writing teaches writing

When I started this project with the luxury of a sabbatical, I pictured what many others probably imagine. I would be sequestered away in an upstairs room — an image that now strikes me as one like Emily Dickinson — surrounded by books and papers but with singular focus on a writing desk. It’s been a little like this, but largely I haven’t had the solitary confinement that might be idealized. There’s too much need to be out gathering, even participating in the things that I’d like to write about.

The other piece I’d imagined is that there would be this proliferation of writing, good and bad, the equivalent of reams of typewritten pages that I’d be able to sort through. Or, that a publisher and editor would want to page through such valuable ore to find the gold. Or, more darkly, others could sift through the words left behind after I’m suddenly struck by a bus while stepping from the curb. Too often I worry that I haven’t written enough, but not because of a specific project I have in mind, but because I think there should be an archive of my ideas, a self-imagined treasure. These are my delusions. And so I’ve been particularly careful when stepping off curbs of late, wary of buses.

Today, with appropriate advice and scheduling, begins a week-long seclusion, alone with my notes and blank pages to spark some life into. I’ve cleared the calendar of projects and appointments (except for a haircut on Thursday) in order to just transcribe, finish half-baked essays, and generally put more words on the virtual pages and more pages in the virtual collection, whatever this is. I want to get things into a shape that I can continue to build on, even when I don’t have the luxury of a sabbatical year.

The challenge, today as before, is that the act of writing is not simply something I’ve wanted to do to document the work, but something I need to learn more about and get better at. I’m one of the countless people who would like to be identified as “a writer.” But I recognize that writing a dissertation or an article does not make this so. And blogs — no. There is too much out there for us to read that could benefit from a heavy dose of editing and the honing of craft. Especially craft. And more editing, my work included.

The editing part is something that I know just takes time, and attention, and patience, and time and attention — especially to redundancies, gratuitous use of punctuation, and conjunctions. It’s the craft part that challenges and interests me. How do you learn to write? Certainly, I’ve been taught things about sentence structure and how to organize ideas; and I was told quite explicitly what the chapter headings on a dissertation should be and where the margins should defend territory. But it’s that craft that intrigues me. The craft of writing is not just something I need to learn in order to write for myself. It’s a mode of learning that is exactly the kind of thing I should be investigating for this project.

There are writers I love reading not only because of the content but because of the writing itself. I marvel at the arrangement of words on the page because I can’t imagine how they got pieced together in that way. It’s the same way that I look at great artwork up close. How do all those individual brushstrokes know how to make the image, and how did the painter coax them in that way? A particular group of writers is especially intimidating to me because they do something I long to be able to emulate. For whatever reason, the top of the list is headed with Johns: Steinbeck, McPhee, among others. Truly, I don’t think I’m anywhere near being Steinbeck, but when I read the words on the page I want to be Steinbeck in the same way that I might wish I could bring the culinary skills of a great chef into my own kitchen. It’s worthy of daydreams, but beyond the realm of possibility. In the area of non-fiction, the head chef I long to be is John McPhee.

I once had a fantasy to interview McPhee myself and try to get to the heart of what I’d like to learn from him, but the ideal conversation with him is already documented in The Paris Review. Reading this transcript, it’s clear to me that I’d be out of my territory in trying to navigate the exchange. The trouble is that I’ve learned about geology and transportation and waterways and even teachers from McPhee, but I would just gush and sputter with regards to his writing. I wouldn’t have known even where to start, except maybe to have him sign a dogeared book and then ask him, “How did you write that?” It turns out that there are more pointed and interesting questions to ask.

McPhee’s phrase that resonates as I eavesdrop is that “writing teaches writing.” This produces both solace and panic for me. Writing “takes as long as it takes,” as told to him by a former editor. This would seem to be true for the process of writing as it is for the learning of writing. As he describes projects that take years to complete, even as he works on them full time, and as he describes his coming of age as a writer and later as a teacher of writing, this theme is reemphasized:

But writing teaches writing. And I’ll tell you this, that summer [writing the first draft of a novel for his senior thesis], I felt myself palpably growing as a writer. You just don’t sit there and write thirty thousand words without learning something. Writers develop slowly. That’s what I want to say to you: don’t look at my career through the wrong end of a telescope.

That is, the good news is that good writing requires patience, hard work over the long haul. The bad news? Well, it’s that good writing requires patience, hard work over the long haul.

There are pieces of specific method, too, that McPhee reveals. He collects through his observations and conversations with others — his data of the trade, the facts that he must stay true to. To make the story, though, he plays not only with the phrasing but with the structure:

First thing I do is transcribe my notes… As I’m typing, if something crosses my mind I flip it in there. When I’m done, certain ideas have accrued and have been added to it, like iron filings drawn to a magnet. …[I]t’s analogous to cooking a dinner. You go to the store and you buy a lot of things. You bring them home and you put them on the kitchen counter, and that’s what you’re going to make your dinner out of. If you’ve got a red pepper over here—it’s not a tomato. You’ve got to deal with what you’ve got. You don’t have an ideal collection of material every time out. 

This is where that craft must be honed. It takes, I suppose, 30,000 words at a time to develop the sense of how not to arrange those 30,000 words. You can’t know this until you’ve put them down onto the page for the first time. You must rely on the ingredients presented before you, and you must not rely on the ingredients presented before you. It’s arduous, and intimidating even to the senior staff writer at the New Yorker:

But that’s my day, all day long, sitting there wondering when I’m going to be able to get started. And the routine of doing this six days a week puts a little drop in a bucket each day, and that’s the key. Because if you put a drop in a bucket every day, after three hundred and sixty-five days, the bucket’s going to have some water in it.

So, this is me, putting down one drop. So far, in this essay I’ve tossed in close to 1500 words, but have also removed, spliced, and rearranged another 1500. It’s not quite right. But tomorrow I’ll work on it some more. It’s exactly 7:00 PM, after all:

It may sound like I’ve got some sort of formula by which I write. Hell, no! You’re out there completely on your own—all you’ve got to do is write. OK, it’s nine in the morning. All I’ve got to do is write. But I go hours before I’m able to write a word. I make tea. I mean, I used to make tea all day long. And exercise, I do that every other day. I sharpened pencils in the old days when pencils were sharpened. I just ran pencils down. Ten, eleven, twelve, one, two, three, four—this is every day. This is damn near every day. It’s four-thirty and I’m beginning to panic. It’s like a coiling spring. I’m really unhappy. I mean, you’re going to lose the day if you keep this up long enough. Five: I start to write. Seven: I go home. That happens over and over and over again.

I’ll start over again, too.