Henry James is often quoted as saying that the writer should strive to be “someone on whom nothing is lost.” I refer to this notion often, as it does seem true, if presumptuous, that the writer is above all others a person who is never at a loss for understanding, knowledge, or for something to say regarding any topic at any time. In other words, the writer appears as someone who “knows everything.”
Knowledge, it might be said, is chief among the things a writer should strive for. But what, exactly, is a writer really accountable for knowing?
As it turns out, writers really do need to know a lot of things other people don’t necessarily have to know. The volume of understanding required to write at a level anywhere near professional quality takes a lot of study and practice. Even after years of teaching I am still learning tricks to the writing trade and uncovering errors in my understanding of what makes for successful writing. For example, I just came to the understanding that no story in the mind can ever be captured on the page exactly as we imagine it in our heads. This is because the act of writing is alive, and though we have many beautiful and engaging ideas which can be incorporated into a given work, our minds do not regurgitate, word for word or notion by notion, what we think. Furthermore, writing itself is revising, and once the initial inspiration is expressed on the page it must be rewritten until it is correct – whatever the final story becomes.
This last epiphany removes a tremendous stress from me as a writer. In our school days we are often taught to think that the ideas in our head can be captured, fully and completely, once we’re “good” at writing. We come to believe that great writers just write what they think, perfectly expressed and completely understood, from the moment they sit down until the time they are done. Our writing-goddess Natalie G. asserts the error of this thinking in Writing Down the Bones, however, when she says:
“People often say, ‘I was walking along [or driving, shopping, jogging] and I had this whole poem go through my mind, but when I sat down to write it, I couldn’t get it to come out right.’ I never can either. Sitting to write is another activity. Let go of walking or jogging and the poem that was born then in your mind. This is another moment. Write another poem. Perhaps secretly hope something of what you thought a while ago might come out, but let it come out however it does. Don’t force it . . . Writing is not a McDonald’s hamburger. The cooking is slow, and in the beginning you are not sure whether a roast or banquet or a lamb chop will be the result” (47-48).
Writing is what writers must know — above all else. The details of character, setting, plot, and scene are worked out in the effort of writing. Politics, economy, and science can be learned, where they need to be learned, for the sake of the story. It is writing that’s the wild card here, the thing hardest to understand and most worth knowing. In the act of writing all of the story details are added and revised, the thoughts made complete. It’s not the other way around, not the way we are taught or assume. The act of writing is itself at once material and ethereal. The results of writing are physical, visible on the page, bound in books, but if you destroy the only existing copy of the work you will see that it can never be recreated exactly as it was. In the act of destroying one version a new and remarkably different version naturally takes its place. Bilbo can lead the dwarves to the halls of Lonely Mountain after the death of Thorin at the hands of trolls. Holden Caulfield can meet an entrepreneur en route to the end of The Catcher in the Rye and become a successful junior businessman. Old Yeller can be made into a story about a canary.
It is in the act of writing that so much more knowledge is peripherally gained. By writing well — that is, by understanding the subtle elements of this difficult form of communication — one cannot help but learn many other things. In this way the act of writing is the well-spring of knowledge and all that the writer must know and be accountable for.