Tuesday, July 18, 2006

My blank page

It is done.

Well, a solid draft of it, at any rate--a draft of my book. Having (nearly) completed what amounts to a Herculean amount of writing in just the last few months, I figured now would be an appropriate time to reflect a little on my writing process.

I don't know about you, but whenever I write, I hear in my head the voices of dozens of friends, mentors, and teachers, all of whom have given me writing advice over the years. Let me say right off the bat that much--probably most--of it's been invaluable. I'm grateful to all of my formal and informal writing teachers who've made words such an integral part of my life.

The other shoe has to drop, of course, so here it comes. Inasmuch as I value their advice, I find at times that all the rules I've learned through the years can stifle my writing. I get so caught up sometimes on what not to do, that I have a tremendous amount of difficulty producing any writing at all. Here are just a few examples of "the rules":

  • Never split a verb infinitive (e.g., don't say, "to better explore...")

  • Never leave a dangling participle (e.g., don't say, "the store I left my wallet in."

  • Never end a sentence on a linking verb (e.g., don't say, "She's better than he is.)

  • Avoid the construction, "is that..."

  • Avoid using passive voice constructions (e.g., don't say, "The gift was given to them...")

  • Avoid using the presumptive "we"

  • Don't use contractions

  • Don't start a sentence with the conjunction, "and"

  • Don't use the word "this" without following it directly with a noun

  • Don't address your audience using the direct or implied "you"

  • Minimize your use of the pronoun "I" and avoid it where possible

  • I'm sure there are dozens more, but these most immediately come to mind. The funny thing about these "rules" is that, the more I write, the more I find myself violating them. (See--I just broke the "is that" rule right there.)

    In Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, Gilles Deleuze talks about the art of painting as an art of chasing away all the cliches that occupy any unpainted canvas. I feel the same way when I write: my blank page is full of prosaic statements that challenge me constantly to write something poetic, insightful, moving, or otherwise meaningful. Yet, I also feel as though my blank pages is filled with all the writing advice that's been given to me over the years, advice that sometimes makes it hard for me to say anything at all.

    The most excruciating--and perhaps best--writing advice that was ever given to me came from my 9th grade English teacher. I recall her making the class write highly structured paragraphs, including topic sentences, support, evidence, and clinchers. Any deviation from "the form" would result in lost points. As much as I may have resented the structure at the time, today I often find that when I have trouble writing, I return to this, my base. Interestingly, it's one of the few affirmative pieces of writing advice that I've received--a far cry from all the "don'ts," "avoids," and "nevers."

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