Saturday, August 27, 2016


It's usually a criticism of someone who, foolishly, is bothering to do something that's already been done -- no need to re-invent the wheel! -- but it's also an apt description of what writers do when they begin to write. After all, there are only so many themes, so many characters, so many words in the English language, and only so many ways of combining them. Add in the additional constraints of genre and form (short story? Personal essay? Epistolary novel?) and it may soon seem an impossible task. Which is why, perhaps, so many writers today struggle so mightily for originality.

Of course, there was a time when originality, as such, wasn't held in very high esteem. Every single one of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales was based on pre-existing story, as were nearly all of Shakespeare's plays. One could say, certainly, that at the level of language these writers were innovators, but part of what enabled them to be bold with words was the fact that their listeners already knew something of the tales they (re)told. Even once the "novel" -- a genre once named for it newness -- took hold, a great many of its basic plot-lines were recycled. And yet, in this restless recycling of all that has been said, there yet remains something new -- a voice, a tone, a manner of connecting one thing with another, that feels particular to a certain writer, however universal her or his themes.

And, truth be told, college writing -- the vast majority of which is composed, critiqued, and consumed solely within the Bizarro world of writing classes -- is not usually meant to go anywhere, to endure, to reach wider audiences. It's rather like a vast practice session or dress rehearsal for a play that is never going to be staged, which of course makes it even more maddening to do (and to teach)!

So here, in this class, we're going to take a different approach: we're going to write as though the "wheel" -- in our case, the usual constraints and rules of academic writing -- had not yet been invented. What might a paragraph look like, if captured in the wild? What sorts of play and interplay might writing have, say, with drawing or photography? What if, instead of confining our words to the computer-screened page, we were to scrawl, scratch, engrave or emboss them, paint them with a brush? And most of all, what if we were to undertake the task of writing without any thought as to where we were "going" with it, or what it might all eventually mean. What if -- dare I say -- we were to write for the sheer fun of it?