Friday, November 18, 2011


"Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together." Vincent Van Gogh.

"Trifles make perfection, but perfection is no trifle." Michaelangelo. 

E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "In your essay "A Boot Camp for Creative Writing" you mention that writing well is the same as thinking well. What does thinking well mean? How do you teach this? Are their certain steps a person must take in order to think well?"

The statement I often repeat that, "Writing well is the same thing as thinking well," can be linked to that old chestnut, "Ninety percent of good writing is rewriting." This is not to say that "first thought" on a subject is not useful (or "First thought is best thought," as Allan Ginsberg put it"). My writer's notebooks are filled with "first thought" lines that came to me unbidden at various times during the day, which I jotted down because they were perfect or nearly perfect in the form they originally took. 

But the best writing on the level of the sentence (as well as larger structures such as plot and character detail) is usually twentieth or one-hundredth thought. Personally, I don't feel we should burden people by showing them our first drafts; rather, what we share should be at least a third draft. With first draft, every page is like a prayer---in that draft we put something on paper just to determine whether or not it is worth our continuing to work on it (or at least continue in that particular way). As Sartre one said, "Every sentence is a risk." Why? Because the Devil is always in the details. People are generally vague and avoid being specific or precise because they hope to escape scrutiny. They think that if they are vague in details, like Herman Cain, no one will be able to pin them down. Art is just the opposite of that: it hungers for and seeks specificity and haecceity (the "thisness" of things"). One must develop both the meaning and the music of each and every line. 

Obviously, this meticulous attention, this meditation on detail, requires time. And great patience. (And, yes, these E-Channel posts, written so quickly, accelerate and truncate this process I'm describing of taking the time to think well and thoroughly. In my best work, I strive for intellectual and imagistic density.) The creative process requires time to consider dozens of alternatives for a single word. Time to experiment with the form of a sentence, shaping it as one might a thing of plastic or clay, molding it until the music between it and the sentences that come before and after it are as perfect as possible in cadence. (Ideally, you should revise a sentence until it surprises you, and is no longer recognizable as your first draft version of it, for in later drafts it will be clearer, sharper, richer.) If memory serves me, Hemingway revised the last page of For Whom the Bell Tolls 39 times (and for reasons know best only by himself, he wrote standing up). We come to understand that, unlike automatic writing or certain kinds of Zen art produced in a single stroke without one's brush or pen leaving paper, creating a work of art is generally a process of thinking and rethinking everything that appears in one's first draft.

One of my former editors at the New York Times Book Review put it this way: a masterpiece is a story that does not need to be rewritten. When we consider such a work, we find it difficulty to think of it being otherwise than it is, in all its parts and pieces, because they reinforce each other so well, creating a work that feels organic, whole. (To pull out a single passage would be like ripping an arm off a human body.)The reason for that is because the writer (or artist) is way ahead of the reader insofar as he or she has imaginatively and intellectually considered every possible variation on character and event, every possible word choice, and why the words finally selected are logically and necessarily the best words at this moment in the story.

 In one of my writer's notebooks, I reminded myself that, "The beauty and basic soundness of craftsmanship (techne) is a form of truth. Its very well-made quality is truth. Shoddiness, slipshod work of inferior quality---reflecting errors, haste, and indifference---is the absence of truth, the denial of truth."

"Thinking well" when writing also means that the writer considers the impact, consequence or possible reaction readers might have for each and every word in his (or her) work, for every speech and action in a story. You must relentlessly ask questions about every decision you make and how it will be received or experienced. Is a statement accurate? Have you checked and double-checked every fact? Is a sentence, image or word in poor taste? None of this means that you censor yourself. (There is no way that a writer can be all things to all people or satisfy everyone. As Milan Kundera once said, only kitsch is art that has a "desire to please at any cost.") But it does mean that you take into account the possibility that you might unintentionally offend or hurt a reader by one of your decisions---and, if one is a moral writer, you choose not to do that. And it also means that after thinking about a decision hundreds of times, you decide to stick by it (if you love what's on the paper and feel it is right and proper) even if it ruffles a few feathers.

 In every sense, then, writing is thinking. Thinking with certain tools specific to the storytelling process, but thinking nevertheless. And the rules of rigorous thinking (like logic) apply to storytelling as much as they do to expository writing or any form of speech or expression.

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