Education, Essays, Literature.

The art of writing? Just get started

-PD, Jastrow

Calliope, muse of epic poetry. Attrib: Jastrow, PD.


"Writing - the all-remembering skill, the mother of many arts."(Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, 460-61) 

I was talking to a friend about the difficulties of writing, and so gave some thought to my own writing process. I have often felt stymied in getting started writing, both in business, of which I did a large amount, or privately; I enjoy writing, and sometimes can write freely and fairly quickly, but the norm is that I struggle to start. My most usual technique is to write a set of scattered notes down, anything, and then revisit it and start shaping it. Most of my more serious “essays” started in one direction, and are in many ways unrecognizable when I am done, precisely because one idea or phrase begets another.

I usually start by spilling out ideas and phrases into a semi-outline, and then take a break, come back, and reorganize and build it into a more coherent structure. Then I write it; but the same process occurs during the writing, so that more paragraphs will start appearing as more thoughts are begotten from previous thoughts. With each pass, I try to determine order, and then refine the transitions. Depending on available time and desired length, I might craft four to eight “drafts.” With a blog, even after publishing, say, a three page post using that process, I might still tweak it multiple times over the next few days. There is a certain ADHD quality to all of this; perhaps I have some measure of attention deficit issues, as my son Ben must have inherited those tendencies from someone. All in all, the struggle to start is really no longer a struggle; a piece starts with the recognition that I cannot organize a piece before I start!

The process seems little different when I write poetry (although I have only written a few poems). For example, the poem Evensong, which I wrote last year, started out as a vague concept of wandering in the twilight of evening, with the intent of creating a short freeform two or three stanza poem. It slowly evolved, with maybe ten passes, into a poem on a very different subject, much longer, and written completely in a highly structured iambic pentameter! The poem started out with no allusions, but now is in fact highly allusive, in the language of music, and about an obvious life journey. The movement started with just looking up the word evensong on a whim; some already know the meaning (if you attended certain churches, it is familiar), which is that it is one of the hours of prayer (aka vespers) in many Christian sects. After reading some history of the hours of prayer, it seemed an obvious thought that a life could be mirrored in a day, and organized around the hours of prayer. (I wrote this just after my father-in-law died, a man who was essentially agnostic, and who saw no reason to change his mind in the face of death; I gave no conscious thought to this, but the ultimate direction of the poem closely mirrors his situation, so it seems in hindsight, that it was a big influence.)

As I shaped it, I noticed that a few of the lines had unintentionally been written in iambic pentameter, so I wondered how hard it would be to write the whole poem just in ten syllable lines, without the iamb. It turned out to make it easier, in some ways, to choose the words. So perhaps the 3rd draft now had direct reference to the major hours of prayer, each line had 10 syllables, the “song” of Evensong drove musical verbs through the entirety of the piece, and the 4th draft described a complete life. The 5th draft added the doubt and uncertainty everyone has about death, and the sixth added the bell tower repeating reference, which alludes to the use of church bells to signal the hours of prayer, and represents the arc of time. The 7th draft removed some redundancies, the 8th draft removed all but evensong, vespers and matins as direct references to the hours of prayer, and in the 9th draft, I opened a thesaurus for the first time in my life, and added the iamb rhythm to every line! This turned out to be much less difficult to do than I would have imagined, with great help from the thesaurus; and the process surprisingly helped to shape the phrases into more expressive thoughts. So at the end, it is a simple, albeit layered idea, that all their lives a person thinks about, one way or another, their mortality and the possibility of immortality (prayer is one way to do it), but will never be certain of their possible immortality even with their last breath of . . . prayer; nonetheless, they live their lives as fully as they know how.

This result was produced with absolutely no initial roadmap or plan.  The poem lacks some lyricism and flow, but it does finally say what I want it to say, even though I had no conscious idea of exactly what I wanted to say at inception.

My usual experience in college, when asked, thankfully rarely, to write an essay in class, was to freeze, struggle to come up with any ideas, then, under the extreme time pressure of say the last 10 minutes, squeeze out the minimal number of paragraphs; I hated that experience. Another story illustrates my writing method in another way. I took a writing class that required a final research paper of length; as usual, I wrote it the night before it was due, and in the midst of it found the topic dull in contrast to an idea that was inspired by the very writing of the dull paper. Being out of time, I finished the dull paper, took it to the professor, and offered him a deal: I described the topic I wanted to write about, gave him my finished paper, and asked him if he would be willing to allow me to substitute another paper on the new topic, if only he allowed me to give it to him on the next Saturday just after finals week; he agreed, and I wrote an entirely different paper from that seed on the next penultimate night, and we both liked it much better (although in reviewing it later, I thought it was rather rushed and sloppy, but it does demonstrate that for a more unusual idea, much can be forgiven).

Once started writing, one idea begets another.

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