The Experience of Writing

My beard is a bridge between my past and my face.

Tony Tost

I often have to remind myself that not at all people write as deliberately as I do. They experience the act of writing very differently, and they therefore also experience their competence as writers differently. They are sometimes surprised at what happens in my workshops when we take a close look at a single paragraph they have written, trying to discern what they were trying to say and who they’re trying to say it to. More precisely, we try to identify the one sentence in the paragraph that makes its key point, and determine what difficulty the writer thinks the reader will have with that point. This often reveals that both the writer’s intention and their image of the reader are rather vague.

People of course rarely spend a well-defined amount of time on a single paragraph. The idea of sitting down at the machine with a specific literary problem to solve is foreign to many academics, not just students. Texts are not generally written one paragraph at a time, one idea at a time, one difficulty for the reader to overcome at a time. If they were, I suspect, they would look very different, and I wonder if all these years of training myself to think in paragraphs has, in fact, produced a style that others find hard to digest, perhaps even parse. I, of course, no longer devote exactly 18 or 27 minutes to each paragraph, especially not in a blog post. And I have, admittedly, not done much “serious” writing lately (I should be writing some articles, a book). And yet the habit of thinking of each paragraph, each block of roughly 150 words, as a moment of the reader’s attention sticks with me.

I started thinking about this again when Kim Mitchell retweeted a suggestion from CBC Books to keep the “creative” and “critical” dimensions of writing separate by “writing freely” first and then polishing the text later. It occurred to me that I generally keep both my creative self and my critical self out of the writing process. I let my ideas come to me while reading, or in conversation, or while I’m out for a walk. Or I’ll improvise for a few minutes during my otherwise rather well-rehearsed lectures and seminars. Or I’ll draw pictures and diagrams. Or I’ll just lie there, on the sofa, and think. My “inner critic”, on the other hand, generally only gets to decide whether to publish a paragraph or not — whether it should be discarded or rewritten. While I’m writing, I’m not trying to be either creative or critical; I’m just trying to be clear. I’m trying to say as plainly as I can what I want to say.

I’m sure that’s not everyone’s experience of writing. My approach assumes that you have countless things to say, that you have the authority to say a great many things, and that writing, the author’s craft, is the art of constructing a highly focused experience for another human being. In the case of a paragraph, it is an experience that will last about one minute. The experience of writing is ultimately that of caring about what happens to the reader during that minute. After all, you decide exactly what does happen; one word after another will pass through the reader’s mind and you decide which ones and in which order. You choose them on the basis of the creative and critical work you have already done, well before the moment of writing. Your writing, in that sense, connects some future reader with your past. That, if you ask me, is what it should feel like to write.

It should also feel sane and strong. Not only are you the one who has decided what to say, and you can therefore make sure you know what you’re talking about, you also have much more time at your disposal than the reader. Your writing moment, ideally, will last 27 times longer than the reader’s reading moment. You are writing about something you know for reader that you know, i.e., a reader whose state of mind (the knowledge and experience they bring to your text) you understand (because they’re a peer and you have read some of their work too). Take your time. Decide carefully what you want to say. And think just as carefully about what your reader will find difficult in that message. Then relax and choose the best words you know to overcome the difficulty. Do that for a good few minutes. Let the critic evaluate the results later.

I’m often embarrassed about the typos in my old posts, even if there are only one or two in a post of 1000 words. Today, I’m going to be extra careful and make sure my draft is really “clean”. But do feel free to point out the error (yes, hopefully, only one!) that I missed.

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