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Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2016  Vol. 15 No. 1
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Some Notes on Table Making

I have a running argument with a friend about whether or not writing stories is like building tables, a comparison I’m sure I stole. I think it’s pretty much table making. I don’t think that makes it less romantic or precludes inspiration. Table makers must get inspired too. I think you have to know how to do some things automatically before you can move freely.

Reading our native language is often so automatic that we forget how complicated it is. In the same way, writing in our native language (at least constructing a sentence) is so automatic that we often forget how complicated it is. If you become very good at forming sentences, you can start to consider other things. A few of these other things have names, but most of them don’t.

As far as process notes, I have all sorts of rules I try to follow. I have a .docx file where I put them when I figure them out. It happens every few months. I’ll be writing and not like something. When I fix it, I realize—oh, I have an opinion about the aesthetic superiority of this second version—how can I articulate that? So these rules take the form of observations about my own preferences.

I suspect all writers do this, but they probably don’t need to be written down (just like every table maker should not be expected to produce a manual). These rules comfort me, either because I’m neurotic or because I’m arrogant. I have a separate list for writing screenplays, but it’s shorter.

At times, as now, it’s clear that these rules are a running joke with myself. The joke has a clear function: to help me pretend I understand what’s going on. It is sometimes difficult to understand so little about what is going on. If I could only understand this, it would be much better, I imagine as I scratch out a rule that applied one time to one story but which, for a moment, I believe will apply to all stories in all cases. It’s always possible that my friend is right and that it is not like making tables, but there are some contingencies too frightening to consider.

For instance, if writing is not like building tables, what is it like? If it is not a skill like all others, cultivated by time and effort, then what is it cultivated by? If there really is a muse, and the muse appears sometimes to some of us at some places and gives us good stories to tell, then what should one looking to be a writer do?

Most obviously, one should not pay for instruction, seek mentors, and consult mentors, etc. (Unless there is some other skill [itself accessible via conventional study] that can coax the muse.) But it goes further: one should not practice. If our time and effort is not somehow causally related to the quality of our output, then practice is a waste of time.

Conclusions of this kind may be disturbing, but they are also useless. If there’s nothing we can consciously do to improve our writing, we can only relax. If there is something we can do, the chances are good that we already know what that thing is.  

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