Two Kinds of Writers

In 1920, the humorist and actor Robert Benchley wrote in Vanity Fair,

There may be said to be two classes of people in the world; those who constantly divide the people of the world into two classes, and those who do not. Both classes are extremely unpleasant to meet socially, leaving practically no one in the world whom one cares very much to know.

In the spirit of this quote, I hope there are not two kinds of writers: those who like to discuss the writing process and those who do not. Both kinds, in my view, would be rather irritating, though I’d be a little more receptive to the second. There’s a time and place for discussing the writing process, and an eternity for not doing so.

Problems with discussing the writing process? There’s so much variety that one cannot draw any conclusions about a “right” way. What’s more, the “process” discussions tend to ignore substance. There are writers who revise constantly and those whose first draft is almost always their last. There are those who adhere to a strict routine and those who write whenever the ideas strike them. There are those who suffer terribly from writer’s block and those who have never known it. There are those who insist on writing in pen, or with the trusty Remington, or through dictation. In the end, I don’t care what they do, if the writing is good.

Yet staying mum is problematic too. There are writers who hold themselves above describing what they actually do; they insinuate that their work is mystical and untouchable, and that any mention of process is the mark of a lesser talent. Or they refrain from discussing it lest they expose a weakness–an embarrassing first draft, for instance, or an abundance of unfinished work. Silence is golden, but gold can be the ornament of a snob.

The ideal would be to talk about it sometimes but not all the time. Just how much would depend on the person’s judgment and circumstances. If you have been invited to speak to young people about your writing process, and have agreed to do so, then a secretive attitude is out of place. However, if you are at a tea party where people are going on about how they love “workshopping” their work (and you don’t particularly love doing that), then you have every right to maintain a happy hush.

I revise a lot. One thing I enjoy about having a blog is that I can come back and change things later. (When I do, I indicate this in a note at the end of the post, unless the changes are too minor to mention.) I rethink things continually; months or years later, I may see a better way of putting them. This is true for my nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. This morning I made some revisions to an old poem, “Jackrabbit.” It’s one of my favorites (of my older pieces), but the original version and even a later version had some strained parts. The current version will rest as is.


This land has never been painted properly.
Mix clumps of juniper with moonbeam blue,
Throw in a bit of tooth, a bit of song,
to fill the silhouette with bite and tongue.

This is a real dirt road with imagined doubts,
senses, untasted dangers, destinations.
Headlights sweeping the long floor of the wild
pan a jackrabbit back and forth in time.

Caught in the blank emergency of beams,
he dodges his dilemma with a brisk
“what if, what if” that dances him to death.
He could not find a way out of the way.

Earlier that day I was on the phone,
missing all your relevant advice.
A wire had got caught up in my throat,
an answer-dodger. It distracted me.

It trembled so fast that it numbed my tongue.
It did this while you were trying to talk.
I couldn’t listen well because the dance
had blurred all trace of consonant and sense.

I think now that this may have been a crash
of my old givens against your offerings:
new junipers, or ways of seeing them,
new countries, or ways of getting there.

When I hung up, there was no wire or word.
The moon was gone, the road a long fur coat
on some unwitting wearer, blissed and hushed.
I forgot all about it until years later.

You had said: “You can go left or right.”
Take me straight! I shouted. Straight to the remedy.
Gallop like the nineteenth century
down to the police station or cemetery.

Striding answerless, a station incarnate,
a cop ticketed me for not listening.
Now I can bear the rabbits and the wires.
I inch through forks and roadkill, listening.

Note: I changed three words (and fixed a formatting glitch) after the initial posting.

Our Unwitting Teachers

Ninth grade was a tumultuous year for me. Too much to go into here–but many ups and downs. In the spring, I discovered that I enjoyed running track. Though bad at sports overall, I had good endurance; I was one of the few in the school who could run a full mile, at a good pace, without stopping. (Later I brought it up to three.) Through running, I got to know a few students outside of my usual circles. They chose to run with me because they trusted that I wouldn’t stop halfway through. As we were running, we had short-winded conversations about all kinds of things.

One day I was running with a girl who had lost a family member a few years before. We were talking (inasmuch as we could) about life, and she said, “I want to experience everything–both the good and the bad.” Given what she had been through, this moved me and stayed on my mind afterward. I thought about how everything we go through can contribute to who we are; all of it, taken properly, can be a gift, no matter how difficult it seems at the time. I thought, also, of the ending of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, which I had just read in class.

A month or two later, toward the end of the year, I decided to tell her that her words had helped me. I asked whether she had a few minutes to talk. She agreed and went with me to the “fountain room,” a luminous nook with French windows and doors, in a corner of the hallway near the drinking fountain. I told her what I have said just here. She looked surprised and happy but didn’t say much.

Later, when she signed my yearbook, she wrote: “You have been a source of knowledge about myself this year. Your talent and persistence has inspired me and helped me be calm and level headed. You told me that I helped you–well, telling me that made me cry that night in bed, because just earlier I had been chastising myself for being insensitive and unresponsive to so many people that were sensitive and yet very far away from me. I am so glad that I was able to do something for you. You deserve happiness and if I was able to help you attain that end, then I am happy.”

We were each other’s unwitting teachers. At the time, I wondered just how much people held back from each other, how many good things they could say to each other if they dared. Years later, it seemed to me that such inhibitions might have a place, that they might make room for the understood, the understated, and things that don’t go easily into words.

Now I see it in both ways. There are many who have taught and helped me and probably do not know it. Maybe it is a shame that they do not know it; maybe it is for the better. Sometimes the one seems true, sometimes the other, but I never know for certain which one holds.

Overall, we hold back from telling people what they taught us; thus, people have little idea how much they bring to others. Yet there’s no way to delimit “how much” these teachers bring; the students themselves do not know. So, speaking and holding back can both be wrong. But there is no wrong in perceiving one’s teachers: taking in their particular words  and cadences and returning to them over time. There must be good in noticing these things without trying to capture them, without trying to say exactly how much or what they mean.

Note: I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

CONTRARIWISE Contests Galore

itsmyowninventionThroughout my teaching experience, there have been many surprises, many sources of wonder, but nothing quite like CONTRARIWISE, my students’ philosophy journal. It arose out of an assignment about Plato a year ago; the first issue, which came out in February, received a great review and many appreciative comments from readers. We had a glorious celebration in May; a week later, four students took part in an interview with Mark Balawender of PLATO. (If you aren’t sure what the fuss is all about, see the samples on the website.) But that was only the beginning. Now my students have announced an international contest and two national contests, as well as an open call.

Here is the international contest:

Your favorite cultural dish* is now its own nation. Who/what is its leader? Its citizens? What does each ingredient do for a living? You may refer to the ingredients, cooking utensils, eating utensils, human participants, or other aspects of the food’s preparation and consumption. Write about a philosophical problem this nation experiences—”anything from existential angst due to being eaten, to “okra should never have been chosen as ‘secretary of state.'” This can be a story, an essay, an epic poem written in the style of Beowulf, words set to a popular song (bonus points if it’s a song we don’t know and have to look up, and it becomes one of our favorite songs of all time), or anything, really.

Secondary school students are lucky to have these contests! When I bring up the international contest with adults, I often get the reaction: “What would I do with that?” followed by days of conversation about fondue, various pastas, etc., and what they could be as nations. (A recent comment: “We’re still thinking about the eggplant.”) Alas, we adults may muse to our hearts’ content but may not enter. That is just as well; I wrote a piece about the realm of flan, was proud of it at first, but then realized how contained it was and how much more possibility the contest held.

But that isn’t all. Here’s the first of the national contests:

Write a piece about how mathematics and philosophy are related. It could be a theorem with a variety of proofs, a comparison of a philosophical and a mathematical problem, a mathematical solution to an ethical issue such as adoption, or a poem about how to treat your x. You may use any format you wish, including pictures, and you may invoke higher dimensions.

Here is the second:

You are a knight or samurai (who strictly adheres to your society’s honor code) during the fall of feudalism in your nation. This time period can be any time after your chosen government begins to stop following the codes of chivalry or bushido. In 3,000 or fewer words, write a piece critiquing the government and explaining how you feel and what should be done about it. This could be in the form of a letter to be sent to your government, a poem to be nailed on the gates of a church…the format can be as creative as the piece itself. Just let us know what you intend the knight to do with his work at the top of your first page. Be sure to research your chosen nation!

The words of Khadijah McCarthy, a CONTRARIWISE contributor who participated in the PLATO interview, seem especially apt here:

There has to be a degree of eccentricity to the questions that we ask because we are not looking for your basic responses. We need philosophers who can transgress those boundaries and get people to come in and say I want to take a philosophy class and request it in schools around the world and around the nation. We do our best to really make people think. And the questions that they asked me, and I when I looked at them at face value, I thought, “I really don’t know how I am going to answer this.” … I think the best questions are the ones where you don’t know how you’re going to answer them. You’re going to have to formulate them and test them. So pretty much you’re a scientist, a philosopher…everything is wrapped up in one.

I can’t wait to see what comes in.


Image: Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, illus. John Tenniel, chapter 8, “It’s My Own Invention.”