Jeff Wright

Hand-crafted Writing

Got a book to write, or any sort of new writing project for that matter, but don’t know how to get started? As a preliminary step, I recommend reading Lewis H. Lapham’s short essay in AARP The Magazine (February/March 2019). Mr. Lapham is a former editor of Harper’s Magazine, the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly, an author of numerous books, and, in this essay, a distinguished elder offering sage advice about basic principles of writing.

Pay no attention to the cheesy promotional title attached at the top: “Lewis Lapham Tells You How to Write a Book.” He does no such thing. What he actually does is far better. He teaches you how to fish: bait the writing hook, get the hook in the water, learn the patience of the practice, and come to love that practice – necessary steps in the development of your writing project.

Twice in the course of his discussion, Lapham mentions the benefits of using pen and paper for initial writing and regular practice. For those of you raised on computers and cell phones, this might seem akin to extolling the virtues of washing your clothes by hand in a nearby creek. The idea here is not subtraction of modern convenience (impossible, in any case, if you want to publish), but rather re-addition of the best tools available. Good news: these tools can be purchased for next to nothing.

This is not to say that you can’t generate pages of consistently fresh imagery while staring at your laptop screen with your fingers tapping freely on the keys. Certainly such miracles do occur. It seems to me, however, that relying on that method for all writing puts the writer at a practical and tactile disadvantage, especially for first drafts.

As Lapham puts it: “The shaping of words on paper brings them to life in the sound of a voice.” There is something about hand-crafting characters on a page with a pen that allows the creative expression to stay more closely connected to the body, to its voice, perhaps even to the spirit generating the resonance of that voice.

Think of what your computer’s writing program is called: a word processor. So formal sounding, so industrial. The computer is an amazing tool for treating, arranging, adapting, adjusting, perfecting – for processing – your words. But for generating them, there’s nothing like the old-school approach.

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?


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