Messy essays & eternal truths: the work under writing’s surface.
Trust yourself, you know more than you think you do.—Benjamin Spock
1. Writing is thinking
“Writing is thinking! Writing is feeling!” enthused one of my students near the end of Spring term. This was at Virginia Tech, where I have been teaching in the Lifelong Learning Institute this academic year.
I’ll call her Helen. At the start of class, Helen had seemed confident of her thinking ability—she’d spent a distinguished career reasoning and writing. But she’d seemed not so sure she could emote for readers. Or ask them for an emotional response, let alone provoke it. Helen’s comment took me back to 2005, when I started writing my memoir. I enjoyed building that narrative, but it was work. Writing is concentrated thought, I marveled. That’s why it’s hard. Most of us seldom think about one thing for hours on end. But there’s a huge compensation, I came to see.
“I think what makes writing addictive is that it doesn’t just capture thought, it creates thought,” I told my class one afternoon. “You write a sentence, make a claim. And then you write another. And then you look at those two sentences and write down what you didn’t know you knew. Because you didn’t. Writing doesn’t only capture thought, it creates it.”
Now I didn’t pause to credit the sources who helped me describe this quality. So here I will. Surely writing theorist Peter Elbow influenced my thinking (See my post “Writing’s ‘dangerous method.’ ”) But Donald M. Murray, who nails writing’s rewards in The Craft of Revision (Fifth Edition), lent me the words:
Writing is not reported thought. Writing is more important than that. It is thinking itself. . . . And it is fun because I keep finding I know more than I expected, feel more than I expected, remember more, and have a stronger opinion than I expected. [See “Revise, then polish.”]
This is what I found, and I think what Helen experienced.
2. Writing is feelingMaybe Helen was thinking of my statement: “Art is made from emotion, is about emotion, and asks for an emotional response.”
What does that mean? Was I going to ask her to emote all over the page? That wasn’t her style!
Well, on that score, everyone’s mileage varies. As a writing teacher once told me, “No one tells everything.” Indeed they don’t. As in life, we must prepare a face to meet the faces that we meet. And our mask is influenced by temperament and mood and the nature of the piece.
Helen wrote about her early years, a young Yankee professional woman who found herself starting out in the Appalachian south. She encountered a gracious but sexist, patronizing, and clannish culture. What she discovered in writing a memoir essay in my class was what she hadn’t before consciously articulated: after decades of becoming localized, as a success, she sensed yet another layer of exclusion. A deeper boundary. She hadn’t glimpsed this wall before, and now was just starting to try to articulate its nature.
What “writing is feeling” meant to Helen, I think—and what maybe it does mean, after all—embodies such discovery. Not writing emotionally, as such. But seeing clearly how you felt and conveying it. How did you feel then? How do you feel now?
Don Murray again:
The writer who writes for revision does not wait for a final draft but works through a series of discovery, development, and clarification drafts until a significant meaning is found and made clear to the reader.
3. Writing is craft
The shortest essay I ever wrote, maybe the shortest essay anyone has ever written, was “Little Essay on Form.” It went like this: “We build the corral as we reinvent the horse.” Later, I added: “Craft is what nails the gate, helps formalize the space, and keeps the horse shit out of the picture. It leaves us with the necessary.” —Stephen Dunn in his Georgia Review essay, “Forms and Structures.”
After I showed my memoir class how James Baldwin punctuated his great essay “Notes of a Native Son,” Helen raised her hand.
“Do you think he did that on purpose?” she asked.
“Oh, yes,” I said. “I’m certain of it. For one thing, he was a genius. For another, varying sentence rhythm is what professionals do.” I followed up by showing them how Ernest Hemingway did the same thing. (See my recent post “Sentence, substance & comma joy.”)
“Art announces itself in form,” I added. “That includes sentence and paragraph length; punctuation; the rhythm of sentences, paragraphs, passages, and the entire piece. All aspects of form must be considered and intentional.”
For all the attention we give it, of course, craft isn’t the most important part of writing—far from it. That would be who you are and your intent. (See “Between self and story.”) But craft is what we can talk about and work with. Craft not only signifies art, it’s what releases art.
Early in the term, I told my memoir class one afternoon how writers emphasize at the end: the last word in a sentence, the last sentence in a paragraph, the last paragraph in a passage, the last passage in an essay or chapter. I tried to show how creative writers use space breaks, not just as transitions from one time frame or location to another but also to spike emphasis—like hitting a gong. And to provide a resting places for readers. As I wrote in “That sweet white space,” “White space is a dramatic transition and a resonant pause filled with meaning and its own kind of content, a space pregnant with time’s passage and unstated events. This is what visual artists call negative space, the resonant blankness around the main image.”
Helen wasn’t so sure about space breaks. “They seem like cheating,” she said.
“I can remember feeling that way,” I said. “When I was a journalist, I was proud of my worded transitions. And editors wouldn’t let us use space breaks anyway—they took up too much room.”
But look at the breaks that demarcate Baldwin’s classical three-act structure in “Notes of a Native Son.” Consider how heavily Scott Sanders segmented his flowing, celebrated essay about his father’s alcoholism, “Under the Influence.”
And you know what? I got Helen to try space breaks! A teacher’s joy. Along with hearing her excited statement. Writing is thinking! Writing is feeling! What a great class. Helen’s doubt made me work harder. Helen’s doubt launched not a thousand ships but influenced several lesson plans. My students’ work in this class taught me, again, how words shaped by craft reveal someone’s soul. We may all walk around stuck in our own heads, but we go to literature to share another’s subjective experience and meaning.
Yet in art, every start is a beginning for the maker. As Jo Ann Beard told Michael Gardner in an interview for Mary:
Frankly, I thought I knew how to write, but it turned out I didn’t, and I don’t. I don’t. I get to learn it over and over and over. It isn’t supposed to be easy. It is supposed to be hard and the process of making art and the product is worth all the energy that you put into it. It is what matters. It is a noble goal. Even if you never attain it, which is true for most of us, it’s life-enhancing to try.