Maybe the reason I both love and despise writing so much is because writing makes me think. Think, not in the constant, stream-of-consciousness way that accompanies my waking hours and engagement with the world, whether welcome or not, but think in the way that commands me to slow down and hold steady for a moment, to stop and be still. Many minutes will pass when I hold my hands poised over the keyboard, ready for the words to spurt forward, and instead I write nothing. Other times my thoughts will race so quickly that my mediocre typing skills can hardly keep pace, but what is strange is that although the thoughts arrive in a rush, they are the thoughts that come from deep inward contemplation. Sometimes phrases of sheer profundity find themselves on my computer screen, and I wonder how such observations had developed, where they had been hidden.
Did I write that? Where did that come from? I can stare at the words on the page and realize that my writing muscles have communicated something to me in a way that my brain never could. Writing muscles are different from thought waves—like our hamstrings and glutes and triceps, they reward us only after we have strained them. Thoughts may flitter about, at times leading to places of fruitfulness, at times to places of banality or irreverence or strangeness, and at times to places of plain misguidedness or stupidity, but writing requires a certain type of discipline. Not too much discipline, or fatigue sets in and the muscle becomes overtaxed, but a slight control to its chaos. I walk with my thoughts: it is as though I could go on forever, although I can eventually become quite bored and not want to continue. I run uphill with my writing: with each strike of the key, my muscles become stronger but also slightly more exhausted. I know that I cannot run forever, but the release, at least for a little while, feels good. And when I reach the top, I often find something worth seeing: clarity, meaning, promise, and sometimes merely chaos, but beautiful chaos nonetheless because carefully chosen words confront us time and time again with the extraordinary nature of the ordinary. A cigar is never just a cigar.
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None of us really writes anymore, though. Not in the pen and paper, contemplative, scratch out-and-start again way. When we type our minds too easily become numb. We do not see the mistakes we have made, the process through which our thoughts and mental energies have traveled; we are not held accountable to the words that we have written and let free in our utterly un-self-conscious release, thought better of it, and then scratched out. With the tap of the “delete” key, our vulnerability disappears. We may present ourselves as polished, perfect, together, composed, exacting…the turmoil in getting to that point—the truth that we have never actually arrived at that point—falls away. Word processors provide powerful masks.
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I never have cared much for poetry. The reading between the lines, the searching for meaning, the mapping my own experience onto the poet’s words never appealed to me. I prefer writing to be more straightforward, at least that is what I tell myself. Perhaps it is more that the entire world is poetry to me. I less need to find reason for introspection or reflection in words on a page than in life’s textbook: the Southern country clubber’s shame over her son’s homosexuality, the grass vacillating between crunchy brown, dead, and pale green, hanging on for life, and the smell of burnt coffee in every church parish hall offer poetry enough. I can see how attending to the constraints of meter and form may be helpful, though. Sometimes boundaries free us to express that which is most basic to ourselves. We have somewhere to fall; we know we will not find ourselves entirely swept into no-man’s-land as we attend to our emotions and thoughts. From senselessness we derive rhythm and order, a rhythm and order that nonetheless still paradoxically gives expression to senselessness.
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I like adverbs and adjectives too much. I found this out in graduate school, when professors would slash through my carefully and painstakingly crafted descriptions, their marks complemented with questions of “Is this really necessary?” “Be concise!” But I continue to hold that writing does not strive for concision. If one wants concision, read agendas or minutes or manuals, not writing.