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?