Writing Is a Verb

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.

Right Imperfection

A human being in action can­not rep­re­sent per­fec­tion. You always rep­re­sent one side of a dual­i­ty that is itself per­fec­tion. The moment you take action, you are imper­fect: you have decid­ed to act that way instead of that oth­er way. That’s why peo­ple who think they are per­fect are so ridicu­lous. They’re in a bad posi­tion with respect to them­selves.”Joseph Camp­bell

"Don't be afraid of perfection, you will never reach it...."
          - Salvador Dali
Sal­vador Dali, 1904–1989

In my pre­vi­ous post (Cake­walk Into Town? 1.8.19) I spoke of my own chal­lenge in craft­ing the things I write, of often “pick­ing through the weeds for the right word, the only word in the entire Eng­lish lan­guage that will do at the giv­en moment.” Now I want to make the dis­tinc­tion between the right word and the per­fect word. The for­mer is a some­times illu­sive dia­mond buried in the under­growth. The lat­ter doesn’t exist.

Writ­ing is an activ­i­ty that requires con­tin­u­ous choice-mak­ing. Every sen­tence is one par­tic­u­lar way of con­struct­ing a state­ment, cho­sen from a mul­ti­plic­i­ty of pos­si­ble sim­i­lar sen­tences with var­i­ous con­fig­u­ra­tions, styles, tones, etc. Each word is a choice of this one as opposed to that one. Some­times that one would be suit­able, but this one is more right because its deno­ta­tion, or dic­tio­nary mean­ing, cor­re­sponds more pre­cise­ly to what I want to con­vey, or that one has unwant­ed con­no­ta­tions or per­haps a broad­er deno­ta­tion more eas­i­ly mis­in­ter­pret­ed, or per­haps this one just sounds bet­ter in the giv­en con­text. We choose our words for all sorts of rea­sons.

"Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words."
                         - Mark Twain

As for per­fec­tion, fuhgetaboutit! Sure, in a spir­i­tu­al sense we can say “it’s all per­fect,” but I’m talk­ing about Joseph Campbell’s feet-on-the-ground per­spec­tive (or in this con­text, pen-to-paper) regard­ing the work of being human. Lan­guage is an inher­ent human tool, inher­ent­ly lim­it­ing. That’s what it is designed to do: lim­it, shape, define, dis­tin­guish, cir­cum­scribe, order our chaot­ic expe­ri­ence of this mate­r­i­al world based on dual­i­ty. As soon as I name some­thing, I lim­it it. That’s the point. It is no longer per­fect, in a non-dual­is­tic sense (it is some­thing, not noth­ing), but now I can deal with it.

So, per­haps I could say that my pick­ing through the lin­guis­tic weeds for the best word is a quest for right imper­fec­tion.

Or maybe, as not­ed in cer­tain East­ern philo­soph­i­cal tra­di­tions, it real­ly is all about the process, not the goal. The juice is in the doing more than in the get­ting it done. The search for just the right word usu­al­ly helps me toward find­ing out what it is that I’m real­ly try­ing to say. It can be a cat­a­lyst for self-dis­cov­ery.

Cakewalk into Town?

What was I think­ing? Had I gone over the edge? Sure, I was young – lo, those forty-plus years ago – but even then I knew that writ­ing is dif­fi­cult, time-con­sum­ing, social­ly ques­tion­able, and unlike­ly to lead to finan­cial well-being, espe­cial­ly the sort of writ­ing I was inter­est­ed in pro­duc­ing at the time (lit­er­ary fic­tion and Dylanesque blues songs).

Nev­er­the­less, when I heard the call – “Jeff, this is the Muse speak­ing; you’re going to need to do some writ­ing” – I was pow­er­less to resist (not that I didn’t try) and soon set about the task of chis­el­ing away, mil­lime­ter by crusty mil­lime­ter, my cal­ci­fied sense of a chick­en-heart­ed, tongue-tied, tal­ent­less self to find the bold writer with­in. I’m cer­tain that at the time I did not under­stand this to be a life­long assign­ment. I thought I was nego­ti­at­ing for some­thing short­er term. Per­haps I wasn’t crazy but sim­ply neglect­ful in read­ing the small print: “Should you ever aban­don the prac­tice of writ­ing, even for years, you will return, again and again…and again….”

Cake-Walk, Leo Rauth, 1913

And so I have. But why? Writ­ing is not a cake­walk for me. It’s often a slow crawl on hands and knees, pick­ing through the weeds for the right word, the only word in the entire Eng­lish lan­guage that will do at the giv­en moment. The weeds can be thick, and the exact­ly right word may be myth­i­cal, but I sup­pose there­in lies one source of the attrac­tion to the craft. As a mar­gin­al­ly autis­tic child, I became fas­ci­nat­ed with words – their sounds, innards, and rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al com­plex­i­ty. Word­play was a sig­nif­i­cant fea­ture of my inter­nal mono­logue.

Sub­se­quent­ly, by the time it occurred to me to become some sort of writer, lan­guage was much more than a means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion: it was a vast palette of fine­ly tuned lex­i­cal col­ors for paint­ing pic­tures of mean­ing, for mak­ing nar­ra­tive art. In print and in song, it’s dif­fi­cult for me to quick­ly sum­ma­rize a sim­ple sto­ry – I have to paint it.

A par­tic­i­pant in our recent Tell Tai­lors intro­duc­to­ry work­shop remind­ed me of the old days when peo­ple wrote actu­al let­ters, some­times long let­ters, on paper that they fold­ed and put in envelopes to be mailed. This fel­low said he was prompt­ed to explore oth­er writ­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties after years of being told that he writes great let­ters. A wave of nos­tal­gia swept over me. That’s how I start­ed writ­ing, too. I real­ized that I miss the activ­i­ty of devot­ing as much time as nec­es­sary to turn­ing “Went to the beach, had a good time” into a vivid com­ic adven­ture intend­ed for a very spe­cif­ic audi­ence: a per­son­al friend.

I think I have just dis­cov­ered my next writ­ing exer­cise assign­ment. How about you? Have you dab­bled in the ven­er­a­ble art of craft­ed let­ter writ­ing?