Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Thoughts on Writing, on Words

A decade ago, when I wrote my master’s thesis in the University of Pittsburgh’s History of Art and Architecture Department, people often inquired about my progress. I usually answered with some version of the following: “Well, I experience my argument so much through the words I use that I‘m not quite sure what conclusion I‘ll reach yet.”

This was frequently met with an uncertain nod or, more often, a polite smile and awkward silence. Good Lord, they probably thought, this one will never graduate. But I did, thankfully, on time.

During that period I remember getting caught in the expressive details of an idea. Often, I attempted to find the exact words that would lead me out of whatever informational forest I’d found while researching. Or, more often, I‘d write myself onto a precipice just off the main path and have to turn back, whacking away unessential paragraphs as if they were briars and underbrush. Either way, language was what led me forward or held me back, and this had more to do with concept expression than essay architecture.

Ten years later, this deep-seated reliance on word choice remains a vital part of my analytical process. When I review art for Pittsburgh City Paper or Sculpture magazine, I usually leave an exhibition with a jumble of vague impressions that don’t truly coalesce until I sit down and write them out, one realization following on another. For me, writing is inextricably connected to how I think. It remains the way I put order to my perceptions. Words, their associations and attendant power, are what guide me through the intellectual process. Words are the marked trees that pilot me through an otherwise dense forest of obscure concepts or indistinct perceptions.

It was only when I began teaching freshman composition (and had to explain how to best communicate observations) that I consciously understood the steps involved in effectively expressing ideas. While searching for material that would explain writing’s significance to new students, I realized that I was not the only one with the need to understand a forest of facts by compulsively inspecting the trees that help define thatit . Writer and historian Daniel Boorstin said, “I write to discover what I think. After all, the bars aren’t open that early.” I use Boorstin’s quote on the first day of my composition classes, and it’s generally received with an appreciative giggle. Its instructive function lies as much in its humor as in its succinct explanation of how vital words are to a genuine consideration of ideas.

So how are ideas and emotions best communicated? First, by relearning how to look and feel. In students’ first descriptive assignment, I ask them to reach beyond their preconceived notions, beyond the emotional shorthand of words like “cool,” “good,” or “awful.” For example, is the sky simply one shade of blue? Or does it occasionally carry subtle hints of purple, ochre, and indigo? Or, if a student describes a movie as “awful,” what specific elements made them respond that way? I ask them to tune into the subtle mechanisms of experience, whether sensory or intellectual: here lies the vital link between words, their complex associations, and their intricate connection to ideas and emotions. Here is where focusing on the types of trees in the forest allows the reader to understand the nature of the forest.

To successfully communicate an experience or explain a concept--so that the reader may vicariously appreciate it--why select one word over another? How does choosing an active construction like “crept in” over the comparatively bland “came in” allow us to better understand a situation, its tenor, and perhaps even the attitude of other parties involved? Again, it’s here where a writer can get caught examining the bark of each tree--by looking for just the right words--while moving through the complicated forest of a larger idea. But by examining each so carefully, a singular and definite path towards clarity emerges.

The second half of Daniel Boorstin’s quote, which may actually make subtle reference to alcohol’s effect on inhibited minds, also points to something deeper about writing. It’s something students, forced to take freshman composition, are probably less willing (or maybe even less able) to see: writing offers its own kind of high. Inside that dark forest of a complex idea or complicated image, words sometimes line up so quickly and with such precision that the writer always feels a rush (a rush that, happily, is never followed by embarrassing memories of dancing on table tops). Still, when the words cease to line up with the exactitude of fence posts or when they do not lead out of the forest but only around and around it, the idea or image is consumed by darkness, and the day feels lost. Consequently, the symptoms of withdrawal and dejection begin to linger along the periphery of the writer’s consciousness. We are lost in the obscurity of the intellectual forest, without a bread crumb path, until we are able to find the right trees—er, words—to mark our path out.

Ultimately, my conception of writing boils down to word choice, which is architect of mood and engineer of emotion. Even as I write fiction, which comprises the bulk of my current work, it is the feelings associated with the words that I focus on to achieve a story’s overall atmosphere. So, ultimately, little has changed since those days of writing my thesis, when I labored over finding the best words to locate and express my direction. Just as I once focused on the bark of the trees to grasp the reality of the forest they stood in, I still seek the right words to find each narrative’s direction and reach the deeper meaning that becomes the story‘s heart.

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