Writing as Passion and as Architecture.

After my last blog post spouting writing advice, and the appreciative responses I got…I am inspired to share another bit of writing advice I have recently given in hopes that it might help writers out there.  Or anyone who wants to express themselves creatively.

Recently a new friend asked me if I thought a person could have a blog and write about their passions and thoughts and life without being a “real writer.” She’s concerned that her words don’t always come out on the page the way she’d like.  Still she is compelled to write and wanted to know what I had to say about it. My knee-jerk reaction to this sort of question is usually an across-the-board YES! Express yourself! Who cares if it’s not perfect! But my response to her sort of surprised me. In hopes that I do not discourage ANYONE out there who loves to write to get those words down…here’s what a bit of a different side of me had to say:

We could talk and talk about this subject. I guess I agree with Francine Prose: “A well-made sentence transcends time and genre.” I suppose it depends on whether or not you want to attempt to acheive that. Regardless, I think that we need to honor our readers: if the reader is going to invest the time and money and potential emotional energy into our writing, we need to be architects and find that intersection of heart and mind and craft that is writing. I go back and re-read Strunk and White yearly (“The Elements of Style”) just to make sure I haven’t gone off course. I had a bear of an English teacher in high school who would give us an F if we used the passive tense “the dog was walked by me” vs. “I walked the dog.” He docked us big time for what he called “Bombast” and “Deadwood” —extra words, flourish, adverbs etc. I learned early on how to build a sentence without really knowing it was happening and I am most grateful for that.

That said, who cares about a well-built sentence if it’s not alive? If you can’t feel its pulse or hear it sing? That’s what I try to help people with on my writing retreats. I really care about this. For me, it comes down to timing and word play. And authority. And compassion. And responsibility. And intention. When I’m in the hands of a writer who has those things in spades, I am in heaven. And that’s where I want my readers to be. Tall order, but it’s my life’s passion.

It’s the Devil’s-advocate (and I realize, sort of obnoxious) question I ask of my singer/songwriter friend who can’t read music but considers himself a professional musician.  ”Are you really a professional if you don’t know the language of your art?”

He counters with the old “Jagger can’t read music. Most famous rock stars, in fact, can’t read music.” He argues that he does know the language of his art. And it’s true– the language of his music is deep and beautiful. But there is something stubborn in me that wants to insist that language is not language if it can’t be written down, and when it’s written down there are certain rights and wrongs that make it a language that can be spoken long after he’s dead and by people in other countries and cultures.

Even if he gets someone else to write it down for him, wouldn’t it serve him to be able to read music found in an archive somewhere from hundreds of years ago? Don’t we have some sort of responsibility to keep languages alive? I fear this with script. They’re not teaching it in schools as much any more. How are the next generations going to be able to read the letters and documents of our Founding Fathers, for instance? And for that matter, is our language going to turn into: “R U probs going 2 the dance?”

My singer/songwriter friend says he’s not interested in that— he doesn’t need to be Bach. Sometimes he wins me over. But the truth is…maybe there’s something in me that…well, wants to be Bach. LOL.

In any case, art is made to inspire its perceiver to laugh and play and heal and grieve and know they’re not alone. (and its creator too.) So…who really cares at the end of the day about the precision of the language. It’s all about expression. And it helps us to make sense of this beautiful and heartbreaking planet. So do what you do on the page, and if you want to become more of an architect, go back to Strunk and White. If not, just try to sing your song.

p.s.  I’m well-aware that I write in in-complete sentences from time to time and sometimes a lot.  But at least I know I’m doing it.  We can play with language, afterall…


Filed under A Place For Writers To Share, My Posts

8 Responses to Writing as Passion and as Architecture.

  1. Lorraine Ryan

    Laura, your final comment reminded me of something one of my most gifted photography mentors taught me. For some reason, competitive skating comes to mind as well, with the endless practice of school figures. Playing piano, shooting baskets and hitting tennis balls.

    “Know all the rules, and practice them over and over, every day. Every day. Never stop practicing, according to the rules. Then, to make art, know when to break them.”

  2. Natasha

    As an English teacher, I have learned that I must carefully choose which hills I want to die on, so to speak, and the removal of “filler words” (e.g., really, very, good, bad) is one of them. Like your teacher, I also explain to students that throwing “big words” in a sentence doesn’t help, either. Drawing in the reader with word choice, imagery, etc. is essential…yet so is the structure – or architecture – of the sentence. I don’t care how creative my students are – if their lack of conventions and typos are predominant, I can’t focus on the content. I’m seeing less of the text speak in students’ writing but also less willingness to workshop and rewrite. Technology = instant gratification. Writing = embracing the struggle. Hard to switch teens’ mindset from the former to the latter. Mark Overmeyer, one of my professional crushes and teacher extraordinaire, asks teachers to consider the fact that students aren’t professional editors…that was SO important for me to think about. It’s a fine line, isn’t it? :)

  3. Well said, Laura. I am a freak about writing correctly. Sometimes I actually find incorrect spelling and grammar in New York Times bestsellers and I am appalled! Not yours, of course. And now the kids texting drives me crazy because I find my daughters have a hard time when they actually have to “write” something. I always check their Thank you notes in order to be sure that have not written any “text”.

    As far as blog writing is concerned I feel that this is more personal and relaxed enabling the writer to make some grammatical mistakes. NEVER spelling mistakes! Use the spell check for goodness sake!


  4. Natasha

    Lorraine, I love that quote, especially since people in my profession are getting WAAAAAAY too liberal about rules/structure. I believe you need to know the rules so you can understand WHEN and WHY to break them, especially when it comes to children and writing. Poetry isn’t just haphazard lines on a page; there is purpose to the intent and structure. Many English teachers feel that the five paragraph essay was made by the devil himself and should be banished from the classroom…I disagree. That structure allows students to learn how to organize their thoughts. Is it THE writing structure? Of course not. But, it has worth, and, you know, the whole baby and the bathwater thing…keep the baby, keep the essay. ;)

  5. Jan Myhre

    I attended a workshop on the writing of Haiku this morning. We discussed, of course, the rules. We were then given exceptions to the rules. It seems I can make a choice to follow the rules for American Haiku (17 syllables) or Japanese Haiku (12 syllables). Or, I’m free to make my own rules regarding form. Good grammar and spelling seem to be an over arching expectation. However, the very act of creating leaves room for newness.

    A good poem (or prose) may begin in self-expression, but it ends as art, which means it isn’t really for the writer anymore but for the reader who steps into and makes the experience of the poem his or her own.
    ~ Mark Doty

    I f the reader cannot enter into the work due to lack of flow (poor grammar and spelling), the work suffers rejection and the reader moves on. I’ve found poets whose culture leads them in a different direction in this regard, but I know that when I read their work. If the woman really has something to share, she may want to let the reader know of her dyslexia up front.

  6. Thanks for this thoughtful post Laura. As a former English teacher, I have a hard time letting go of the rules. I’m never too far from my Strunk and White. I realize, too, that writing is a form of expression that everyone should experience, regardless of their skills. Blogs today are online journals and yet they are published for others to see. That’s a dichotomy. A personal journal allows self-expression regardless of the rules. Once you put your writing out there for the world, you should keep the reader in mind. That’s where Elements of Style come in. Using a blog as a personal journal runs astray of this guideline. Yet, in my own blog I find myself relaxing the rules just a tad. It’s a fine line indeed.

  7. I think we have to strike a balance. There is danger, of course, in rejecting all the rules of writing or music. (Or, for that matter, in rejecting all rules, period.)

    But we must not be self-righteous. I’ve always been of the mind that it is easier to critique than to invent. In other words, Bach was rejecting the work of millions of those who came before when he wrote the music he wrote. (Ditto Faulkner, Dickens, Shakespeare, etc. on the writing front.) We need music and writing — that is, ART — to evolve. If it doesn’t, it becomes irrelevant. I think we can pay homage to those who came before and to art itself without rigidly expecting others to follow all of the rules that once applied to it.

    Finally, there is danger in suggesting that reading music is required in order for one to truly understand the language of music. Surely, for instance, it is possible for blind musicians to be considered classical musicians, even if they play only by ear. And surely it is possible for deaf writers to be considered true writers, even if they have never heard the spoken word and, therefore, understood the importance of cadence, rhythm, etc. that is ‘required’ in order to properly understand the importance of punctuation.

    (We’re not the first to be having this conversation, which is important to remember. There are entire bodies of work (i.e. literary criticism and art history) that delve into the differences between and opposing values of high and low art.)


  8. I scribbled my thoughts from my shed with chandelier and people seem to think they were inspiring. Flattered, yes, but as a reforming perfectionist, it has made me question my validity as a writer. Going with the flow, letting the thoughts get down on ‘paper’, not concerning myself with the correction of grammar, etc until later could this ever be defined as ‘real’ writing?

    I have trained in the traditional art school system in the UK (at degree and not so traditional postgraduate level). I would at one time have adamantly defended all those years of training as essential to calling oneself an ‘artist’. My thinking has changed, in so much as, yes I still think: technique, structure and craft are beneficial in obtaining a full palette of resources to choose from when creating concrete artworks. On the other hand without concept and original creative thinking, what do you have?

    An environment of confidence in technique and materials can let you really ‘flow’ as an artist, this is obviously a gift… on the other hand that knowledge can also be crippling to some, their leap to take the idea further doesn’t always seem to be allowed to happen…

    I am thankful to have combined, determination, education and confidence through experience with encouragement from a great group of like-minded individuals. I have been free put my ideas into action. I hope many budding writers get that opportunity too.

    I am Laura’s “new friend” who asked the question in her blog above. I value greatly your opening this question up to your readers, Laura. As a great coach I know, Suzy Greaves, often says taking big leaps in anything is about being brave. Isn’t real ‘art’, in any form, about being brave enough to express what really comes from your heart? I wonder…now there is a conversation for another time.

    Laura I know your retreats will be places where passion and creativity will be allowed to blossom. The sharing of knowledge you have gleaned, so far, from taking this brave creative journey will reward those who attend. Laura may you be rewarded greatly in return.

    PS Any corrections to spelling and grammar gratefully received ☺

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