There is a narrative we tell ourselves about writing and writers that kills me. It is the myth that good writing, Literature (with the coveted capital l) is the stuff of mystery and magic, a spark of inspiration, that can not be taught. I say this with great love for my creative writing professors, who were all brilliant writers. But when they say great writing can’t be taught, I find myself refraining from calling bullshit.
Framing the writer as a conduit for the story or as someone who merely receives a spark of inspiration removes the creator from their creation. Why would you do that? Let me explain.
In my undergraduate years, I experienced a series of writer’s blocks because I felt that without that spark, I was not a writer. Even if I couldn’t create, in order to be a productive writing scholar, I began studying linguistics and philosophy. I wanted to understand Literature and how it was created. I had the opportunity to explore this topic in a Philosophy of Language course, and it has taken on a life of its own in both my scholarly and personal life. It is an obsession of mine that I wish to communicate in this post.
First, let’s talk about poetic communication and how it can help the communication between writers and editors.
Poetic communication is an intriguing branch of the philosophy of language because it involves the work of literary criticism, linguistic theory, and cultural studies. To define certain aspects of poetic communications, I will be quoting Roland Posner’s Rational Discourse and Poetic Communication.
Posner would definitely disagree with my findings that poetic communication plays an important role in Literature, as he sees Literature as the “secondary automatization” or “de-poetization” of poetry. Meaning poetic technique becomes a part of Literature after it has fallen from the pedestal of poetic communication and becomes “a mere element of literary style.”
To keep this brief, let’s focus on two features of poetic communication. Function one: “Poetic communication de-automatizes the recipient’s relation to society and reality.” In other words, Posner says poetry makes the reader aware of an action that would otherwise be automatic or unconscious. To use a literary term, poetry takes an otherwise tired convention and makes a new experience out of it, thus causing the reader to react to it. In doing this, we come to function two: “[Poetic communication] brings the recipient into contact with characteristics of reality which…usually remain hidden.” In creating a conscious experience out of an otherwise automatic action, the poet reveals a hidden aspect of reality. This hidden reality is the magic of poetry; it reveals our lives in a way that makes us conscious of the human experience. Their stories and their words are never automatic, but keep a reader checked into the story.
But what exactly does this mean for writers and editors?
Creating an original voice, going against the grain of convention, has little to do with the spark we have been told about in our writing workshops or by other successful authors. Rather, it is a conscious effort to know the rules and when to innovate. A young man pursuing his B.A. in writing told me the other day that he heard Stephen King say his ideas come from a spark. And even though I couldn’t verify King mentioning this with a quick Google search, the myth perpetuates itself.
So, to writers and editors alike, when you come across a tired metaphor, a line that goes past your eyes as swiftly as the scenery passing in a moving train, consider it. Consider what can be done to give it life, to give it consciousness. That is where the capital L can be found.
A final note to editors: we are the first readers of a writer’s story. It is important to identify and respond to moments of convention and innovation in a writer’s text. At times, writers will unknowingly use conventions or something they picked up while reading. When this happens, it’s important to explain the conventions so that writers can more effectively utilize them.
I will leave you now with a line from Mark Turner’s The Literary Mind: “Our core indispensable stories not only can be invented, they must be invented if we are to survive and have human lives.”