On Writing; and, Along the Tracks, Barron, Wisconsin

Along the Tracks, Western Wisconsin

Along the Tracks, Barron, Wisconsin

Willan responded to one of my earlier posts and asked me a question about writing.

Here is his question:

I was interested to know how you center yourself and
clear your thoughts before writing. I have had a difficult
time clearing my thoughts in getting my ideas out there.
I truly do take pleasure in writing however it just seems like the
first 10 to 15 minutes are usually wasted just trying to figure out how
to begin. Any recommendations or tips?

I began writing my reply; but the reply became so long that I decided to create a new post.

So let me respond to Willan here.

First, as for “clearing [one's] thoughts”: I’m probably not the best person to give advice on that topic. I have been an attorney for quite a while, and I’ve learned simply to sit down and start writing.

But I have also taught writing over the years, and I’m back in the teaching gig again. So let me offer this advice: Don’t worry about how you begin. Just start. Almost all writing is revision anyway. The important thing is to put words on paper. Then go back through them–cutting, adding, rearranging.

In some ways, writing is more akin to painting in watercolors than it is to photography. The analogy is not precise, but here’s my thought: A photographer can (and many photographers do) visualize the final photograph before they take the photograph. They know the result in advance. (Ansel Adams writes about this.) By contrast, watercolorists deal with a more treacherous medium. If you paint wet into wet, you cannot fully predict the result. Yes, the artist will have a general idea of the result; but the final result will almost certainly be different in the details. And sometimes the result is very different–for better or worse.

In writing as in painting in watercolor, one must be prepared for happy accidents. Let me note that this analogy itself is such an accident–a happy one, I think. Before this evening, I had never compared the arts of writing, photography, and watercolor. I’m not quite sure why the analogy came to me. But I am absolutely certain that I would never have thought of this analogy had I not been writing this blog post on this evening.

I also suspect that you’re not truly wasting those first ten to fifteen minutes. Generally speaking, writing is a process of discovery–a point that I just illustrated. Writing does not consist merely in transferring already formed ideas onto paper (real or digital). (Again, I am speaking generally; but I think that the exceptions are very few.)

The great poet Theodore Roethke wrote, “We think by feeling.” (“The Waking.”) Neuropsychologists confirm the truth of Roethke’s observation: mind is a representation of body states. That is why the flavor of the dunked madeleine unlocked Proust’s memory. Our bodies quite literally are our minds; or, to phrase it another way, our minds consist not only in but of our bodies.

So mind is body, and body is mind; and writing consists, not of the orderly downloading from one computer (our minds) to another of ideas that consist of already marshaled sentences, but of the very disorderly process of translating from a state that is not merely analog but biological to a different state: the state of language.

And language is itself, of course, not analog. Our words do not have anything like a one-to-one relationship with reality. Language is a shabby net, cast haphazardly over some portion of experience. And the net of language consists of myriad nodes, connected by innumerable lines: like (and unlike) neurons and synapses. And these nodes and lines–words, sentences, paragraphs, essays, speeches, songs, poems, books, libraries–flicker in and out of existence, at lesser or greater intervals.

Moreover, language does both more and less than attempt (unsuccessfully) to capture experience. Each linguistic performance consists necessarily of something that is different from lived experience; yet each linguistic performance is also a lived experience in and of itself. Thus, even when we try to speak the truth of experience, we end up speaking a different truth–a truth that is a linguistic performance.

On encountering and experiencing a linguistic performance, we may conclude that it feels real: that it captures or reflects our lived experience. That is, of course, not at all surprising. Our understanding of lived experience necessarily reflects our experiences of linguistic performances–our own performances as well as the performances of others.

We do, of course, experience reality in ways that are more or less unmediated by language. Yet we cannot ignore the fact that the dense net of linguistic performances in which we live–performances that have occurred, are occurring, and may occur, although now existing only potentially–profoundly mediates our sense of the lived world.*

And we generate or encounter other linguistic performances that we recognize as being more or less different from lived experience–sometimes very different from lived experience. Those linguistic performances may be more or less meaningful to us. We may find some such performances–performances that I will call “fantastic,” although that term is not quite right (all terms are not quite right)–very powerful. Some, fantastic though they may be, may transform our sense of lived experience. (I am thinking of some of Borges’s amazing fictions.)

Oh, my. How did I find myself here, having begun so modestly, thinking that I might shrug and wish Willan good luck?

Willan, let me return to your question. My answer is: Don’t worry about centering yourself. Permit yourself to be decentered. Aim at one thing, and find your arrow piercing something far different.**

Don’t try to clear your mind. Instead, try to bring to the page (literal or electronic) that fecund clutter. Wrestle with it: defeat it, succumb to it, make a truce with it.

Finally, let me thank you for asking me this question. Had you not asked it, I would not have thought of many of these things. This has been almost entirely a happy accident.

Best regards,


* “Mediates” is correct. It’s a long way from the subject, which is “net.” At other times, I might revise this sentence. But not for this post.

** This is a recommendation for writing creatively–not for archery.