Sunday, August 23, 2009

Writing is Craft and Craft is Discovery

As I begin another semester and tackle, among other things, a new group of students in a creative writing workshop, I have to remind myself how many aspiring poets and writers often have "important things to say" and proceed to do so--and often at the expense of their work.

I think it was W. H. Auden (forgive me if I'm wrong) who, when querying prospective students who wanted the opportunity to study under his guidance, would ask students why they wanted to take his course; if one said, "I have important things to say," Auden noted that such students would probably not become poets and writers. However, if one said, "I like playing with words," that student had a good chance of becoming a writer of worth.

I don't think I teach "creative writing" per se; rather, I think I teach experimentation with words. Even if these words often don't make literal, dennotative sense, I do know words can have a wonderful impact on us as readers when we consider the connotative, emotional sense of certain vowels and consonants hitting against each other in varied linguistic utterances.

The late Jacques Derrida made one crucial error when espousing Deconstruction: Writers actually like the fact that their works don't literally mean one thing. Consequently, Derrida's emphasis on the intertexuality and the interplay between words and meaning--signs and signifiers--certainly shines a light on what most poets and writers love: Like gophers, they dig their way through a rather dark world toward some destination that, with luck, will prove fruitful.

Supposedly Derrida put to death Structualism (and those binary oppositions--and for some reason I'm attracted to Structualist approaches to literature), but he didn't; he simply realized that meaning is indeed a mystery and that texts have built in contradictions upon contradictions; as Whitman said, "I contain multitudes."

That multitudinous-ness is so appealing, and some--not all--students eventually come to appreciate letting go of their "important things" so that they write something they didn't know existed at the end of their literary tunnels. As a result, whenever my assignments harp on using a certain number of syllables or stresses or the need for medial caesuras and run-ons, I remind myself that I'm giving students requirements that take the pressure off of their imaginations--and, ironically, their imaginations begin to flourish as they dig toward the unknown.