Why write if you aren’t going to do anything with it?

– Student’s question on William Stafford’s habit of exploratory writing

  1. How do you know you’re not going to do anything with it? Some things you start, you might pick up years later.
  1. Writing is a piece of thinking. Do you “do something” with every thought that you have?
  1. We discover as we write. It’s fishing.  We come up empty. We catch and release. Why go fishing if sometimes you aren’t going to catch fish? You don’t know if you are.
  1. William Stafford suggests that you must “launch many expendable efforts” but the thing is that you don’t know in advance which ones are going to be expendable. Thomas Edison tried out many (100? This can be looked up) different filaments (?) before he found one that would work for the light bulb. There are thousands of examples like this. Can you think of one?
  1. William Stafford said that you need the bad poems (the ones you don’t do anything with) in order to get the good ones. William Carlos Williams said that sometimes you need the tree to have one good leaf. Ernest Hemingway once wrote a 1100 page novel about the ocean; his Epilogue was 100 pages. The Epilogue turned into his book The Old Man And The Sea. He didn’t do anything with the other 1000 pages. But! He needed to write the first 1000 to get those 100.
  1. We improve by doing. We make the road by walking. Great stories happen to those who can tell them. I wrote this morning about going into Papa Murphy’s pizza and hearing the phrase “gluten free cowboy coming up” and two stories about misunderstandings. Am I going to do something with these? Maybe, maybe not. But they are there if I need them. Maybe in a decade. Maybe never. Maybe in ten minutes. One job as a writer and thinker and student is to be a collector of details, ideas, and questions. We do this by writing.
  1. This week (by reading your papers…Also read!) I found this confirmation. One student wrote that at first she thought free writes were crazy but now she saw how they could help write papers later on. One student wrote, in her assignment of writing six word summaries (on her 95th one): writing six words is getting easier.  On her 95th one. Is she going to do something with those, other than getting a few points in the gradebook? Probably not. But! They did something to her; they made her a better writer. Sometimes we write not in order to do something with our writing, but in order for our writing to do something to us.

Note: I’m proud of that last sentence. I’m wondering if I heard it somewhere else. Probably. Doesn’t detract from it being a good answer. That is my one sentence answer to your question. I couldn’t get that without writing everything else that came before it.

Q: Why write if you aren’t going to do something with it?

A: Sometimes we write not in order to do something with our writing, but in order for our writing to do something to us. We write to learn, to discover, to find answers. Until I wrote this response, I didn’t have a clear answer to that question. Now I think I do. Clear writing is clear thinking.


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