"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       

General Writing Advice, part 2

August 1st, 2012 by

To continue the discussion I began last week about general writing advice, I offer the following narrative, which concerns two suggestions: that we need to allow ourselves to write badly, and we need to learn not to write generally according to set rules but to write for specific genres.

Playwriting in College

During my junior year in college, I took a writing workshop in playwriting being team-taught by a professor from theatre and the poet in residence from English. The course concerned writing for one venue, and week after week our scenes were read and commented on.

My first two scenes were miserable failures.

Preparing to write my third scene, I jotted vague character notes. Then, a week before it was due, I got my notes out and improved on them. I went for a walk and then returned to my desk and the blank paper in front of me and began writing the narration to the scene, which established setting, characters involved, and background. Halfway through the writing of this, I read it back to myself as I thought my peers would have read it. And I was uncomfortable. I began combining the first two sentences there, and I felt a quickening, something clicking into place in the better sentence I wrote. Somehow, in that small change, I gained insight into the scene. I could, for the first time, see the end toward which my plan was leading, and I remember relaxing and thinking, I can see the whole. I know who these characters are and what they want here.

I emerged from that afternoon of writing with the sense that this was what writers had to do to be successful. They had to tinker. They had to be uncomfortable with their work enough to feel out of harmony with it, and they had to be willing to change it. The next time the class met, I found in the reading of my work that I was right. My scene seemed to communicate what I meant it to.

What this All Meant

I’ve since tried to think about this. The tinkering I did with my notes and those first sentences was perhaps not just tinkering. I suspect it was a way of getting my subconscious mind to move into and sharpen the task. And my discomfort with my first lines was not something I had ever paid attention to before. I would just go with it. Neither of these habits were in line with what I was ever taught to do. But I saw it that day as I began mulling over things. Certainly, a larger influence on my writing that afternoon did have to do with the way that I was suddenly understanding the work of creating knowledge in my field, and it had to do with audience, with background, with the community I had studied with, and my deepening understanding of the particular genre I was working in. It might seem that I made these connections on my own, in isolation, but I am convinced that the community of my classroom and the mindset of my teachers also influenced me. In my solitude, the voices of this workshop formed an important influence as I was encouraged to change some fundamental behaviors. As we were required to read widely in drama and to see as many plays as we could, I began to read and think as a writer of drama—in one sense to think almost solely in terms of how a conversation really sounded, and how it was the only vehicle in a play or a script for everything else that was to unfold on a stage.

The Emergence of What Can’t be Counted

This writing experience marked the first epiphany I had about writing that involved invention. Suddenly, everything I’d heard about what it took to be a writer was taking place with me. Invention seemed to be not only a technique for generating ideas and thinking about audience. There was also a merging of identity, practice, and knowledge that came from the coaching and guiding I was getting in class.

I never found this in the creative writing magazines or books I read through later. What I saw and continue to see in the textbooks about the teaching of creative writing moves between two poles. The first concerns technique, which most agree can be taught—point of view, character development, plotting, and sometimes theme. The second is subjective, even intuitive, and remains mysterious. It certainly remained outside of the lectures and conversations of my literature professors. It had to do with an uncertain mix of a writer’s ideas, background, character, motivations, insecurities, and potential audiences, all of which are uncertain at best, and unquantifiable.

It was remarkable that in the confines of that one class, the unquantifiable and uncertain became manifest, became quite clear.

I would be interested in hearing other stories like this, and not just about writing. I would love to hear of others who have had moments of epiphany when working on something that was challenging to them.

Posted in character development, Invention, playwriting, point of view| 8 Comments


Comment by SF on August 2, 2012 at 9:38 am

The emergence of what cannot be counted, I believe is quite a profound phrase. You’ve asked for other settings for this type of experience, and I must say in my own practicing “presence” and through contemplative prayer that there is a great deal of this mysterious work going on! It both takes the negative and positive of my experiential realm and then becomes part of God’s co-crafting – something unique in each person’s spiritual journey. Appreciated your thoughts!

Comment by Thomas Allbaugh on August 2, 2012 at 9:47 am

SF, thanks for this insight. I don’t think that enough has been done to explore the spiritual dimensions of creativity and being. Perhaps we should put together our various accounts of this and see what we learn from it.

Comment by Joseph Bentz on August 2, 2012 at 11:34 am

I think your post is a very good description of what happens inside the mind of a writer. For me, when I’m struggling with a scene or chapter, I work through it as much as I can by sitting there at the computer and doing the work, but often the “answer” then comes later, once I’ve stopped working and am thinking about something else. Then I have to run back to my notebook and write down what comes before I lose it again. That epiphany, if you want to call it that, won’t come unless I’ve done the frustrating work that leads up to it. It doesn’t happen if I avoid the writing or simply try to think it through (rather than write it through).

Comment by Thomas Allbaugh on August 2, 2012 at 11:43 am

Coming from a widely published writer like yourself, Joe, I’m glad that this description has a ring of truth about it. I do find also that often the “answer” to a problem I’m working on will come later, after I’ve stopped working. In fact, I often will work at something and then give myself a ten minute break. During that time, I will often find a shift in perspective that helps me to think about the problem from new angles. But I agree that it won’t happen if, as you say, you avoid the writing or simply try to think through it.

Comment by Elena E Smith on August 5, 2012 at 7:25 pm

Good article, and good comments. I joined a writers’ critique group a year ago, and my experience has been that the better my writing gets, the better the critiques are. When I first entered the group, my writing was “all over the map” – it made sense in my head, but not in anyone else’s! And, I got feedback that was also “all over the map.” What to do? I began to listen carefully to the writers in the group whom I admired most, and to follow their suggestions. I began to see an improvement in my work. Over time, I also saw that I was getting the same kinds of suggestions, which told me that I needed to improve in very specific aspects of my work. Finally, as all these things began to come together (because I was spending a lot of time writing), my work improved and I seemed to get a lot less feedback, and the feedback I did get seemed more precise and more helpful. However, sometimes it still hurts my feelings.

Comment by Thomas Allbaugh on August 5, 2012 at 9:33 pm

Elena, your experience with your writing group is similar in some ways to mine. Over time, I really have benefitted from increasingly specific suggestions (though it sometimes still hurts). I’ve also learned to listen to the critiques I get and to notice who does and doesn’t get what I’m trying to accomplish with a particular piece.

Comment by francis palacio on August 5, 2012 at 10:29 pm

I enjoyed this article Thomas. One of the most important things in writing, and I like your use of the work tinker. I always stand back and review and edit my work countless times. It is amazing what goes on between rough draft and finished product. I find that my students really, really hate to edit and redo their essays. I would love to know how you entice your students to tinker and rework a piece and to see the utility and fun in getting it done!

Comment by Thomas Allbaugh on August 5, 2012 at 10:44 pm

Thank you, Frank, for your ideas. I have to admit that I also find it difficult to get students to want to revise and redraft their essays. I think they don’t get that revision might help them to make new discoveries. Instead, they see it as a form of punishment. I think that I simply require my students to redraft (and of course, they are college age). I would like to hear more about what you do to get your students to do rewriting.

Reply to Post