Writing Well – Meaning, Sense and Clarity

In MentorTom Grimes writes about the genesis and history of his friendship with Frank Conroy, author of the memoir Stop-Time, novel Body and Soul and former director of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.  Although some have not seen Grimes’s book in a favorable light, I found the book very valuable.  But that’s probably because I’m a know-nothing aspiring writer.

Nevertheless, if one is to write well, the writing must have meaning, make sense and be clear.  Simple wisdom enough for a writer but not always easy.  I’m speaking for myself.  Early on in Mentor, Grimes takes us into one of the workshops at Iowa, room 457 where Conroy is about to begin class.  Grimes writes

Frank didn’t take attendance.  Instead, he went directly to the blackboard and picked up a piece of chalk.  He wrote: meaning, sense, clarity (Grimes 24).

Conroy then tell the class, “If you don’t have these, you don’t have a reader” (24).  Next, Grimes writes, Conroy

Moved sideways and drew an arc.  At its bases, he wrote: writer, reader.  At the top of the arc he wrote: zone (24).

Conroy's Arc
The arc described by Frank Conroy in Mentor by Tom Grimes.

Grimes writes how Conroy breaks it down

The writer cocreates the text with the reader.  If a writer gives the reader too much information, the reader feels forced to accept whatever the writer says and eventually stops reading (24).

Grimes continues citing Conroy

If a writer gives the reader too little information, the reader feels compelled to search for whatever the writer says and eventually stops reading.  So, you want to meet the reader halfway (24).

Conroy's Arc-1
Reasons why a reader may disengage.

Conroy then, according to Grimes, circled the word zone and said to the students, “That’s where you want to be” (24).

Opinions will vary obviously on the best ways to arrive at meaning, sense and clarity in a piece of writing.  To talk about how to perfect each of these in a writing seems an endless and monumental task considering how many resources and opinions are available.  For now, I just want to look at meaning.

First of all, meaning may differ depending on genre. How is infusing fiction with meaning different from the meaning required in nonfiction whether it’s a memoir or essay?  For example, one meaning in a short story may be directly related to a character’s fulfillment of some particular need.  Secondly, what is the meaning behind what a character says or does?  What is the meaning in the events that happen?  Is the meaning, a life lesson?  For example, in my short story “Blank“, there is meaning in the ending.  It’s not just about a guy who gets hit in the head with a baseball and loses his memory.  No.  It’s really about appreciating people in your life before it’s too late, before they’re gone.

Meaning, in nonfiction, may be related to a particular question or problem the writer attempts to solve.  For example, author Eula Biss, responding to the question, “How do you define creative nonfiction?” says, “I guess I could say that I pursue questions that interest me in ways that interest me on the page, but that’s awfully vague.  Phillip Lopate once wrote that part of the pleasure of reading a personal essay is the pleasure of watching a well-stocked mind grapple with whatever questions or problem it encounters.”

When asked if she returns “to a similar set of questions with each project” Biss says, “I think there is a preoccupation, in all three of my books, with what it means to lead a good life.  ‘Good’ in the sense of rewarding or fulfilling, but also in the moral sense…the question of what constitutes a good life is there in all of them.”


Trying to answer a question or deal with a problem can certainly give your writing meaning.  It’s a good reminder.  For example, if one is writing a memoir, should that memoir try to answer a question or problem about one’s life?  If not, what guides the writing?  Or is a memoir merely a series of random life vignette’s?  If we tell them, why?  Are they connected in any meaningful way?

In later posts, I hope to touch on sense and clarity along with trying to answer what a writer must do to get and keep a reader in the zone.




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