On Writing (part I)

by @raimondiand

On Time and Writing

Writing has always played a fundamental role in the course of human history. What occurred in the past is mostly known by the work of people that reported events, battle, stories of great conquerors, life and cultures from different continents. What occurs today is mostly known through chronicles, reports, and analysis of what goes on in our political, cultural and social life. What will occur in the future too can be known through writings: masterplans, public policies, even people personal diaries.

Even thought writing can enlighten timely events, it is essentially a trans-temporal form of communication. Take this sentence “Andrea enters the room just to find his computer on the table, turned on, with a mysterious message flashing on the screen”. Supposedly, you now have a picture of me, an image of a table, of a computer and you are probably waiting to know what the content of the mysterious message is.

It’s the end of July and I’m sitting here writing this post. While you are picturing those images in your mind you are probably far away in the future from me; maybe in the coming winter, maybe next spring. Nonetheless, I’m here with you creating images in your mind with the sentences I put on paper. [1]

How this communication works? First, notice that, in the previous sentence, I didn’t conveyed a bunch of essential information: the dimension of the table, the design of the room, and the brand of the computer. Does it really matter for you to communicate with me? no. It is essential for the reader to have enough imaginative space to keep the communication gate open.

For instance, you want to know more about the message on the screen. Did someone left the apartment leaving a message behind? or is it a chat? or again, did someone hack into the computer? to discover it, you should keep reading. A good piece of writing is a temporal gate, stable enough to maintain communication up and running.

While reading this post you are maybe in your room, or maybe at a café somewhere. But you are also here with me, in a place without time, in a space without dimensions.

Now that we know where we are, when we are, and what is happening, we can start. After all, which better place to discuss what writing is if not the place we enter when we read.

Which Writing?

To begin with, let us distinguish between Flux writing and Process writing. Whether you write a diary or you are keen to a sort of a la Wolf stream-of-consciousness style, your writing does not require a definite end. I call this, flux writing.

Flux writing has no goals. When you engage with flux writing the only thing required is to start typing. You sit down, you open your laptop and you simply write down thoughts. To have a glimpse of what flux writing is think about the process of writing a personal diary. It is an exercise in self-expression with no other objective than this. There are no rules to follow. And since there are no rules there is nothing to break either. You are free to explore your expressive capacities without boundaries.

But what if we have to write something that should have an end, like a paper. At the beginning there is the problem, at the end there should be (possibly) an answer. It has a beginning and it has an end. I call this one, process writing.

Process writing is more serious business. It is what you engage with when you need to communicate to others than yourself. When you have a public. A public needs to ear stories. If you don’t provide a story, there will be no public. And without a public, you are just barking in the dark.

Stories have a beginning, they have an end. But the path from the former to the latter may vary. Within process writing let us distinguish between prose and essay. 

Proses are very close to informal writing. They might be novels, or screenplays for instance. But they all have one thing in common: the whole story is like a tibetan bridge. It is lean enough to let the reader enjoy the world you created beneath the main path. It is skinny enough to let the reader moving easily through the pages. Overall, it’s a delicate balance between robustness and flexibility. The journey will take readers’ breath away, will trigger their emotions in the deep. It will scare them, maybe. But at the end, if you allow a safe cross to the other edge, they will ask for another ride.

Essays are close to formal writing. Papers are a good example. These are the piece of work mostly similar to roman bridges. The whole story is solid, you can see the plan from the beginning. It is also easy to predict, you will know exactly which steps you are going to take in the journey. Its structure it is purely functional to the arguments conveyed, thus it can be easily replicated. At the end of the journey, if you have been good enough, the reader might be able to describe the path in details, suggest modifications, reuse the bridge structure for her own purpose.

Choose your writing carefully, but practice both with the same dedication. Do not be fooled by the idea that only informal writing or flux writing is creative writing. Creativity embraces the overall act of writing, indiscriminately. Ultimately, creation is a problem of transferring thoughts on paper.

Thou shall not trust those who believe that a plan for your draft can keep you safe. You will always need to transform a plan into a paper. And if you fail to type, there will be no paper for that plan.

Where writing comes from (or, on meeting your inner genius)

Writing is a mysterious process. But the reason why people assume everyone who produce pieces of written work during their office-hours should automatically master writing is even more mysterious.

To me, mastering writing is not about mastering tools. Sure, without tools you can get easily discouraged at the first difficulty. And while you are trying to circumvent it, the resulting piece will be as elegant as hammering a nail with a screwdriver: it looks awful, it will fall soon after and by now you are probably bruised. But notice this occurs already during the writing. You were running and you simply fell into a hole in the ground. Tools don’t help explaining how you started walking in the first place.

There are already lots of good books on writings tools. Perhaps “The Element of Style” by Strunk and White is the most succinct and effective piece to have in your toolbox. Thus, I will not talk about how words form sentences, how sentences compose paragraphs, how paragraphs structure chapters. I have views on my own, but I suspect it would be a waste of your time as much as my time. Instead, I want to talk about mastering writing.

Tools are for building our gate (remember?), but are not the tools that keep the reader reading. She does it only if she feels inspired by your words, moved by your sentence. If you cannot inspire the audience, you will not have an audience. Similarly, if you cannot find your inspiration, you will not have anything on paper. There is no writing without inspiration.

Does it mean people cannot learn how to write? Not at all. As I said, learning how to use tools is mandatory, but it will only makes a competent writer into a good one. There is, then, some learning in your writing. But there is another learning gap no books can help to bridge: the one from good to excellent writer, the genius.

Notice, I am not suggesting you can actually be a genius like the most famous writers in history. And you don’t need to, unless perhaps you are an overambitious professional novelist. In that case, good luck (Oh and in that case I suggest your “pro” label is misplaced, professionals know their limits). For the rest of us mortals, to be an excellent writer only requires to be excellent in expressing yourself. To do that, the only way is to be fine-tuned with your inner genius. Remember, you cannot learn how to be Shakespeare, but you can learn how to get inspired, as Shakespeare was when he was writing his paper, or so I claim.

Any good writer has her genius, any good philosopher her own demon. The first step toward fine-tuning is recognizing you are not in charge. You are merely a mercenary, a scribe reporting what he or she dictates (mine is neither the first nor the second).

She is always there, in the basement of your mind. But she will not speak until you surrender your ego and be ready to listen. She will stares at you till this very moment. And even after, she will seat smoking until she is comfortable with the interior design of the basement and the service you provide. Remember, the genius is the source of your creative work but she requires something back.

Patience, firstly. You should not rush we you spend time with her. Creating a piece of work is not merely an operational activity. Creation is about beauty, is about loving the words you write. If you don’t write something beautiful, you will not love your words. If you don’t love you words, nobody will. So spend as much time as possible with your genius. To make something beautiful time is always required.

Time will also give you an additional benefit. You will build a relationship with your genius. You will learn to understand her speech as much as she will learn to understand your needs. If you do write everyday, if that’s what your job requires, you shall start now.

Second, rewards. Whether is temporary or not, you should be satisfied about the result. Creating is about expressing. The result of expressing is words on paper. That’s enough. Don’t be to harsh in the process of reporting your genius words. If you do it, she will return the favor back. And you don’t want to be in either an abusing or in a fighting relationship with your creative part. Remember, there is always time for revision. And without typing something first, there will be nothing to revise.

Finally, mastership. Once you have spent time with her, and she has understood the basic of your writing needs, you will still need an additional element: control. Don’t be fooled by the idea that the genius is a slave you can mistreat for your own sake. Enlightened masters know that an happy slave is a loyal slave. Any loyal slave knows that an enlightened master can provide reliable guidance. Writer-Genius is a role-partner relationship as much as horseman-horse is. So feed your horse, direct his ride, and let him rest. Without him you can’t go anywhere, without you he cannot manifest its potential.



[1] Steven King calls this trans-temporal phenomenon, telepathy. See Stephen King “On writing”.