how to write

When I originally started writing this, it went like so:

“In a couple of weeks I’m joining two others, hosting a writing workshop …”

Now I should start this overdue entry like so:

In a couple of days I’m joining two others, hosting a writing workshop for graduate students.

So, even in my writing about writing, the process is slow and my deadlines get overrun. In all honesty, the second reason* I thought hosting this workshop was a good idea is because I could actually learn something from it, or at least find some inspiration and momentum in my own work. I have little to give in terms of real advice; but in my own typical teaching fashion I have a series of conundrums and dilemmas that I, myself, have yet to figure out. For example:

  • A person could make a career out of writing about writing. In a recent visit to the bookstore I stared at an entire section of advice, thousands of pages written about how to write. The summary lesson of this to me was that when one is at a loss for what to write, he should tell others what and how to write. The other learned lesson from this is that, in midst of trying to figure out the process of expressing yourself in written form, there is an entire market of other people sharing your frustrations and despair.
  • Anne Lamott writes about giving yourself “short assignments” and writing many many successive drafts, starting with the chapter titling “shitty first drafts” (which would have been a good name for this space I suppose, although unoriginal). What I learn from this is that the process of writing is a continual production of more and more stuff. But then there’s the other side of this coin: you have to sort out all the useless stuff, of which there’s a lot, especially with all this encouragement to write more. Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to do this. You can’t just search for “useless” or for “shitty” and really get anything productive out of it. The problem in creating so much is that at some point you have to stop creating and start destroying. Billy Collins** told me that he tells writers “…is that revision should always be taking away. Always be taking away. No, don’t add a new stanza. Don’t stuff a stanza in the middle, because you lose this organic flow.” The problem might be that there was no “flow” to begin with, and removing a bunch of material doesn’t necessarily connect that which is already poor.
  • The other thing that Collins suggested to me was that students of writing should be shown writing that mimics styles they seem to be drifting into. This is fine for poetry, since we have a lot of good examples of good poets. I fear for those going into academia, though. Who are our good examples? And, if I think one of these individuals is a good example of a good writer, is this someone who actually has material that sees the light of day?
  • I’m also left with this from Mary Shelley, Frankenstein’s inventor:

    “Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place, be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances but cannot bring into being the substance itself.”

    And so for me, there’s the real rub, the grind, the problem. It’s the same problem that Frankenstein face, that scientists face, and that writers face. Creation is never out of nothing, but out of something. The process is a matter of making sense of disassembled pieces and creating an assembly that is both compelling and coherent. Sometimes you get it wrong; and sometimes you get a monster; and sometimes you get poetry. The challenge is not in filling a void, but in the re-creation and what is dumped on the floor into something useful and non-shitty.


*The first reason is because it would be a fun time with fun company.

** I haven’t brought in a passive reference to my conversation with BC for quite a while now, but it was only a matter of time. Not everyone gets to be friends with Bill Ayers.


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