Confession— I never thought about punctuation until I read The Hours by Michael Cunningham. The way he uses a semi-colon is damn sexy. I wanted that for my writing. Unaware of semi-colon rules, I tossed them into paragraphs willy-nilly until a writing teacher set me straight. A writing teacher who instructs and encourages is a gift. Whenever you find one make the most of the time you’re in his care.

But I digress; semi-colons always turn my head.

My approach to writing is simple— get my thoughts into words on the page. The words don’t have to be pretty. Just readable. Seeing my thoughts in black and white is how I find out what it is I really need to say. It’s the putting down of the first thing that leads to the true thing. Sometimes, it takes a lot of “putting down” before I find the true thing, but I always get there— eventually.

Because I write by hand with a fountain pen, there is no magic delete key or eraser to eliminate the undesirable. But it’s simple enough to strikethrough words or delete paragraphs with a big X. Fact is, I found these actions quite satisfying until John Banville came into my life. I listened to an interview about his writing life and learned he never crosses anything out. He places (brackets or) parentheses around whatever words he decides not to use. I was intrigued. Were there benefits to placing undesirables in parentheses rather than striking through them? Then I remembered this practice wasn’t strange at all.

Back in my theater days, directors often came to me when a play needed to be cut. I loved the challenge of turning a two-and-a-half-hour ramble into a riveting ninety-minute production. But I never X-ed out the pages. I would draw a box around any dialogue or scenes that needed to be skipped. I chose to box the material for several reasons.

  1. boxes kept the script visually pleasing.
  2. boxes made the extraneous material easy to reference in case actors needed it for the purpose of character development.
  3. holding the unused material in a box was a way of honoring the playwright’s work, while lessening my guilt over altering it.

My recall of being a script doctor encouraged me to give Banville’s technique a whirl. To my surprise, this is what I learned. The action of a strikethrough or an X possesses a finality— a pause— a pulling back. Momentum is truncated. Not so with parentheses. The use of parentheses energizes me. I can write a sentence, realize it isn’t what I want to say, slip parentheses around it and keep going. My thoughts never stop because neither does my pen, which leads to an increase in flow and output.  

Skeptics: You still have to pause to put in the parentheses.

Yes and no. I’m writing along and realize the word, phrase or sentence coming out of my pen is not what I want to say, so I make the closing parenthesis— ) — then I go to the front of the passage I wish to ignore, where the pen makes the sweeping arc of the first parenthesis— (—  and I’m off to the next thought with nary a pause. It’s brilliant!

But wait, there’s more. Using parentheses also nurtures my creativity. When I strikethrough  or X things out my brain sees a Stop Sign, which sends a message to my Whores of Negativity that what I’ve written is wrong and unworthy of exploration, which leads to a downward spiral: I’m not a writer, I’m wasting my time, What I’m writing isn’t good enough, I’m not good enough.

When I use parentheses— like using the box when cutting scripts— I honor my writing. The parentheses say, “These words and phrases were the stepping stones I needed to get to the true thing. Thank you for helping.”  They also make the material accessible for future projects. But mostly, parentheses are loving hugs for my thoughts and words. A reminder that I love to write, and I love the process.

Is this just some psychological game my Snow Queen is playing with me to keep the Whores of Negativity away? Maybe. I don’t care. Whatever keeps me showing up, writing with ease, loving my writing practice is worth whatever chuckles come my way. Today, (with parentheses) I write.