What do I know?

By Dr Anthony Wilson, Senior Lecturer, Graduate School of Education, University of Exeter

One of the more interesting paradoxes of analysing the interviews of professional writers during the Teachers as Writers (TaW) project has been the finding that many of the writers struggled when we asked them to define their ‘craft knowledge’ of writing. I call this a paradox because, when they spoke about other aspects of their writing life and process, they displayed abundant craft knowledge. From a researcher’s point of view this has led us to asking that if writers were more consciously aware of their own expertise, might they be better able to share it with children and teachers when working in schools? Of course, that is a big ‘if’. I know this because I have also been pondering these interviews with my writer hat on, privately wondering how, if it came to it, I would define craft knowledge myself: what do I know? Here is what I came up with:

I know the difference between writing ‘car’ and ‘blue Passat estate’. I know that, sometimes, ‘car’ is fine; but ‘blue Passat estate’ is a name, a thing, an actual model, conveying history, context, class, aspiration and memory. I remember when I first granted myself permission to use proper nouns in my writing: using the names of the places and people as I used them in real life gave me an enormous sense of power, and freedom. Instead of ‘Grandpa’ I wrote ‘Grandpapa’. Instead of ‘motorway service station’ I wrote ‘Membury’. Consequently, I am in love with nouns, especially proper nouns. (I am in love with verbs, too.) I think most of my decisions about writing come down to where in the sentence I will choose to put my noun, or my verb.

Nearly every time I sit down to write I am aware of two thoughts in my head: that I love writing, and that I hate writing. I want the writing to be perfect first time, sounding all glossy and polished like a John Cheever short story, and I hate that it isn’t and comes out all messy and unsure of itself. I want the writing to go on forever, and for it to stop immediately so I can go and do something less difficult instead. I want it over, now, preferably. I don’t want to write. I want, as Dorothy Parker said, ‘to have written’. I also know that the only way I might eventually get to the polished John Cheever stage is by writing, if you will forgive the expression, a whole load of crap first. I hate this. But I am in love with it, too. Mostly I try to concentrate on nouns, and if I am feeling especially frisky, verbs. (I won’t even mention adverbs, let alone the frontal ones, whatever they are.)

I have learned that my job is not to sound clever (or even polished), but to sound like life. To sound like life I will need to tell the truth. Not the exact ‘truth’ of what happened on a certain day at a certain time when somebody left me at a party (though this might be useful). I mean the truth as it exists somewhere between actual events and what might have happened in a fictionalised account of them, were I able to sit still and concentrate and listen and observe accurately enough. All of this requires invention. And memory. And long hours at the desk swaying slightly and muttering. I have learned that it is not easy.

I have learned to listen to what my writing is saying back to me. Quoting a Mel Brooks routine in Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott says: ‘Listen to your broccoli and your broccoli will tell you how to eat it’. My job is not to write the poem, but to allow the poem to tell me what it wants and needs to be so that it can have a life of its own outside of my concerns. I believe in inspiration, but I also believe in getting out of the way of my art, so that it can become art.

I have learned that, for me at any rate, the hardest part of writing is starting.

Dr Anthony Wilson
Senior Lecturer, Graduate School of Education
University of Exeter

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