Writing’s values—intelligence, sensitivity & beauty—challenge me.
“The ability to forgive oneself … is the key to making art, and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life.”—Ann Patchett
English departments inherently espouse reverence for thoughtfulness, sensitivity, and comely expression. I codified this recently for myself while speaking with my college’s enrollment director. Strolling down a sidewalk, we’d begun discussing a sharp drop in English majors at our institution. This is endemic nationwide, actually—part of a falloff across the board in the traditional liberal arts. Kids are understandably aiming at paying careers. Across academe, however, lamentation ensues. Today, college seems viewed primarily as career training, not primarily as preparation for living a good (conscious) life. A student can still major in creative writing, say, and get a decent job upon graduation—if she’s been canny enough to obtain internships along the way. But increasingly, in doing so she’s actually seen as bucking the system.Later, I was writing and got wondering what, exactly, I was trying to do. At the sentence level, where I was laboring, what was I trying to achieve? I’ve been writing with my screen zoomed to 225% and in a font enlarged to 16-point type. The hugeness of the display means only about a paragraph shows on the screen. And it makes each word and sentence I see feel huge. This reminds me to place emphasis where I am, because that’s where the reader is going to be.
Feeling my way syntactically and thematically, I’m discovering the story—so that’s one big thing I’m doing. Another is trying to be clear. Another is trying to be elegant. To do those things I fiddle with words, vary sentence structure, and try to end sentences and paragraphs and passages with emphasizing words or ideas. All in an overarching effort to both convey and discover insight. Where, I wondered, before stopping myself so I could work, are such values coming from?
As an undergraduate, I didn’t major in English but in journalism. Trying to be practical myself! Of course the virtues and values of thoughtfulness, sensitivity, and comely written expression are broadly espoused in academe. A good English department concentrates them, and good professors there try to model them. But thankfully, reading itself inculcates such values by example and by implication.
Still, when you’re working at the sentence level, you’re aiming at a mountain in the distance—at story, insight, and impact—while trying to build the trail that . . . leads to the mountain you’re building. This mountain slowly takes form, whether in the bliss of discovering it or in the dread of its impossible slopes. Pondering this contrast between snail’s-pace progress and desired major end result, I think of a sign a friend gave my father for his office: “When you’re up to your ass in alligators, it’s hard to remember that your initial objective was to drain the swamp.”
In writing, your initial objective is to make sentences that make something bigger. You don’t know for a while if it’s mountain or swamp or mirage. And as Ann Patchett’s quote at the top indicates, your final task is to forgive yourself when your story, poem, or essay doesn’t equal what, in a flash, you dreamed.
[Ann Patchett’s quote is from her memoir-in-essays This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, discussed and excerpted brilliantly recently by Maria Popova on Brain Pickings. Next: sometimes you must trick yourself into starting something new—beginning is challenging.]