About Writing…

Lots of people — maybe everyone who is or fancies themselves a writer — has ideas about what it means to write, what it means to be a writer. I am a writer and, of course, I have ideas. I have been a writer since I was 2 or 3 years old. I couldn’t read, but I could write and I did write. I “wrote” and handed the scribbled paper to my dad to read to me. At that point, I knew writing had to be read, but it didn’t seem to me that reading had anything to do with the act of writing. I was completely sure I was writing good stories.

Truman Capote described himself writing as a child, too, but when he started, he was able to read. He said, “I began writing really sort of seriously when I was about eleven. I say seriously in the sense that like other kids go home and practice the violin or the piano or whatever, I used to go home from school every day and I would write for about three hours. I was obsessed by it.” I was about the same age when I took over my dad’s typewriter and began writing poetry.

Those early poems are not crap, nor are they “cringeworthy” (not my word).  They are previsions of my adult life, compass needles pointing to things I would always love. In my first typed poem, I wrote about being out all night in a forest (I lived near a forest at the time) during a storm. Some lines of this first poem sing. Twelve year old Martha wrote, “Beauty gives wings to my feet,” “Thunder roars from the mountain,” “all stars shine in their own territory.” The poem begins and ends with the same lines — a really nice way to say, “Nature is cyclical.”

One of my high school teachers said to me, “If you want to write poetry, you need to learn to write a sonnet.” What that means is not that only sonnets are poetry, but that they are difficult and you learn a lot about language, imagery, rhythm and sound from making your meaning come through in those 14 lines. Once you’ve written a few, you get it. It’s the part of writing that is often regarded as “hard work” — discipline, revision, economy. Again, not my words.

When someone teaches writing (as I did for more than 35 years), they usually teach about the characteristics of a genre. They’ve read a bunch of stuff and they know the qualities that are expected to be there and they teach them. But no one gets up in the morning and says, “Damn, what a great day to write description!” All those things serve something else, the expression of ideas, visions, whatever that is inside a person that is the reason behind the writing. They’re tools for writing, they are not writing itself.

Real writing comes from having something to say and understanding to whom you need to say it. Sometimes you need to say it to yourself; sometimes you need to tell others something. Sometimes it’s urgent; sometimes it’s not. When I started writing this blog on WP I was disgusted by the Daily Prompt, but I undertook it. Why? Because I’ve learned that one of my enemies as a person and as a writer is thinking I know when I don’t leading to the fallacy of “automatic rejection.” I’d never attempted a “daily prompt.” It’s proven to be a harmless, and sometimes constructive, focus for short essays and stories that carry no consequences. A (wonderful) side-benefit has been the evolution of a community of readers. It’s all very nice.

All the terms for writing and writerliness such as “voice,” “structure,” “pacing,” “narrative arc,” etc. it’s all (to me) a bunch of blathering nonsense, but they are useful to many people for talking about writing in the way they want to talk about it. That’s all fine, but to me the job of a writer is first and foremost to write. Then I try to read the work dispassionately enough to know whether I have served the task to the best of my ability, because once something has been written it is no longer the possession of the writer. It belongs to a larger world.

My most profound experience with this was with my first novel, Martin of GfennI wrote it, loved every moment of that process, it ended up 500+ manuscript pages of what I thought (because of the way I’d FELT writing it) profound, sterling, flawless prose. Five years later, I looked at it again and it was a leviathon of repetition and over-writing –naturally so since I had only had — at most — an hour at a time to work on it. I didn’t know what to do, but the answer came from the protagonist himself. In the story he does  a painting that is so bad he doesn’t know what to do. His teacher tells him he has two choices. He can paint over it but always know what’s behind it, or start over and do it right. “Art cannot abide laziness,” he says to the young Martin.

I didn’t know how to do what I needed to do and, to help me, a great writer (Capote, again) appeared in my dreams as if to say, “Look at my work.” I did. I read everything Capote wrote, including what he had to say about writing. I applied it to my book. It ended up half as long and no word in that book is out of place, extra, or empty.

We learn as we go. When we start a project we bring the self we are at that moment along with our skills and understanding. BUT…the work itself is going to teach us and change us. There’s no recipe. It’s a journey into an unknown world, or, more accurately, a world that never existed before. Sometimes we’re stuck. That’s part of it.

I think Theodore Roethke’s poem, “The Waking,” is a great explication of what it means to write. In writing we do “learn by going where” we have to go.

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.
We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground!   I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.
Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me; so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.
This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

21 thoughts on “About Writing…

  1. This was brilliant! Question: did you edit, writing this over and over or did it just flow out? My son, who wants to be an English prof would agree with your line about “when something is written, it no longer belongs to the writer”. I guess the main thing is just write!

    • I editted small mistakes I found after I posted it. My “method” is just write. I know a lot of stuff goes on in my mind before I write something. This is actually a response to some other blogs I’ve read lately. I’ve unconsciously or semi-consciously been forming it in my mind for a few days. I knew I wanted to stand up for my own idea of writing; I wasn’t sure how I would do that.

      The purpose of editing (beyond proofreading) is to see if your work says what you WANT it to say the WAY you want it to say it. Editing is the best part of writing, I think. It’s not the “Aaaaaa! Angels are singing to me!” inspiration part, but it’s the part where you get to make your work something you really love. Some people think of editing as tedious and painful, but I think they confuse that with proofreading. Editing is the cool part where you see your work through your readers’ eyes.

      Most important, you have a son who WANTS to be an English professor? Give him a big, big, big hug for me. He’s brave and glorious. I had a wonderful time for 33 of the 38 years I was an English prof. I wouldn’t trade a minute of it for anything else. ❤

  2. Some of my early poetry had its moment, but my early PROSE was bad. As you put it. Really over-written and awkward.

    I didn’t get anywhere until i realized that writing is talking, but written. Okay, there are other parts to it, but that’s the gist of it.

    It’s harder doing what you do, which is working in a particular time when your characters need to think an behave in a way that goes with the times. That strikes me as VERY hard work. I have envied those who do it, but never even considered trying to do it. I also think I’d be really bad at it.

    • You understand very well what writing is to you, but it’s not the same thing to me. For you writing might be talking. It is absolutely not that for me. My point here is that writing is unique for everyone who does it. We don’t all have the same thing to say. We have different relationships to syntax and grammar. We all have different ways of thinking (in general) and about writing (in particular).

      The early draft of Martin of Gfenn was mostly over-written and repetitive because I had no time to concentrate. I was doing the research for the book AND teaching 7 writing classes at the same time I was writing it. I wrote in small bits of time — 30 minutes here, an hour there. It wasn’t until I had a summer off from teaching (and some distance from the manuscript) that I could see that. I had the time and leisure to sit down and really read it.

      I don’t consider what I do hard work. I love it. It makes me happy to do it. For you it might be hard work. I don’t know. That’s the point. But I don’t think there’s any point in thinking you might be bad at it. If you wanted to do it, you would (I think) do it and then work on it until it is good. That’s what (IMO) a writer does. But it is not the same process for everyone, or for every work a person does. To me it’s important that wouldbe writers understand that they have to form their own relationship with their work. It’s like the Dalai Lama said about the meaning of life; “Each one finds his own way.”

      Then the writing will be all those things we want — on top of the list, of course, is authentic. But you can’t set out to be authentic until you know (through writing) what that is for you. I think it’s very personal.

  3. I started out with the daily prompts, too, but I found that they were starting to limit my writing. I’m working on developing longer pieces that are more important to me. I really enjoyed this post.

  4. You are the shit, Martha Kennedy. Even the experts, or maybe especially the experts, learn by doing. It is hard to let the baby go though, and start again when it is not quite right.

    Loved the poem. I learnt about the Villanelle on Cathy’s blog (Wanderessence) yesterday. Thank you for reading my silly (in a nice way) poems.

  5. Very interesting. Many things I hadn’t pondered, hardly surprising to me, given my lack of background on the subject of writing. I’ve been writing recently, and have had a great deal more fun with it than anticipated. Am I a writer? Well yes, I write. but not a Writer. I’m rediscovering something that I’ve found in other areas of my life–when I’m doing something for “fun” the pleasure of the doing/creating, its very different than if I’m doing it for work–with a specific outcome/product in mind.
    Challenge is fine, obligation/performance standards not so good. Something can be high play, take a lot of effort, time, and focus, and its good for me to be doing. Add the external critic, possibility of a paying customer and I cramp up and my relationship to the project markedly changes. Its an interesting concept and quirk of mine (and I imagine I am hardly unique in this).

    And the process is the deal, and how we find out what our questions are.

  6. Love this post, Martha! I’ve loved writing for as long as I can remember, but haven’t taken it seriously until this past year. Now I can’t take in enough information about writing. This gave me chills: “When we start a project we bring the self we are at that moment along with our skills and understanding. BUT…the work itself is going to teach us and change us. There’s no recipe. It’s a journey into an unknown world, or, more accurately, a world that never existed before.” Just beautiful!

    • I’ve learned that there are people who write because they love it and willingly make the sacrifices, surrendering their egos when necessary and there are those who just aren’t interested in that kind of relationship. I just isn’t the same thing for everyone. In my wonderful experience writing Martin of Gfenn, which is the story of an artist, I learned from my protagonist what I, as a writer, must do. My own work was my best teacher. ❤

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