In my personal writing, I’m not usually responding to existing texts (by reviewing books or responding to others’ arguments or making pointed allusions), and I’m also not usually making new texts that present an idealized, heightened reality or consciousness (such as poetry that uses language intensely, or novels that depict some mythic struggle). Instead, I’m usually trying to take my text-making into the world, writing about where I am and what I’m seeing, hearing, and thinking (examples here, here, and here).
Yesterday at school, as I was writing my own poem as my creative writing students made theirs, I’d thought of an earlier poem of mine, and how it was good — it was special, it felt poetic — because it used language intensely. Poems could be thought of as having a certain intensity of language that one doesn’t hear in most daily conversations. That’s why poems are fun to read — they’re heightened, intense, just as stage plays and fiction show characters and situations that are more heightened and intense than daily life. And that’s the attraction — I enjoy O Brother and Jesus Christ Superstar and “The Raven” and Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird because these works show things that are stylized, that go beyond my common experience of reality. Even certain nonfictions, too, are heightened — breathless news stories, gloriously polished literary essays.
But I’ve also questioned the values of thinking of my own life in this heightened way — seeing my life and thinking it should be more dramatic or funny or whatever. I suppose one could try to live an intense life — one could cause drama, live outside the law, do drugs, hitchhike.
Literary works (and maybe art works generally?) that convey a sense of a world heightened, a reality made fantastic — this is generally considered a sign of “good” poems, fictions, and nonfictions. It’s a world that values artifice and revision-unto-perfection as a way of pushing texts away from real life.
It wasn’t that long ago that I questioned the need to revise — there’s a whole other value system, I’m learning, that values artifice less and spontaneity more — not improvisation, exactly, but particularity. How did a person (each person?) live? What did someone do and think at the time, from in the midst of the action, or soon after — It’s a value system in which the daily journal is preferred over the end-of-life memoir.
Literary texts are often judged by a standard of how heightened they are, how well a novel compresses life, or gets to the story. My objection to stories (such as here and here and here) has been that stories are artificial and arbitrary. Even when I make a story of some experience from within my lived life, that’s not a necessary story but merely one interpretation by my mind at that time.
In “good” texts, the writer is supposed to hide the effort required to make the text (as a Taylor Mali poem puts it: “I make them show all their work in math
and hide it on their final drafts in English.”) But if I’m writing as myself, about the particulars of my recent experience, I am going to discuss the work of writing — as Steinbeck kept a journal of his process of writing The Grapes of Wrath.
When someone writes an intense poem, others can sense the quality, perhaps intuitively — maybe because we are trained/acculturated, from an early age, to appreciate language and stories — and we must be trained to appreciate new art forms. And I feel the writings I’ve done from particular places and dates , these don’t feel as valuable. Maybe I need to train my readers to see the value (as no doubt people had to be trained or taught to appreciate Ulysses). I’ll sometimes read to my students segments from my journal writings done in particular places as if these segments depicted something intuitively funny. I’ll read a quote or something I think is funny or absurd, etc. — for example, the discussion of dog-mating in my writing done at Washington Square Park. That’s OK, but it reduces the rest of the freewrite to excess writing that could be cut. I told a student to edit some things out of her recent essay, as these things seemed unrelated to her essay’s thesis. But in a place-writing, in any particular writing-as-myself freewriting, there is no thesis to guide the writing, so there is no off-thesis material!
There’s no organizing principle but the writer’s mind, the writer’s consciousness. This is what I’ll refer to as mind-writing, as distinct from message-writing: a discrete text, containing its own introduction/beginning, conclusion/ending, message, and justification for that message being important or entertaining. The mind-writing doesn’t need or imply the existence of readers the way message-writing does. The mind-write doesn’t seek money or approval. It may seem standoffish but it’s independent. As a blurting of the writer’s mental voice onto paper, it’s actually more intimate than the message, which is prepared for — and may pander to — readers. The mind-write is just the author talking (and before I would publish one of these, I may edit out the parts I don’t want to share — which option I need to have in order to be open and honest during the writing — but I also don’t need to revise the mind-writing, so the text stays as close to what was originally written as possible).
Several years ago, I read part of a writing-advice book that said aspiring writers should not write journals, as these are too self-indulgent, but should write letters, as these are written to a reader. At the time, that advice felt right, as if this advice were from the only correct perspective on how to write. But now I’m better at seeing the arbitrariness of judgments, or, let’s say that judgments made by comparing any particular piece of writing to a certain standard aren’t arbitrary, because judgments made in accordance with standards are necessary — what’s arbitrary is accepting any particular standard.
Mind-writings aren’t trying to impress readers or make a case that they’re important or that they have a “good point” to make. But when I have a message, I gotta explain why the message is important/valuable, or how entertaining my movie or novel is. I don’t need to hype my mind-writing — the most I could say to advocate someone read a piece of my mind-writing would be, I guess, “spend some time with my mind” — which doesn’t make any promises to improve anyone else’s life.
I have posted to this blog texts that I think make “a good point” — heck, even this post now, which appeared largely in this form in my journal this morning, is making a point, spreading a message. But my criteria of what’s valuable are, as explained above, arbitrary. I do sometimes tell my students certain ideas or methods that I think will help them as writers — and I don’t think my advice is bad, though I know it may not be what each of my student-writers needs to hear.
But I find it kinda cool that it’s possible to step aside from the normal standards by which we judge most creative writings. I now see that I’ve tended to judge my own journal-writings (mind-writings) by message-writing standards, so in considering this distinction, I’ve freed myself to see my mind-writings on their own terms. I can see that I don’t need to make points, or to boil down my writings to summary messages. I don’t need to argue for my ideas or defend ideas against others’ argument. I’ve felt that was right for a long time without understanding why that was OK.
But if I’m not writing to anyone else, why would anyone else read my mind-writings? I’m not sure, though I still feel there’s value in reading them, even if I’m not sure what that value would be. My answer at this point: People could read my mind-writings to get a sense of what it’s like to be alive in a particular time and place as a particular writer, a particular mind in this world of particulars. I’d love to find the mind-writings of those who lived as settlers in my home state 200 years ago, for example — and hear what it was to walk through unplowed prairie or ride a stage coach. And I hope to find journal-writings done by these people. When I’ve read some of Thoreau’s journal, the writing there seems so much more intimate and up-to-date — like he’s a real, relatable person — than he seems through Walden.
And even if readers don’t find mind-writings all that compelling, I will keep writing them because, well, it’s a fun part of being alive.
Interesting. The advice to would-be writers not to write journals but instead letters because journal are too self-indulgent, seems like a good idea. I used to write journals and now looking back at them they are a bore to read. I would obsess too much on one thing or another. The letters that I wrote and were returned to me (from my mom before she died) were much more interesting and gave a more detailed description of what was going on in my life at the time.
I agree that it’s cool to read letters we ourselves have written, but I also find that I am not always completely honest in my letters — I’m not lying, but I’m shaping my ideas for the expected reader. It’s in my journals where I find I can be the most open. (And thanks for your comment and sorry I didn’t respond earlier!)