on the process of a writer

It is very difficult to teach navigation theory to someone who clings to the shore.
~ Carol Bly

Thanking someone in a title? You may be wondering just what that’s about. Who is this Carol Bly, and why did she make such an impression on me?

To explain, I need to back up almost ten years. When I returned to grad school at the age of thirty eight for my MFA in creative writing, it felt like an extended sprint into writing criticism and literary theory I knew little about. Until then, anything I had read on the topic of “the writing process” had not resonated. Today, my opinion has changed somewhat, but I used to view books about writing akin to pretentious art critics talking endlessly about modern art. One, it was just grating, and two, it often made absolutely no sense.

When it came to books, while there have been more than a few seminal texts written about “the process”, the typical writing advice book is often a guide to achieving the level of success that, ironically, has more than eluded the author doling out the advice. I recall a professor I had in grad school, one that was fond of saying, “just remember, if you have zero success finding a publisher for your first novel, you can always write a book about writing.”

But there was also, if I am being truthful, another reason those books didn’t sit well with me. When I made that big career change, I knew that I wanted more than anything to write. I also knew that writing made me feel nourished in a way nothing else had. But it also terrified me. Largely because I was unsure, more than a little tentative, and intimidated as shit. Having to read books about how much I didn’t think I knew was not going to be helpful.

That is, until I read Carol Bly.

Carol Bly is author of Beyond the Writer’s Workshop: New Ways of Writing Creative Nonfiction, a book I view as seminal in my understanding of the writer I wish to become. It is one of the only books I have read that spends more space and energy on what and why one writes, vs how to write. Traditional writing instruction is structured around the idea of a two-stage draft. Stage one is the inspiration; a first draft. Stage two involves the fine literary details; cosmetic improvements that spruce up that initial draft.

The principle of literature is the devotion to the particulars of life.
~ Carol Bly

I n her approach, she argues for a third, middle stage. To illustrate this she uses several tools, many seemingly unrelated, to talk about writing; neurosciences, psychology, even social justice paradigms. Her intention is for authors to be mindful of their considerations; developing their own unique process that moves past a one dimensional aesthetic read. She references complimentary processes, such as stage development theories to make her point, while offering examples of the parallel journeys between creative process and “self referenced perception vs. cultural sophistication”. She does this by discussing a number of diverse authors and their specific writing process.

Some, more considered than others.

Schiller, for example, fuses an esoteric creative process of seemingly trivial aesthetic concerns, through a lens reminiscent of intersectional critical theory and analysis.

  • You are inclined to physical practicality
  • You get the idea you could plan to make your own life beautiful
  • Your mind focuses on beauty
  • You begin to interrogate what you require for the definition
  • Context and experience become relevant
  • You deplore what is horrible and become interested in governance in order to correct one or another cruelty

Okay … I think.

And then we have Mr. George, “go big or go home” Orwell, who suggests an approach steeped in personal awareness.

“A progression from instinctual, base response, through a spiritual transcendence.”

Coming from a writer of his stature, that description doesn’t exactly leave me in awe. Continuing with detail that reads suspiciously similar to Schiller’s thesis above, George only digs himself deeper: Awareness and creativity, he says, move through a uniquely individual process.

  1. Vanity and careerism.
  2. Pointless love of and efficacy in things aesthetic.
  3. A richly blossoming interest in reportage.
  4. Intense and visceral dislike of injustice of all kind.

I suppose my cynicism is showing, but if I close my eyes, I hear what sounds like a patronizingly, over eager grad student, nervously running off at the mouth. And I’m sorry, “intense and visceral” I can handle, but “richly blooming?”

That’s almost painful.

But just in the nick of time, Bly dishes out a radical re-frame. With characteristic dry wit, she generously shares, in exhaustive and relevant detail, her own deeply personal ideas around what, how, and why, one chooses what one will write about.

Unlike lions and dogs, we are a dissenting animal. We need to dissent in the same way that we need to travel, to make money, to keep a record of our time on earth and in dream, and to leave a permanent mark. Dissension is a drive, like those drives.
~ Carol Bly
  1. One is at a pre-moral, utterly selfish stage.
  2. One is still selfish, but at least one sees that there are others out there, and one decides they have a right to be selfish, too.
  3. Whatever seems to win strokes from the crowd is the highest good. High school all over again.
  4. Whatever authority says is right is right. Clearly a pre radical stage.
  5. Over time, with experience, mistakes and regret, one has developed one’s own code of rights and wrongs, which one applies universally — such as honesty, hospitality, murder: one supposes that everyone in every culture should be truth telling, friendly, and against the taking of a life.
  6. One has to disobey one’s own code of rights and wrongs in order to make the best judgment in a given predicament. For example, one would lie to the Gestapo in order to save innocent lives.
Your soul needs to be lonely so that its strangest elements can moil about, curl and growl and jump, fail and get triumphant, all inside you. Sociable people have the most trouble hearing their unconscious. They have trouble getting rid of clichés because clichés are sociable.
~ Carol Bly

Say what you will about Bly, she has given these ideas an impressive depth of consideration, while being firmly grounded in both literary and critical theory.

I will, of course, give Carol Bly the last word:

There isn’t a thought or feeling that doesn’t alter or deepen when written. We are a writing animal. That is why all of us feel we have a book inside us. It is not an illusion. We have got a book inside us.
~ Carol Bly