriting. I’d like you all to type in your work so that I can easily read. This will help me take in your projects. If anyone has further questions on this point, please contact me.
  • How do I submit a hard copy portfolio? Answer: Put your portfolio work in a binder of some sort. Double space. Use about .12 point font, no bigger. Not too much smaller either, though in some fonts .11 is OK. Put your name on it, give each piece a title, add drafts at the end. Number the pages. Present neatly.
  • Can I submit reading list and journal evaluation electronically? Answer: ONLY if you put them in ONE file together, separate from your portfolio file, but attached to the same email. Put your name on them, otherwise they don’t count. I don’t want to end up with too many random nameless files I can’t place.
  • How do I write up my journal evaluation? Answer: Write up a self-evaluation. It can be in bullet points. Keep it simple. Write down how many pages you wrote approximately, how often you wrote, how long you wrote in your journal, what types of prompts you used (no need to record each prompt or recap each writing session though! Keep it brief.) Then describe the aha-moments, what you learned, what you struggled with, what you noticed and how you grew. Keep it at about one page in length, but be specific in your commentary. Include also how it was to interact between Muse Box and journal and portfolio pieces. Evaluate for yourself how you feel you did with these projects: Could you have done more? Did you go all out? Describe. If you did extra research or work, be sure to make note of it.
  • How do I write up my reading list? Answer: If you do an alternate reading, briefly present in class for credit (book or Syllabus Reader materials). Write up a list of all of relevant readings you did during this course. Then write a self-evaluation: What were your favorite readings and why, your least favorite readings and why (keep it brief) and what did you learn from the readings that was most important? Could you have read more? How much time did you spend on readings approximately? If you went to IC readings, include this information with your reading list. If you did other relevant extra work, be sure to mention it.
  • How do I document my Muse box? Answer: Just take a picture of it or describe it and describe how it related to your journal and your portfolio in your creative explorations (include with Journal evaluation).
  • Any further questions, please ask!

Grammar Post: Common Issues


Geoffrey Baker, “First Steps”


Pick a verb tense and stay in it, unless you have a flash back, a flash forward, or dialogue where a different verb tense is appropriate:


Case #1: It was a dead hot summer in 1969.  Me and the boys are with our Dad bouncing in our car seats of his 1968 Buick Regal four-door sedan.

Solution: Here the author is not fully sure yet what verb tense perspective the story will be told in, past or present. The first line is in past tense, the second in present. That will not work. Choose one and stick with it. Be consistent.

Case#2: It used an entrance at the other side of the farm, right next to the Kruger National Park. The KNP is/was one of the biggest game reserves in Africa.

Solution: The KNP still is one of the biggest game reserves in Africa, so you can get away with saying “is” here even though your story is told in past tense. However, in most instances you’d keep your entire story in past tense once you start in past tense, even if something still is the case.

Case #3: I sat at the kitchen table with my mother and we were having tea. Her hair was up in a gray bun. My father’s painting hangs above the table.

Solution: The painting does still hang above the table, but this is the story about then—and therefore you need to stay in past tense: My father’s painting hung above the table. In that scene then, it did, even if it is still so now.

Case #4: The music is so good. I am glad Papa paid for the band. They could play all sorts of music: Zairian music and Western music. They even sang in English.

Solution: Stay in the same verb tense throughout.

Case #5: Grown tired from reliving our past exploits, we lapsed into silence. This is a dangerous state for any two kindergartners to be in when they are together.

Solution: Stay in the same verb tense throughout, even though the second sentence may touch upon a general truth. This is still the story of then. You break the narrative spell if you switch out of the chosen verb tense, and you con fuse your reader.

(c) Royal Academy of Arts; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Geoffrey Baker


Link with more info:

Every pronoun you use should have a clear antecedent, or a word that it goes back on. The term “antecedent” comes from “ante,” meaning before, and “cedere” meaning “to go” in Latin. If there are multiple words that could be antecedents, your pronoun’s meaning will not be clear. If there are several females in a scene, “she” could refer to any one of them, so it won’t be clear whom you mean. If there is no specific word a pronoun can go back on, only an implied one, the meaning of your pronoun will not be clear and your grammar will be incorrect. Here some possible issues that can arise:


Case #1: Fire ant hills in Alabama were an abundant nuisance. My father waged a war against them spraying them with poison. I was fascinated with them. I thought it was fun to poke a stick in them and stare at millions of them racing around the mound in alarm.

Solution: I thought it was fun to poke a stick in the anthills [them] and stare at millions of ants [them] racing around the mound in alarm. When you have two of the same pronoun in the same sentence, they should both refer to the same word, not two different words, or it gets very confusing. Here the first them referred to the hills, the second to the ants. There are not millions of anthills racing around, and she is not poking a stick at the ants. It is possible that the girl is poking a stick at the ants themselves, but if so, there was no antecedent. The ants were not mentioned anywhere, only the anthill was. Until the last part of this sentence, all pronouns can possibly go back on the word “ant hill” but that last part cannot possibly. So you have to rephrase and be specific.

Case #2: My mother and aunt Sophia were having a heated talk in the bedroom. I heard her say that she was tired of carrying all the weight around with her, because she was expecting a baby. And she replied that she could understand, but she did not seem to hear her.

Solution: Because you have two females, and many times the repeated pronouns “she” and “her,” you are going to have to be specific: Who is pregnant, who hears who say what to whom, and who replies, who understands, and who does not seem to hear whose words? This same issue can easily happen when there are several males in a scene, or several objects and the pronoun “it” is used, without clarification which of the objects it refers to. So be careful with all pronouns, and always examine if there is a clear antecedent that they go back on. Otherwise your meaning will not be clear.

Case #3: The boy’s mother–neither of whom have been named–heard a strange sound coming from his room.

Solution: The boy’s mother is a singular subject: the mother–which mother? The boy’s mother. This sentence assumes that there is a compound subject of both mother and boy. Possessives are not proper antecedents for any pronoun.

Case #4: When she confronted her, the woman allegedly told the mother she was getting her groceries out of the car for her, so she did not have to bother.

Solution: Again, you have two females, so you have to be specific whom you are referring to, or it gets confusing. Who gets groceries out of the car for whom?

Case #5: Andy Malory was engaged to Leland Simms when she was just sixteen years old, and the following year was engaged to mortician Aaron Walters–but neither resulted in marriage.

Solution: Neither refers to the engagements, but the engagements was never mentioned as an actual word; they were only implied with the verb “engaged to.” This does not work. You need an actual antecedent, an actual word in a sentence that a pronoun goes back on. It cannot be an implied word or a possessive. Neither here grammatically goes back on the two men: Leland and Aaron, yet obviously a man cannot result in marriage, though an engagement can. There you have a problem.

Case #6: And then, I was bitten by an ant.  It felt like fire and my ankle swelled to three times its size. My mom melted Epson salt in a plastic dish tub and I soaked it for hours to make the swelling subside.

Solution: “it” in the last line has no clear antecedent. Several singular nouns preceded it, and the closest was “tub,” which is obviously not the correct one in this case. An antecedent is always the closest noun of the same number (plural or singular) in the sentence, so be careful if you have several singular nouns in a row, then use the pronoun “it.” Here you have “ant,” “fire,” “ankle,” “salt,” and “tub.” Too many choices. So you have to make “it” specific: “my ankle” or “my foot” or something of the kind.

Case #7: My mother, sister, aunt and I were discussing the Thanksgiving dinner. She thought that she should make her sister’s recipe for yams.

Solution: My mother, sister, aunt and I were discussing Thanksgiving dinner. My sister thought that my mother should make my aunt’s recipe for yams.


Geoffrey Baker, “By the Sea”


I/me  (and also we/us and he/him etc.) are often mixed up depending on whether these forms are subject or object in a sentence.


Case #1: Me and the boys are with our Dad bouncing in our car seats of his 1968 Buick Regal four-door sedan.

Solution: The boys and I are with our Dad… Explanation: “I” is part of the subject of the sentence. You will only use “Me and the boys” if you want the slang colloquial voice. In all other cases, you should adhere to correct grammatical rules.

Case #2: One day, when I was in the eighth grade, my mother got a call from the parents of a child a few years younger than me.

Solution: One day, when I was in the eight grade, my mother got a clal from the parents of a child a few years younger than I [was]. Explanation: Finishing the full sentence in your mind can help you determine the right word.

Case #3: A few weeks later, Maman buys my sisters and I beautiful white dresses that are mini-skirts.

Solution: A few weeks later, Maman buys my sisters and me beautiful white dresses that are mini-skirts. Explanation: She buys me, not she buys I. I is not subject here.

Case #4: Since we had so much fun with the little lawn mower car, my dad thought to buy my sister and I a scooter.

Solution: Since we had so much fun with the little lawn mower car, my dad thought to buy my sister and me a scooter. Explanation: he buys me, not I. I is not subject here.

Case #5: Us children loved running wild on the Veld.

Solution: We children loved running wild on the Veld. Explanation: We is subject here. You’d only use “us” if you wanted the slang colloquial voice.


Geoffrey Baker


Link with more info:

A dangling modifier is a phrase or clause that modifies a word not clearly stated in the sentence, or that does not connect grammatically with the noun it is intended to modify. You have to identify the noun the dangling modifier is intended to modify and rephrase or rearrange the sentence so that these two parts are logically connected. Otherwise, you can get confusing meanings.


Case#1: Iron skillets sit on black burners filled with grease that had been used over and over again.

Solution: What is filled with grease—the skillets, or the back burners? And what is used over and over again? Technically the nearest word is the word a clause connects with, but in this case “filled with grease” goes with skillets, not with burners. Then you have to rephrase your sentence so the right clause goes with the right word: On the back burners sit iron skillets filled with grease that had been used over and over again.

Case #2: Both Kristin and Candice Hermeler are believed to have spoken with one of the survivors of the 1999 tragedy in which thirteen students lost their lives by telephone.

Solution: Obviously, the students did not lose their lives by telephone, but Kristin and Candice have spoken with one of the survivors by telephone. “By telephone,” is therefore wrongly placed in the sentence. All modifying phrases should go with the words or phrases they modify, otherwise there is confusion: Both Kristina nd Candice Hermeler are believed to have spoken by telephone with one of the survivors of the 1999 tragedy in which thirteen students lost their lives.

Case #3: Walking to the college campus on a subzero morning, my left ear felt frozen.

Solution: If you have an introductory clause that has an implied subject, this subject should match the subject of the main clause. Here it doesn’t. You are walking to the college campus, but your left ear isn’t. So here you’d have to either insert a subject into the introductory clause, or you have to change the subject of the main clause: As I walked to the college campus…, my left ear felt frozen. You can also say: Walking to the college campus…, I noticed that my left ear was freezing.

Case #4: The government says the school was too slow to warn students about the gunman who killed three people on campus and should have done more.

Solution: Obviously, “should have done more” goes with school—the school should have done more to warn students. But because of where the clause is tacked on, it sounds as if the gunman should have done more (killing), which completely changes the meaning of the sentence—and in a horrible manner.

Case #5: Dressed still in her dance clothes, water started entering the boat and the lights went out.

Solution: The introductory clause “dressed…clothes” has an implied female human subject, which is not mentioned, whereas the main clause has “water” as its subject. To fix this you will either need to add a subject to the introductory clause, or change the subject of the main clause: She was still dressed… when water started… Or: Dressed still in her dance clothes, she saw water entering….

Case #6: Anya Foster has never revealed the identity of her son’s father who was conceived by IVF.

Solution: The son was conceived by IVF, not the father, yet “conceived by IVF” follows the word “father.” That does not work.

Case #7: Annie revealed how she dealt with her tragic son’s death through sculpture.

Solution: The death was not through sculpture (at least we hope not), but Annie dealt with trauma by becoming a sculptress or taking sculpture classes. By misplacing a modifying phrase, a whole sentence can become comically unclear.

Case #8: The next day with tears in my eyes, my Mother put me back in the car and we traveled to the school building.

Solution: The next day, even though I had tears in my eyes, my mother put me back in the car, and we traveled to the school building.

Geoffrey Baker

Geoffrey Baker

A Punctuation Post: Six Common Errors


From: Six Common Errors that Bedevil Bloggers:

Proofreading your text for misspelled words and grammatical mistakes is essential. What about the punctuation, though?

Despite being more subtle, these errors can equally hurt your credibility. I’m going to point out six common punctuation errors that you shouldn’t be making, and give you examples so you’re sure about the right way to handle these situations.

Good tip: Read what you wrote out loud.

1. Apostrophe for Plurals

This mistake is particularly common among foreigners who are learning English as a second language. After all, you would expect native English speaks to know how to form plurals (right?). The apostrophe is used to form contractions (e.g., It’s time to go) and to indicate possession (e.g., Mary’s car is blue), but never to form plurals.

Wrong: The boy’s will go to the school tomorrow.

Right: The boys will go to the school tomorrow.

2. The Comma Splice

When the comma is used to separate independent clauses, there must be a conjunction connecting them. If the conjunction is not there, we have a comma splice. You can fix this mistake by using a period instead of the comma, or by adding a coordinating conjunction.

Wrong: The car costs $10000, I am going to buy it.

Right. The car costs $10000. I am going to buy it.

Right: The car costs $10000, and I am going to buy it.

3. Quotation Marks for Emphasis

Quotation marks are mainly used to quote speech, sentences or words. They can also be used to denote irony. They can’t be used, however, to add emphasis to a word or sentence. It is not rare to find advertisements or promotional flyers carrying this error. If you want to add emphasis to a word, use the boldface type and not the quotation marks.

Wrong: This gift is “free”!

Right: This gift is free!

4. Multiple Punctuation Marks

Unless you want to sound like an overly emotional teenager writing on MySpace, you should limit yourself to one exclamation point, regardless of how excited you might be when writing that sentence. The same applies to question marks and to the ellipsis (which should have only three dots). Also, keep in mind that exclamation points are not used that frequently in business and formal writing. If your text is loaded with them, you probably should review it.

Wrong: This is amazing!!!!

Wrong: The man was silent……

Right: This is amazing!

Right: The man was silent…

5. Punctuation Outside the Quotation Marks

If you are writing in American English, other punctuation should go inside the quotation marks, even if it is not part of the quotation itself. British English, on the other hand, places punctuation that is not part of the quoted sentence outside of the quotation marks.

Wrong in American English: Uncle John said, “My car is blue”.

Right in American English: Uncle John said, “My car is blue.”

6. The Missing Comma After Introductory Elements

Sometimes you want to give an introduction or provide a background to a certain sentence. That is fine, but do not forget to place a comma after that introductory element. Notice that an introductory element can be a sentence (like in the example below) or a single word (e.g., however, moreover and so on).

Wrong: Before going to the school Joe stopped at my house.

Right: Before going to the school, Joe stopped at my house.

grandma:punctuation pic

Character Portrait

We discussed in class how to create a character portrait. Here some things to keep in mind:

1) Appearance:

  • How does your character look physically, color hair, color eyes, body type?
  • How does your character inhabit space (the walk exercise)? You can add a metaphor here.
  • How does your character dress?
  • Any other noticeable features in the character’s appearance?

2) Speech

  • How does your character talk? Is he/she introverted, extroverted in speaking?
  • What is the voice quality of your character like? Think of a metaphor if you can.
  • What are frequent sayings of your character–slogans, proverbs, mottos, beliefs, quotations?
  • Does your character speak in slang or have an accent?
  • Is English your character’s first language or not? If not, how does a foreign or unusual phrasing creep into your character’s speech?
  • Is your character’s way of talking funny, serious, emotional or distant, welcoming or aloof?
  • What are some repeated or favorite stories your character tells?

3) Environment

  • Where does your character live? In what kind of setting?
  • What is your character’s socio-economic class?
  • What are your character’s favorite objects?
  • What is in his or her coat pocket, pants pocket, pocket book or purse that would describe the character?
  • What world does your character come from (rich, poor, middle class, has lost everything once, has risen from poverty, is Bohemian and does not care about money, lives soberly, lives with tons of nick-nacks, etc.) Describe.
  • Is your character attached to social standing and to objects and places? If so, why?

4) Habits

  • Describe some of your character’s daily habits? How does he or she bathe, clean, do dishes, keep house, eat, or anything else that stands out?
  • Is your character frugal or free with money? What does your character spend money on? What does your character avoid to spend money on?
  • What does your character like to do for fun or comfort?
  • Any other quirky observations, mannerisms, specific ways of doing things that stand out and are unique, annoying or endearing?

5) Job and Professional Life

  • What does your character do for a living or what has your character done for a living in his/her past?
  • How did your character get his/her money?
  • Does your character like his/her employment or not?
  • Does your character have hobbies or work he/she does in his/her free time out of dedication?
  • How does your character handle  prestige, position gained through work? Or lack of position and prestige? Or loss of job, or money through inheritance but no job–or whatever your character’s situation is. Describe.
  • What is your character’s work ethic?

6) Character

  • What are your character’s moral values? What is his/her sense of right or wrong?
  • What is your character’s religious background?
  • Is your character a spiritual person? In what sense?
  • What is your character’s belief system?
  • What is truly important to your character and what does he/she value?
  • How would your character react in crisis?
  • What themes emerge in your character’s life that show who he/she truly is at heart.
  • Any contradictory traits or values?
  • Does your character have a flaw or blind spot, something he/she does not see of him or herself that gets the person in trouble?
  • How would your character describe himself and how would you describe your character, or how do others? Is there a discrepancy?
  • What was the character’s childhood like, his/her formative experiences?
  • Tell a revealing anecdote or story.

Hollie Chastain, Finkiyaya

Freewriting, Friday March 8, 2013


Vicki Huff, withinabook

Here a list of the freewriting exercises we did on the morning of Friday March 8 for anyone who may have missed classes on that day:

1) Walk around and feel your own walk. First walk as you do now, then remember how you used to walk. What is the difference? Do you have your head up high, do you hunch your shoulders or not, do you walk fast or slowly, do you look down or up? What do you notice? Is there a heaviness, a lightness? Then sit down to describe your own walk in a freewrite, first your walk now, then your walk in an earlier time of your life. Use a metaphors if you can.

2) After that, continue walking and feel into the walk of someone you know well. How does this person walk? Some people have very characteristic ways of moving. Try to feel into it as if you were doing a theater exercise. Then describe this walk of a person you know well in a freewrite. Use a metaphor if you can.
3) Write down a few lines of setting description for a place you know well. Go for the essence–you don’t have to say much if you are succinct.

4) Write a brief character description of someone you know in less than one paragraph (just a few sentences). Go for the essence–what is truly important. Reveal a lot with very little. Some examples  below these questions.*

5) Begin to write a climactic scene you remember from your life. You can skip over setting if you want, and also character description. Go for the emotional truth of the scene. Choose something that happened to you, something involving interaction and dialogue between you and one or two other people. Remember, a scene is one continuous action at one time in one place (in one setting).

6) Now take the scene you wrote and change the point of view in telling the same story from another perspective. What happens? You can shift in the middle of writing, or you can shift afterward and tell a portion of your story in another point of view.

7) NEW EXERCISE: Map out a transformative experience in your life as in Freytag’s pyramid. Don’t write out the story, but just map out what was the start, the build-up, the climax and the unraveling of one particular quest in your life.


Daniel Agdag

*BRIEF CHARACTER PORTRAIT EXAMPLES FROM FICTION (the first one also involves a character’s way of embodying space/a walk):

Guy de Maupassant:

She limped, but not like lame people usually do, but like a ship pitching. When she planted her great , bony, vibrant body on her sound leg, she seemed to be preparing to mount some enormous wave, and then suddenly she dipped as if to disappear into an abyss, and buried herself in the ground.

Amy Tan:

My mother believed you could be anything you wanted to be in America. You could open a restaurant. You could work for the government and get good retirement. You could buy a house with almost no money down. You could become rich or instantly famous. She had come here in 1949 after losing everything: her mother and father, her family home, her first husband and two daughters, twin baby girls. But she never looked back with regret. There were so many ways for things to get better.

Edna O’Brien:

Her fingers and nails smelled of food, whereas her body smelled of drifting things; the most pleasant was a lingering smell of perfumes from the cotton wad she sometimes tucked under her brassiere. She insisted that literature was a precursor  to sin and damnation.

Harold Brodkey:

I was thirteen and six feet tall, and I weighted a hundred and twenty-five pounds. Though I fretted about my looks (my ears stuck out and my hair was like wire), I also knew I was attractive, girls had smiled at me, but none whom I might love and certainly none of the seven or eight goddesses in the junior high school I attended.

She was barely five feet tall. She was not at all regal. But her lipstick was never on her teeth, and her dresses were usually new, and her eyes were kind.

Starting in about second grade, I always had the highest grades–higher than anybody who had ever attended the school I went to–and I terrified my classmates. What terrified them was that so far as they could see, it never took any effort. I was never teased, I was never tormented; I was merely isolated.

My mother’s eyes were incomprehensible; they were dark stages where dimply seen mob scenes were staged and all one ever sensed was tumult and drama, and no matter how long one waited, the lights never went up and the scene never was explained.


Pamela Huntington

Joyce Carol Oates:

She was fifteen and she had a quick, nervous habit of craning her neck to glance into mirrors or checking other people’s faces to make sure her own was all right.

Angela Carter:

“Every man must have one secret, even if only one, from his wife,” he said.

Flannery O’Connor:

Nothing is perfect. This was one of her favorite sayings. Another was: That is life! And still another, the most important, was: Well, other people have their opinions, too. She would make these statements in a tone of gentle insistence, as if no one held them but her.

Mrs. Hopewell had no bad qualities of her own, but she was able to use other people’s in such a constructive way that she never felt the lack.

Besides the neutral expression that she wore when she was alone, Mrs. Freeman had two others, forward and reverse, that she used for all her human dealings. Her forward expression was steady and driving like the advance of a heavy truck. Her eyes never swerved to left or fight but turned as the story turned as if they followed a yellow line down the center of it. She seldom used the other expression because it was not often necessary to retract a statement, but when she did, her face came to a complete stop.

Willa Cather:

He was tall and slender, and his thin shoulders stopped. I noticed how white and well-shaped his hands were. They looked calm, somehow, and skilled. His eyes were melancholy and were set back deep under his brow. His face was ruggedly formed, but it looked like ashes–like something from which all the warmth and light had died out.

Wells Tower:

One big thing I remember about Jane is she couldn’t ever get warm in her house. She would crank up the burners on the stove and stare down at them, like a gypsy trying to divine something in the way the hot nobs glowed. In those days she would like around all day and never even get dressed properly. She caught her nightgown on fire a couple of times. Yelling at her didn’t help.

Jerome Wilson:

Despite her icky clothes, she looked like a movie star from the silent screen: deep, dark black hair, thin red lips, and the pale, powdery skin color, like she was waiting for some invisible director to yell “Action!” and give her the go-ahead to say her lines like that was the only thing God created her for.

Small Group Study Questions for Eat, Pray, Love


Elizabeth Gilbert’s Rome apt.

Here the questions we examined on Friday afternoon. We’ll keep discussing on Monday.

1) Find a few places in the “Italy” section of Eat, Pray, Love where Elizabeth Gilbert handles time shifts–a flash back to an earlier time or memory (something that preceded the action and gives insight into the present), or a flash forward or skip in time. What devices doe she use (white space, verb tense shifts, exposition)?

2) Find a few places where Elizabeth Gilbert handles scene shifts or shifts in location/place. How does she set you up for that and avoid getting her reader confused? What devices does she use?

3) Find a few strong and brief character descriptions in “Italy” or another part of Eat, Pray, Love.

4) Find a few strong and brief setting descriptions in “Italy” or another part of Eat, Pray, Love.

5) Find a few places where Elizabeth Gilbert uses particularly vivid and evocative descriptive language.


Pizzeria da Michele – Naples, Italy. EG calls it “The holy of holies”

6) Find a few places where Elizabeth Gilbert uses particularly startling or effective figurative language (metaphors, similes). What is the effect?

7) Who is your favorite character in Eat, Pray, Love and why?

8) Find a place where the dialogue is particularly rich and engaging. Is there subtext? Why did you like this portion of the dialogue?

9) What plot arch do you find in book 1 of Eat, Pray, Love (“Italy”)? What elements of plot can you trace? Does the plot arch satisfy? Why or why not?

10) How do you respond to Elizabeth Gilbert’s narrative voice? Do you resonate it or not, and why? Do you think she is a reliable narrator? Is there anything you observe about her that she does not tell you?


Gelateria San Crispino – Via Acaia 56, San Giovanni

3 Illustrated 6 Word Memoirs


Zac Belok


Carla Kent


Mya Simmons

History of the Memoir: Michel de Montaigne


More about the History of the Memoir: Michel de Montaigne

Though many illustrious examples of prose discussion about daily life, history, or philosophical musing can be found in Oriental and in classical Greek and Latin literature, the modern personal essay and memoir have their origins in the European Renaissance when the sense of “I” and “self” began to take center stage. Over time, the “informal” essay and the memoir went through many transformations.

In the sixteenth century, the French magistrate Michel de Montaigne took himself as subject matter and wrote 107 essays in a casual, candid style. These essays (called “Essais,” meaning “attempts” or “experiments” in French) had a profound influence on readers across continents, cultures, and generations. One of the most uniquely modern aspects of Montaigne’s work was his way of investigating contradictory values within himself, never settling for easy answers. He freely observed his own prejudices, tastes, and inconsistencies of character. This is why modern audiences still read Montaigne, and why modernist essayists continue to emulate him. Such willingness to embrace the ambiguity of human life indicates an ability to expand beyond the boundaries of the self, a willingness to witness or observe the self objectively. Because Montaigne’s insights come from such a deep, expanded level of awareness, they enliven universal values. The reader not only learns about Montaigne, but about him or herself.

Montaigne’s informal essays became the model for the modern literary personal essay and the memoir. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries especially British writers, such as Virginia Woolf and E. B. White, continued in Montaigne’s footsteps. They, too, wrote about personal subjects in a highly digressive, unsystematic manner and tested their own boundaries, exploring the dynamic interplay of inner and outer values.

Here you can read more about Montaigne on Wikipedia: Montaigne on Wikipedia

Here you can read his Essays, via the Gutenberg Library: Essays, Montaigne


The Tower in which Montaigne wrote at his estate

Here an article from The New Yorker about the History of the Memoir, written by Daniel Mendelsohn. What does the popularity of the Memoir tell us about ourselves? The History of the Memoir, New Yorker

More about the Memoir here on Wikipedia: Memoir on Wikipedia