I began the first day of class I was ever to teach by talking about the writing process, how it’s something that is uniquely your own and, if anything, quite a useful discovery to make as early as possible in your academic career. My reason for doing this was two-fold: 1: I wanted to know what my students’ individual relationships were to writing—they were engineers, while I was perfectly polar opposite, and 2: It’s something I’ve spent nearly a decade trying to figure out for myself, something, instructor-persona aside, I found interesting. Days later after having read through their responses, I felt the urgency of tears and a new form of sadness I’d never felt before. An overwhelming majority of my students expressed that they’d like writing much better if they could only choose what they wanted to write about. Also, it seemed like much of their reasoning for “hating” writing in the first place was because they weren’t good at. To them, being “bad” at something meant a dead-end. I realized, suddenly, that they hadn’t been trained to look for alternative routes, circuitous as they might be, because for them, the concept of getting over or around an obstacle didn’t exist. The narrowness of what they considered writing to even be was too much of a blindside.
I don’t really know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this defeated honesty, this naked vulnerability which reminded me of just how much they were still children, in so many respects, despite the weak masks of arrogant boredom so many of them clung to. It was as if they’d never had the chance to not have a defeatist’s attitude towards the subject. In many ways, they’d lost the game before its rules were even imagined. And how unfair, how undeserving they were of their education’s obvious neglect. And there was something else I felt, too—a surprising empathy for my students. After all, I wouldn’t like writing much either if I wasn’t allowed to choose my own topics. Who would? That’s a completely fair and rational response and it meant, if anything, that there were minds behind those masks—little stumming, humming live-wires that desired the most primitive of creative freedoms—to pursue their own interests without the dark cloud of intellectual censorship.
Half the fun of creative writing, or any form or genre of it, is the absence of restrictions, the window thrown open to the clear skies of possibilities.
I didn’t blame them for their attitudes. The writing they knew was just a shell, a phony version of the writing that I’d decided on dedicating my life to. How foolish it was of me to presume the privilege of my own excellent, private prep-school education onto them. I’d forgotten up until this point how lucky I was, how, in fact, I deserved it no more than any of them.
It’s a fascinating and complicated thing—my relationship with writing. It’s something I’ve oftentimes struggled against over the years. We’ve all heard it—that age-old, broken-record advice—which insists on rigorous scheduling and constant, daily devotion. It’s probably the most well-known and repeated of “writerly advices” out there in existence. Turn to Google with keywords for “writing tips”, and I’ll bet you a dime that advice, in some form or paraphrase, is in the first or second highest hit. And so I wonder, at times, where it came from, who it came from, if there’s one ancestral source it sprang from, or whether it exists so predominantly in Writing Culture simply because it’s true, because it’s the RIGHT way of going about it—the hypothesis properly proven and necessary for success.
But I have a hard time convincing myself that there’s really only one proper way of approaching writing. It isn’t just a skillset. It’s a skill, an art form, a way of processing the external data of the day-to-day, that is in direct conversation with the internal weather of its practitioner. It involves the mind, yes, but also relies heavily on emotional psychology, I think. I shy away from talk of “souls” for fear of sounding too lovey-dovey, too woo-woo, but I will say this: writing cannot be reduced to some peripheral activity or process that can be divorced, completely, from the personality, the individual, the unexplainable thing that makes you you, and me me. Some things are just too innately subjective for such cogency.
To write, there is the initial necessity of looking inwards, taking that metaphorical flashlight into, more often than not, the deepest, cobwebbed corners of yourself. You come across things like we all do as adults, when confronted with that surprising sharpness of nostalgia’s scent that permeates visits back to childhood homes, the attics and storage closets—those likely places where the accidental reuniting occurs. Just like: the beloved, forgotten baby doll, the collection of coins which used to hold such a bright shine in the palm of your hand. These brush-ups, these past ghosts resurrected for the short interval of a winter afternoon, are reintroductions to parts of our former selves that were necessary for us to shed in order to properly grow.
Writing does this too. This is what I think and this is my argument. Writing helps in reclaiming yourself.
So how, then, can something so precious and unique and situational as writing be restricted to only one path, one way of going about it? How can the concepts of “wrong” or “right” even exist in a space such as this? There’s a time and place for black-and-white thinking, and this, thankfully, isn’t it.
I’ve gone weeks without producing anything, and after a certain point I always begin to feel unmoored, my insides pressing tight against my zippered outsides. If I go too long without it, my scars begin to scream. The week long’s collection of the little nips and jags—those small disappointments, the way we’re so carelessly unkind to each other—we attract just as wool attracts lint; the only way to heal these into proper scars is to pull them out, project them on the page, insides splayed like those dissections back in biology class. This makes for a clean wound and a mind less-cluttered. This is How to Coexist with Your Demons: 101.
I use the word “produce” in the previous paragraph on a very particular way, meaning, my creating something that wasn’t there before, of filling up the white in a Word doc. with visible words. These words are absolutes, functioning as evidence to my productivity, and dually, as concrete markers, a backlog of sorts, recording my time and how I spent it. Yes, this is the traditional way writing and it always has been. But there’s a trickiness to it, because writing transcends the use of a pencil, a pen, the pleasant sounds of a keyboard’s chatter. Hard to believe, maybe, but it’s really not dissimilar to sports in that way: since writing, too, requires the use of muscles, and when practiced, even forms its own reflexive muscle memory.
Only, it’s the brain in place of the bicep.
Side-passing the more mystical particulars associated with the idea of “creation” and “creating”, it’d be hard to argue against the most logical of its origin stories: that creation and thought begin in the mind. Really, the act of writing (i.e.: typing the actual words) occurs at the tail’s end of the entire process. It’s the caboose in this metaphor and instance. The psychical proof, the W-O-R-D-S, are merely the result of complex and lengthy production.
So, in keeping with this, doesn’t it make sense to conclude that someone can write regardless of the tools in front of them? Memory, imagining, charting the course of a story: they don’t require accessories in order to work. The rough sketch of an idea is conceived and left to marinate in the warm darkness of the mind. Only much later does it meet the world. Sometimes it never does. So here, my point laid bare: all of this is my characteristically convoluted and wordy way of saying that you can write without actually writing; you—we, every one of us—are doing it all the time without even knowing it. And how marvelous that is! How lucky we are to have such minds.
Process: there is no one-size-fits-all. There is no Recommended Reading Guide to reference. Your process happens when you’re lost in thought in dentists’ waiting rooms, during long car rides with hot, flat pavement and wide open skies, in the dead of Monday night’s sleep, in the early morning shower, in how hypnotizing staring at blank walls can be. It’s always happening, because life is always happening, and isn’t every moment potential material? I think so.
Process. It’s deeply important to find a way in stressing to students how there’s no way to successfully cookie-cutter their own process. There are models, yes, and I’ll encourage them to study those. I’ll say: examine them in the light and learn from them and then put them back down again. Respect it as someone else’s process; keep in mind that it’s not your own. And also: yes, do consider the external. Do you work best alone or with company? At dawn, or way past midnight? Are you more of a marathoner or sprinter? These are important and helpful things to know about yourself. They will help you, certainly. But after that, dig in further. Don’t just stop there right as it’s about to get interesting.
After reading all nineteen of these eighteen-year-olds’ responses, I made my first goal for that semester: Successfully explain how personal the discovery of process is, how important, regardless of whether they believe themselves to be writers or not. That there is no existing or “correct” rubric for it. The writing process has no guidelines. To urge them in forgetting their notions of Right and Wrong. To make clear how each of our relationships with writing take time to form, just as all our others have.
That this relationship will sometimes require you to give.
For you to allow it to take.
How, like the best of friends, it’ll give too give back—and often, you’ll see—hush, be patient.