So without stopping to choose my way, in the sure and certain knowledge that it will find itself—or if not it will not matter—I begin the first memory.
— Virginia Woolf “A Sketch of the Past”
One of the earliest writing lessons I learned (I refer to creative writing, not elementary school writing) is this: that I should allow my writing to guide itself instead of beginning with my conclusion already in mind. This is common advice, something you’ve likely heard yourself, but I repeat it here because I can remember how I struggled with it, how I tried to believe it in theory without putting it into practice. And I see again and again student pieces that seem to be transcripts (sometimes elaborations) of a predetermined narrative and meaning with no room for detours from “the point.” The writing in these is sometimes very clean, even beautiful, but it simply serves the goal, without being part of the process.
Now I would not say that I have arrived at any fully formed writing abilities, but I have learned to trust in the notion that I should write without knowing where I’m going. Whereas I once tried to express in words the lessons I’d already processed from highlight-stories I’d experienced, I now attempt to find or create connections between seemingly dissimilar things that flit into my consciousness coincidentally. The act itself is as fun as it is rewarding, and even when it fails, it gives me good exercise.
One recent example, among many, came to me as I was sitting in Montevideo’s Estadio Centenario watching the Uruguayan national team play a World Cup qualifier match against Ecuador. I knew I wanted to write something about Uruguay’s improbable and, frankly, amazing soccer tradition, going back nearly a century and including two Olympic championships followed by two World Cup championships, and I wanted to tie this to the team’s recent resurgence as a FIFA powerhouse. Soccer is a great source of pride for Uruguayans, and I, who’ve lived in the country for four years and who’ve married a Uruguayan, share the sentiment. But I did not want to write a straightforward narrative (“I went to the stadium to watch Uruguay play against Ecuador… It was a 1-1 tie… Let me tell you about Uruguayan soccer history…”). So I kept my eyes and ears open in the stadium for other entry points to help me essay the theme instead of simply writing the story.
I thought I found my hook when I was startled by a loudspeaker promotional jingle playing all through the stadium during the middle of the match. It was hawking ball bearings. How strange, I thought, that someone would think it worth their advertising pesos to blast such a commercial to a stadium filled not with auto mechanics or race-car fans, but futbol aficionados.
But just as I didn’t understand the advertising strategy, I couldn’t see how ball bearings and soccer could work together in my essay, other than in a superficial way (the one happened during the other). So I began to write. The sentences themselves suggested what might come next, and from the process of stringing words together I got to what I think is a halfway decent connection. I’ve not achieved literary brilliance, but I’ve discovered something I didn’t see before, and my essay is a new creation that never was in the world before. In any case, it’s reaffirmed the lesson about letting the writing find its own way, which I took so long to learn.
NOTE: The essay I refer to can be read at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, along with others I’ve written, at this link: http://www.mcsweeneys.net/columns/dispatches-from-montevideo
- Guest Post: Patrick Madden, Some Notes on Expectations - April 20, 2017
- Guest Blog Post, Patrick Madden: Finding My Way - January 12, 2013
9 thoughts on “Guest Blog Post, Patrick Madden: Finding My Way”
I appreciate the process described of connecting two topics that may not seem to connect at first glance. When I wrote a blog post for s[r]’s blog, I struggled with that concept. With guidance from s[r]’s editor, Trish Murphy, I learned that connecting ideas through an anecdote (as this post’s author does with a soccer game he attended and a jingle advertisement he heard) makes a blog post both interesting and relatable. Patrick Madden connects his outsider perspective of a jingle he hears at a Uruguayan soccer game to the conclusion that the majority of soccer fans are ” typically male and mechanically inclined” and are thus targeted for ball-bearing advertisements. He takes the reader of the article from a soccer stadium to a ball-bearing manufacturing facility to the jingle’s influence on the Uruguayan public, and then connects all of this to the “misaligned machinery of a limited first-person perspective.”
It is true that one of the hardest concepts for beginning writers is to not plan out the conclusion of the story. But the idea of allowing the writing to come together, even when it seemingly makes no sense, is oftentimes the best way to find the jewel of the story. Oftentimes it is when you reach the end of the work of writing, whether story or essay, that the true heart of the writing is found. I had one professor tell me to write the paper without a thesis and that when you get to the final paragraph your strongest writing and explanation of the paper will be there. Since that class I have noticed this with ever essay and story I’ve written.
I really love this blog post because I’ve noticed the same thing in my own writing. If I know where I’m going, I either don’t want to go there anymore (because it’s boring), or it’s dead on the page because there wasn’t any interest or excitement in writing it. Sometimes the “weird” tangents are where the most interest in a story is generated and in revision, the writer can find the real story within them. When I have too heavy a hand in the writing (when I’m trying too hard to control it), the life of it disappears. Great post.
This is especially true for poets, I find, because seldom do you go anywhere surprising or unique with a map.
I agree and disagree with this. How you approach writing often depends on genre. The Harry Potter novels were meticulously plotted; writing such an ambitious project without an outline would have led to disaster. As were Charles Dickens novels, Tolstoy — you name it. All of them had an outline.
An example of a novel that was not outlined was Twilight. That novel makes for an interesting case study of subplots that are brought up on the fly and never resolved, nor mentioned again. And the literary merits of such a piece . . . well . . .
So for novels, I would advise this: write a bloody outline. But also be prepared to veer off course if the characters demand it. To tie in your soccer metaphor: train hard, plan harder, but be prepared to ignore formation when you have a breakaway.
I assume you wrote this post specifically for personal essays, in which I would agree that writing is a process of self-discovery.
However, one critique I have of the personal essay is that often the ending is lacking, which leaves the reader with a nasty “So What?” taste instead of a satisfying revelation. And while this observation is merely anecdotal, I’ve noticed that when a writer lacks a firm compass and destination the ship seems to go off course more often than not, sailing both into the lands of unfocused banality and tepid stupidity.
Rather, I think you should always outline, memorize it into your heart, and then ignore it. Bring a compass, bring your charts and graphs, and when a great idea hits, don’t be afraid to run with it and sail into the unknown.
Very interesting idea, Eric!
Hi, Eric. I’m not smart enough to know about Dickens’s and Tolstoy’s writing practices, and I am curious to know how you got that background on Twilight! I know a number of novelists who write without an outline and whose books are wonderful, though they haven’t achieved the fame that Dickens and Tolstoy have. You’re right that I mean personal essays primarily, but not only them. I guess that the vast majority of anything people make (essay, poem, song, birthday cake, three-legged stool) comes out lacking, so your observation about unsatisfactory endings is right on. Still, I have only had success (as thin and rare as it is) when I’ve begun without a map. I am glad that you’re thinking against my affirmations here, and I think the tension will help your writing.
Thanks, everyone, for the keen comments!
Well, I’d agree with Eric to an extent to be honest. But, Twilight is just a poor case – but obviously books with a more meticulous plot tend to do well anyway.
Good luck! 🙂
Thanks for your thoughts!
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