On Writing: Writing and Reading

Wanderer, there is no path.
The path is made by walking.
By walking you make the path,
And turning and looking back
You see a path you will never walk again.
Wanderer, there is no path,
Only your wake upon the sea.
—Antonio Machado, from “Campos de Castilla,”1912

I’ve been writing this column every other week for a little more than a year now. When I started, I really did not think I had this much to say. And in fact, I didn’t. As Machado says, the path is made by walking, or in this case, writing. But walking is a good metaphor. This column is a way of wandering, meandering around town, running into readers along the way like the friends you bump into at Fred’s.

And my editor has let me wander around pretty freely in this “On Writing” column. But there’s a thread running through all of these pieces, believe it or not, a thread that may become apparent only in the unraveling. So let’s meander a bit and see what unravels.

I think that the job of writing is to make us better people—not better automatons, but better human beings, and not in some simplistic moralistic sense. Writing should make us more thoughtful (in all senses of that word) and more engaged with each other and engaged more immediately. Immediate: maybe that’s the impossible task we ask of writing, that this MEDIUM become somehow less MEDIATE and establish between the writer and the reader a direct and palpable connection.

From this perspective, all writing is epistolary, letters we write each other, no matter what we write. Even when you’re writing in your journal, you’re writing yourself down, opening yourself out onto the page, not just committing your thoughts to a medium but chasing some kind of immediacy.

The only thing I learned from my college writing professor, a Marxist, was this: the best writing is when you stick your neck out. An existentialist would want to finish that sentence: the best writing is when you stick your neck out into the world.

In the college writing class I’m teaching now, one student did indeed stick his neck out and intentionally ignored my instructions for an essay assignment. Not the wisest thing to do, ignoring the prof’s instructions. I had given students specific directions about how to write the first paragraph, directions that were meant to help them get over that abominable practice they learn in high school of beginning an essay with a generalization.

At first glance, I saw only that this student had ignored my specific directions to focus on the literary work we were writing about. Instead he chose to introduce his essay another way, and although it was definitely not what I had asked for, after reading his paragraph again I had to admit that it was a pretty good introduction to his essay after all.

When I’m writing I have to remember to not let myself get in the way (and I do have a knack for getting in my own way). And when I’m teaching I have to remember to tell students too: don’t let me get in your way; don’t let anything or anyone—your ego included—get in between you and your reader. Writing to make that connection is going to take all the resources you can find—your experience and knowledge, your spirit and curiosity, your sense of humor, your fear and trembling, your library and Google, and, yes, even your iPhone—everything you’ve got, all of it. And if you have any wisdom, that would be nice too.

Everything else is just bad faith, somebody else’s ideas about what to write and how to write it. Even at work: I know that sometimes, between the bosses and the boilerplate, good writing can be hard to get to, but I’m pretty sure the boss will like it if you can show her a better way to do things, a clearer way to write the things you have to write. Good writing is conscientious. The best writing is conscientious objection.

As in most things worth the wanting, that may take a little courage, but that’s okay: there’s strength in numbers. We think of writing as something we do alone at our desks, but it just seems that way. You’re already in my mind when I’m writing, the one I’m writing to. And if I’m sticking my neck out, then we’re both in trouble, you and me, because now these words are going to be in both our heads. Writing and reading, we’re in this writing thing together. Whether you know it or not, I’m sticking your neck out too.

This trying to write, to write well, to write better—I think of it the way I think of Michelle and me: it’s like this great love we’re not at all capable of, not even aware is possible, until we risk it. It’s the path we make only in the wandering, the path you and I are on right now, right this minute—you and me, walking each other out into the world.

It’s right here between us, reader. My words are in your hands.


• Jim Hale can be reached at www.jimhalewriting.com

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