December 2, 2009

Willful Ignorance

It’s the late 90s. At 1 a.m., I sit in front of a blank blue WordPerfect computer screen. I have a paper due at 9 a.m. on the Book of Judith for my Bible as Literature class. Though I’m buzzing with caffeine, I get up and refill my coffee. I return. The terror of the blank page peaks, and I consider dropping out of college entirely. I have no idea where to start. My papers almost always receive good grades, but I’ll be darned if I know why. In desperation, I pull quotations I might use and start grouping them on the screen.

The reason why this was so excruciating was that I did not know how I’d done it and whether I could repeat it. I couldn’t articulate my process, any more than I knew the parts of an essay. No one had ever taught me about thesis statements or the five-paragraph essay. Or, if they had, I hadn’t been listening. It wasn’t until grad school, when I was trying to teach others how to do it, that I really understood writing process and how to structure text. In fact, it was my husband and his good old college prep education that helped me discover topic sentences. It all came as manna from heaven.

That’s why I don’t understand when experienced writers say they don’t know how they do it. First of all, how do they do it at all without going crazy, if that’s the case? Gosh, I certainly would have. Second, isn’t it our job to know? Writing is articulated thinking, and if you haven’t been thinking about how you write as you write, I’m not sure what that says about your writing. Is it a willful resistance to knowledge? Something in the psyche? I can understand if they just don’t want to go into it, and there’s definitely a part of it that is mysterious and heaven-sent.

Maybe it’s me who’s missing something.

Oh, and I’ve finished my story. Woo hoo!

What I’m Reading Today: Some interesting New York Times articles.

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