Week 10: It’s a #fail, or, It’s an iceberg, stupid!

“How exactly do you teach someone to write.”  Someone asked me this question yesterday at a theater festival, following it up with a thought that sits in the back of my head any way. “I think you either got it or you don’t.”

I suspect that idea works more for acting, perhaps.  Or singing. Or super model good looks. Or a number of other things.  In the back of my mind, the same place where I know I don’t have other talents, I also know that while not every one who picks up a pen will become the next Paulo Coelho or Raymond Carver, there is a writer in all of us. And yet, this debate continues.  The question of whether creativity can be taught is a close third, in my opinion, only to “What is Life?” and “Why am I here?”  After all, how many articles, books, debates have all of us read on this topic? How much have we sat around during MFA programs, at writing conferences, amidst non-writers who claimed to “hate writing” (as if it was a thing that had offended them or stolen their most precious possession) and discussed the very same idea: How can someone be taught to write?

Oscar Wilde once said: “A writer is someone who has taught his mind to misbehave.” The difference, as I see it, between those who write and those who don’t, the seed of this misbehavior, is the way people consider their thoughts and the world around them. The growing culture of soundbites and clips, when things happens in nanoseconds, encourages the outsourcing of our own thinking to others, leaving many without access to their own thoughts, or the desire to shake off the cobwebs.

In “Manuscripts found in Accra,” by Paulo Coelho, Copt tells a gathered crowd that the only way to really know yourself and your own thoughts is to be alone at times.  In solitude, he claims, is where life is lived, where decisions are made, where thoughts are conceived.  This is where the thought forms, where writing starts.

Believe it or not, we write every day.   Us writers, too, create a majority of what we put down on paper in our heads.  Anyone who writes will tell you that writing isn’t so much about what ends up on the paper, but the ninety percent or so of the work that goes on behind the scenes, walking around grocery stores, driving in the car, listening in on conversations. It is the proverbial building of the iceberg that Hemingway spoke of, where the tip is held up by the mass of thoughts underneath.   Without the mass, what is visible is just a scattering of pieces of ices, disconnected, adrift.

Thinking, then, IS writing.

When I teach academic writing, what I emphasize most to my students is that they need not be intimidated by the structures, the organization, whether the verb comes before or after the subject.  These are equivalent to someone picking up a ball to play catch and thinking whether they should hold it in their right hand or left, pitch it forward at this angle or that, throw from the shade or in the sun.   Like much else, writing is about instinct, and before that, knowing what one wants to say.  Of course some people are more gifted than other, perhaps endowed with the skill to string words together effortlessly.  For these people, the words come easier, but the ideas still need honing, the sentences still need to be wrestled into place.  For others, specially those coming from cultures where English is not the primary language, the structure can prove daunting enough to dissuade them from thinking of themselves as writers.

But the beauty of growing up with a language other than English is that even if you absorb the structures, the nuances, the vocabulary, there is an inherent thinking pattern that one has and that only operates on the language structure of one’s mother tongue.  When I first started taking creative writing classes in the US, many of my teachers marveled at certain phrases or images.  (While I know this was because I was just plain awesome) They pointed out that the way I put my words together was different from what they had seen.  That it was something other than just creative use of language.   Over the years, I have studied many authors from different cultures–Japanese, Chinese, Latin–and always I have a sense, as I read, of being carried along on a rhythm different from authors of other cultures.  This is not to say that all writers from a particular area or culture sound the same.  The writing coming out of the Sub-Continent is, as an example, as rich and diverse as that of any other part of the world.  But the cadence, the rhythm, that is what sets it apart from other writings.  Authors raised in Pakistan and India think differently not simply because their sets of experiences are different, but also because the way their languages present thoughts to them are different; those thoughts in other languages carry a different meaning, different melodies, and this translates into the words that they put on the page.

Ultimately, if you can think, you can write.  This is what I tell my students.  A majority of them laugh, disbelieving, jaded by their experiences in high school.  “I can only write what I like,” they say. Another tells me “Have you ever choked on anything? That is what I feel like when I begin to write.  As if the words are lifting off the page and lodging themselves in my throat, blocking off air.”  And I want to say There, right there.   In the moment of unguarded discussion, there was an image you should put down.  That, on page, will be writing.  In speech, they dismiss their thoughts.  Perhaps it is the fact that they have not yet learned to have confidence in their own voice, and that lack of confidence in themselves translates as an inability to write. That, I want to tell them, is a writer’s thought.  That is an image created.  That is the beginning of something that I want to hear more about.

Writing, in my eyes, is not a vocation, not merely a calling.  It is a way of being and thinking.  One that takes patience, something I have had to learn the hard way. It is  a process of learning and unlearning, changing your mind and perspective constantly, being at ease with being inconsistent, breaking the rules because you know they must be broken.  But before that comes you, and that thought circling around in your brain, asking to be weighed and considered and allowed to grow.  That, my friends, is where the magic happens.


Reposting from my blog because I am having just an insanely unmotivating week. Therefore, things like “Yesterday” mean a year ago, and “in the future” would probably be today.  You get the idea.

This is what a fail feels like I think. I have actually hit that iceberg.


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