I have labored to be more attentive to craft recently, most especially this summer. The last few days, I’ve wanted to sign up for a creative nonfiction course — learn more about the nuts and bolts of essays, memoir, criticism, even interviews — and use that knowledge to overhaul the blog entirely, turning scattered, not quite coherent thoughts into miniature essays.
However, I don’t have $400 to spare, and I’m not sure my time should be spent entirely on coursework. My mediocre scribblings do serve a general purpose even now, as they advance attempts at being thoughtful in a world dominated by reality TV and celebrity trash. Still, I need to get a wider array of tools, and that depends on recognizing the tropes I’m apt to use; comparing my prose with how other writers handle similar situations; making sure I’m conveying not only information, but building the correct tone, setting, mood; better understanding rhetoric, organization, and audience. Quite frankly, that off-the-cuff list intimidates me. There’s a lot to improve, and I really feel like everyone else is a better writer, and I missed some 3 year boot camp in which the rest of the world wrote poems and plays and essays and academic papers and became professional while I struggled to beat the computer on normal in Madden.
So I went to Half Price Books, browsed for hours, and bought a book on writing. With a pastel cover, it looks like it came out of a painting by Fragonard, and I don’t know that it discusses a single male writer. It’s on memoir and features an author whose whole family kept diaries. What’s striking is how different members of her family kept journals for starkly different purposes: one recorded history while serving, another fought with a difficult relationship, yet another unleashed repressed creativity. I don’t know that my own notion of keeping a journal has progressed much beyond 6th grade. Every time I start a diary it just turns into ranting about how I suck, life sucks, people suck, everything sucks. I’m already planning on ransacking the book to copy the format of other people’s diary entries and writing from them. I’d call myself pathetic, but I’m too busy trying to start fights on Twitter.
The book I didn’t buy presents a number of writing teachers talking about how they teach their classes. I didn’t get it because the prose wasn’t sharp enough. Don’t get me wrong, everyone there could write clearly, but it felt like they were trying a bit too hard to write clearly, like they were scared to make a mistake. I want to be taught by people who know how to let their voice be natural; I want my prose to have an economy specific to it. However, that book began with a gem of a selection, “Why I Write” by Terry Tempest Williams. Right after that short essay, there’s an exercise: “Why do you write?” Much of what I’ve accomplished this summer involves editing and getting more personal. My quest for a larger toolkit concerns aesthetics, efficiency, and creating memorable sentences and paragraphs.
It never even occurred to me to ask myself why I write, except maybe for that Reintroduction post. But I primarily put that forth out of a sense of hey, I’ve got new followers, gotta say hi. That post grounds the blog as a whole, but what does it do for specific entries?
I have not been writing consistently from an understanding that whatever I write, it serves a purpose, and whatever tools I use have to serve that purpose. I have not bothered to develop a habit of better identifying why I’m writing something and building from there.
It’s amazing that something so essential can be neglected for so long. It’s amazing that one can devote substantial resources to get better and forget about fundamental questions. To be sure, part of this is that I take Rilke’s exhortation from Letters to a Young Poet pretty seriously:
…ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must”, then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse. (from the 1st letter)
I’d like to say I am completely devoted to this craft, but that’s like saying I’m in a position to achieve sainthood. I think the other part of why I haven’t tried to say why I write is a vain hope that my work will justify itself. This does not stem from any assumed brilliance on my part, but my own insecurity. This is not me crying “waaaaaah everyone give me compliments and confidence” (ok maybe it is), but something more like this: I got into habits defined once by insecurity, a lack of confidence, a lack of being taken seriously, and those habits and certain feelings linger to this day. I still struggle to put academic papers together despite making batches of notes, outlining the material I want to cover, talking about the thesis and its relevance out loud. There’s always disorganization and sloppiness and a general lack of assertiveness in what I do.
So: why do I write? That’s the exercise I’m going to conduct with myself whenever I decide to put words down. I don’t know that I should answer it unequivocally here. I do know I need to be asking it on a regular basis. I hope it’ll result in something good for all of us.