What I’m Doing When I Write

I recently attended the James Tiptree Jr. Symposium at the University of Oregon, which was an energetic and inspiring event. During one panel, Ursula K. Le Guin said that, “New artists often have to teach us how to read them.” My wife, Erica, immediately nudged me and said, “That’s you.”

I’ve been meaning to write about my writing for a long time. It seems like my work is unique, and often misunderstood. This is a common problem for artists whose work does not attempt to imitate other work that has previously been successful. When readers try to interpret such artists’ work through the lens of what they are already familiar with, instead of accepting it on its own terms, it is easy for them to feel that what is different is different because it is bad.

The Young Garden Manifesto is, among many things, an artist’s manifesto, and one of the things it advocates is for talented artists to strike out into virgin territory and work new ground with new methods, completely free and unbound by the past. When I write, I consciously avoid internalizing forms and structures, or working out fixed patterns and template solutions to literary problems. I approach every literary problem, to some extent — even this paragraph — with a blank mind. Allowing my blank mind to contemplate the problem, I gradually form an idea of what the solution should be and how to implement it. I never put myself into the position of saying, “Here is a problem of type X, I’ll apply a solution to it of type Y.”

I don’t know if it is obvious or not, but this is the most difficult way to write. It sometimes results in my work having uneven edges, but what I lose with this process is more than made up for by what I gain. Among other things, it is the only way to instill my work with the fidelity and essentiality that I value as an artist. This fidelity and essentiality, art in its raw essence, is the thing that I myself seek as a reader, as a viewer, as an audience member, and can rarely find.

When I speak of ‘working new ground with new methods’, I do not mean an arbitrary rejection of the past. I do not hearken back to the 20th Century’s childish “avant-garde” movements, which I actually have little respect for. Those sorts of reactionary movements against the past, which treat breaking from the old as an admirable quality in and of itself, are creative impulses still defined by the past tradition they supposedly reject. I don’t believe artists should avoid, and I don’t avoid, past traditions, patterns, styles, or aesthetics, but they also shouldn’t be bound by them. Artists should be free to partake (or not partake) of the past in whatever way they see fit, to own it and change it to suit their own purposes, and while using it to still act without being bound or obligated by it. Being truly unbound and unfettered, they should freely practice and create what is new. What is unbound by the past is necessarily free, whereas an arbitrary rejection of the past is still essentially bound by it. The new art created in this process may or may not look very much like the old art that come before it, and that is ok.

I am perfectly happy to adopt old forms, I am perfectly happy to use cliches, I am perfectly happy to borrow from the plots and ideas of other writers — but I’m never imitating a thing, I’m never following a rule, I’m never building according to a model. When I create, I am always trying to create a new thing, and the most perfect new thing that I can. New things are often created with old objects. A new thing is a living thing, a thing with the spark of creation in it. The imitation of old things never has that spark. Being unbound by the past is not a goal, not a value in itself, but a means to an end.

Thinking about art in these terms reminds me of philosopher Paul Feyerabend’s scientific manifesto, Against Method. Feyerabend meant something slightly different from what I am talking about, but similar; his fundamental point was that in science whatever really counts is simply whatever really works, and that methodological rules and constraints aside from that are invalid. If a researcher discovers a new photo-synthesizing process to harvest energy from the sun, the outcome of their research, their discovery, is what matters; the method they used to achieve the discovery, their intellectual process or theoretical framework, is ultimately irrelevant to the fact of their discovery. If the Wright Brothers can build a flying machine, the flight theories and principles of thousands of eminent physicists and engineers who cannot build a flying machine have little value in comparison. Or, as Feyerabend himself famously summarized it, “Anything goes.”

Art is different, because it allows no empirical standard with which we can judge ‘what works’, but it should still be the case that “anything goes.”

I have no time or sympathy, as an artist, for the solutions of other artists, to other problems, or the habitual inclinations of the public, to the things they have been conditioned to enjoy. If you have a problem with the way I used my commas in my last sentence I have no sympathy — thought went into it, it was a conscious choice, a weighing up of options and values by an artist who has spent a great deal of time doing exactly that. If it doesn’t fit what a high school teacher, or a college professor, or a manual of style teaches is correct — I don’t care. I scorn manuals of style and the people with the presumption to write them. I might use one in my work if it is useful to me, it is no mission of mine to contradict them, but I scorn them insofar as they become an obstacle to my creating and implementing, with complete freedom, the best solutions I am capable of to the creative challenges I encounter as an artist.

If I sound resentful, it is not mainly because of my experience as a writer, but because of my experience as a reader and consumer of art. I have so deeply loved the works of art that I have loved. Art is the reflection of human consciousness at its most sublime, in fact it is the transcendence of human consciousness. A sin against art is to me a grievous sin. In my life I have often observed freshness and creativity in others nullified by the pedantic proscriptions of morons and their mindless legions of followers. Today this would be more likely to take the form of scorn for a young person writing like Charles Dickens than one writing like James Joyce. That style of writing is dead and buried, didn’t you hear? An authority figure told me so! It’s not what good writers are supposed to be writing. These people whose minds function through preconception and constraint, who seem incapable of a single original thought, whose aesthetic sentiment is derived from nothing more than holding a licked finger up to the atmosphere of recent history and seeing which way the winds have blown — fuck them.

Let me shift gears, because this article was not intended to be a rant. But I won’t apologize for what I have said, because I endeavor in my work, including this article, to be honest in a way that many people find uncomfortable. I look for that honesty in other artists’ work, I thirst for it. It seems to be very rare.

Even if anything goes, everything does not go. In fact, most things are quite horrible and do not go at all, whether they are new or old. The new is even more likely to be horrible than the old, because what is passed down to us from the old is, for the most part, the best of it, while the new comes to us largely unfiltered. Whether a writer’s or an artist’s work ‘goes’ comes down largely to the talents and insights of that individual writer or artist.

But again, although anything goes, and although most things do not go, the way everything goes is according to certain realities and parameters. These realities and parameters may be conscious on the part of the writer/artist or they may not be. What I mean is, to focus on writing specifically now, there are qualities of texts, inevitabilities of the act of writing, and inevitabilities of the act of reading that are universal. A writer does not have to be conscious of the cadence of their words for the cadence to still be a part of what they write. It is not possible to write words without cadence, so while one writer (like myself) might focus more on cadence than another writer, it is still an aspect of every writer’s work (even deaf writers). In this way, as I proceed to discuss several of the thoughts and considerations that go into my own work, please bear in mind that much or perhaps even most of what I talk about applies equally to every person writing words (even you), whether they realize it or not.

What I am doing when I write is to a large extent what everyone is doing when they write, only amplified and made conscious to an extreme. [There are also, of course, significant aspects of my process and what is happening in my mind when I write that most other people do not share.] When we write something, our brains have to process many different considerations at the same time. All of the integral aspects of writing mutually affect each other, so they have to be processed continuously and simultaneously.

The fact that your brain must do several difficult things continuously and simultaneously while you write means that intuition always plays an important part in the process. I am not going to discuss the intuitive aspect of the process much in this article, but it is important to bear it in mind, and it should be viewed as a subtext behind the entire discussion.

In all cases, but especially in literary work, what happens when we write is not reducible in a straightforward or comprehensive way. This is true of many difficult things that we do in life, such as driving a car, but in writing the number of different elements, the difficulty of their calculation, the complexity with which they mutually affect each other, and our need to exercise a measure of conscious control and insight over them collectively, are all heightened to an extraordinary degree.

Remember that the use of language, which is what writing boils down to, is one of the greatest and most philosophically impenetrable of human intellectual accomplishments. The fact that we can talk to each other is amazing! Writing, which gives speakers the luxury of perfect memory and time, can carry language to its most far reaching and ambitious potentials.

Moving into specifics, we can begin by talking about ‘line’ or ‘plot’. To define it very simply, a plot is the sequence of events in the story. Plots traditionally start out slowly and gradually build up speed and momentum, reaching the story’s “climax” or height of action near its end and then rapidly decelerating to conclusion.

Before I write any story, I usually have in my mind a rough idea of the overall plot. It is hard to write any kind of story without that, because it is hard to build anything without a rough idea of what you are building. If you don’t begin with at least a notion of the overall plot to work from (as is common in episodic television), all you can do is try to fool the reader with a lot of jukes and head feints by pretending that you do (as is common in episodic television, e.g. Twin Peaks, Lost, X-files). Imagine trying to build a structure without any plan. You lay a wall here, you lay a wall there, you put a door and a window in this wall and in that wall — without some overall plan in mind all you are likely to end up with is a big pile of trash. At various stages of the construction it may nevertheless appear to observers as if thought and planning have gone into the structure and therefore something worthwhile is being built.

Note: This does not mean that the plot will not change as I go along.

So, whenever I write, whatever I write, a part of my mind is weighing up and calculating against the overall plot that I am trying to build. This is even true in a non-fiction essay like the one you are reading, although then the word ‘line’ makes more sense than ‘plot’. The plot can speed up or slow down, it can expand or contract, it can rise or fall, it can kindle a reader’s emotions or assuage them. And every word that is written in a story or article has an impact on the overall plot or line.

Then, of course, there are plots within plots, and lines within lines. So, for example, if two characters in a book have a conversation, that conversation has a plot or line of its own. In fact, if it is long or dense, that one conversation between characters may contain multiple plots and lines. Sometimes even a sentence can contain its own plot, its own climax, its own rise and fall. When I write, a part of my brain continuously calculates these sub-plots and sub-lines both in and of themselves and in their relation to the larger plot(s) and line(s) in which they fall.

Even as the brain continuously processes plot and line (or should do), it also continuously processes the meaning and logic of the words.

Language is imperfect. There is no such thing as a perfect sentence, a perfect word, or a perfect story. Language is a symbolic representation of ideas that exist organically in our minds. Whenever we use language, therefore, our minds are constantly calculating how well the symbolic representations (our words) match up with the ideas they are meant to represent. They rarely match up very perfectly, and we all exert a continuous mental effort to correct and edit ourselves in our attempts to communicate through language with other people. When we write, we have the luxury of time to polish and perfect the symbolic representation of our ideas, so this process of the brain is more pronounced and more conscious. Do our words really reflect what we mean? Our brain continuously scans through arrays of potential words and expressions, trying some, discarding others, weighing the pros and cons, in its effort to communicate with language. Take two similar expressions: “I ran to the damn store!” and “I ran to the god damn store!” The first expression might more perfectly express what happened, while the second might more accurately express the speaker’s emotion about what happened. Inserting the word ‘god’ heightens the emotional intensity of the expression, but also produces a different mix of connotations and idea associations that pull the meaning of the expression slightly further away from the simple idea of running to the store. For a given purpose, fidelity to the organic idea in the mind will be more or less important. In normal conversation, a subtle difference such as the difference between saying “damn” or “god damn” may not be significant relative to the amount of time and effort it takes to the brain to compare the two, so we will simply say whichever option comes to mind first. Nevertheless, some part of our brain has to operate continuously to process different options of expression and choose among them.

Of course, our mental faculties are not merely tasked with processing the meaning of our words. While we write, we also are continuously processing the ideas behind the words, testing and refining them, in a kind of loop pattern. The ideas behind our words and the expression of those ideas each feed back into each other. The ideas shape the expression of the ideas, but the expression of the ideas also helps to modify or reshape the ideas themselves, which as they shape and change lead to new sets of expressions to represent them, and so on. Language helps us to grasp the ideas in our minds more consciously and with more control than is otherwise possible.

So as I write I am not only asking the question, “Am I clearly expressing what I mean?”, but also questions like, “What exactly do I mean?” and “Is what I mean correct?”

Moving back up to a higher level of abstraction in the writing process, more in the vein of plot and line, when I write I am also continuously calculating the juxtaposition of different ideas. The way that different ideas are juxtaposed against each other plays a large part in the tone or color of a work of writing, and is an essential element in all art [as long as we are willing to accept the abstract sounds of music as ‘ideas’]. Each idea in a work of writing reflects against the ideas around it, coloring and being colored by them, altering the meaning and emotion in the work, sometimes dramatically. Even the echoes of ideas impact each other.

Consider these sentences:

Broccoli can be beautiful or ugly. It can be fresh and green and delicious, or it can be brown and wilted. It can smell. It can grow mold. It can make delicious meals.

Broccoli can be beautiful, fresh, green and delicious. It can make delicious meals. It can also be brown and wilted. It can smell. It can grow mold.

The way the different ideas are juxtaposed against each other affects how they feel and the nuance of what they mean. In the first example, the mixture of bad and good elements gives a disordered impression of what broccoli is like. There is not a strong sense of good or bad, because each good or bad trait is immediately juxtaposed against its contradiction. In the second sentence the idea of both good broccoli bad broccoli is much more vividly realized because the “good broccoli” ideas are repeated in succession, allowing them to reinforce each other, and then the same is done with the “bad broccoli” ideas. Neither example is better written than the other one, they’re simply different.

As I write, I am trying to be constantly aware of the juxtaposition of ideas not only from word to word, and sentence to sentence, but from paragraph to paragraph, page to page, and chapter to chapter. The juxtaposition of ideas in a story is at the heart of a reader’s experience of it. Whether I have two fast, emotional chapters with a cerebral intellectual chapter between them, or have the two chapters in succession and the intellectual chapter after them, can have a huge impact on how the story affects a reader and what it ultimately means to them. It isn’t only a question of order, it’s also a question of inclusion. The intellectual chapter might alter the tone of the story too much either way, it might need to be removed. If I am writing a story about abortion, whether that story also includes a suicide in it could have a significant impact on the meaning to the reader of abortion in that story, irrespective of the order in which the ideas come up. Language is linear, but ideas are not exactly linear. The idea expressed five pages ago still touches the idea that is expressed five pages from now, and vice versa.

We’re only scratching the surface. Does it start to seem like too much to think about at once? Of course it is! That is why writing well is difficult and why great writers are among the most celebrated of human beings.

It is too much for anyone to consider all at once, we merely try. But consider this: the reader experiences it all at once. They experience the plot, and the expression, and the words, and the juxtaposition, and everything else about your work, all in a continuous stream. As a writer, you can’t think only about juxtaposition of ideas, and then only about plot line, and then only about logic and meaning — at any given time you may be focused more on one aspect or another, but to a large extent you still have to process everything else too, continuously and simultaneously. Your brain does that anyway, but to be conscious of it, and start to understand it, and do it well, is an extraordinary feat.

Let’s not stop there, though.

Words are also sounds, and literature is also music. When I write, the musical quality of the language is extremely important to me. I am always on some level processing the cadence of the words, the space and breath and flow of time, and how the sound of the words interacts with their meaning. I do not believe in the distinction between poetry and prose.

Consider these examples:

There is black in the pitch at the heart of the human soul. There is darkness in it.

The human soul’s heart contains pitch with black in it. It also contains darkness.

The sound matters! For me, the sound of the words is among the most important qualities of literature. It’s something that I am always conscious of.

Of course, some readers do not sub-vocalize when they read. They are scarcely conscious of the sound of the words. Some writers are that way, too. It’s not wrong to read the way they do, but it misses something.

Readers are all individuals, with specific perspectives and specific needs. I don’t try to write for everyone. I write the books that I believe in, and hope that is enough. Any work that has substance is intrinsically divisive; some will hate it. One of my reviews on Amazon says that I have the writing ability of a middle school student. That’s ok.

If you want to be a writer, ask yourself this: who do you want to write for? What’s the point of your work? Art isn’t really a business. If your motivation for writing is wanting to be a writer you will never be able to produce meaningful work. You may work hard and be extraordinarily lucky, you may touch a commercial nerve and live to look down on artists like myself from the roof of a Manhattan penthouse. It’s possible. But your work will still be essentially meaningless.

Is that your dream?

My own path isn’t necessarily better, but I believe in it.

Though, I digress.

It isn’t only sound, the written word is also a visual medium. So, always while you write a part of your brain must process the visual character of your work. This is especially noticeable in the use of punctuation. Consider the sentence: “He was stabbed!”

The impact is different if we write it: “He was stabbed–!”

Including something like a double dash or an em dash before the exclamation point is a visual reference to the act being described, making the sentence more about the act of stabbing and less about the fact of the stabbing. It changes the impact of the sentence to make it more abrupt and visceral.

Compressing the sentence, we might end up with simply, “Stabbed!”

The compression comes not only from the absence of words, but also from the actual visual compression of it. The visual effect similarly comes into play if instead of compressing the sentence we expand it:

“The blade came forward, through space, through the air, piercing his shirt and skin, until it was in him.”

Expanding the sentence expands the sense of time in which the event happens for the reader, and the first cue to this expansion is the visual one. Before the reader’s brain processes much of the meaning of the sentence it will have registered the length of the sentence and a rough estimation of what the sentence is about.

Once again, it is not possible to revise these individual aspects in isolation, for example to focus only on the cadence of the words in one revision and only on the visual impact of the words in the following revision, because each individual aspect interacts with the others. Changing the cadence inevitably changes the visual aspect of the words, and changing the visual aspect changes the cadence.

I’ve mentioned the reader a few times now, so let’s wrap this up by talking a little bit more about that. Imagining the person you are communicating with is intrinsic to the use of language, even if that person is yourself. When we write, it is particularly important to imagine our readers. This is another thing that the writer’s brain has to process continuously and simultaneously.

Always when I write, some part of my brain is trying to interpret the work through the perspective of an imagined reader. What does this look like to someone who is seeing it for the first time? How does it read, how does it feel? What does it mean to someone who is not me, who doesn’t have my background, my quirks, or my prejudices? What does it mean to someone who believes things that I don’t believe? In fact, it isn’t only one reader that I am thinking about, but a cloud of imagined perspectives that are foreign to my own.

What writing is, what it means, is a collaboration between the writer and the reader. A story cannot exist without a reader, or an audience. For works that become popular, their meaning even becomes a collective collaboration of readers. You have to write with your readers in your mind! Your insight into the human condition, into psychology, into what and how other people think, will play an enormous role in your work whether you want it to or not.

I think that spending long periods of time with this consciousness of the collective reader, the cloud of foreign perspectives, is a beautiful thing. It’s also haunting, in a way. Maybe it is in part responsible for the self-doubt that serious writers often struggle with. You hear so many voices and responses to your work, even before anyone else reads it. Maybe this makes writers more compassionate people. Maybe it makes them more fractured.

Writing is difficult, it is not something that I enjoy. When people say they love writing, or that it is easy, it makes me wonder what they are doing when they write. If I stop to reflect on it the answer is obvious that what those people call writing and what I call writing are only superficially similar. Of course, some of them are simply lying, saying what they think sounds good, perhaps especially to themselves.

Some of the best things that I have written were written at a shot as fast as I could write them, and have proved resistant to any improvement through editing. Writing that way isn’t easy, either. The emotional and psychological place such a method arises from is difficult and terrifying. It comes to you at a price, and it leaves you with a debt. It is also transcendent and profound. But I am certain that this is not what the people who say they love writing, and say it is easy, are talking about.