The Shipwrecked Writer

Many things must happen to a piece of writing before it finds its way to an audience, or at least many things should happen. The piece, whether novel or memo or poem or investment prospectus, must be made to cohere. It must find a core that binds its disparate parts together. It must know what it seeks to achieve with the reader, and it must be relentlessly shaped to work only toward that effect. It must be worked over, reconsidered, re-envisioned, lost and found.

But before all that, in the beginning, it first breathes in the atmosphere between you and language. At times necessarily reckless and wanton, illogical and impolite, inconsiderate, it will squeal, shout, cry, beg, mumble, and even try to stubbornly fall silent. It must be allowed everything but the silence. It must be allowed every mistake, every digression and indulgence. It must be allowed to fall off stairs and thump its head, to bounce on couches and beds until they break, to look at dirty pictures and try out curses.

In that first encounter between you and language, there can be no prohibitions except silence. Every emotion—fear and greed and lust and selfishness and sentimentality and tenderness and love and generosity—has a place in that encounter.

I say this because first, last, and always, this meeting with language is all I have. Everything else I have ever sought to sustain me in my writing has evaporated eventually. The desire for love, for friendship, for fame and fortune; the need for the approval of others; the hope for someone for whom reading my words would matter to them as much as writing the words matters to me, however much these forces can—and do—matter in life, as sources of writing I have found them to be vapors.

In this way, we writers are, I have come to believe, alone. Or rather, we have but one true partner: language itself. For every question, the answer is, “more words.” For every problem, the solution is, “write more; write it again; keep going.” At every moment that I want to turn away for some other inspiration, some plan, some device to guide me, I hear the sound of language swirling in my head, and I am left with two choices: to stop writing, or to listen to what language has to say.

This approach to writing reminds me of something the philosopher Kierkegaard once wrote:

And this is the simple truth – that to live is to feel oneself lost. He who accepts it has already begun to find himself, to be on firm ground. Instinctively, as do the shipwrecked, he will look around for something to which to cling, and that tragic, ruthless glance, absolutely sincere, because it is a question of his salvation, will cause him to bring order into the chaos of his life. These are the only genuine ideas; the ideas of the shipwrecked.

If I am to write, I must write as one shipwrecked. Romance is hard work.

Why My Words Never Speak for Themselves

The simple answer to the question in my title is: Because they’re not my words. Every word I know has been used by other people in other times and places for other purposes. This may seem obvious, but in the middle of talking or writing, I can easily forget. I can also forget the implications of this reality: When I borrow a word (or phrase or slogan or quote), some of its history and context rubs off on me.

If I use a term that’s come to be associated with Marxism, for example, even if I’m not a Marxist, and even if I don’t mean what Marxists mean by that term, at least some readers are likely to think I’m a Marxist and react to me as such. I may call myself a feminist, and may sincerely believe in the political, economic, and social equality of women. But if I speak to women in ways that many of them associate with sexist attitudes and behavior, I shouldn’t be surprised if they consider me sexist, whatever my intentions.

Because we often use words unconsciously, and because I tend to think of the words I write or utter as my own, I can be blindsided when people criticize or challenge the associations my words evoke rather than what I consider my “obvious” intention. I can react to such challenges as an unfair attack or an attempt to twist my meaning.

So far as I can tell, though, words always work, in part, by association and always have. Were it not for this quality, then poetry, humor, and irony in language (just for starters) would disappear.

When my associations with a word line up with those of my audience, we take that common meaning for granted as obvious. Only when the speaker/writer and the reader/listener have different associations does the ambiguity of language rise to the surface. But that doesn’t mean that these various associations aren’t always present beneath the surface of my communication.

As a practical, everyday example, let’s talk about “milk.”

I’m allergic to cow milk. If I drank it, my mouth and nasal passages would flood with mucus, my eyes would water and swell along with my face, my throat would begin to close, and the air sacs in my lungs would constrict and fill with mucus as well. Because of this, I have spent my life drinking soy milk. “Milk” then is a complicated term for me, with at least two very different sets of associations.

But my wife, Dutch, has no such allergy. She has, in fact, a deep love for milk, cheese, and all things dairy. It has been her misfortune to have to complicate her associations around milk. She has come to understand that if I say, “Could you get me some milk when you go to store?” I mean the stuff from soy beans, not the stuff from cows. We both know the common usage of that term, but we also understand that milk can mean different things to different people.

And we have bequeathed these more complicated associations to our children. My daughter, not yet three, has learned to be more specific when she asks for something to drink, specifying “Dada milk” or “Mama milk.” She attaches no value judgments to these labels; they have simply become the vocabulary of her experience. And from this, by the time she reaches adulthood, she might understand not only milk but living with allergies in a way that some of her contemporaries will not.

I draw two lessons from my example. First, experiences, both in language and in life in general, have formed the foundation for my understanding of, and associations with a word. Even when I later learn other meanings of a word or phrase, part of me remains loyal to my original understanding. Second, the wider the experiential difference between me and my audience, the greater the chance that our associations and our meanings will differ.

So here’s the kicker: If I say that I want others to understand me, if communicating across difference really matters, I have to anticipate the associations others might have with my words and I have to take those associations into account. I have to consider more than what a word means to me; I have to consider what it might mean to others.

It’s become fashionable for some to call this “political correctness,” to claim that words are simple tools with simple, common, unambiguous meanings. I call it something else: a sincere attempt to be understood by people who aren’t like me. And I think it’s an essential attitude in a world in which many of us differ from one another.


It’s been a long couple of weeks in my writing world. On the one hand, I’ve worked more actively on specific writing projects than I have in years, especially on fiction. Last week alone, I generated thousands of words on a novel I’ve had in mind for years; this week, I’ve embarked on a new project in a genre I never even considered attempting before, and I’m excited about what lies ahead of me.

At the same time—and maybe as a consequence of the new energy—I’ve also become more aware of the writing time I’ve lost over the years. It gives me at times a sense of urgency, which I think is good. But in the past couple of days, it has also given rise to doubt. In particular, I have begun to yearn for voices of encouragement.

I’ve been fortunate to receive praise for past writing, managed to publish a couple of stories years ago, and been complimented about my ability. I know, because I’ve been told, that some people believe I’m a good writer, or at least that I could be. But for some reason, I want to hear, from someone who knows what I’m attempting—someone I trust—that they believe and expect I will do it.

Now, I have mixed feelings about this desire. Increasingly I’ve seen that, if it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a culture to create a writer, especially a productive one. But I also can’t let go of the image of the solitary writer, sitting in a prison cell if need be, isolated, all the world against her, grinding out a masterpiece with only her own voice for company. Sometimes I can’t help thinking that my “need” for encouragement means I don’t have what it takes to succeed as a writer.

I once had an email exchange with a published writer who had written in her blog that anyone who really want to write can. I took issue with her, talking about the constraints no my time and energy, especially dealing with small children, and she replied that maybe now isn’t the time for me to be writing, and that’s okay. But it’s not okay with me. When I’m not writing, I feel a hole in my life. And that, I tell myself, should be enough, that personal need and urgency should be sufficient to sustain a writing life.

Then I make my way through the day and all the choices I’ve made—choices I would make again without hesitation—but that complicate my life and make a regular writing time, not to mention time for the sleep and the self-care I need to create, difficult. The thing is, I don’t want an “out.” I don’t want a different life. I just want to hear from someone I trust, someone who loves writing and language as I do, and someone who knows me, that they believe in this foolhardy enterprise in which I literally find myself.

To be clear, I’m not expecting or requesting a chorus of generic pep talks, however well-intentioned the people providing them may be. I’m yearning for a community of even as small as one. At a few key moments in my writing life, I’ve had that: a colleague or mentor who knew me and my writing, who actively and regularly inquired about what I was working on, how much I’d gotten done—and for whom I did the same. I’ve even reached out to a few acquaintances during the past couple of years who agreed to that kind of exchange, but in each case, the dialogue has fizzled at their end.

I’m not writing this in the hope that someone who reads it will step forward or that someone will suggest a workshop or studio or class where I can network. I think I’m only writing it because it’s what I’m living at this moment, and I think it’s a real part of the struggle to write well—at least it’s a real part of my struggle. And if nothing else, I hope that others facing the same struggle will see that they have company.

Building Character(s): A Writing Exercise

Submitted for your consideration, this is an exercise I created for a creative writing workshop I taught a few years ago. Characters are, of course, central to successful, engaging fiction. But these questions might also help for any kind of profile, biography, autobiography, or even for an imaginary profile of a target audience in a marketing/advertising.

You can even think of much science writing as character driven, although in the case of science, the character usually isn’t a person. It’s an organism, a chemical composition, a physical force, a procedure, a device, or some other phenomenon. As with a character, the subject of the scientist’s writing poses some problem—or seems to; it helps us see or understand something, but not necessarily as we expected (otherwise, what would make it worth writing about?).

When I develop of character, I think of three areas: The character’s background, the character’s present external manifestation (appearance, activities, ways of interacting), and present internal manifestation (attitudes, temperament, desires, internal strengths and weaknesses). The questions below cover that, plus a couple of questions about the character’s external circumstances to help drive the potential plot.

So, without further ado:

Building a Character

What does the character look like?

Now does the character dress?

What is the character’s strongest memory from childhood?

What are the character’s most important relationships: family, friends, romance, co-workers?

What common habit that many people engage in annoys or disgusts the character?

What does the character do for a living?

What are the character’s chief interests, activities, and hobbies?

In what way(s) does the character most resemble the person s/he despises?

What one thing does the character make sure s/he does every day, without fail, no matter what else is going on in his/her life?

What does the character most want that s/he doesn’t have?

What external obstacles prevent the character from having this?

What internal obstacles prevent the character from having this?

What is the character’s hole? That is, what perception does the character have of him/herself that prevents the character from trying to become the person s/he wants to be?

On the day the story begins, what in the character’s life has changed, or is about to?

Why I Need to Keep “Winning” Away from My Writing

Maybe just another peek again. I know it’s only been a few minutes since I last checked the stats on my blog; they probably haven’t changed. Still, they might have. I may have gained a few more views. Some “likes.” A comment or two.

During the past few months, partly by design and partly because I have more time, I’ve waded more deeply into the turbulent, sometimes murky, and highly compelling world of blogging and Twitter. I started blogging six or seven years ago. Most of the time, I’ve written in a feast or famine fashion: a month posting every few days followed by several months or even half a year with virtually no new posts at all. Of course, my traffic ebbed and flowed correspondingly.

Only lately have I produced a steady two to four posts a week, generating a more consistent readership: more views, more likes, more comments, and even some followers. My deeper foray into Twitter is even more recent, reaching back perhaps a month. In both cases, the interaction with readers has been exciting. But I’ve found something about it unsatisfying.

That isn’t the fault of the readers. Responses have been at least kind and encouraging, and sometimes very complimentary. But I’ve also felt a sense of spiraling expectation. The more readers I get, the more I want to have. If I average 20 views one week, I feel disappointed if I don’t have more the next. Increasingly, phrases such as “critical mass,” “next level,” and “breakthrough” run around in my head. I spend more of my day with my computer open on my lap, browsing news sites, reading and clicking on the links to tweets, and checking my stats again and again. I’ve begun hunting for catchy tricks or topics or titles to hook my readers, ways to generate buzz and boost my numbers.

I named this blog Romance Language because I believe in love—a love of language with all its strengths and limitations, and a love of using words to deepen my interaction with the world—as the essence of my writing. But even love can be eclipsed by desire. I don’t mean a desire for the beloved, or even a desire for connection and pleasure. I mean a desire to be filled with, well, something. A desire to win in some way, to get It, whatever that may be.

And I should note here that I’m talking about only myself. If success or fame or more readers drives some writers on to better or more fulfilling writing, so much the better for them. If they can achieve what they want to achieve through that incentive, I see absolutely nothing wrong with that, nor does that diminish art in and of itself. But too much seeking and tabulating destroys what fragile equilibrium. It distracts me from a focus on the experience and connection with language that makes this worth doing.

In the end, I think it comes down to knowing and accepting who you are. When I start to feel myself on the treadmill, counting the numbers incessantly, I lose touch with why I write, which is another way of saying I replace seeking after what I need with what I might temporarily desire. Because here’s something I also believe: If you no longer understand—and I mean really understand—who you are and what you need, then even the people and things you love can destroy you, because at that point they can all become things to be used rather experiences to be lived. Every moment—of writing, of living—becomes about grasping rather than being.

A younger version of me might have responded by fleeing: reducing or abandoning blogging. But that’s no answer because the tension does exist in the blogosphere; it exists in me. And I still believe in writing as the way to work it through. I’m still determined to romance language.

Reconsidering Writing Production

Filmmaking fascinates me in part because all creative processes do, but also because film’s collaboration forces its makers to explain their decisions to others. This can be a handicap because to succeed the various participants have to get on the same page. But it can also be an advantage because there are others present to at least theoretically contribute to creativity and question errors in judgment.

I’ve wondered, as a writer who performs alone the tasks that many people perform in a film production, what insights the dialogue of making films could teach. For example, what does the back-and-forth between film actor and director suggest about how specifically I should make my characters in early drafts?

Today, for no other reason desperation, I started experimenting with drafting my novel in somewhat the way a film production operates. Routinely, I never draft chronologically, but I have generated the setting of my scenes as I’ve written them. Same, again for the most part, with the way my characters look in terms of physical stature, dress, hairstyle, mannerisms, etc. In other words, I came up with the setting and costumes at the same time that I put the character in them.

This morning, I flipped that. In film production, the construction of the world the characters will inhabit and in which the story will take place precedes the filming of the story. The locations, the set design and decoration, the props, the costumes, even the hair designs, are planned and in place before the actors show up. Partly because I tend to struggle with plot and I didn’t know which events to take up next in my drafting, I began to design and draft the settings for my story. I made a preliminary list of some of those settings: places where the main characters live, bars and restaurants they frequent, an important music club, workplaces of some of the main characters, and landscapes in which some key scenes occur.

Two things happened:

First, I realized that I don’t need to know exactly what’s going to happen in the setting in order to create it, any more than I need to know exactly what’s going to happen at the restaurant or grocery story I decide to visit on my way home. All I have to do is show up—or provide a character—with an intention. A scene happens when some obstacle to achieving the intention emerges, either from the setting itself or from another character with a contrary goal. Of course, in the conflict that ensues, I may discover that a few different details will make the scene work better. But for the purposes of drafting, I only need the place and the people. They make the plot happen.

Second, almost immediately I feel more confident about generating the plot and subplots. The cast of supporting characters has begun to expand as the specifics of each setting emerge, and the qualities of each place—which ones which characters will find familiar and which ones certain characters will find alien or threatening—are already suggesting the shape and even outcome of what might happen. Of course, it helps that I have a good sense of the main characters, and a general sense of the overall shape of the story. But as I worked today, I became much more comfortable with not having more than that.

But most importantly, I feel very differently about the entire process. The idea of creating the world of the story ahead of having the story spelled out in detail, which I have always liked but which really hit home when I listened to this podcast a few weeks ago, has suddenly burst on me with an unexpected energy. I’ve never written stories “from the outside in” because for me the “outside” was plot and I preferred to start with the characters. But now I find the “outside” to be much richer than I had ever imagined. I’m excited about working on the costume design for the characters—what they would wear in different season, situations, in formal or casual settings—and I’m learning about what these characters value and even how they move and occupy space.

This has implications not only for fiction but for something like memoir, biography, history, or even social science writing. How would it help me clarify what I want to say if I spent time early in my process delving into the settings? What would the landscape and clothes signal to me and to the reader about what’s most significant? How can this enrich the way I see what I’m after in a piece?

I don’t yet know, but I’m eager to find out.

Why Good Writing Begins and Ends in Poetry

About 15 years ago, as I worked on the final stages of my dissertation, I often got stuck (as people working on dissertations tend to). Sometimes days would pass without my producing anything. But eventually, I would remember my foolproof method for getting unstuck: reading and writing poetry.

Let me note for clarification that poetry had nothing to do with my dissertation subject. I wrote a very social-sciency study of students in a freshman composition class. From a semester of observing, reading papers, and interviewing students, I crafted a set of case studies trying to explain why some of the students gained more than others. My final product reads way more like anthropology than it does like Nikki Giovanni.

Nevertheless, I turned to poetry while I wrote, as I have turned to it many times before and since. And wherever I see brilliance in writing, I find elements of the poetic. From the Preamble to the Constitution to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, from Dashiell Hammett to Lorraine Hansberry, from Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting to a Chris Rock monologue, where language engages and moves, entertains and enlightens, poetry is at work.

These days, we ghettoize poetry as the realm of emotional expression; poets, according to that thinking, are rarified “artists” who create through inspiration or some inscrutable gift. Poetry is a dense and tangled garden in which the creative hide “themes” and “symbols.” Or we denigrate poetry as “flowery,” forgetting that without flowering plants, much of the food we eat would not exist.

But ultimately poetry turns on precise language. And using language precisely means employing all of the facets of words, not only their literal or denotative meaning but also a word’s history, its connotations, its sound, and all the other associations it evokes. Whenever a writer concerns herself with how the reader will respond to the words themselves—that is, with aesthetics—she has entered the realm of the poetic.

For much of history and around the world, poetry served as the dominant genre, and not just in texts we would now call “literary.” Historians, politicians, educators, theologians, and cultural critics of every stripe and in every culture have used poems to argue, to advocate, to persuade, to philosophize, to rouse people to action. Even today, much of the multi-billion dollar industry of advertising used poetic strategies and techniques, if not outright poetic forms.

In fact, I believe that the false (and common) separation of the practical and the aesthetic (rhetoric from poetry, art from science, art from technology) constitutes one of the greatest disasters in human history. It has meant that we devise “things” (a machine, a policy, a law, a building, a system) to do something without considering how we (people, living things, our environment) will experience what’s being created or devised.

This was, ultimately, the brilliance of someone like Steve Jobs—like him or not. He relentlessly, obsessively considered how the users of his technological products would experience them, not just in terms of ease but in terms of engagement. He didn’t simply ask, “Does it work?” He also asked, “What kind of relationship with the user will it foster?” He thought poetically. The writing that I admire most does the same thing. It creates an engaging experience with the reader. It creates a relationship between the reader and the text that generates attention and trust.

For that reason, to this day, when my writing well runs dry, I turn to poetry. As in the days of my dissertation, I find that when I struggle to bring a stubborn concept to the surface, casting it in poetry and letting in sound and rhythm helps me clarify what I really mean. Or I open a book by one of my favorite poets (Dickinson, Shakespeare, Gwendolyn Brooks, William Stafford, C.P. Kavafy) and remember that language is much more flexible and expansive than I’m allowing myself to be.

I’m not trying to create great poems; I’m simply returning to the poetic heart of all good writing.