I’ve become unsure of whether or not writing is an intellectual process.

Marriage between cutlery and porcelain was recently legalized in fairyland.
Marriage between cutlery and porcelain was recently legalized in fairyland.

No one is more aware than me that I am not a particularly successful writer. I mean, I’m not unsuccessful, but I certainly don’t have the kind of credentials that would lead my readers to automatically think, “Oh, he knows what he’s talking about.”

And that has frequently made me unwilling to write about process-related stuff (in fact, on two separate occasions I’ve sworn that I’d no longer give writing advice). There’s a good reason for that wariness: 75% of the awful writing advice on the internet is perpetrated by people who are not (yet) very successful writers. When they get better, they will disavow the advice they gave before, but by then it will be too late. Because they cannot stop the bad advice from existing. It propagates itself on the internet, so that there are whole circles of neophyte writers who are repeating to each other all kinds of received wisdom that they got other neophyte writers. It’s like how children’s stories and games can carry on through centuries (millennia!) as a kind of oral history that is passed from six year old to five year old without the guidance of adults.

And I am well aware that I’ve done plenty of that myself. For instance, I know I’ve written a number of posts about how I don’t think writing is a particularly intellectual process. For years, it didn’t feel to me as if writing involved any though: all you did was write and then evaluate the results. If they were bad, you did a rewrite. And so on, through ten or twelve drafts, until it finally came together and you could say, “Oh, this is pretty good.” And send it out.

Lately, though, I’ve been feeling very differently about it. I’ve been feeling like I can stop writing when I feel the piece come apart and then go and walk around the block and think about it on an intellectual level and say, “What am I trying to do here?” and come up with some kind of answer.

And who knows which one of these posts is going to lead some poor fool astray? Probably both of them. The real answer is probably to tell people to quit writing.

But I also remember years ago, when I was just starting out as a writer, I used to be able to intellectualize things in the same way. Like, at one point I developed this whole (now forgotten) theory about exactly what information I needed to have in order to know whether or not an idea was capable of supporting a story. There’s some old saw that progress in skills goes through the following stages:

  1. Unconscious Incompetence
  2. Conscious Incompetence
  3. Conscious Competence
  4. Unconscious Competence

I.e., you do it badly for awhile without knowing you’re doing it badly, and then at some point you realize you’re doing it badly, and eventually you internalize the skills you need and start doing it well without quite knowing how.

That’s always seemed like a good model to me, but I’m starting to think that it’s not enough. I feel like you only get to be at stage 4 for a little while, and then, eventually, the weight of your crutches and tics and weird writerly mannerisms overpowers whatever interesting thing you had to say and you tumble all the way back to stage 1. And, from there, you’re doomed to repeat the whole process all over again.

So that’s why I’ve decided to ease up a bit and start posting process notes like this. Not so much as advice for my readers, but more as a reminder, to myself, that all of this intellectualization actually occurred. Because I know that if I don’t write it down, I’ll eventually forget that I ever needed to do any thinking at all.

4 thoughts on “I’ve become unsure of whether or not writing is an intellectual process.

  1. Joey Frantz

    My problem with writing advice is more that it usually takes the form of platitudes disguised as substantive remarks. For example, the common “omit needless words” seems simple enough, but wait a minute: does anyone really think you should keep needless words in a story? Doesn’t the advice basically boil down to “keep out the unnecessary things”?

    One could interpret the advice more generously and suppose it to mean “you probably think there’s more that’s necessary in your writing than there really is.” But this just brings us to what’s actually difficult and requires thought, which is figuring out just which words are needless. Beauty is central to literature, which means that repetitions that don’t convey more information can still be essential to the art. How many times does Whitman repeat himself beautifully? Many. So what that his repetitions don’t strictly speaking convey more information than might a tighter phrasing?

    One could also take it as an advocacy of minimalism, but minimalism is not always the best route. I care mostly about how much a writer moves me, not about the ratio of how much he moves me to how many words he uses.

    Advice they helps explain WHICH words are meaningless is, on the other hand, very helpful, but also much harder to come by, and harder to create.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      I think you’ve hit it on the nail here. There’s an obligation to think more deeply about the things that we say about writing. But instead we fall back on them as crutches, both in the hope that if we mechanically do (and repeat) them then we’ll be guaranteed publication and as a way to win status over other writers (by pretending that we’re “in the know”).

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