The line my thoughts took this evening reminded me of Pirsig’s use of the theme of Phaedrus in his work Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I asked myself, “What does it mean to me to be a ‘writer’?”
Pinning It Down
Obviously, I also categorize myself in a variety of ways–human, woman, Southern, American, Anthropologist, Feminist. But while these are all valid orientations, they speak to the accident of birth, species, cultural affiliations, and education. For me, writing was never something consciously chosen, but neither is it accidental or an organic determination. Yes, it is a skill, but not one I went to school to learn how to do in the same way as the study of history or archaeology. I’m also not talking about the acquisition of grammars or lexicography.
There seems to be a natural division in my mind between the act of putting words together and what I mean when I talk about writing as a craft. I’m not trying to put any mystical significance on it or seeking to elevate myself above anyone else, but there does seem to be a strong connection to the act of voluntary composition and the way a personality is shaped. I’ll also add that I think there’s a certain difference between technological or use-oriented creation and aesthetic creation. That’s not to say that an engine or a chair cannot be beautiful, but rather that their usefulness is apparent. Whereas the usefulness of art, music, or written composition is more subtle and lateral, as well as often intangible.
Let’s focus on writing, since I’m only familiar with the pursuit of aesthetic creation of other sorts in a loose and informal way. I think writing is a way to convey ideas, broader motivations, and culturally important information. Leaving scholarly non-fiction by the wayside for the moment, creative writing–both fiction and non-fiction–in both the written and the oral sense, has been used for a very long time to move our understanding of ourselves forward. Humans have used Story to convey important cultural messages, histories, and attach significance to the surrounding landscape for as long as we have possessed language. Climate data over 10,000 years old can be drawn from Aboriginal Australian oral histories. The short stories of Flannery O’Connor illustrate a very different South than we see on the surface today, but expose the hyper-sensitive roots of entrenched racism. From an accurate portrait of the landscape of ancestors to cultural morality, Story proves to be a tool of broad use.
Predilection or Personality?
But what is at the root of being a writer? I have always loved language in every aspect, but the act of composition has shaped the way I move in the world. I pick up on certain aspects of experience, conversation, themes of living in a certain way because I write, even if only for myself. Even the way I think is shaped by writing. I see words first–the way they fit together, sound, and evoke imagery, as opposed to seeing a landscape, person, or object. My impressions are shaped by the words I think. There’s also a rather distressing habit to twitch when the urge to write must be put aside for other activities. We’ve talked about that before, too, so I won’t go into that.
I think that, while those who follow a more technical path may also be beautifully creative writers, there are distinctive tells in their compositions. I do not ascribe to the strict division of talent that others may, but I will say that their technical view always makes itself known in the way they choose to compose. They build a story. It can be engaging, culturally valuable, or deeply emotive, but it is a built thing. And I can still see the tool marks on the components of the narrative. I do believe that people who are natural writers, without the benefit of structured tuition, tend to approach creation in a more organic and sometimes much sloppier way than those who are technically gifted and choose to write.
Theirs may be a much less direct approach to a story’s theme, following a natural logic that would only make sense to a flowering vine. However, the logic, the intrinsic sense of story, is present, and it blossoms as opposed to being erected or welded into shape. Either way is just fine with me. I find quite a bit of enjoyment reading the writings of my more astute acquaintances who write as a secondary pastime. They make their living selling pneumatics or solving large-scale mechanical issues. They work fluid dynamics equations or create scale models of paleo climates and bygone ecosystems. But I pay attention to how they create their stories, because it’s just as important to me as what their stories say. It is an integral part of those narratives’ beauty or sense.
Process and Practice
I tend to take a more inspiration-based approach to my writing. Maybe this is a part of why I’m less financially successful than more method-driven scribes, but it’s not likely to change. Yes, I write on a daily basis–journal entries for me are lubricant, or warm-ups for more interesting composition. My journal is boring to read. There’s nothing salacious or juicy hidden in its pages, I promise. Most of my delving happens in my brain, while I’m giving a blow-by-blow of the chores I did today. I pause in between talking about a trip to the grocery store to buy milk and celery and doing laundry to have some deep, dirty fantasy about rocket ships and zero-gee plant nurseries.
I’ll often write a few lines of a story and finish it on the computer. My “Every Day Practice” does not take the form of neatly outlined compositions, planned essays, or inquiring articles. I’m a mess. This entry is a mess. But I’ll post it anyway, because I think there are some good core ideas here, and that’s what this blog is really for–the crap can be cleared out later. Is this a lack of discipline on my part? Yes, or rather, it’s my solution to an inherent laziness.
I am writing. I am thinking about writing. And eventually, I’ll have a good, sound basis upon which to build something better. Perhaps what I really wonder is how much our approach to written narratives impacts the direction they take. Is there an order of operations that is molded by our mindset, which may be altered based on how we approach the muse? Are there elements that show themselves sooner or later based on how we choose to craft our tellings? How do you approach writing? Are you shy of rough drafts? Do you have moments of insight during the initial process or afterward? Where do you put the period or determine when a piece has taken a finished form?