Of Stone Tools and Stargazing

Guest post by Greg Schutz

“Take control of your writing process,” I tell my students. “Be aware of the ways in which how you write affects what you write–and how well you write.”

 

And as my students look up at me–we’re in Composition I, Argumentative Writing, or Developmental English; they’re seventeen or thirty or fifty-two years old; they are nodding intently or gazing vacantly at a spot on the blackboard just above my head or else just watching and waiting and wondering whether they’re supposed to be taking notes–a small part of me is channeling Holden Caulfield: “You big phony!”
There’s nothing outwardly amiss with what I’m saying, of course. It’s accepted wisdom, no more controversial than reminding a runner that what she eats and how she stretches might affect her 10k times. It’s also something that many of my students need to hear early and often as they adjust to the idea of discovery drafts, peer workshops, revisions. (“How many of you began writing this morning?” I ask my students in the first week of the semester, on the day they turn in their ungraded diagnostic essays. Slowly but surely, a small forest of hands usually rises.) I believe what I’m telling them, in other words. And yet, when it comes to my own fiction, I hesitate to practice what I preach.
It’s not that I don’t revise. (Quite the contrary!) What I mean is that, whereas I teach my students methods for taking control of their writing processes, for becoming more deliberate in their methods as a means of becoming more purposeful in their products, my own struggle is just the opposite. As a fiction writer, I’m always trying to liberate myself from the writing process as such.


There are two reasons for this, one practical and the other aesthetic.

The practical reason has to do with my being boring. I’m a creature of habit: left to my own devices, I seem naturally to strive to make each day as similar as possible to the days before and after. I’m most comfortable as a writer when I find myself sitting down at the same desk, at the same time, for the same length of time, seven days a week, for a long stretch of weeks in a row. And, frankly, the occasions when I’ve been fortunate enough to get myself stuck in this kind of rut–during my residency last winter at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, for example–have been the most productive periods of my writing life.
What’s the problem, then?
The problem is precisely how much I adore the comfortable fit of my own writing routine. Disruptions to my work pattern, once it’s been established, tend to leave me cranky and bewildered–and unproductive. Being a creature of habit is fine when one is on fellowship, but what does one do upon returning to “normal” life, when free time once again becomes a luxury?
It’s a paradox of productivity: I’m most productive when I indulge deeply in routine, in set processes, but my reliance on routine leaves my writing life fragile, prone to periods of drought. As soon as I believe I ought to be working a certain way, I’m opening the door to any number of excuses: I can’t write (or write well) today because . . . . And I want my desk–or kitchen table, or library carrel, or tea-stained armchair in the corner of a coffee shop, whether I’m sitting for three hours or fifteen minutes, whether I’m scribbling sentences in a notebook or typing them on a keyboard or inking edits overtop of them on a manuscript–to be no place for excuses.
So much for practicality. The other reason for my struggle to turn away from routines and toward a greater flexibility in my own writing process is, as I mentioned, aesthetic. I am wary of the regular, describable writing process as an artist for the same reasons that I extol its virtues as a teacher.
“How you write affects what you write,” I tell my students–which is the aesthetic problem in a nutshell. By this logic, a predictable writing routine or process will encourage predictability in the writing itself. This may not be a problem for the undergraduate scholar, but it certainly is for the artist: unpredictability is one of the clearest demarcators between artistic form and generic formula.
It’s true that the relationship between predictable process and predictable output is not as simple as I’m making it out to be here. All writers have their routines, and among those writers most wedded to theirs are some of our very best. And yet the danger of thinking too much in terms of process–of growing too fond, in other words, of any particular how for getting to the what of one’s fiction–seems to me very real.
For evidence, look no further than the many how-to writing books that Richard Bausch recently and justifiably skewered in an essay in the 2010 Atlantic fiction issue. In such volumes, process and product grow indistinguishable. Craft subsumes criticism. What is a successful short story (or novel, poem, play)? It is, these books answer, one that does X, Y, and Z. With this settled, the how-to book becomes basically the working-out of a process by which X, Y, and Z may be achieved. The focus can be placed solely on the process because the form of the product has ossified. Of course, the fiction that results from such a process-oriented mindset will tend to have the same relationship to artful literature that Draw 50 Monsters has to Goya’s black paintings.
The true lesson of these how-to books is that how-to is just noise, a distraction. The product must drive the process, not the other way around. Ideally, there ought to be not as many fiction-writing processes are there are fiction writers, but as many as there are stories to be written.
* * *
So, why does this discrepancy between my students’ essays and my fiction exist, and how do I answer my own accusation of hypocrisy? How, at last, do I get my inner Holden to leave me alone? Simple. I remind him–remind myself–that what my students do when they sit down to write an essay for my class and what I do when I sit down to write a story are two very different things.

 

It’s the difference between stone tools and stargazing.
For my students, the essay is a tool. It is designed for the completion of a task, with some external end in mind: to convey information, to persuade, to rebut. Like an expertly wielded stone knife, it can strip the hide from an issue of fact, values, or policy to get at the meat, bone, and marrow beneath. However, like any tool, it is only as effective as the hand that wields it. There is a right way and a wrong way to hold that knife. There is a process to follow, and to be learned. (This metaphor is far from perfect, I know. There’s certainly more than one right way to go about writing an academic essay. My point is merely that it is because the essay is primarily a tool with a clearly defined external end that process-oriented instruction is appropriate to it.)
A story, on the other hand, is different. It’s not a tool oriented toward some external end; rather, the story is the end. We can separate the stone knife from the aurochs it skins or the steel axe from the oak it fells, but we cannot likewise separate the story from its task. The academic essay promises to inform or to persuade, but the literary story bears no infinitive. The experience of the story is itself the story’s purpose. (Note that the kinds of stories that make identifiable infinitive boasts tend to be predictable, classifiable by generic formulae. When to entertain becomes our primary concern, we will find ourselves talking about thrillers, mysteries, fantasies, romances, and so forth. To educate: now we’re in the land of the allegory, the parable, and the fable.)

 

If the academic essay is the literary legacy of our tool use, then the story is the progeny of our stargazing. As with stargazing, it is not a tool but an experience, not a means but an end. And as with constellating the night sky, it entails the superimposition of human order over a frightfully large expanse of inhuman chaos.
There are no how-to manuals for stargazing because it has no set process, and because it has no set process there are–on a clear night, at least–no excuses: I can’t stargaze (or stargaze well) tonight because . . . . Stargazers, like the writers and readers of literary fiction, might try to justify themselves, but their explanations will probably sound silly or slightly pretentious or simply incomplete, even to their own ears.
They need to look at the stars. They need to find shapes there. That’s all there is to it.
This, finally, is why I can encourage my students to think diligently about their own writing processes while resisting the temptation to brood upon my own–and without contradiction. For my students, and for me as a teacher, understanding the writing process is vital to understanding the written product. But once I step out of the classroom and sit down at my desk (or wherever else I may write), all I need to do is look up.
This is Greg’s second post for Get Behind the Plough.

Images: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.
We are always looking for great work. Have you considered submitting to Ploughshares?

This entry was posted in Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Of Stone Tools and Stargazing

  1. J. Munrose says:

    Great piece. When I’m head-down-frustrated working on a story, I will think of this piece and remind myself that I am actually looking up. Thanks for these posts. Looking forward to the next.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong> <div align="" class="" dir="" id="" lang="" style="" xml:lang=""> <embed style="" type="" id="" height="" width="" src="" object=""> <iframe width="" height="" frameborder="" scrolling="" marginheight="" marginwidth="" src=""> <img alt="" align="" border="" class="" height="" hspace="" longdesc="" vspace="" src="" style="" width="" title="" usemap=""> <map name="" area="" id=""> <object style="" height="" width="" param="" embed=""> <param name="" value=""> <pre style="" name="" class="" lang="" width="">