Beyond Good Advice

Ein paar Gedanken über das Schreiben

 Dezember 2011

Seit einigen Jahren arbeite ich an einem größeren Forschungsprojekt zum Thema "Professionelles Schreiben in mehreren Sprachen".

Nicht alles Nachdenken darüber ist ausschließlich wissenschaftlich motiviert …


(Dank an John Heath)


 Never write about writing. Everybody knows that only when authors run out of ideas about life, they start to write about writing. If they have nothing to say at all, they report their trouble detecting an appropriate subject, thinking up an exciting plot, choosing the right words. In the worst case they start to discuss several inappropriate subjects, fail at putting together their notions in a comprehensible way at least and express themselves in words quite worn out by being stressed again and again for the same matters. And so the pitiable, uninspired authors get lost in clichés and make it more obvious than ever for their readers that they cannot write (anymore). However, in doing so they involuntarily follow one favourite rule of guidebooks: show - don't tell.

So if you want the world to take you seriously - don't write about writing. Keep your ideas to yourself. Do not tell anybody that you sometimes consider writing an adventure itself, a walk on the wild side of your thoughts and some dark velvet underground corners of your brain. And do not tell them how you produce your own texts. Do not confess that you usually do without elaborate plans for your essays but slouch on the couch with the laptop on your knees and discover what comes first to mind. And least of all admit that you even used to enjoy a certain level of uncertainty in professional and academic writing. Some of them might misunderstand.

Well, different people do things in different ways. Not all of those ways are equally successful but, all the same, it is rarely possible to find out the "one best way" (at least in procedures which are more complex than getting dressed by starting with some underwear and not with wellington boots, for example). Nevertheless we keep trying to rationalize our workflow even in creative assignments. We learn through experience (bad as well as good) - and writing is no exception at that regard. We talk about experts having gained some know-how and we do not even doubt the existence of "writing experts", do we? Still "know-how" does mean some knowledge about good ways of solving a problem. On the other hand it is quite commonplace that text production is not exactly working on an assembly line and that implementing Taylorism on writing would be quite unfortunate. So what now?

How does writing actually work? There are two radical answers to this crucial question. The traditional German Storm and Stress view on the subject is based on the belief in the genius of some natural born writers waiting for inspiration to create their opus. The opposite perspective may be typical for some (American) classes in creative writing. It proclaims the credo of writing as a trainable brain and manual trade which requires a certain set of tools that - adequately used - will solve every problem, for everybody. This seems like trying to drive our brain as we drive a car. But if we claim individual, creative output, shouldn't we cope with individual strategies too? And what now? Why not accept the individuality of writing and still consider it learnable, teachable - at least developable?

It is a quite calming thought not to depend necessarily on the incalculable muse's kiss. There is some security in the knowledge of tools and strategies which can help in organizing the writing process, structuring and restructuring puzzle pieces of ideas and paragraphs, dealing with writing blocks, handling genres, finding the right words, revising the text and finally coming to an end. But it is also relieving to know that no one can force you to use merely one of those strategies at all. Just consider the repertory goods on a shelf in the deli: choose what you like and feel free to do with it as you please. Mix the strategies together for a writing stew, peal them, roast them, broil them, taste them. You cannot know what they feel like until you give them a try. Know-how means knowing how to find out what might work (for you).

Just have a go at it. Allow yourself to enjoy the piquancy of acting in opposition of good advice. Maybe you will find out quite unexpectedly that you like the taste of expressing (or trying to express) your ideas in a foreign language, testing out some new vocabulary. Every strategy is to be considered a good strategy as long as it leads to an acceptable output. Enjoy the essays and move on … But always remember: never write about writing …

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