Writing versus Being a Writer

It is a key distinction, but one we often ignored in daily life—that between choice and recognition.

At lunch, we choose the meal we prefer, or while shopping, we choose the outfit in the color that appeals to us. And it is there that we are a bit careless about words and concepts; those choices are actually about recognition.

After about 20+ years of choosing not to eat beef, a couple of years ago, I returned to steak on occasion. I order steaks medium-rare because I recognize that a wide variety of qualities of taste and texture appeal to me in aesthetic/palpable ways in a medium-rare steak.

As clumsy as all this may seem, after having been a teacher of writing for over 30 years and a so-called serious writer for a handful of years longer than that, I believe people fall into two camps related to writing: those who need to or are required to write and those who are writers, the first being somewhat in the arena of choice and the second, a recognition of Self.

Both those who choose (or are compelled) to write and those who are writers can be taught to write well, I am convinced, but I think in much different ways and with a much different attitude by the teacher (notably, recognizing that one is not better than the other, simply different).

As the fall semester of 2014 ended, which included two classes of first year writing, and as I continued to teach and write simultaneously, I watched the documentary Regarding Susan Sontag and read James Baldwin: The Last Interview and Susan Cheever‘s e. e. cummings: A Life.

“I suppose finally the most important thing was that I am a writer,” Baldwin explained to Studs Terkel in a 1961 interview, adding:

That sounds grandiloquent, but the truth is that I don’t think that, seriously speaking, anybody in his right mind would want to be a writer. But you do discover that you are a writer and then you haven’t got any choice. You live that life or you won’t live any. (p. 20)

In Cheever’s examination of poet e.e. cummings, the life of the writer is highlighted:

Cummings seems like a man with an enviably successful career; but like many American writers he had years of anxiety and hardship, of being sniped at and attacked, of struggling to make a living, to buy food and pay the rent. This kind of rejection is part of being a writer. Men and women who are somehow constituted to get energy from rejection—no matter how painful that might be—are the ones who survive as writers. (p. 114)

And here I stress that being a writer is a recognition, some could argue a compulsion, that certainly can and should be fostered, but is not likely something that can be instilled in others. Sontag, cummings, and Baldwin, it seems to me, had little choice in the matter, but also mostly embraced that inevitable of who they saw themselves to be.

Teaching Poetry as Teaching Writing

As a writer and a writing teacher, I often come back to the power of teaching poetry (reading and wrestling with poetry) and asking students to write poetry, fully aware that most people are not poets. This, I think, is a powerful subset of what it means to teach writing broadly: We are not creating writers, necessarily, and it is not our calling as teachers of writing to treat all students as writers.

So let me offer just a brief consideration of teaching writing to those who choose (or who are compelled) to write as that stands against teaching writing to those who are writers (who recognize “[y]ou live that life or you won’t live any”).

As its essence, writing is about producing an artifact, and understanding that the written thing itself is static, although the meaning (Rosenblatt’s interaction of reader, writer, text) is organic. Many other forms of text (film, visual art, etc.) fall under this same quality, but writing is a static thing restricted to the word and both the conventional and unconventional units made up of words.

To write poetry, then, is to confront that poetry shares with prose the conventional word > phrase > clause > sentence grammar of written language. However, poetry is distinguished from prose by the construction of purposeful lines and stanzas (prose tends to remain within sentence/paragraph boundaries, and thus, not conscious of how those words form on the visual page; prose poetry remains poetry because it is a purposeful rejection of conventional lines and stanzas).

For example, William Carlos Williams write, “so much depends upon a red wheelbarrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens”—a grammatical sentence crafted into poetry by the transition into lines and stanzas that impact the reader visually. Or consider “our happiness” by Eileen Myles—a poem remaining fully grammatical but raised to poetry by the craft of lines and stanzas.

To sit down and write poetry, then, the writer must consider the essentials of all effective writing, a complex web of choices that ultimately result in that artifact that is paradoxically both static (a visual construction of words) and organic (reader, writer, text). Those essentials include the following:

  • Form, medium, and genre—conventions. To construct a poem is to face conventions (writers must either conform to those conventions or reject those conventions, purposefully) about form (lines, stanzas, rhyme, meter, etc.—for poetry), medium (print or visual text), and genre (broadly imaginative [fiction] or factual [non-fiction]; and then, narrowly, realism, fantasy, etc.). Writing is not the inverse of reading, but the product of synthetic discourse of being a reader: The more sophisticated the reader, the more craft the writer. For those choosing or compelled to write, this can be overwhelming; for writers, there is pain in this process for sure, but it is both necessary and never-ending.
  • Purposefulness. Although any writer may certainly begin writing without a clear purpose, the final artifact of writing must be shaped with both the awareness noted above and then the guiding purpose intact. Since poems tend to be brief, writing poetry is an ideal avenue to understanding, recognizing, and maintaining purpose in a piece of original writing. In different contexts and types of writing, we call this “thesis” or “focus,” but ultimately, writing is about making purposeful decisions mechanical, aesthetic, expressive, and transmissional. If we turn back to cummings, Cheever notes that many who responded negatively to cummings raised concerns about whether or not he sought in any way to communicate with readers; for a writer, few charges could be more damning.
  • Audience. When I conference with students, I ask questions: What is this thing you are writing (see first bullet)? What are trying to say (second bullet)? And then, who is this for, and why would anyone read this (thus, audience)? If we again return to Rosenblatt, and consider trees falling in the woods with no one around, that static thing called a poem (or essay, or novel) spawned out of a writer’s purpose ultimately seeks an audience in order (again, Rosenblatt) to achieve meaning (the organic and difficult thing possibly most mistreated by formal education). For those choosing to write or compelled to write, the audience is often imposed, mechanical—a key reason prompted and formal school writing is so miserably lifeless. Writers, however, are nothing without an audience, a love/hate relationship not unlike being in a family.
  • Coherence. And finally, as a static thing, all writing achieves coherence—something or some things designed by the writer to hold it all together. Writing is cobbling, crafting, synthesizing, shaping—especially the poem. In those conferences, we talk about framing a piece of writing, organization, and how the student-as-writer has decided to move the reader from here to there and there and then ultimately there.

So let me end with some offerings.

During my most recent semester teaching first year writing, we read “Gate A-4” by poet Naomi Shihab Nye. My students loved the piece, and we approached it as an essay, but I have seen it called a short story and a poem (so, what is it?). [Pair with her poem, “Trying to Name What Doesn’t Change.”]

What mattered most to me, however, is that my students were eager to say that it was clearly written by a poet, and that means to me, although they are far from finished in most ways as writers, they somehow get it. Few compliments could be higher for a piece, for a writer.

I end this musing with something quite wonderful from Nye, about a found poem,“When Did You Stop Being a Poet?” Naomi Shihab Nye ~ the charm of and lesson in “One Boy Said”:

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