Colorado Poets Center E-Words Issue #4

Five Bridges to Wordland

We’re re-publishing Denver Laureate Chris Ransick’s Jan. 4, 2007, essay, “Five Bridges to Worland,” from his “Word Garden” site.

Many of us would agree with his statements and if we have students they may, or should, as well. We’ve found that sometimes what a teacher tells his/her students can get a little more traction when they discover someone else has said it too. Here it is:

Chris RansickIf art is the bridge between what you see in your mind and what the world sees, then skill is how you build that bridge. – Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit

Lately I’ve been asking myself – why writing? Why this particular practice, with its long hours alone, with its anxious striving after the next words and lines, with its demands and refusals, with its too-rare moments of magic? Why would anyone be driven to a writing life?

I haven’t come up with definitive answers to those questions, but I sense some components or influences in the lives of writers make them what they are, fill them with words so they find the way to build a bridge to others with language. And to be sure, there are certain practices – ways of living as a writer – that make it more likely our efforts will be fruitful. Raw talent, intelligence, sensitivity, a way with words – these aren’t enough. Writers need to work hard to develop their skills so they can build a bridge to the reader.

Here are five practical observations I’ve made about myself and which I suspect hold true for other writers whose work I  enjoy reading. None of these is ground-breaking; all have been said before by writers and teachers before me. But they’re useful meditations on the writing life, and they certainly form the basis from which I work.

Writers are obsessed with words. Self-evident, you say? Perhaps, but consider that obsession denotes a state of mind bordering on unhealthy. Dictionaries use terms like “compulsive preoccupation” and “anxiety” and “unreasonable”. One needn’t go over the edge, but it certainly can be worthwhile in a writing life to know where that edge is, consistently trudge right up to it, and listen and look carefully. Explore new words all the time, in any way you will. Read writers who shove at the margins of vocabulary. Study the origins of language families. Learn a new language. Read things aloud to really hear the words. Record new words in a notebook. There are many ways to practice this obsession.

Writers crave solitude. This doesn’t mean they have to be utterly alone, per se, although that can be true. Rather, the main point is to locate and regularly spend a substantial amount of time with your own imagination. Some writers achieve it in the busiest places – crowded coffee shops, public squares – because they can conjure isolation within themselves. Other writers must have the physical isolation of “a room of one’s own,” the concept set out so remarkably by Virginia Woolf. There’s no set amount of time here, only the regular visits to a necessary state of mind. My productivity drops off badly when I don’t get a certain amount of solitude; it peaks when I’m finding just the right balance of solitude and social interaction and stimulation. Find your balance and then insist on it.

Writers read. I remember as a young man stalking into the office of a poet-teacher one sunny day and asking for guidance; his first question was to ask what books I was currently reading and I answered, foolishly, that I was avoiding other poets to be sure I didn’t impinge upon my own voice. Omigod, what an idiot I was – a fact he made clearly by laughing and handing me a short stack of books from the corner of his desk. “Come back,” he said, “only after you’ve read these carefully. Then we’ll talk.” I knew that lesson but had, for some reason, put it aside; he helped me re-learn it and since then I have read voraciously – books everywhere, several going at all times. Every day of my life is bounded by books, writing, language. Good literature is nutrition for the mind of the writer.

Writers pay attention. Again, it seems obvious to say this, but how committed, how practiced and proficient are you? Every person pays some attention to the world around them, but writers need to take their abilities to the highest level. Writers are “observation athletes,” their consciousness honed to an amazing level, always ready to be called into use, responsive as a reflex to slight vibrations that signal an image, a character, a setting, a line of dialogue that can be captured and explored – exploited, if you will. This goes on all the time, and the more you do it, the better you get.
Writers record. Paying attention isn’t enough; writers need the good habits of getting to the page regularly, writing down the observations they make. I think it’s good to keep this as pure as possible – have a journal or computer file where you record, in an uninhibited rush of language and imagination, anything and everything. Never let anyone else see it and you won’t be reluctant to include anything. Don’t worry how it will be used later. Don’t worry whether it’s “good writing” that comes out in shiny, handsome phrases. The key is to produce, not polish, at this state. Record every day if you can. You’ll thank yourself later for creating a rich reserve of authentic material, available when you are ready to focus on moving to the next step – crafting a poem, story, novel, or essay.

I believe we can never see the ends of our ways. We’re all in a writers’ forest, picking our trail out as we go, hoping and believing we’re heading somewhere we mean to go. Along the way, we find things, we leave things behind. So the journey becomes the point, and the better “journeyman” one becomes, the more fulfilling the writing life.