Change of Perspective

Musings on Writing, Reading, and Life Narratives

Fiction writers and literary critics speak of point of view. Social scientists are more likely to discuss perspective. But both of these terms refer to essentially the same construct: the consciousness behind the perception and narration of experience. Each individual’s point of view is unique, and point of view shapes the stories people tell to themselves and to others about themselves and their relationships with their environment. The same event narrated from two different perspectives will produce two different stories.

A change of perspective can expand our perception and reframe our thinking about our experiences. We can all benefit from an occasional change of perspective.

[Return to MetaPerspective]

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Quotation of the Day

"Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life; they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our byoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again."

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird, p. 237

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

‘Conversations With God’ Author Accused of Plagiarism

‘Conversations With God’ Author Accused of Plagiarism - ArtsBeat Blog -

Neale Donald Walsch, author of the best-selling series ‘Conversations with God,’ recently posted a personal Christmas essay on the spiritual Web site that was nearly identical to a 10-year-old article originally published by a little-known writer in a spiritual magazine. He now says he made a mistake in believing the story was something that had actually happened to him.

Oh dear. People who do this are always sorry--when they get caught. I stand firmly with Candy Chand, the woman whose work was lifted:

“I have strong issue with anyone who would appear to plagiarize my work and pretend it is his own,” said Ms. Chand. “That takes away from the truth of the material, it takes away from the miracle that occurred, because people begin to question what they can believe anymore. As a professional writer, when someone appears to plagiarize, they damage the industry, they damage other writer’s credibility and they hurt the reader because they never know what to believe anymore.”

And the fact that the man who got caught doing this is supposedly a man of God--well, I stand with Candy Chand on that point, too:

She added that it was ironic that Mr. Walsch in particular had been the one to appropriate her writing. “Has the man who writes best selling books about his ‘Conversations with God’ also heard God’s commandments?” she asked. “’Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not lie, and thou shalt not covet another author’s property?’”

Labels: , ,

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Book Review: Writing a Woman's Life

Heilbrun, Carolyn G. Writing a Woman's Life (1988)
W.W. Norton & Company, 144 pages, $14.95 hardcover
ISBN 0-393-02601-9

Highly recommended

In the "Introduction," feminist scholar Carolyn Heilbrun explains the topic of her book:

There are four ways to write a woman's life: the woman herself may tell it, in what she chooses to call an autobiography; she may tell it in what she chooses to call fiction; a biographer, woman or man, may write the woman's life in what is called a biography; or the woman may write her own life in advance of living it, unconsciously, and without recognizing or naming the process. (p. 12)
Heilbrun says that she will focus on three of these methods, omitting fiction.

Men have always had narrative stories, such as the quest motif and the warrior exemplar, on which to base their lives and within which to tell their life stories. But, Heilbrun argues, such stories of action and accomplishment have been denied to women; the behavior praised by these stories has always been branded "unwomanly":

above all other prohibitions, what has been forbidden to women is anger, together with the open admission of the desire for power and control over one's life (which inevitably means accepting some degree of power and control over other lives). (p. 13)
* * * * *

Because this has been declared unwomanly, and because many women would prefer (or think they would prefer) a world without evident power or control, women have been deprived of the narratives, or the texts, plots, or examples, by which they might assume power over—take control of—their own lives. (p. 17)

* * * * *

Well into the twentieth century, it continued to be impossible for women to admit into their autobiographical narratives the claim of achievement, the admission of ambition, the recognition that accomplishment was neither luck nor the result of the efforts or generosity of others. (p. 24)

* * * * *

The concept of biography itself has changed profoundly in the last two decades, biographies of women especially so. But while biographers of men have been challenged on the "objectivity" of their interpretation, biographers of women have had not only to choose one interpretation over another but, far more difficult, actually to reinvent the lives their subjects led, discovering from what evidence they could find the processes and decisions, the choices and unique pain, that lay beyond the life stories of these women. The choices and pain of the women who did not make a man the center of their lives seemed unique, because there were no models of the lives they wanted to live, no exemplars, no stories. These choices, this pain, those stories, and how they may be more systematically faced…are what I want to examine in this book. (p. 31)

In subsequent chapters Heilbrun offers George Sand, Willa Cather, and particularly Dorothy L. Sayers as examples of women who tried to mold their lives into patterns other than those traditionally allowed to them. However:
Only in the last third of the twentieth century have women broken through to a realization of the narratives that have been controlling their lives. Women poets of one generation—those born between 1923 and 1932—can now be seen to have transformed the autobiographies of women's lives, to have expressed, and suffered for expressing, what women had not earlier been allowed to say. (p. 60)
These poets, all American, are Denise Levertov, Jane Cooper, Carolyn Kizer, Maxine Kumin, Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, and Sylvia Plath.

Finally, Heilbrun argues for what she calls "reinventing marriage," for a new kind of marriage in which husband and wife both recognize and nurture the other's strengths. "Marriage is the most persistent of myths imprisoning women, and misleading those who write of women's lives" (p. 77), she says. As an example of this new kind of marriage she cites the relationship between Leonard and Virginia Woolf.

One of the more interesting aspects of Writing a Woman's Life is Heilbrun's explanation, in chapter six, of why she chose to use a pseudonym in the 1960s when, as a young college professor, she started publishing detective novels: "I believe now that I must have wanted, with extraordinary fervor, to create a space for myself" (p. 113). "But I also sought another identity, another role. I sought to create an individual whose destiny offered more possibility than I could comfortably imagine for myself" (p. 114).

My problem with any type of literary criticism based on a particular ideology is that it often ends up reducing complex issues to dismissively simple statements, such as this declaration by Heilbrun: "Marriage, in short, is a bargain, like buying a house or entering a profession" (p. 92). Nonetheless, in general, Writing a Woman's Life offers a compelling view of cultural and social conventions that are currently undergoing change.

© 1999 by Mary Daniels Brown

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Book Review: The Midnight Disease

Flaherty, Alice W. The Midnight Disease (2004) Houghton Mifflin, 307 pages, $24.00 hardcover ISBN 0-618-23065-3

Trained as a scientist, neurologist Alice W. Flaherty always enjoyed writing. But after the birth and death of premature twin boys, she had a mental breakdown that made her write nearly constantly, a condition known as hypergraphia. She took medication and was hospitalized for her mental state; the medication curbed her compulsion to write but also took away most of her emotion and passion about life. Her purpose in this book, subtitled The Drive to Write, Writer's Block, and the Creative Brain, is to examine hypergraphia, writer's block, and creativity as brain states. In looking for scientific explanations of these states she discusses the functions of different areas of the brain and the role each area plays in creativity or blocked creativity.

Most writers have experienced writer’s block at some time and know that almost everything written about overcoming writer’s block consists of exhortations and exercises to help squelch their inner critic. Yet experienced writers who have been successful in their writing before often know that an inner critic is not what’s keeping them from producing. These writers may find some new insight from Flaherty’s discussion of block as a state associated with both anxiety and depression:

Writer's block that is linked to anxiety is often also tied to procrastination--the process that leads you to suddenly clean out your basement the week before a writing deadline. Procrastination of a different sort can accompany depression. For at the most fundamental (or simplistic) level, there are perhaps only two types of writer's black, high energy and low energy. Unlike low-energy block, high-energy block may worsen as your deadline approaches; it makes you sweat, makes you sit down only to jump up again. [. . .] In low-energy block, the desire that makes you sit down to write is a dull sense of guilt. Instead of ideas, you have only sterile ruminations on how things used to be when you could write, when the world had color. (p. 135)

Although scientists are still discovering how the brain works, Flaherty does have some suggestions for summoning the muse and avoiding writer’s block. "Three ingrained cycles are important for both mood and creativity: sleep, the seasons, and hormonal cycles" (p. 125). Many people, she says, sleep later than usual on weekends, then wake up on Monday with something like jet lag. "The treatment, studies have shown, is to keep the time one rises as constant as possible. The time one goes to sleep is less important" (p. 126). About the relationship between fatigue and writer’s block she says:

A short (less than fifteen-minute) nap during such a lag may be much more effective than coffee. The length of your nap, however, is important. Naps longer than fifteen minutes usually allow you to transition into dream sleep (rapid eye movement or REM-stage sleep), and you will wake up much groggier than if you had remained in nondream sleep. [. . .] sleep deprivation itself seems to decrease creativity, rather than increasing it. (p. 129)

It’s hard not to appreciate advice from a writer who declares, "I don't write to forget what happened; I write to remember. There are worse things in life than painful desire; one of them is to have no desire" (p. 205).

© 2004 by Mary Daniels Brown

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Psychologist James Pennebaker Counts, and Analyzes, Words

Scientist at Work - James W. Pennebaker - Psychologist James Pennebaker Counts, and Analyzes, Words - Biography -

James Pennebaker, a psychologist at the University of Texas, is a pioneer in studying the relationship between language and health. In his early experiments he found that writing about traumatic experiences can strengthen people's immune systems. More recently, he has turned to analyzing every word someone says or writes to see what word choice may indicate about people.
He found, for example, that Osama bin Laden’s use of first-person pronouns (I, me, my, mine) remained fairly constant over several years. By contrast, his second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahri, used such words more and more often.

“This dramatic increase suggests greater insecurity, feelings of threat, and perhaps a shift in his relationship with bin Laden,” Dr. Pennebaker wrote in his report , which was published in The Content Analysis Reader (Sage Publications, July 2008).

To count and analyze the kinds of words someone uses, Pennebaker has developed a software program.
To test-drive the program, Dr. Pennebaker, a pioneer in the field of therapeutic writing, asked a group of people recovering from serious illness or other trauma to engage in a series of writing exercises. The word tallies showed that those whose health was improving tended to decrease their use of first-person pronouns through the course of the study.

Health improvements were also seen among people whose use of causal words — because, cause, effect — increased. Simply ruminating about an experience without trying to understand the causes is less likely to lead to psychological growth, he explained; the subjects who used causal words “were changing the way they were thinking about things.”

Pennebaker has also found that men tend to use more articles (a, an, and the) than women and that women tend to use more pronouns (he, she, they) than men. "The difference, he says, may suggest that men are more prone to concrete thinking and women are more likely to see things from other perspectives."

Labels: , ,

Book Review: Old Friend from Far Away

Goldberg, Natalie. Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir

New York: Free Press, 2007
ISBN 978-1-4165-3502-7

Highly Recommended

In Writing Down the Bones Natalie Goldberg produced what has become a classic manual for writers eager to stir up their creativity. In Old Friend from Far Away she focuses her advice on memoir writing. The old friend of the title is, of course, you--all the yous, all the selves you’ve ever been or only dreamed of being. And the far away place is the past--50 or 80 years ago, or five minutes ago.

In the introduction Goldberg discusses why memoir has become so popular in America over the last 25 years: “Think of the word: memoir. . . . It is the study of memory, structured on the meandering way we remember. Essentially it is an examination of the zigzag nature of how our mind works” (p. xviii). We have turned to the memoir form with such gusto because “We have an intuition that it can save us. Writing is the act of reaching across the abyss of isolation to share and reflect. . . . Often without realizing it, we are on a quest, a search for meaning. What does our time on this earth add up to?” (p. xix).

Most other books for memoir writers aim to stir up memories in a fairly straightforward, traditional way, with prompts about things such as your early childhood memories, your favorite relatives, your best vacation. But Goldberg is much more unconventional. She warns that we cannot approach writing memoir head-on; we must approach it sideways: “because life is not linear, you want to approach writing memoir sideways, using the deepest kind of thinking to sort through the layers: you want reflection to discover what the real connections are” (p. xxi).

It’s difficult to describe exactly what Goldberg means my approaching a topic sideways. It’s better to let her show you. Here’s a section from the entry “Place,” chosen at random from Old Friend from Far Away:
Write about a place you haven’t lived. Go, ten minutes.

Make a lost of thirty things pertaining to place; i.e., boulevard, street corner, gulley canyon, arroyo.
Write another ten minutes including ten words from your list but with this topic: the place I am most afraid to go.

Notice the different levels you can write about place. One is concrete: Colorado Springs, Colorado, Memphis, Tennessee. . . . The other is inner: I have not been in a peaceful place for a long time. I have been in a thoughtful place. I feel lost; I can’t find a place for myself. (p. 201)
Goldberg’s sideways approach to memoir writing forces us to probe beneath the surface of experience to find its kernel of meaning. “Memoir is taking personal experience and turning it inside out. We surrender our most precious understanding, so others can feel what we felt and be enlarged. This means when we write we give up ourselves” (p. 147).

Most of Goldberg’s writing exercises instruct us to set a timer and write for ten minutes. Why ten minutes?
Ten minutes is a convenient starting point. It’s a sprint. Feel free to ease into longer runs. But don’t abandon that ten-minute hard-core pressurized feeling that you have to get it all down on two or three pages. There is something wildly exhilarating about that: gun to the head, writing for life and death in ten minutes. (p. 98)
She seems to be advocating here a kind of writing sometimes called free writing or automatic writing--a keep-the-pen-moving-across-the-page act of writing that does not stop to edit or judge but keeps going to see what will emerge onto the page. The idea behind this kind of writing is that whatever thoughts, feelings, or visions are just below the surface of consciousness will take advantage of this uncensored opportunity to jump out and present themselves. And these thoughts are usually the ones that most need our attention right now.

Finally, why write memoir? Goldberg says we write about our life
to remember all of it. The good and the bad. To trust your experience, to have a confidence that your moments and the moments of others on this earth mattered, not to be forgotten. . . . It is a great thing you are doing whatever it is you are remembering. You are saying that life--and its passing--have true value. (p. 265)
And for whom do we write? For “our better, worse, encumbered, forfeited, imprisoned, beloved selves” (p. 299).

©2008 by Mary Daniels Brown

Labels: , ,

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Birth of the Modern Op-Ed Page

Now here is an interesting fact that I did not know:
It was on this day in 1970 that the first modern op-ed page appeared in The New York Times. People sometimes think that "op-ed" stands for "opinion-editorial," but it actually stands for "opposite the editorial page." Op-eds began in the 1920s, but they were forums for newspapers' columnists, not for outside writers. The modern op-ed was created by New York Times journalist John Bertram Oakes. Oakes received a commentary letter that he thought was excellent, but it was too long to print as a letter to the editor, and it couldn't be published in the op-ed page since it wasn't by a columnist. So he got the idea for an op-ed page that would include outside opinions. Oakes spent 10 years trying to convince publishers that is was good idea. Finally the Times editors agreed, and published the first version, and it's become the model for op-ed pages worldwide.

(From The Writer's Almanac, a publication of American Public Media)

While I did know that "op-ed" means "opposite the editorial page," I had no idea that this was such a modern phenomenon. I don't seem to remember a time when the op-ed pages didn't exist.

How about you?

Labels: ,

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Book Review: A Writer's Space

Maisel, Eric. A Writer's Space.

Avon, MA: Adams Media, 2008
ISBN 1-59869-460-X


In this little (5.5 in. wide by 6.25 in. tall) book Maisel, a therapist and creativity coach, uses the metaphor of space “to communicate how you can get a grip on your writing life and transform yourself from an occasional writer to a regular writer” (p. 3). All your writing space needs, he says, is “a chair, a table, silence, and a little awe” (p. 5).

Maisel divides his discussion into nine sections:

  1. physical space
  2. home space
  3. mind space
  4. emotional space
  5. reflective space
  6. imagined space
  7. public space
  8. existential space
  9. epilogue: creative space: a writing fable

This book is not about the craft or the mechanics of writing (e.g., punctuation, sentence structure). In fact, the weakest section is “imagined space,” where Maisel touches briefly on such issues of composition (probably in an effort to fill out the book’s contents a bit). No, this book is about the mind-set necessary to become a committed, productive writer.

One of the most useful parts of this book is chapter 14, “creative mindfulness,” in which Maisel distinguishes between traditional mindfulness--”the nonjudgmental observation and acknowledgment of our thoughts” (p. 81)--and creative mindfulness, the purpose of which is “to master mindfulness . . . and to employ that mastery in the service of deep thought, rich action, and wide-awake living” (p. 83). He identifies six principles of creative mindfulness:

  1. Fearlessly observe your own thoughts.
  2. Detach from the thoughts you are thinking.
  3. Appraise your thoughts.
  4. Restate your intentions based on your appraisal.
  5. Free your neurons, empty your mind, and ready yourself for creating.
  6. Explode into your work.

These six steps can help you bring creative mindful intention to your work, which will, in turn, make you a better and more productive writer.

Another particularly useful section of the book is chapter 16, “the weight of individuality,” in which Maisel briefly--perhaps a bit TOO briefly--addresses the common theme of the association between artistic creativity and mental instability:
Nature is not stupid. Nature makes the calculation that, for an individual to truly be individual, it had better invest him with enough power, passion, energy, and appetite to manifest that individuality. . . . It should also be clear how this extra energy and fuller appetite lead to conditions such as addiction, mania, and insatiability. (p. 99)

Fortunately, Maisel follows this chapter with another on “quick centering,” a method you can use “to center and quiet your mind and your emotions by taking ten-second pauses” (p. 103).

You’ll have to get your grammar help elsewhere. But for information on how to be in the world as a writer, check out this little book.

©2008 by Mary Daniels Brown

Labels: , ,

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Novel Journey: Author, Psychotherapist Dennis Palumbo ~ Interviewed

Novel Journey: Author, Psychotherapist Dennis Palumbo ~ Interviewed

Former Hollywood screenwriter Dennis Palumbo is now a psychotherapist, book reviewer, and author of both nonfiction books about writing and crime fiction. In his psychotherapy practice he specializes in working with creative people.

Because of my own occasional experience with writer's block, I was most interested in what he has to say on this topic:

Funny you should mention writer’s block, because I hold an unconventional view about it: namely, I think that writer’s block is good news for a writer! In my view, a ‘block’ is merely a stage in your growth in craft as a writer, similar to the developmental stages we all go through as we mature in life.

Just as a toddler needs to struggle---risking and failing over and over, as he or she learns to walk---so too does a writer experiencing a ‘block’ need to learn to navigate and master that particular developmental stage in his or her work. Perhaps the writer is trying to write a more complicated plot than usual, or is delving into difficult personal/sexual material for the first time. Whatever.

And I think the proof that a block is a necessary developmental step in a writer’s growth is that, in my experience, after writers have worked through a block, they report feeling that they’ve grown as writers, that they’re more confident about their craft, or that the work has become more personally relevant.

What a refreshingly different perspective: writer's block as opportunity rather than infirmity. And what he says makes perfectly good sense. I have noticed writer's block seems to set in most often when I'm trying to do something I haven't done before. In my case the blockage most often develops when I'm dealing with sensitive personal material and/or trying to write in a more personal voice than I'm commonly comfortable with. I'm grateful to Palumbo for making me realize this and also for enabling me to see writer's block as a growth opportunity rather than a stumbling block.

There's much more of interest here, so jump on over and read the entire interview.

Labels: ,

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Writing as Therapy

QA: Laurie Edwards - 6/1/2008 - Library Journal:

Laurie Edwards is a 27-year-old writer and college writing instructor who lives with multiple chronic illnesses. She blogs at A Chronic Dose and has written a book, Life Disrupted, that will be published later this month.

In this short interview with Library Journal Laurie answers the following question:

What are your thoughts about 'writing as therapy'?

I think that writing is an extremely valuable and expressive tool; the value in writing about illness or medical illness is that you can contribute to a larger community. Whatever you write, someone else can see and hopefully learn from and vice versa.

Growing up as a sick kid, I couldn't go out and play that much, so in that sense writing was the thing I turned to, to give me an identity. Now that I am an adult and a writer taking on the patient experience, writing validates a lot of things.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, May 29, 2008

"Your Next Chapter" Short Essay Contest

Borders: AARP

Borders and AARP are teaming up to offer a trip for two to Washington, D.C., and other prizes, for the best essays about what you're planning to do with the next chapter of your life.

If you're 50 or older, explain your plans for the next part of your life in 350 words or fewer. See this Web page for instructions on how to mail in or upload your submission.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Another Fake Memoir

Gang Memoir, Turning Page, Is Pure Fiction - New York Times

Love and Consequences by Margaret B. Jones was published last week. In this memoir Margaret B. Jones claims to be a half-white, half-Native American who grew up as a foster child in the gangland of South-Central Los Angeles and ran drugs for the Bloods. In reality, "Margaret B. Jones" is Margaret Seltzer, who grew up in the well-to-do Sherman Oaks section of Los Angeles.

Faking a memoir seems to be a growing trend:
The revelations of Ms. Seltzer’s mendacity came in the wake of the news last week that a Holocaust memoir, “Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years” by Misha Defonseca, was a fake, and perhaps more notoriously, two years ago James Frey, the author of a best-selling memoir, “A Million Little Pieces,” admitted that he had made up or exaggerated details in his account of his drug addiction and recovery.
Seltzer's identity was revealed when her sister saw an article with accompanying photo in a New York Times article last week and notified the book's publisher, Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Group USA, that the story was untrue. Seltzer had worked on the book for three years with Riverhead editor Sarah McGrath. Seltzer's sister wonders how a publisher could have worked so long on a project without doing any fact-checking.

The book also fooled several reviewers, including The New York Times's own Michiko Kakutani, who praised the “humane and deeply affecting memoir,” while noting that some of the scenes “can feel self-consciously novelistic at times.”

Labels: , ,

Monday, February 18, 2008

Okay, Here’s the Deal about Writer’s Block

Several years ago I fell into an extended period of writer’s block, when I had trouble even writing in my journal. All the traditional wisdom about writer’s block says to just write, write anything. So I began that practice, both in my personal journal and in my professional writing. I’d start each writing session with something like “Okay, here’s the deal about. . .” or “Okay, here’s what’s on my mind this morning.”

And it didn’t take long before this approach began to work. It worked whether I was pounding the computer keyboard or writing with a pen in my journal. Eventually I got to the point where just putting down the word “Okay” acted as the trigger to writing. I gradually came out of my blocked period, but even now when I occasionally can’t find a way into a piece of writing I’m able to use the “Okay” trigger to get me started.

I’m not the first writer to use this writing approach, of course. In The Artist’s Way Julia Cameron tells writers to do what she calls morning pages: three pages, every morning, of just writing whatever comes to mind. Some people call this practice automatic writing, free writing, or free-association writing. The idea is to start writing and keep on writing. If you can’t think of anything to write, then write “I can’t think of anything to write” and keep writing that sentence over and over again. Keep the pen moving on the page (or your fingers moving on the keyboard) until you begin to write something else. Cameron insists on three pages because, she says, somewhere around a page and a half you’ll stop writing junk and start writing gold.

The same kind of thing often happens to beginning composition students. Starting that paper can be a formidable task, but the only way to start is just to begin writing. Often the real introduction to the paper begins somewhere in the second or third paragraph. (This is why it’s so important to edit and revise first drafts.)

Another, related, lesson I’ve learned is that I don’t always have to start at the beginning. Sometimes, when I’m getting ready to start a writing project, chunks of it will come to me that belong somewhere in the middle. Once or twice the conclusion came through first. I used to ignore these gifts, thinking that the only place to start was at the beginning. But over the years I’ve learned to accept these ideas and be grateful for them. Nowadays, if a conclusion comes to me first, I slap the heading “Conclusion” down on the computer screen and write it up. Other parts of the piece will come later, not necessarily in order, and I’m getting more comfortable with that. I can work out the interrelationships between the various parts later. (This is why it’s so important to edit and revise first drafts.)

So, when you have a problem writing, just write. Write anything. Start anywhere. Just write.

Okay, so now you can take it from here.

© 2008 by Mary Daniels Brown

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

One Heck of a Sentence

Becoming Cary Grant:
In 1931, Archie Leach—onetime latchkey kid (when he was nine he came home from school one day to find his mother missing; his two-timing, alcoholic father had secretly committed her, despite her apparent sanity, to the Country Home for Mental Defectives; she would be lost to Grant until he was thirty-one) and erstwhile vaudevillian (from fourteen to twenty-three he’d performed as an acrobat, juggler, stilt walker, and mime; his experience in acrobatic troupes honed his phenomenal physical grace and exquisite comic timing, and inculcated in him his universally praised generosity and team-spiritedness as a performer)—interrupted his well-paying if unremarkable Broadway career to try Hollywood.
Surely I'm not the only one who finds this sentence impossible to read. What prompts someone--a writer for The Atlantic Monthly, no less--to lay down a sentence like this? Parenthetical elements are used to set off ideas that are interesting but not quite necessary for the point at hand. Here the writer ( Benjamin Schwarz) is trying to squeeze into a couple of parenthetical asides information that warrants its own paragraph of introductory development. Or, if this information doesn't warrant its own paragraph of development, then please, Mr. Schwarz, leave it out.

The former English teacher in me still believes that a reader should never have to read a sentence twice to follow its point. To follow this sentence, after we've come to the end we have to go back and reread it leaving out the whole section between the dashes. Perhaps Schwarz was constrained by a maximum word count (although, since it's The Atlantic, I doubt that). But if he wants to include this side material, there are much better ways to do it, all of which involve constructing a few more sentences. Sure, it's easier to write in this kind of free association way--and I have to give him credit, I'll admit, for knowing how to punctuate it correctly--but easier is not always better. I'll take clear meaning over flashy style every time.

© 2008 by Mary Daniels Brown