How It Works

A well-known writer got collared by a university student who asked, “Do you think I could be a writer?”
“Well,” the writer said, “I don’t know…. Do you like sentences?”
The writer could see the student’s amazement. Sentences? Do I like sentences? I am twenty years old and do I like sentences? If he had liked sentences, of course, he could begin, like a joyful painter I knew. I asked him how he came to be a painter. He said, “I liked the smell of the paint.”

-Annie Dillard, The Writing Life


And having written the title to this post, I’ll say right away that I don’t know: I don’t know how writing works.

Funny, even that much is a divergence from how it usually works for me. I don’t write the title until after I’ve written the post. So you see? I am the Last Person you want to have telling you how it works, because, really, I have no idea.

I will say I agree with that opening passage, the one from Annie, above. One must (or ought to, at the very least) like sentences. One should have an appreciation of them, to be sure. I have a small collection from a variety of works that I can recite, and will recite, when helpful or relevant– or not. Sometimes they are worth saying all by themselves.

But maybe one doesn’t even need to like sentences if one is a poet. I don’t know.

I do feel I can claim (they will all say) that editing is key, that first drafts, even seconds, thirds– none of these are what you’re after. One must edit and edit and edit again, they say, if one is to write well.
Yes, I think this much is true. The other day I went back to a post I wrote almost a year ago and changed a word. Just a single word, but I changed it. It has bothered me all this time because it was, in a way, redundant, and the repetition (even though, in each instance, I had used the word with different forms and meanings) made it messy.

I realize that no one will see it now: no one will know I’ve changed it but me. Still, I had to fix it, because I had to.

The post is infinitely better now. 

So maybe here’s an element, anyway, of how it works: For anyone in a hurry, for anyone who is after a quick result, who wants to write it and get it done precisely right the first time, writing is Not The Thing.

Then there are the words. Ah, the words. I’ve talked about this many times, and truly, words are something that I Absolutely Love to reflect on. Just the other day I had reason to look up the word “cairn.” On Friday, two friends and I got into a discussion on the transitive form of “wake.” In both instances, I got to use the Merriam-Webster app on my phone, which is one of my most-used apps. I know that makes me a nerd, but I couldn’t care. Then, the other morning on my walk, I ran into a mother and daughter I know and, in a very practical conversation on wisteria, I used the word “arbor.” To my utter delight, the daughter (who might be ten) asked me what an arbor is (and I loved that she didn’t mind in the least asking) and I had to explain it. I did so without my app (I didn’t have my phone), and the minimal mental probing I had to do in coming up with a helpful answer was Sheer Pleasure.

So, the words. If you don’t love words, I say, then don’t bother writing. I could be wrong about this, but I can’t imagine how.

Still, these are rudiments. Tools. The sheetrock and studs of a house under construction, the fabric and thread of a quilt. How it all works, how it all comes together to be something one is glad to write, better yet, something one is glad to read– well. There lies the mystery.

Who will teach me to write? a reader wanted to know.
The page, the page, that eternal blankness, the blankness of eternity which you cover slowly, affirming time’s scrawl as a right and your daring as necessity; the page, which you cover woodenly, ruining it, but asserting your freedom and power to act, acknowledging that you ruin everything you touch but touching it nevertheless, because acting is better than being here in mere opacity; the page, which you cover slowly with the crabbed thread of your gut; the page in the purity of its possibilities; the page of your death, against which you pit such flawed excellences as you can muster with all your life’s strength: that page will teach you to write.

-Annie, again. Her The Writing Life.

No, I don’t know how it works, but these days–after mothering, after wife-ing, around the edges of what makes up the fullness of my days–I am trying to figure it out. Which is why I’m doing this, starting in just over a week. I am no poet, but poets know a thing or two about words, and I want to learn.

After this course, I will take another and another, practicing all the while, and in the margins of my life I will fill up the pages of my book until I can say (will I ever know to say?) that it is finished.

And then I’ll write another. I think maybe that’s how it works.


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