Elementary Romance

Before I say more about how play deepens my relationship with language and writing, let me backtrack a bit. Up to now, I’ve framed my discussion of writing in romantic terms, casting language itself—particularly written language—as the object of a writer’s romantic intentions. But I haven’t described that romantic object. I mean, if I’m going to pursue someone romantically, it helps to know something of that person’s identity, at least superficially. What is writing? What are its elements?

Writing students often stumble over this problem. A student enters a class confident that she understands clearly what “writing” involves. She doesn’t realize that her concept differs wildly from her teacher’s and just as widely from those of her fellow students. So the teacher uses the word “writing” and each time activates a chain of associations and values unique to each student. I experienced the same problem in my MFA creative writing program. Each program participant brought his own idea of what “fiction” or “story” meant to the discussion of his classmates’ work—as did the professor—so that we spent much of our time talking past one another, imagining that we were using the same language, not realizing that it amounted to very different vocabularies and sets of values. No wonder discussions frequently degenerated into confusion and contention, spoken or unspoken.

But the trouble isn’t limited to students. Ask a different writer or writing teacher to name the essential elements of writing, and you’re bound to get some variation in answers. Some will emphasize style or voice; some will take apart the writing process; another group might focus on theme or content or message; some will head first to genres of writing (fiction, essay, poem, memoir, etc.); others will find the essence in conventions or mechanics or rules; and there will be those who most value emotion or expressiveness or genuineness of feeling.

So for clarity’s sake, let me offer my answer to the question, “What do I talk about when I talk about writing?” Simply this: A written text generates an experience that the reader undergoes while she reads. And the writer’s ability to influence that experience boils down to her use of four elements: the words she chooses, the syntax she uses to relate the words to one another, the larger organization of the text, and the content or subject matter of the writing. Take away any of these and a written text ceases to be a written text. It may become something else, and that something else may have interest or value, but it’s not writing.

An individual writer’s style or voice amounts to the way he or she combines—either unconsciously or deliberately—those elements. A genre means nothing more than a standardized, recognizable pattern for how they’re combined. Conventions are simply expectations for how they will be combined. And any sense the reader has of “knowing” the writer (aside from knowledge gained outside the text), any emotion the reader feels, or the reader’s sense of trust (or distrust) comes from the combination of those four elements.

When I play or shape or engage in any of the interactions with language that I discussed here, these are the elements I am playing or shaping of engaging with. And what I’m exploring here is how I can know and accept the unique characteristics and tendencies of each of these elements to creating experiences that matter to readers.

How Play Forms the Foundation of My Writing, Part I

Here’s what I believe: If, during the course of a day, I can only do one writing-related activity, that activity should be play. On any given day, I could draft new material, edit or revise one of the drafts I’ve been working on, outline something I’ve written, plan how to organize an idea I have for a piece, do some reading or research for a poem or story or essay. Each of these is a good use of my time; each can help me as a writer. But if I can only do one of thing, it should be play. Why?

Because nothing expresses the love I feel for someone or something as powerfully as play. Nothing cements my regard as much as shutting off all purpose and advantage and gain and simply spending active, pleasurable time in the presence of who or what I love. Play says that at this moment, the joy I share with you matters more than whatever use I might get from doing anything else. It says that I gladly turn over the most precious things I have—my time and my active attention—to the happiness of being with you. In play, I also give up control and will and direction. I open myself up to surprise. I forget about the outcome because the moment with you matters more than any outcome could. And as much as intention eventually informs my finished writing, I also need to learn to practice letting go of intention and outcome when I create.

Given the power of play, its ability to consume me emotionally and physically and psychologically, of course I struggle with it. Ironically, it often takes work for me to give myself over to play. Sometimes I pretend I’m playing when I’m really just tuning out, vegging, watching television, drifting along the electronic waves of the internet, or evening reading an interesting or diverting article. For me the difference between these activities and play lies in the engagement and energy I feel while I’m doing them and the sense of reinvigoration I feel afterward.  When I “pass the time” relaxing, I don’t feel worn out when I’m done, but I generally don’t feel recharged either; it’s more as though I’ve awakened from a nap that didn’t last long enough—or that lasted too long. Part of me wants the time back.

But when I play, my mind and body feel sharper, even if I end up more physically tired. It’s often after engaging in some writing play that I feel most ready to get down to work, and if I can’t do that, I’m frustrated. In a strange way, knowing what feelings may follow play can discourage me from doing it sometimes. That is, I anticipate the energy my playing generates, and I hesitate to get myself cranked up if I won’t then have the opportunity to use that energy. I’ve found, though, I never really waste the energy play produces. If nothing else, I connect more strongly to the person or subject the play has been about; I feel more alive; I have a stronger sense of optimism and possibility; I believe that I’ll be able to deal with problems that seem insurmountable when I haven’t played.

So that’s the role that play serves in my writing life—a fundamental role. In Part II, I’ll writing about what forms my writing play takes.

I’d love to hear from you: Is play a part of your writing life? Why or why not? And what does it look like when you play with language?

The Joy and Folly of Motives

There are many reasons to write, and they’re almost all good. Revenge has its merits. Very satisfying if it works. To impress people who matter to you is another, especially if you know more about the subject you’re writing about than they do. It can warm you to hear them speak about you in glowing terms to others. That brings to mind respect or prestige as a motive. When you are treated as an expert about anything—profound or mundane—it’s difficult not to swell a bit. These days, you can’t beat fame as a reason to write. It has become a kind of currency, worth, in its own way, more than money. People and organizations and even governmental agencies will give money and objects and exposure to famous people, simply to bask in the reflected glow of their fame. A sort of secular benediction. Of course, there is power. And there is that old standby, sex.

I begrudge very little in people’s reasons for wanting to write or to write better. I have a problem with writing solely to harm others, though that can get dicey because even words written in innocence can do harm. Meanness would be a motive I am against. But try to talk about writing here in ways useful for any motive beyond malice. An investment broker writing a prospectus, I hope, can profit as much from learning to romance language as a short story writer or an academic or an attorney working on an appellate brief. Some motives, though, can lead to more trouble than others, and mine fall into this category.

To put it simply, I write because not writing leaves me feeling incomplete. In a way, I always write, even during the odd weeks or months when I avoid putting down words because of fear or life distractions or depression or whatever other malady offers itself. In my mind, I write all day long, every day. I work over ideas for novels that I’ve had in my head for more than a decade at least; I compose parts of poems, essays, letters, emails, plays. I consider characters, hear different narrative voices, think of sentences from speeches I’d like to deliver, and even wonder whether I could ever become proficient enough to write well in a foreign language (probably Spanish, but Arabic interest me too). Given my mental state, the only question becomes when and how to put this output down on the page.

The problem arises because this motive provides no objective measure of success. No amount of fame or compliments or money or customers or awards (not that I’ve had any of those things) proves that I’ve gotten it right. I spend my time trying to create an experience in words that not even I can really explain outside of the writing itself. This leaves me with few resources for telling others what I’m writing at any given time.

People who know that I write sometimes ask me what kind of writing I do, or what I’m working on. I’m convinced that no honest answer I give would make much sense to them. Recently, for example, I’ve been working on a novel in which the main character is a woman who experiences the death of her last surviving parent and begins to consider suicide. That is how I described it recently to someone at a party; that is the “plot.” But I’m as interested in creating a narrative voice that interests me, or pushing the limits of description, or seeing how much non-chronological presentation I can combine with chronological presentation, or playing with a first person plural (we) narration. I could go on. Eyes would glaze over if I did; believe me, I’ve seen it happen while I talk.

The effect on me as a writer is one of solitude. Imagine standing alone at night on a street corner, in a city where no one speaks your language, talking to yourself under a lamppost whose bulb has burned out. It mostly feels like that.

Here is the upside: I get to immerse myself in language. And, as I grow older, it helps to inoculate me against the fear of failing. I’m probably the only one who will know whether I’ve done what I set out to do, and even I will have doubts. The biggest gift has been this ongoing romance with language. I find whatever small insights I might have—and the act of sharing them—immensely satisfying. It gives a meaningful, challenging arc to the curve of my life, and when you get down to it, what more could a person ask for?

The Practice of Romancing Language: Habits of Courtship

For all our dreamy imaginings, and the stories we tell ourselves and each other about destiny and desire and what is meant to be, both writing and romance are practical arts that find their life in action. And thank goodness for that, because it means that my attitudes and practices have much more to do with the course of my life than would otherwise be the case. But in both of these realms, magical thinking permeates our popular perceptions of what makes them work. Would-be writers try to think or inspire their way to good texts; would-be friends and partners wait for the right person to come along, someone who will understand them intuitively, like what they like, hate what they hate—someone who will somehow “click.”

In some times and some cultures, what we might call romance takes the form of courtship—actions that lay what that culture considers the proper groundwork for an good relationship. Of course, that proper groundwork varies from group to group. It mean demonstrating potential wealth; it could mean having a certain name or reputation. Sometimes it means having the right values or character. Of course, sometimes it’s also meant a way to control and repress whole groups of people, especially women. And for that, among other, reasons, the language of courtship seems to have been set aside in our own time and place.

But whatever we call it, I recognize that both writing and romance are ongoing relationships, not a single, discreet decision. Romance doesn’t end when people commit themselves to one another, and writing doesn’t end when a string of inspired words land on the page or computer screen. I have to feed my writing life with ongoing attitudes of openness and discipline, and those attitudes manifest themselves in deliberately chosen acts—what I like to think of as acts of courtship. My writing process has six of them:

I attend: In a relationship, we try to learn more about the other, and I approach writing in the same way. I attend to language by reading, listening, noting how people use words and how I and others respond to those uses. I also try to notice how I  use words, both when my writing succeeds and when it fails.

I interact: I interact whenever I’m drafting—putting down words that I hope to use in a piece. This may seem an obvious activity for a writer, but I’ve seen students try to think their way through their writing, focusing on ideas but refusing to put down words until the piece is “perfect” in their heads. But doing this only makes my drafting harder and my revision and my revision agonizing. Who wants to change what he’s taken that much time just to get down?

I set intentions: At some point in any relationship, I need to have “the talk.” Who are we to one another? What do we expect? Are we on the same page about what’s going on? Some people, and some writers, like to “go with the flow,” as do I. But I’ve never brought a piece to completion without making some conscious decisions explicitly defining my task. I rarely do it first, but I always do it.

I play: The most underrated act of courtship, especially when it comes to writing, play happens when I interact and experiment with language, not for some larger purpose or set outcome but just to see what emerges and for the pure pleasure of the sight and sound and sensation of it. Sometimes I use these bits of play; sometimes I discard them. But it reminds why I love writing, and that however much I think I know about language, it holds surprises for me.

I reconsider: Whatever intentions I have for a  piece of writing—for the content or diction or syntactic style or structure—I always take time to reconsider them once I’ve drafted. In any relationship, I need to think about how to improve it, about whether we’re going as we hoped we’d go and whether that’s bringing us satisfaction. I might abandon a piece as a result, or set it aside for a while. I might radically change the genre or subject or point of view. I might confirm the choices I made when I set my intentions. But whatever happens, reconsidering keeps me from charging blindly ahead just because I said I would, and it makes responding to obstacles less intimidating.

I shape: When I play in writing, I manipulate words and sentences and ideas and structures just to see what happens, not for any specific purpose or outcome. But when I shape my writing, I manipulate those same elements so that I can achieve the intentions I’ve set for myself. Often in the course of drafting, I drift off on tangents or put concepts or events in a confusing sequence. My sentences often get away from me and from what I want them to do. When I shape my writing, I try to align what I put on the page with my intentions so that I create the experience I aimed for.

So those are the writing habits I try to cultivate and maintain. I want to talk more in later posts about how I do that. What are your writing acts or habits?

Two Lists of Books for Language Lovers

Apropos of the end of the year, and at the invitation of this blog, I’ve come up with two top-ten lists related to creativity in general and writing in particular.

The first is a list of my favorite books on the creative process:

10. Drawing Projects: An Exploration of the Language of Drawing by Mick Maslen and Jack Southern
Though it focuses on drawing, this is really a book about seeing the world differently, a useful practice for any creative work.

9. Voice Lessons: On Becoming a (Woman) Writer by Nancy Mairs
Mairs blends memoir and academic essay to explore her journey as a writer and the influences that directed that journey.

8. Letters of Anton Chekhov translated by Hichael Henry Heim with Simon Karlinsky; selection, commentary, and introduction by Karlinsky
Letters revealing insights into the thoughts of one of the greatest writers from one of the world’s great literary traditions

7. Making Movies by Sidney Lumet
Not only does this book give incredible insight into the complex process of film-making, it reminds me of how essential craft is to art.

6. and 5. Writing the Australian Crawl: Views on the Writer’s Vocation and Crossing Unmarked Snow: Further Views on the Writer’s Vocation, both by William Stafford.
These books of poetry, prose, and interviews by the poet of power and simplicity make good writing seem like breathing. And they encourage me to breathe more deeply.

4. The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing by Richard Hugo. Hugo tries to remind us of the importance in writing of letting go.

3. The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life by Twyla Tharp
One of the greatest American choreographers lays out her creative process in a way that translates to a variety of arts, including writing

2. One Continuous Mistake: Four Noble Truths for Writers by Gail Sher
With the simplicity one would expect for a Zen Buddhist, Sher presents small, concentrated nuggets of wisdom about writing and about life.

1. Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke and translated by M.D. Herder. “…(B)e patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now see the answers, which cannot be given to you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now.”  Enough said.

And here is my second list, again loosely ordered, of multigenre books, that is books using various genres of writing (prose fiction and nonfiction, poetry, drama, etc.) within the same work:

10. The Bible
Whatever your views on its divinity, it presents an astonishing range of literature and passages of tremendous spiritual, narrative, and poetic force.

9. Talkin’ and Testifyin’: The Language of Black America by Geneva SmithermanThe book combines the research and analysis of a sociolinguist with the dialogue, humor, and music of Black English Vernacular; enlightening and entertaining.

8. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza by Gloria Anzaldua
Like Smitherman, Anzaldua weaves academic writing with narrative and poetry, and adds in Spanish as well. Memoir, history, poetry, and theory all in one fluid package.

7. Cane by Jean Toomer
A leading light of the Harlem Renaissance of nearly 100 years ago, Toomer’s book plumbs the Black experience in the early 20th century.

6. The U.S.A trilogy (The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money) by John Dos Passos
This is a monumental work made up of three novels in which Dos Passos creates a panorama of the early 20th century using multiple characters, voices, and genres, including written “Camera Eye” and “newsreel” snippets. Until I read this, I didn’t know a writer was allowed to do these kinds of things.

5. and 4. Blue Horses Rush In and The Women are Singing both by Luci Tapahonso
This Navajo poet draws on her heritage and experiences from the reservation and beyond, from contemporary times to the late 19th century.

3. At the Bottom of the River by Jamaica Kincaid
Kincaid’s debut book that blurs the boundaries between prose and poetry and does things with form that I would never have imagined.

2. The Collected Works of Billy the Kid by Michael Ondaatje
Before he became famous for The English Patient, Ondaatje presented this exporation of the mythos of Billy the Kid throught the kaleidoscopic perspectives of various people who knew him and of Billy himself.

1. Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko
Forget what I said about loose numbering. This is probably my favorite work of fiction and my vote for the great American novel.

I’d love to hear your suggestions for either of these lists. Enjoy!

What Romantic Comedies Teach Me About Writing

In the final scene of the classic screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby, the straight-laced paleontologist, David, receives a visit from Susan, the woman who has turned his life upside-down during the preceding several days. She has damaged his car, torn his tuxedo coat, lost a valuable dinosaur bone (the “intercostal clavicle”), caused him to be arrested, sabotaged a series of crucial meetings with a potential funding source for his research, and in general made him look the fool, not to mention being responsible for the end of his engagement to his no-nonsense fiancé. Susan tops it off by destroying his reconstruction of a dinosaur skeleton when she meets him at the museum to apologize. Yet the film ends in their embrace after David has professed his love for her. Why?

The dismissive answer? The film is a romantic comedy and it has to have a happy ending. But I think there’s more going on, glimpsed in the form of David’s admission that he’s had more fun in the past few days with her than he’s ever before. In short, with her feels more alive. During their time together, he discovers aspects of himself that he had never explored, and even further, he discovers that he likes them. He knows himself better at the film’s end than he did at the beginning, and he likes himself more as well.

These lessons make up the essence of what romantic comedy teaches me: First, we don’t know ourselves as well as we think we do; and second, we come to know and accept ourselves best by accepting the people and things we love and the situations into which they draw us. David realizes that he’s gone along with Susan’s shenanigans because part of him—a part previously unexpressed—wants to go along. The participants in a romantic comedy come out of the experience with greater self-knowledge and self-acceptance and, as a result, a greater sense of humility.

I have learned (and continue to learn) the same lessons from writing, and in much the same way. I embark on a piece thinking I know what I want to do. But in the romantic comedy that ensues, I make discoveries about myself, about language, about my strengths and weakness. The more deeply I get into the composing, the more it leads me astray in content, in style, in tone, in some fundamental way. Of course, I don’t always give in to these impulses. Often I’ve refused to follow where the writing goes; this usually leads to a piece that bores even me, to my having to do substantial revisions, or to my abandoning the piece altogether. My stubbornness has often meant long periods of not writing at all, mainly because I feared I would lose “control” of my work.

But I see the lessons of romantic comedy as the essence of my creative work. And I don’t just mean for writing fiction or poetry. Even a job application letter or a recommendation or a business proposal or an academic essay can become occasions for self-knowledge if I’m humble enough to allow the writing process to surprise me, to let go of my initial intentions and strategies and allow new ones to emerge. It requires patience and time and the willingness to face my fear. But the payoff is stronger writing and a more engaging experience for my reader.

Writing as Romance

As a boy in school, it puzzled me how often my classmates seemed at war with words, with language. I don’t mean that for me language always felt easy, or that I never experienced fear while writing—very much the opposite. I had (and have) my share of procrastination and last-minute papers and staring at blank pages. I had my share of sloppy writing and that sinking-in-the-stomach sensation from handing in a paper I knew had come out ham-fisted in both what it tried to say and how it tried to say it. I knew what it felt like to produce weak writing (and, believe me, I still do). But I managed never to blame language for that. The mystery of good writing didn’t seem maliciously hidden; I had no resentment that some trick was being played on me.

 Neither did I see salvation in rules, set structures, formulas, templates. That is, when my writing worked, it wasn’t because of any recipe or set of prefabricated boxes. When I wrote well, I never thought that I had somehow bent language to my will; it seemed more a matter of finding the spaces in language that allowed something meaningful—even powerful—to happen. It was as though I had decided to embark on a journey, and in the process of traveling the road had discovered the devices that would take me to my destination, which as often as not turned out to be different from where I thought I wanted to go.

This intuition about words carried me through my work in journalism, my study of literature and then creative writing and then the academic field of rhetoric and composition. But all along my study, I rarely saw any articulation of writing that reflected my interaction with it. I saw people apply tips to writing, and methods, and theories, and classical and modern and structuralist and post-modern and post-structuralist and Marxist and feminist and colonial and post-c0lonial and good-old-fashioned-elbow-grease-and-rules analyses to writing. All, though, seemed to me ways of dealing with the Problem of Writing. Each was bent on accounting for what made words difficult and subject to abuse and hard to pin down; each was bent on finding a way to make writing less so. And none accounted for how the act of writing worked on me, and my joy at it, and my struggles with it.

Until I arrived at this insight: At some very early point in my encounter with language, I decided to love it. Unreservedly. Never to be revoked. This doesn’t mean I always liked writing, or that I didn’t fear it, or that I knew how to do it well. It meant simply these two choices: That I accepted language for the messy, contradictory, dangerous, fantastic creature it was and is; and that I committed myself to it—sometimes against my will or my better judgment. I continue bound to both of those choices, to what I have decided to call my “romance” with language.

Since my realization, I’ve pursued the question of whether a romance is a matter of fate or luck or destiny or pure talent, or whether it can be learned. In this space, I want to explore what that second possibility might look like. Can we learn to love? Can we learn to love better? If so, how? And what difference might it make to our writing?

What do you think?



Corporate Memos and Bugle Calls

In his documentary series The Civil War, Ken Burns tells the story of the bugle call “Taps,” played at U.S. military funerals and memorial ceremonies around the world. Despite its familiarity, “Taps” is only one of a number of bugle calls used to signal commands to troops both on the battlefield and away from it. This makes bugle calls, of course, a means for sending messages, but they are also a form of music. Not only do they convey information: “It’s time to get up” or “Lights out” or “Attack now!” They also try to set the mood or tone in which they want the listeners to receive that information. Each bugle call presents a total experience, of which the “message” forms only a small part. The melody and tempo of the call evokes associations of camaraderie, duty, order, obedience, shared difficulty, responsibility to one another.

I often think of bugle calls when I hear people complaining about why writing has to be so complicated. When I taught writing to college students, they often wondered why they needed to revise or sharpen their prose, why their way of saying something made any difference so long as the content remained the same. Conversely, I read and hear constantly that only one kind of writing is the best: shorter and to the point. Brevity and simplicity, so the saying goes, are always better.

But I’ve always believed that how I write what I write does matter, and I also believe that no single way of putting my words together works for all situations.

Imagine, for example, the head of a corporation teetering on the edge of failure. The CEO decides that the company can only survive if it sheds expenses, and that means, among other things, laying off workers. Of course, that message needs to be communicated to the entire workforce, but is the simplest, most direct, most matter-of-fact approach the best? Or does the CEO need to think about what workers will experience intellectually and emotionally when they hear the news? Does she need to consider the state of mind she wants to encourage in her remaining workforce when they finish reading the corporate announcement?

The experience of hearing the bugle call establishes or reinforces or invokes a relationship between the institution and its members, and among the members themselves. It seeks to bind them together; it presents or makes use of a common identity. Whether the slightly longer, upbeat sound of “Reveille” or the brief, slow elegy of “Taps,” the mixture of tempo, rhythm, and melody can evoke emotional responses in service members years after they’ve left uniform.

Writing—whatever the genre or purpose, even in so dry a document as a corporate memo or email—performs the same function. A piece of writing operates as more than a message delivery system. My vocabulary, sentence rhythm, tone, content, and even conventional features like my headings and format try to create an experience that highlights the common ground “we” (writer and audience) share. If a reader rejects the experience a piece of writing offers—if she can’t see herself reflected in that experience or doesn’t feel genuinely invited into it—she’ll reject that piece of writing.

For the CEO trying to convey her company’s difficulties and at the same time rally the best employees to remain, the lack of a compelling reading experience can lead to disaster. However clear the content—“The company’s struggling but working together we can make it”—her way of delivering that content and the kind of relationship she establishes in her writing will mean much more.

That’s why each time I write for others, I continually return to the same question: What kind of reading experience do I want my reader(s) to have? My message will be part of that experience, but so will the tone of my words and sentences, the associations they invoke, and the relationships I establish through the writing choices I make.