Mr. Smith was a very strange man. His red-jowled face frightened me; his personal life stories made me slightly queasy. Huddled in protective groups, like circled wagons, we created mythologies about him in hastily penned notes on scraps of paper. More than one epic short poem made harsh reference to his blank, alchoholic looking eyes. But, in my freshman year of High School, Mr. Smith gave me a great gift. He taught me to write.
Not that I am, mind you, particularly brilliant in this regard. I will never be able to pour my thoughts down through the keys straight into prose that will, by virtue of its universal appeal, create peace on earth. My spelling and grammar will always make an editor wince. No, what Mr. Smith did for me was not that. What he showed me, instead, was how to sculpt and to craft and to massage these foreign looking symbols into an ordered parade that more clearly expressed my thoughts. Prior to that year I had been using commas and other punctuation like table salt – sprinkle a little here, sprinkle a little there. I just could -not- grasp sentence structure to save my life (or anyone elses). Adjectives, I got those! Adverbs, we were best friends! Hanging it all together? Meh, not so much. I just couldn’t get the hang of making something coherent, something with rhythm.
Freshman english, though, and Mr. Smith in particular, gave me a very specific insight that would change how I looked at words and how I approached the whole “writing thing” – even though I’m not entirely sure he intended to. The revelation was that a piece of writing is a thing in and of itself. It tends to run in a linear fashion when you read it, but that’s just coincidental to its nature. The real, true fact of a piece of writing – whether it’s a novel, an article, or an email – is that it’s an object. It can be built. It doesn’t have to be done in order. It can be shaved, trimmed, buffed, rearranged, and ultimatelty engineered into a finished product. The sentences, the paragraphs, and the grammar are all part of an orchestra that work together for a common goal, completely out of time. (I swear, I’m not using these words to add a bit of flourish to this entry, they’re really the terms I use in my head.)
Somehow, this concept made grammar and syntax and putting words down on paper “click” for me and gave me a solid mentral framework on which to hang my future development. I’m not sure if I ever would’ve gotten it in quite the same way otherwise. “But”, you might be wondering, “why is he bringing this up here? and now?”
I”m bringing it up because I’ve recently noticed how similar my approaches to creating art and to writing are. When I work on a piece of art, whether it’s in conte crayon, pastel, pencil, charcoal, paint, or whatever, the process reminds me a lot of sculpting. There is something beneath the paper, something that already exists, that needs to be fleshed out. I’m not creating something new at all, just trying to reveal what’s in my head. I’ll put markers down here and there on the paper, quick gesture lines or dabs of color where I’m most sure of the form and the shape. Then I’ll fill in some detail where I already intimately know what it should look like. After that, I begin to connect the two and use what’s on the paper to imply what should come next. It’s an iterative effort that does not follow an “outline to detail to completion” process. It does not go left to right, top to bottom. The process is almost like completing a jigsaw puzzle. One piece put in place hints at what the next should be.
In writing, I work almost exactly the same way. I’ll either start out with a detail, or I’ll know my hook, or else I’ll just throw something arbitrarily down and let it work itself out from there. One thought leads to the next. My instructors (Jody Jaffe and John Muncie) in the Feature Writing class called “interviewing” a “directed conversation”. I like that term and my writing and art processes work the same way for me. I know basically what I want to get out of it, but the “conversation” I have with myself, my materials, and the piece of paper is its own thing and I just ride the process until the idea has been fully exposed.
It’s interesting to me that writing and other arts are so similar. The process is the same, just the materials of expression change.