“A word is a bud attempting to become a twig. How can one not dream while writing? It is the pen which dreams. The blank page gives the right to dream.” ― Gaston Bachelard
A week or so ago, I outlined a possibly essay, but I don’t know whether or not I actually need to write it. My usual outlines for nonfiction/personal/narrative essays consist of a list of topics and subtopics. The essay that comes out of an outline like that is exploratory in nature. The topics allow me to “try out” fitting ideas together and see if any of them fit my lived experience. When Michel de Montaigne invented the form we now call “essays” in English, he named it after the French verb “essayer”: to try. At its heart, I think that the personal essay should be a case of trial and error and discovery. If it is not, it is a different beast altogether.
It is, in fact, an expository essay, that bane of high school and college student existence, that thesis statement supported by subclaims and evidence and all that malarkey. I teach this every semester, so I am painfully familiar with the genre. It has great worth, particularly for political and social argumentation. I just find it a little boring to write.
The outline I wrote was of the second kind, more a list of premises and hypotheses: if this leads to this, then that leads to that. But here is the question: If I already know what the essay is probably going to argue, is there any point in writing it? What will I learn from turning sentences into paragraphs? It doesn’t seem to be a particularly publishable set of ideas, so if I won’t learn from it or be able to get a publishing credit for it, it feels like I should probably spend my time doing something else.
So since November started, I have graded 38 second drafts, 38 first drafts and in the process of 38 quizzes. Also at MIT we moved from one building to another, which entailed packing and unpacking and rearranging and trouble-shooting. There was a party on Saturday, because God I needed that, and then right back into more grading, worrying about this election and trying to remember to eat at intervals.
So, yes, for those of you who sounded surprised when I started my NaNoWriMo novel on the Fourth of July: this is why.
[Previously I had a picture of a group of nazis when this post had been going to be about voting and avoiding turning America into a fascist nightmare from the 1930s. Then it wasn’t. I apologize to anybody who might have been offended or afraid of me.]
Okey-dokey. I have been working out in my gym now for more than six years. And six years is more than 300 weeks. That is a really long time. I have worked out alone and more usefully, I have worked out in group classes: first yoga, then Pilates, then spinning. All of these efforts teach us different things, especially if we are not looking to learn about working out physically but rather about writing.
Yoga is great for learning about how to manage your work for the long haul. As I have previously pointed out, my yoga teacher, Erica, made it very clear that pushing beyond what you feel you can comfortably do sometimes seems non-constructive. You work “harder” than you should in a short amount of time. That is how you hurt yourself, which then makes you lose time that you could be using to get stronger, better, all the things. To avoid these ideas, Erica would say things like, “Find your way into the pose. If it doesn’t work for you, pull back.”
That does not align with what I feel like we are taught in the United States and maybe in the Western world, and oh heck, maybe in the world. Work your f@@king ass off. The Protestant work ethic and the immigrant (read Roman Catholic ethnic) work ethic are functionally the same thing seen through different lenses. It still means that folks without privilege are encouraged by folks with privilege to work harder and harder to achieve even the slightest improvement in living conditions. Meanwhile, the more privileged live off the compound interest off their already invested capital, that invested by their fathers and grandfathers (and very, very rarely mothers and grandmothers).
“If genius is not necessary for production, still less is it necessary to have entire liberty. What is more, liberty presents pitfalls that rigorous obligations may help us to avoid. A stream narrowly hemmed-in by its banks will flow more impetuously.” –A.G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life
So today is the official beginning of the classic National Novel Writing Month, when everybody and their aunt tries to write 50,000 words (roughly 175 manuscript pages) of a novel in 30 days. It’s not easy, but it is far from impossible. It requires writing about 1665 words per day, which is about 6.5 double-spaced pages, which is within the realm of possibility even on a busy day, and sometimes, especially on a busy day.
This means a few things.
- You must be obsessive about your story, thinking about it constantly. Easy.
- Every time you have at least five minutes free, you need to sit down and write something: a conversation, a description of a setting or a person, an outline of a scene. Harder, mostly for you.
- You will probably write during meals, in line at the grocery store, on the train, etc. Harder, mostly for other people.
If all that sounds insane to you, you’re probably not a writer. Don’t feel bad. Probably there are lots of people out there, conventionally normal people, who can survive not writing about invisible people.
So, when I was in seminary, the odds were high that if there was a non-Biblical writer’s text added to a chapel service, it would be Mary Oliver, noted nature poet, and generally poetically brilliant human being. This is a piece from her recent book of essays, Upstream. What do you think?
“Intellectual work sometimes, spiritual work certainly, artistic work always — these are forces that fall within its grasp, forces that must travel beyond the realm of the hour and the restraint of the habit. Nor can the actual work be well separated from the entire life. Like the knights of the Middle Ages, there is little the creatively inclined person can do but to prepare himself, body and spirit, for the labor to come — for his adventures are all unknown. In truth, the work itself is the adventure. And no artist could go about this work, or would want to, with less than extraordinary energy and concentration. The extraordinary is what art is about.” –Mary Oliver
So I woke up this morning realizing why the change to my novel is probably going to work. I had written about one hundred pages in this other point of view, and I like most of it. But then I hit several events that I just didn’t know how to tackle. This morning I realize that that was because they probably need to be written in this other (previously minor) character’s point of view.
This is something I have noticed before, that if you don’t have the right narrator, you can’t really write the scene. People always say that you just write what happens, don’t you? But this goes beyond the Rashomon effect, where how people see the same events makes them interpret (and therefore narrate) them very differently. It’s more like that thing that says the presence of experimenters watching an experiment changes the experiment. As Terry Pratchett would say, It’s quantum.
If I don’t know who is looking at a car crash, I can’t tell you how the car crash happens. It makes no sense, but it’s true. So this might be time to pat myself on the head and find a writer’s mug that says “Damn, I’m good!” or, at the very least, “I’m smarter than I look.”
It must be true. I’ve written 7800 words in three days.