A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them.”William Stafford
So begins the short essay “Writing” (a.k.a. “A Way of Writing”) by William Stafford, which for years was my first reading assignment to my creative writing students. It’s a gem. In fact, I felt that if any of my students took the four minutes necessary to read those few pages, actually began to apply the method Stafford speaks of there, and never again set foot in my classroom, for them the course still would have been a huge success.
To the dismay of some readers, Stafford rejects the romantic myth of the creative writer as a special creature, as necessarily a sort of genius who is magically touched by a singular Muse, bestowing inspiration for great literature which is unavailable to the rest of us. That’s one way to look at a brilliant finished project, but it ignores the long, dusty, rut-filled road that the “genius” had to take to get there. It’s a cart-before-the-horse perspective.
Stafford’s insight is that writing is a process through which a writer discovers the attendant inspiration. In other words, you must be knocking at the Muse’s door before she’ll let you in – sometimes knocking and knocking and knocking. Sure, ideas come to us seemingly unbidden in the shower, while driving, or whenever – Aha! Inspiration! – but turning that insight or vision into a piece of writing that captures its essence in a publicly communicable way is inevitably the result of writing and writing and writing until you get it right, or at least as right as you can get it (see my previous post, Right Imperfection).
And what turns out to be right for the finished product may not be at all what seemed right at the start. You see, the Muse is not out there somewhere – she’s in your hands as you push the pen across the page or tap your fingers upon the laptop keys.
Years ago I heard Arlo Guthrie tell a story about songwriting in which he described that craft as similar to fishing. “If you want to catch a fish,” he said, “you gotta have your hook in the water. Now, some of us are lazy or distracted, watching TV or whatever, or we’ve got kids or jobs that keep us from fishing too much, but my friend Bob [Dylan], y’know, he fishes upstream, and he’s always got his hook in the water. And that’s why he gets all the best fish!”
Speaking of Dylan, his most famous song, “Like a Rolling Stone,” was first written, by his own description, as “this long piece of vomit, twenty pages long,” out of which he fashioned four verses and a repeating chorus. “I’d never written anything like that before.” Thus, this already well-seasoned and quite successful songwriter – this genius, if you will – with his hook perpetually in the water, surprised even himself and caught a really Big Fish that transformed popular songcraft.