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.

My Left Hand of Darkness

16th-century Prosthetics (1564) designed by Ambroise Paré
16th-cen­tu­ry Pros­thet­ics (1564) designed by Ambroise Paré

I didn’t expect a hand injury to be such a big deal.

Okay, so I crushed my hand in a fall when a tree root rose up out of the ground and tack­led me. Besides the fact that it hap­pened almost exact­ly the way it hap­pened to one of my fic­tion­al char­ac­ters in a fan­ta­sy nov­el, the pain I expe­ri­enced was no fan­ta­sy at all. It was very sharp, very real, and as it turns out, very last­ing.

Once I got past the relief of dis­cov­er­ing I (mirac­u­lous­ly) didn’t break any­thing, the real­i­ty of the real degree of my injury—severe soft tis­sue damage—began to sink in. It would take weeks, maybe months, to regain full use of my hand with­out pain.

The kick­er: it’s my right hand. Insult to injury: I work as a writer for a liv­ing.

The good news: I’m ambidex­trous! This is some­thing I’ve been telling myself since I was a child, when I didn’t under­stand why peo­ple favored one hand over the oth­er when it came to cut­ting bread, draw­ing pic­tures, or pound­ing nails. I used my left hand to wield knives, pen­cils, and ham­mers just as flu­id­ly as I used my right.

Yeah, well. That was then. In truth, I’m a soft left­ie. I’m no full-blown south­paw, and I’m cer­tain­ly not going to win any cal­lig­ra­phy con­tests.

What I hadn’t real­ized until now, was not so much how my injured hand was slow­ing down my abil­i­ty to write—but how much it was affect­ing my brain.

16th-century Prosthetics (1564) designed by Ambroise Paré
16th-cen­tu­ry Pros­thet­ics (1564) designed by Ambroise Paré

Writ­ing begins with the burst of an idea in my brain that my body instant­ly wants to acti­vate. Since my injury, for the first time, I noticed that I could feel those fresh ideas shoot­ing down my right arm—only to get backed up, as if in a clogged pipe.

Now, back­logged ideas are des­per­ate­ly seek­ing egress from my brain before they fade into obliv­ion. Old habits are hard to break, and try­ing to rewire my think­ing to ignite my left arm to action (and with some degree of speed) has ulti­mate­ly changed not just the way I write, but what ends up on the paper.

Maybe it gives me more time to edit my thoughts before they get translit­er­at­ed to the page? Maybe it changes my sto­ry, as described from a left-hand per­spec­tive? Maybe it only proves that even when I can’t write, I can’t help but fig­ure out a way to keep try­ing.

What is the phys­i­cal act of writ­ing, real­ly? Maybe at the very least, it’s our brain’s great escape.

Illus­tra­tion from Edwin D. Babbitt’s The Prin­ci­ples of Light and Col­or (1878)