Precision and Movement

In the foreword to his book is 5, E.E. Cummings described the theory of his poetic technique:

 I can express it in fifteen words, by quoting The Eternal Question And Immortal Answer of burlesk…”Would you hit a woman with a child?—No, I’d hit her with a brick.” Like the burlesk comedian, I am abnormally fond of that precision which creates movement. (emphasis mine)

During the holidays, staying up later than I should, I stumbled across one of those programs you would expect to find on the third PBS channel at 10 or 11 o’clock at night: a reading/talk/question-and-answer session with poet Sonia Sanchez recorded earlier this year at a local college. I’m ashamed to say that I know her work only vaguely, from a few poems in some required English Lit survey decades ago, which, at the time, did not draw me in. But in the TV program, she hooked me immediately. Some of the poems she performed I loved, some less so. I could not escape, though, her energetic engagement with language.

In particular, she talked about her exploration of haiku—the Japanese unrhymed poetic form conventionally made of 17 syllables distributed over three lines: five syllables in the first, seven in the second, and five in the third. Sanchez discussed her combination of haiku with the blues.

But the idea I immediately tucked into my “when I’m stuck” mental folder was doing a book-length work in the form of haiku cycles. Usually when I struggle, it has to do with trying to go big in some way: in form, in idea, in theme, in plot. Everything starts to feel overwhelming, and I lost any confidence that I’ll be able to manage what I’ve started. But a haiku I can do. I can come up with 17 syllables and hone it into something work building on. Rather than try to cover the whole canvas at once, I can work on this tiny corner, that small square, getting just the right shade of that small object.

That level of focus involves working precisely, and it makes it easier for me to create that “precision which creates movement.” Just 17 syllables on one aspect of an idea I’m exploring in an essay. Just 17 syllables about a detail of the setting in a scene for a novel. Just 17 syllables about a key point in an argument.

Patience. Precision. Movement.

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.