A point is a marvelous thing to have.
(Pedagogy) Philosophy and Nonsense      
Thoughts about writing, education, and experience                                  Presented by Forrest D. Poston

The first goal of teaching is to strengthen, deepen and refine our intrinsic love of learning. All other goals and all methods must stem from that idea. Any that do not support that goal must at least be questioned and adjusted, if not eliminated. Otherwise, we are not teaching but training.

One well chose word can save a dozen.

Writing and Education

Autobiography Challenge

Considering Conclusions

Considering Introductions

Four Meanings of Life

Godot and the Great Pumpkin

A Major is More Minor Than
You Think

The Poetry Process (A look at 4 versions of a poem.)

Thoughts About Picking a Major

Quick Points About Education

Quick Points About Writing

Reading Poetry and Cloud Watching

Revising Revision

Reviving Experience

Reviving Symbolism

Using an Audience


What Makes a Story True?

What's the Subject of This Class? (Being revised.)

Why Write?

Writing and Einstein (The Difference Between Information and Meaning)

Writing and the Goldilocks Dilemma

Links to Other Sites
Writing and the Goldilocks Dilemma            by Forrest D. Poston

All writers have to find balance, but inexperienced writers have particular trouble writing either too much or too little.  Each writing needs enough material and detail to answer the essential "so what," but once you start discovering connections between ideas, it gets to be overwhelming deciding what to cut.  What's the guideline for writing that's "just right"?  Of course, writers are often given lengths to meet, but that isn't always enough to make the judgment, and such preconditions can be more irritant than aid when a teacher or editor makes the length seem more important than content.  One of the tricks to overcoming many writing questions is finding the right metaphor.  No single image works every time or for every person, but if you keep a mental bagful with you when writing, there should be one for every situation.

     Though my own drawing or painting skills are nominal (especially since I avoid practicing them), I've found more and more of my writing metaphors borrow from painting and clay techniques.  When you walk into a room and see a landscape painting hanging on the wall, the frame is there to say, "Look here. Don't try to see everything at once. Just look here within the frame."  We don't really know the full vista the artist selected from, but out of the 360 degrees of possible choices, what matters is what's in the frame.  There may have been a power line running up the hill past the remains of a '69 Chevy, or the person may be purely imaginary and the tree taken from a memory miles away.  

     The artist selects a portion of the landscape to make you start to see, to lead you to see more precisely.  When the artist is really good, you don't even look at the entire painting at once.  Color and compostion draw your eye first to the tree, then to the house, then to the person, and only then to the whole form within the frame and the connections to be found between the parts and the whole.  Seeing the single part can help see the whole more clearly, the whole within the frame, and then the whole of which the picture is only a part.  

     Oscar Wilde and sever other writers, painters, and philosophers have said that the world doesn't exist until an artist makes us see it.  Odd as this sounds, experience shows me it's true.  One of my favorite painters is Caspar David Friedrich, who did wonderful landscapes with an air of the fantastic about them.  I particularly love his trees.  Clearly they are trees, and yet they are like no trees that have ever existed, exaggerated into forms both eerie and sometimes soothing.  A few years after I first encountered Friedrich's art, I was driving on I-270, the interstate loop around Columbus, Ohio, and off to the side of the highway stood a Friedrich tree.  It was big enough to be older than I was, not a fresh sapling, and I know I had driven by it many times before without noticing its existence.  I've also learned that there are quite a few Friedrich trees around, not common but definitely a part of this world as well as the imagination.

     There's also a poem by Robert Frost that irritated me for several years.  The first two lines read, "Nature's first green is gold/her hardest hue to hold."  Surely that's nonsense, not poetry.  All it does is contradict itself.  Green is gold?  This time I was driving up U.S. 33 (highways seem to be my prime source of revelations) when Ginny pointed out a willow tree off by a stream.  This was in late March or very early April, and the willow was just waking up for spring, just starting to show color in the branches.  The color was leaning toward green, but it had strong golden tones as well.  Willows show it best, though some lilacs and other plants display the same trait, but I would never have seen it at all without Frost and Ginny to make me see rather than look.  And there are only a few days each spring, less than a week, when the unusual colors show clearly, making both parts of the poem precise observations of nature, not contradictions at all.  Of course, one of the difficult lessons to learn is that nature is large enough to embrace apparent contradictions, something people have much more trouble doing.

     The goal for a writer is much the same.  You want to show the reader one thing clearly and precisely, and then trust them to go off and consider the vision and how it applies to the whole.  When faced with the whole world on a daily basis, we tend to see little and assume much.  Try to show the whole world in a single writing, and you get even less since there's a fair chance the reader won't even finish the piece.  Select one aspect and consider what's essential to understanding that part alone, and trust the readers to take the ideas to the next level in their own way.  That also means you have to allow your reader to participate, by giving them something solid enough to carry away, but leaving enough flexibility for them to both adopt and adapt the idea.

     I suggest beginning with the smallest frame you can, and then try to shrink it even farther.  Don't show the hill, show the tree.  Don't show the tree, show the leaf.  As you shrink the frame, you will force yourself to look more closely, to see more of what's actually there, not what you thought was there.  As you see more closely, you'll find that you can shrink the frame even more.  Eventually you lose perspective and have to pull back, but that's fine.  That's part of why writers draft, revise, draft, revise, scream and throw things, draft and revise.  Keep in mind that it's easier to tinker with something small.  Reworking a page of precision is easier than rewriting five pages of fog.

     (As you see more closely, you'll discover far more branches than your writing can follow at one time.  Keep a notebook handy for jotting those ideas down.  Promise yourself you'll get to them later.  Maybe you will, maybe not.  However, you'll find that by writing them down for later, your subconscious won't bug you about them so much while your trying to concentrate on the subject at hand.  Also, you'll find that many of those ideas will branch and combine in surprising ways days, weeks, months, or even years later.  For more on this approach, see Donald Murray's book Write to Learn on the subject of daybooks.)

     There's anothe aspect of frames that can be useful or dangerous.  In the approach to writing, I've been putting the framing first, but painters don't frame a canvas then paint.  They don't choose the final form and then force the creative element to fit that space.  On the other hand, they do select a canvas before painting.  A good artist develops a sense of size, proportions, perspective and preferences that help decide what size canvas will work best for a selected project.  They do learn how to set limitations on each project.  You can think of the canvas size as the length of the writing project you're working on at the moment.  Do you have time to paint a 40" x 60" canvas well, or would you need to slap paint on with a 6" brush to get the job done in time?

     there are artists who use a brush with a single bristle for parts of a project.  In the proper hands, that can produce amazing results, but it takes far more than one semester.  Part of what you have to do is experiment to learn what happens when you vary the size of brush and canvas (how close or distant your writing perspective is and the how long the paper), so that with experience you can start choosing the right canvas and brushes early in the writing process.  Many of those decisions have been made for you and forced upon you in the past, which has hindered your judgment and kept you from even being aware of the importance of such decisions.  Don't worry.  All you need is patience, time, and practice.  I know that patience is not a common attribute of youth, but don't worry.  To learn patience, all you need is time and practice, and patience.

     Part of problem is that you've been taught far more about frames than you have about painting, but a great frame around a lousy painting still ends up in the trash.  If by chance you had enough money to get the Lourve to part with the Mona Lisa, and you had a frame at home that was just a little too small, would you cut the Mona Lisa to fit the frame or get a proper frame to match the painting?  What you have to remember is that your ideas are even more important than the Mona Lisa.  Okay, your ideas may not be more important to everybody (and some of them are on a par with kitsch), but your ideas need to be important to you.  Why would you cut your ideas to fit the frame?

     There's a balance.  Some element of form plays a role early in the process when you have to choose a canvas.  Even before then you have to choose an idea and play with it a while.  You have to select a landscape and then decide wihich part you will paint today, and which parts you willleave to later.  But don't let the questions of form dominate the idea.  Even when someone else is forcing the form upon you, craft an idea well and you will find that many of the questions of form work themselves out as you go.  Form and idea can work together.  Then the meaning and the form will work so the form makes the meaning clear and strong, while the meaning makes the form almost invisible.  After all, when you finish your painting and hang it on the wall for others to view, the last thing you want them to notice is the frame.

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Back to the Home Page

Other Essays and Poetry

Something Somewhat Vaguely Like a Resume

Being Like Children

The Blessing and the Blues

The Cat With a Bucket List

David and the Revelation

The Dawn, the Dark, and the Horse I Didn't Ride In On (an odd, meandering, semi-romantic story)

Ghost Dancer in the Twilight Zone

The Hair Connection and the Nature of Choices

The Mug, the Magic, and the Mistake

Trumpet Player, USDA Approved



Selected Poems

The Poetry Process

Writing by Current or Former Students

Ms. Write Meets Her Match in Jr. Ms. Write Now
by Heide Perry

I'll Just Have Cats
by Cara Hummel

Toys to Toys
by Allyson Bowlds

Scribbles and Bits

Links to Other Sites