Monday, March 08, 2021

Art and writing share a sense of mystery

My colleague Sue Sommers in the Studio Wyoming Review group opened up her latest review of an art show with this writer's quote: 

“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.” —Joan Didion, “Why I Write” (1976, the New York Times Book Review)

This is a theme that I've stressed with student writers over the years. It's a cousin to a quote by Flannery O'Connor: 

“I write because I don't know what I think until I read what I say.”

Before I spent a lifetime as a writer, I would have disagreed with these quotes. "I'm good. I know what I think -- it's right here in my head." I wasn't mature enough to understand what Didion and O'Connor were saying. 

The act of writing is a transition. The idea is a bit of ether, an unformed thing in our mind. Writing transforms what is in my head to another thing altogether. Writing, also an act of translation, gives shape to the idea. Sometimes, results surprise us. We also may be frustrated when the results don't seem quite right. 

It's not just the mind at work. It's also heart and soul, bloodstream and gut. The entire human ecosystem gets into the act.

This is what is so hard to explain to student writers. What is this thing that you are trying to tell me? Reach deep. What does it feel like? What does it smell like? Use your senses. 

My daughter Annie was writing a composition paper on sexism. She knew I had taught a lot of college composition classes. I read it, encouraged her to dig deeper. She wasn't really having it as the paper was due to next day. She insisted that she had satisfied the assignment and I couldn't really argue with her. The professor gave her paper a 90 and she was disappointed. I said nothing.

What could I say? I've spent decades in an effort to unravel my thoughts for the printed page/computer screen. I know the tricks of the trade. In the end, I'm not sure exactly what happens to turn the scrap of an idea into a finished story, novel, or blog post. I'm rarely satisfied with the result. But I keep at it because there's no way I can give up the pursuit. It's part of me.

Sue Sommers' review of "Bold Wanderings" at Pinedale's Mystery Print Gallery points out some of the traits and mysteries of creativity, whether you be artist or writer. Read the review for details (link at the top).

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