Writing is changing your writing

Assumptions about writing that hinder the writing process.
Part IV in a series.
Part I here.
Part II here.
Part III here.

There are several assumptions about writing that I regularly encounter when I teach. Assumptions that hinder people in their writing, and that I therefore regularly have to counter. One is that writing is a sort of literal transcription process: I think a thought, I write it down. Not true. Another is that the act of writing consists of putting words to paper or on screen. Also not true.

Because once you have set some words on paper or screen, no matter if they flowed from you all at once, or you had to wrest them from your mind: that is when the writing continues.

Because part of writing is changing your writing.
Ordering your thoughts, your reasoning.
Clarifying thoughts: filling in the pieces that your mind does not need, because it thinks in chunks and images and feelings and sensations, not in words alone.
Learning to write in a way that you can understand what you mean.
Learning to write in a way that others can understand what you mean.
Thinking about the meaning or the weight of words.

image: Georges Seurat, Au travail de la terre, 1882/3, conté crayon. Collection Musée d’Orsay, held at the Louvre

Slowly the shape of your ideas emerges: from the writing and the rewriting, the cutting-out and the throwing-away, the re-naming and the re-shuffling.

Take it from a genius if you do not believe me: mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot. Mandelbrot helped to discover a mathematical formula that governs shapes in the natural world. These endlessly recurring and varying shapes he baptised fractals. The fractal formula is one of the most exciting mathematical discoveries of our time.

In an interview, Mandelbrot explained that after years and years of esoteric research, in relative isolation, it was the writing of a lecture that forced him to bring his ideas together in an intelligible whole, and to name the things that he had discovered:


I gave some lectures, including one at the Collège de France, This was one of the harshest examinations I took in my life. Because I was returning to Paris after fifteen years, more or less, of absence. People had heard about my work in finance, my work on these mountains, and so on… It looked totally incoherent, and there was very great curiosity about my lecture. I never had the experience of a lecture forcing me to such feats of reorganisation. And fractals were in a certain sense born for this lecture [my emphasis MB].

Benoît Mandelbrot in Clouds are not spheres (1995), documentary directed by Nigel Lesmoir-Gordon, via Netflix, 19m0s.

Fractals in action: mineral structures in stone, so-called dendrites, that branch as trees or plants do, creating the impression of a fossil.

Writing is trying out, experimenting, expanding.

Writing is cutting and pasting.

Writing is paring down, filleting, polishing.

Writing is throwing everything out and starting with a fresh new page.

Writing is letting other people read your stuff and hearing what they have to say about it.

Writing is using your hands and your heart and your voice and your eyes and your legs and your belly and your brain and…

main image: Kikukawa Eizan, Faithful stripes of the night robe (c. 1804-1810). A woman with scroll and brush, writing; folded striped fabric in upper left corner. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division