Your theory of writing

People of a more practical bent will sometimes suggest they don’t have a theory. Others argue that theory is a distraction or isn’t important.

Those positions (each a caricature in itself) hold a view of theory that arises from a reaction to the overly academic approach we take to writing. The great temptation for any teacher or school is to isolate what happens in the school or classroom from the rest of life and then to exalt it over things outside the school or classroom.

When schools do that, people outside the schools can overreact the other way and deny the importance of what happens in the school. And to the extent that the school overvalued itself, the anti-school people will be right.

The only value of education is what it actually accomplishes in the soul and for the life of the student.

All of which is preamble to indicate the unnecessary tension between theory and practice that I pointed to in my previous post.

My thesis here is simple: since, as we have perhaps already established, we all have a writing theory, that theory forms our expectations and practices as writers and teachers. 

The cosequence of my thesis is that the theory we hold, therefore, effects the quality of our instruction and the degree of our mastery of the art.

For example, if a student thinks that writing is a great mystery, a gift descending from the gods, he will practice accordingly. He may pray a lot if he wants to write well, but he won’t try to exercise a discipline he doesn’t believe exists.

Put in that caricature, that position might seem absurd, but that caricature expresses rather nicely the unconscious presupposition I held as a high school student. It’s easy to see why, because to this day the achievements of the great poets leave me breathless and, to be perfectly honest, often envious.

How was Shakespeare able to write the way he did? How could Chaucer so continually throw out lines with such grace and subtlety? How could John Donne hide so many, many layers of meaning in the 14 lines of a sonnet.

It’s no wonder that Homer begins his epics with the words “Sing goddess…” and Milton, “Sing heavenly muse.”

And both were, I’m certain, quite genuine in their appeal. Their theory of poetry led them to call for divine help.

So does mine.

Shakespeare seems not to have held such a theory. He was, one might say, a more secular poet, certainly than Homer or Milton, if not Virgil (Arms and the man I sing).

Behind those prayers lay a theology and a cosmology and an anthropology that inform every line of the poets’ work.

The absence of such lines in contemporary poetry indicate a different theology, cosmology, and anthropology.

When a person writes, he comes to the task with beliefs about how important writing is, the source of the power to do it, and how one practices it. Writing workshops and classes are not the place to teach such things. They already embody them in their modes and structures.

For example, the typical school class assumes that writing is taught by a text book through exercises and that pretty well anybody can teach it with the right text book. Administrative structures and assessment expectations pretty well demand this theory, if it isn’t in place ahead of time.

What I mean is that, given how we run our schools and hold them accountable, we need to believe that writing, like everything else in school, simply needs to be administered to the student in the right dosage. Then a standardized test can take our temperature – it can tell us whether we succeeded.

A workshop, on the other hand, will recognize the need for judgment and direct feedback.

At CiRCE, for example, we believe that writing can be learned only through an apprenticeship. Writing is a craft, and a craft can only be learned through coaching by a master. That is why we put so much emphasis on the need for the teacher to understand the ideas taught in our Lost Tools of Writing program.

Writing, like every art, requires judgment. That is why people often say, “There are no rules.”

They are almost right. The one rule is propriety. This directs the teacher’s and students’ attention away from rules to purpose and nature, because propriety is determined by the nature and the purpose of the act, the actor, and the other participants in the act.

And propriety requires judgment.

And judgment takes awareness of principles, understanding of the nature of the act, process, and artifact, knowledge of the thing represented in the writing, wisdom, and clarity of purpose.

Writing needs to be taught practically – it’s a craft.

And you can never develop the judgment writing requires if you don’t thoroughly understand the rules of normal writing.

Practical writing, therefore, is always taught within a theoretical framework, a paradigm if you like. The failure to teach children spelling, grammar, and usage in the contemporary school arises from a theory of human nature, of education, and of writing that undercuts all three, as reflected in the growing inability and unwillingness of the people to communicate with any care or depth over the past few generations.

So to become a great writer or to help your students become one, you’ll want to do what you can to clarify your theory. The good news is that that clarification begins with common sense observations.

More good news: there are plenty of sources available to develop your theory of writing in dialogue with others. But be careful. If you read what other people say, you might not be looking at what writers do and how children learn. The value of what others say comes in the rather obvious fact that they’ll see things you can’t see and if they’ve written something it almost certainly has been thought about for a while. But if the theory is bad, the thought will only make it worse.

Some sources:

  • Aristotle: Poetics (short read, worth reading a lot over the years. This still drives most movie writing)
  • Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Read his comments to the players in Acts 2 and 3 (if my memory is on)
  • Wendell Berry: Standing By Words (simply incredible)
  • Anything about theory by Ezra Pound. Watch out for his politics.
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biologia Literaria (probably the hardest of these to read – don’t start with this)
  • Louis Markos, Teaching Company series on the History of literary criticism. Very nice introduction to theories over time, (though I think he misunderstood Plato’s point in the Republic).

I’ll leave it there for now. Those will do for one or two lifetimes anyway.

Writing Harmony

Last night, when I was earnestly wishing I was fast asleep, a thought came to me that I thought (it being very late or very early) was quite profound. It went something like this, though of course all the profound illumination of the insight has faded with the light of day:

The soul delights in harmony. On the other hand, the senses delight in particular perceptions. As a result, there is a perpetual potential conflict between the senses and the soul. If the senses take in too much too fast, the soul can become disturbed. Therefore, the role of the mind is to bring order to what the senses perceive.

You can see this fairly easily in the natural sciences, where the mind orders physical reality under universal laws without which the physical world makes little sense. You can also see the impulse in the moral sciences, though it is quite a bit more difficult to achieve the desired harmony. Ethics, for example, seeks principles that govern human behavior while politics seeks principles that govern human society, each seeking a harmony of soul and community.

What struck me in the night, or maybe it was in the morning, is that this delight the soul dervies from harmony¬†is another argument for long sentences. Let me explain. There’s a delight in simple harmony, but the soul likes even more if the harmony can be extended.¬†In fact, ultimately what the soul wants is for everything to be harmonized. It cannot be content until it reaches that point.

So it’s a bit jarring to read, “I haven’t got no fishing pole,” and it’s more pleasant to read,¬†“I don’t¬†have a fishing pole.” It doesn’t disturb our inner sanctum as much. The objection that for some people the former is customary and thus more pleasant misses the point. It’s more pleasant because it is customary, therefore it harmonizes with their experiences and expectations. But the pleasure would be increased even more¬†if their experiences could be harmonized with the logical forms of thought. This more extended harmony would give more pleasure to the soul.

Back to my fishing pole, it would be even more pleasurable if I read, “I don’t have a fishing pole, having left it on the bottom of the sea, in the gullet of a great fish that grabbed the bait and pulled the pole out of my hand.”

The pleasure that I am speaking of is strictly formal and is the delight the soul takes in a somewhat extended harmony. The pleasure of the narrative, or the distaste for it, is peripheral to the specific pleasure I’m talking about, though if the sentence is well-crafted it will harmonize with the narrative, thus extending the harmony even further.

If, on the other hand, I had read, “Leaving the dock, the¬†fishing pole flew out of my hands,¬†so I don’t¬†got one now,”¬†in and of itself, the multiple disharmonies in this sentence would disturb the inner harmony of the soul and seek clarity and correction.

A long sentence that maintains harmony and keeps due proportion is a great pleasure for the soul, and it is a pleasure we ought not to derive our students or ourselves of. Another way to say that is that the soul takes great pleasure in a well-ordered sentence that either remains harmonious throughout or comes to a resolution at the end. Yet another way to say it is that the soul likes sentences that sing.

If we lose the sensitivity for verbal harmonies, we undercut our intellectual development.

Our era is philosophically opposed to the possibility of a metaphysical harmony, having rejected the logos in all its variations (cf. RV Young, At War With The Word), and I believe that despair (for that is precisely what despair is) is the root of our emphasis on brute sentences, the short macho sentences that Ernest Hemingway made into an art form but that almost nobody else can.

So with our endless assault of short sentences we both undercut our intellectual development and deprive the soul of a great pleausre. I’m prepared to argue that we also undercut our moral and spiritual development.

Read this poem by John Donne and tell me that its form doesn’t give you pleasure.

The Indifferent

I can love both fair and brown,
Her whom abundance melts, and her whom want betrays,
Her who loves loneness best, and her who masks and plays,
Her whome the country form’d, and whom the town,
Her who believes, and her who tries,
Her who still weeps with spongy eyes,
And her who is dry cork, and never cries;
I can love her, and her, and you and you,
I can love any, so she be not true.

Of course, the content can be very disturbing to the reader, but let me just point out that it is John Donne writing and if you judge the content by a first read, and that of only part of the poem, you are judging o’er hastily.

But once again, that only underscores my point. You want a harmony within the poem, and you want the harmony to extend beyond the poem to blend happily with your experiences and beliefs.

The most healthy soul is the one that, like the princess in the fairy tale, can feel the pea 17 mattresses down, and is disturbed by it.

So consider the poem for its own sake, its formal beauties, and let the form give you the pleasure it intends, thus honoring the poem for its virtues. Notice that the section copied above is all one extended harmonious sentence Рand if you want to see how it turns out, look it up!