I wanted to share three ideas that might be helpful to mull over. Over the next six weeks we will be discussing these and similar ideas in relation to your work. In each case I’ve added a link to a relatively classic essay on writing. These essays are for you to read and ponder over in your own time. They are not a compulsory part of the workshop.
Here we go:
- Reality vs. language: The opposite of reality is imagination. That’s how a lot of people think about writing. There is the reality of the world, then there is what you make up in your head. But I think it’s more useful to contrast reality with language instead of imagination, since the reality of the world is never something everyone can agree on and what goes on in your head is always part of that reality. Your reality and your language are the two strongest components of any piece of writing you do. Whether or not you make things up, you still have to string words into sentences to do what you’re doing. And even if you want to describe something just as it is, the language you use will still change that thing. It will turn it not only from an experience to a text but also from something that happened to you into something you made up. That’s why the distinction between fiction and nonfiction is not as important as it seems. It’s also why form and content are the same thing. Here’s Susan Sontag’s “On Style”.
- Craft vs purpose: You might know how to write something but why do you want to do it? However difficult – and it is difficult – the how, or craft, will always be the easier part of your task. You delay revealing a piece of information to build up tension. You give your character a distinct turn of phrase to help the reader recognize her every time she appears. You describe a place in such a way as to evoke how it makes you feel: depressing, scary, joyful. But none of this makes any sense in the absence of the why, or purpose. Why are you bothering with all this? Part of the why is technical: I am putting together this text in this way because my purpose is to produce a novel. Part of it is pragmatic: I want to publish and be famous. But most of the why, the part of the why that really matters, is personal and philosophical and probably very complicated. The point is to be aware of and believe in that why even if you can’t articulate it until you’re done, weeks, months, or years after you start. Here’s Donald Barthelme’s “Not Knowing”.
- Passion vs form: When you are moved to write, your instinct is to express yourself and be expansive, to let yourself go, to sing. This is essential. And, for as long as it works it can seem delightful by itself. But, besides the fact that it won’t always work for very long – “inspiration” is little more than an urban legend, you know – it won’t automatically produce good writing. If you want the reader to be as moved by what you have to say as you are, then you need to pay attention to form. Form is what makes your passion accessible to other people. It’s what makes your particular thoughts and feelings universal enough for someone else to recognize and relate to them. It’s also how the beauty and power of your text manifests itself to the reader. Poetic meter, storyline, and paragraph breaks are all examples of form. Formal constraints range from limiting your vocabulary to a small lexicon to completing a whole book without once using the letter “e”. It doesn’t matter what constraints you impose on yourself, as long as they are productive. Most writers will benefit from certain general principles before they device their own formal rules. Here’s Kurt Vonnegut’s “How to write with style”.