Sometimes I wish my students could see me writing—not because it’s me, but because they’d see that even for the guy teaching them, it’s not easy work. They’d see the fits and starts, the pauses and runs. They’d see me leaning my head back, eyes closed, as I search my mind. They’d see me looking things up in the many books surrounding me on my desk and shelves or, more often, on the Internet. They’d discover that my “writing time” is spent mostly not writing but searching, that I never write only what’s already in my head when I first sit down. And they might learn a thing or two about the joy of following a line of thinking far beyond where anyone thought it might go.
This would be valuable in part because so many of them seem to know exactly what they want to say before they set fingers to keyboard, and in part because they’ve been taught to rush-write, to get it all down and “shape” it later, which to them often means “correct” their mistakes. I suspect this not only because I see the results of such a methodology in their workshop drafts, but also because sometimes I assign them exercises in class, and the room fills with machine-gun clacking until I tell them to stop. When I join them, I invariably come up with about a quarter as much as they’ve written.
So I want to make a case here against getting it all down, but not exactly because I’m always against writing quickly. Sometimes the occasion calls for speed. Instead, I distrust the it and the all of that phrase. If, when we write, we already know what it is, then we close ourselves off to exploration and wonder in favor of recounting. And if we allow ourselves to believe in a totality, then we likely fall prey to the naïve notion that our writing is equivalent to what we’re writing about. So instead, I want to urge us to begin with questions and ideas to explore and then let the writing chart its own course.
I’m not the only one who thinks this. Plenty of writers in all genres do likewise. No less an authority than Virginia Woolf began her “Sketch of the Past” this way:
without stopping to choose my way, in the sure and certain knowledge that it will find itself—or if not it will not matter.
And just the other day when I ran into Javier Marías on the sidewalk outside the Prado in Madrid, he told me:
I’m not the kind of writer who knows everything before I start writing a book, or even while I’m writing it. I improvise a lot.
(And no, I didn’t really meet him. He said this to an interviewer.)
Maybe so many nonfictionists resist this advice because they’re writing from preexisting facts. They’re making a textual representation of reality. And maybe I’m talking about a difference between memoir and essay, because in memoir, you have an experience, a story, an event, already completed, that you want to share, while in essay, you have an idea you want to explore. But this is oversimplifying, and I’d argue that in the best memoirs, though the story has already happened, the story is never equivalent to its translation into words. The writing should still be an exploration of meaning and association, a grappling with past selves in an attempt to understand (oneself, one’s situation, then and now).
I know whereof I speak. In truth, I also wish my students could have seen me writing many years ago, when I labored diligently at the very thing I rail against now: simple representation or re-creation of events. My whole goal then was to tell all the cool things that had happened to me. Sometimes I also wanted to twist away from expected endings, or push beyond them, but I always knew ahead of time what I was going to say, and my only challenge in writing was to get it down on paper in nice language.
Then, maybe I ran out of cool things to write about, or I read too many predictable true stories, or I read a lot of meandering essays, and I definitely grew under the tutelage of wise professors who pointed out (repeatedly) the value of unknowing, and I changed my mind. I became dissatisfied with knowing where I was going. I wanted to explore. I think I felt my mind shift course, jump out of a rut.
I began to believe Samuel Johnson’s definition of the essay: “a loose sally of the mind, an irregular, undigested piece.” I began to see essay not as nonfiction but as nonarticle, and to feel the vital distinction Addison notes:
Among my daily-papers which I bestow on the public, there are some which are written with regularity and method, and others that run out into the wildness of those compositions which go by the names of essays. As for the first, I have the whole scheme of the discourse in my mind before I set pen to paper. In the other kind of writing, it is sufficient that I have several thoughts on a subject, without troubling my self to range them in such order, that they may seem to grow out of one another, and be disposed under the proper heads.
When I fell in love with W. G. Sebald’s books for their peripatetic expatiations, I was unsurprised to hear him claim:
I never liked doing things systematically. . . . You have to take heterogeneous materials in order to get your mind to do something that it hasn’t done before.
This, I think, is the great joy of writing for me: getting my mind to do something that it hasn’t done before.
I expect that many of the people who may read this piece are writers, as accomplished as I or more so, so I demur to tell any of you what to do. You’ve obviously found strategies and methodologies that work for you. But I suspect, too, that some of you are teachers, and you encounter many of the same speed bumps I do in students’ writing. So I shall end with what I hope are some practical applications, which you can work into exercises to pass on to your charges:
1. Begin an essay on the most boring subject you can think of, for instance: “I went to sleep,” or “I went to the store,” or “I cleaned the house.” The sheer boredom of it may force your mind out of narrative mode sideways, into associations. I once did this along with my students and wound up with a stumblingly brief essay not about going to sleep, but about animal-based last names and battles among the musicians in KISS.
2. Similarly, but almost oppositely, begin an essay on the most exciting subject you can think of, but still shake yourself out of recounting what happened, taking the first detour you can find. I’m currently writing an essay about Hurricane Bob (1985), which struck Virginia, where I was camping with the Boy Scouts. Within a few sentences I got away from the drama and into some thinking about hyphenated last names and reconnecting with old friends, and who knows what else will result.
3. If you have a group of writers, surprise them with an “exquisite corpse” assignment (after the Surrealists): let each begin an essay on a subject or memory of their choice (or yours), but interrupt them after a few minutes and require them to pass along what they’ve written, or switch computers, leaving only the last sentence visible to the next writer. That writer should take inspiration from what they see and continue writing, being sure to remain nonfictional. (In other words, they can’t simply try to imagine what happens next in their classmate’s story; they must become the I of the piece now.) Then, after a couple more minutes, have them blank out or fold over all but their last sentence, and everybody switches again, continuing for a few rounds until no individual owns the words left on each page. This will likely force the students out of narrative mode (they cannot recount a story they don’t know) and into associative mode.
4. You might also, without sharing documents and given any old subject prompt or no prompt at all, call out interruptions as your students are writing, in order to disrupt their ability to tell a straight narrative from beginning to end. For instance, you might ask them to describe a scene with sensory details; then, before they’re likely to have finished, shift their attention to the etymology of one of the words they used in their last sentence; then, again before they can finish, ask them to write a memory called up by that word they’ve been exploring; then, when they’re deep in their past, ask them to explore a difference between how they thought then and how they think now.
These exercises might leave you with a big mess, but disrupting default techniques and behaviors will certainly, in the long term, free you from caring about getting it all down and equip you and your students to write more surprising and interesting work, which is to say, to essay more.