6 Misconceptions about Writing – No.4

Returning to Rebecca McClanahan’s essay, here is No. 4: Writers have something important to say.

Rebecca McClanahan

“There’s that phrase again: Writers have. In our earlier discussion, what writers
have is time; now, what they have is something important to say. This notion is
a doubled-edged sword. The first edge—that writers have something—suggests
that writers already possess something whole and complete in itself, before any
word is written. Since this something (call it an idea, concept, character,
emotion, story, vision) is already fully formed, the writer’s job becomes simply
putting this something into words.
Put into words. This phrase says much about how the writing process is often
perceived. Put into words suggests that language is merely the container, the
holding bin, into which something is placed. If I just had a great story to tell, so
this theory goes, I could tell it. If I could just work out the kinks in this idea, the
hard part would be done; then all I’d have to do is write it.
When we buy into this notion, we rob ourselves of the permission to begin
without knowing exactly where we’re going, we rob the something of its chance
to grow and change, and we rob language of its chance to help shape and
reshape the something. When we buy into this notion, words become powerless.
They hold no sway. They are merely the box into which we place our already
perfectly complete thought, story or vision.

Is it any wonder we despair? Some of us, having decided in advance that our
words will never be able to carry the weight of what we want to say, never write
the first word. And even those who do manage to break through the wall of initial
doubt often get no farther than a first draft. We have failed to capture our
grandfather, the yellow kitchen, the black dog. We haven’t written the poem that
seemed so clear in our mind or the story that appeared in our dream. If only I
could find the right words, we think, as if the dictionary were at fault. Or we
blame ourselves: We are just not up to the task. Someone else would be able to
put into words this vision I have. We may begin to question whether what we
have to say is worth the paper it’s written on.
Which leads us to the other edge of this double-sided sword: Writers have
something important to say. What do we mean by important? Well, it depends on
whom you ask:
Tolstoy, in What is Art?, suggests that in addition to its other qualities, art is a
new idea which is important to mankind. Yikes, I think. That’s one big shoe to
fill. Maybe I shouldn’t even try.
Commercial publishers would have us believe we have something important
to say if someone is willing to buy it.
And some writers believe what they have to say is important simply because
something of import—by which they mean unusual, strange, horrible, or
noteworthy—happens to them. But if this is the case, why do we abandon, often
after only a few pages, a book written by someone who sailed around the world
or broke an Olympic record or murdered her husband or had affairs with three
presidents, yet keep going back to that same little story on our shelf, the one
about an old woman who does nothing more than take a walk to town?

‘Wait a minute,’ you might be saying. ‘I’ve read ‘A Worn Path,’ and you’re
not playing fair. Eudora Welty could write about a shoelace and make it seem
important.’ Well, maybe you’re right. Maybe a great writer can nudge a
seemingly trivial something to the ranks of greatness merely through the force of
her words.
Or maybe, just maybe, the process is a group effort, a three-headed
committee composed of Eudora, a something, and the words. Maybe no one is
totally in charge, maybe they all just sit around the table and listen to one
another. Really listen. The something talks for a while, then language comes in
and mixes things up, then Eudora comes in to smooth out the wrinkles, but while
she’s talking, the something pipes up again, and this goes on all morning and
into the afternoon, but by the time the three of them knock off for the day, a plan
is in motion. And if they keep at it, by the next day (or week, or year), the
business will be accomplished. Perhaps not in the manner any of the three might
have imagined beforehand. Still, the work gets done. And it’s none too shabby,
they agree, walking out the door together, turning off the light. None too shabby
at all.”

Ms McClanahan has captured my feelings about ‘Something to Say’ very well indeed.

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