Eunice Victoria Scarfe
To write does not depend on education, occupation, age, gender or intellect. It depends on choice. You choose to write, or you choose not to write. If you are drawn to expression in words, you can honour the inclination (or passion, or urgency), or you can ignore the words that wait for you.
As a teacher of writers who want to write, it’s my job to enable your choice.
And it’s my job to stay out of your way.
How best can I honour your choice, I ask myself; how best can I divest myself of the authority you want to invest in me? How best can I enable you to become the author of your own text?
I assume that in any class, writers come for many reasons, all of which fall somewhere between the act and the art of writing. What I can do as a teacher is first of all to invite you to play with language, which sometimes feels like inviting you to play with blocks: build and knock down, start again.
Then I’ll ask you to bring the page. To bring the pen. To provide memory and imagination and wonder and time – and words. You don’t need special shoes, as in running. You don’t need special equipment, as in skiing. You don’t need an instrument, as in an orchestra. You are the instrument.
You do need permission and protection, a place and a page — and a procedure that enables you to increase your own authority. A class can provide that, and a class can provide a place for you to hear words and to have your own words heard.
So a writing class provides ear training.
Recently a friend told me that his father never let the windows be open when the family was driving together in the car. His father was a conductor. ‘My ears put bread on the table,’ his father said.
Thought it is rarely said, it should be said to every writer: your ears put text on the page and your ears are more important than which version of Windows you are using.
If you come to a writing class, I ask myself, how best can your time be used?
How can a writing class provide entry into the act and art of writing?
Let’s talk about the act of writing first. The act of writing, in the way I use the expression, is the first draft where you release words for your eyes alone, where you follow the pen (sometimes blindly) rather than have the pen follow you. The first draft requires that you let go of control. The first draft means that you trick the ever-ready censor into silence. The first draft requires that you do not erase or improve a single word as you are writing: let them all out, in whatever order they come, and then leave them alone! Never erase them. The first draft, in my opinion, is holy! A first draft is written in response to hearing ‘elevated language’ read aloud by me – words written by published writers and chosen for their image or rhythm or repetition or sound or design, and sometimes for their content.(Don’t bother looking up ‘elevated language’. It’s a word I made up. You won’t find it in a dictionary.)
The conditions under which the first draft is written is an attempt to push you off a cliff, and to promise you that you will be kept from a crash landing. The conditions under which the first draft is written are carefully constructed to catch you unaware, to evoke sensory experience, which in turn always evokes memory or imagination.
The first draft will reveal to you things you need to know about the words that you have chosen to write (or that have chosen you to write them). The first draft doesn’t know that you want to be a novelist, and a NY Times best-seller at that. Doesn’t know that you have decided to be a poet. Doesn’t know that you are terrified, or shy, or arrogant, or sad — or that it’s the first time you have appeared in a place where others will know that you want to write. Your secret is out, but the first draft doesn’t know you were harboring a secret. The first draft is just relieved and ecstatic that she — the writer — can finally be seen and heard. At last, she says. What has taken you so long?
For first drafts done in class, I ask that you trust me enough to take flying leaps of faith onto the page without being told before you leap why you are being asked to leap. (I’ll always explain afterwards. I try never to explain before.) Your first draft might feel clumsy, awkward, stupid, transgressive or useless as you are writing it. I ask you to stop judging what you are writing as you are writing it; just please write until the bell rings. Give your words a chance. Honor the words that appear. Welcome them. Silence the voice that says ‘not good enough’ or ‘who do you think you are?’ or ‘boring’ or ‘what will my mother think?’ or ‘who cares?’ or ‘why bother’ or ‘I could be swimming in Hawaii instead of sitting here writing what doesn’t good very good to me and certainly won’t mean much to anyone else’- or any other phrase that sneaks in or shouts out or speaks up. If our first drafts were as fluent or as vocal or as confident as the Critic that resides in each of us, we would each have written several novels by now.
As for the art of writing, that’s something else entirely. You begin your entry into the ‘art of writing’ by being surrounded with examples of the elevated language that appear in a work of art. In a class, I can show you what language and text can do by saying listen to this, listen to this, listen to this. ‘Show, don’t tell’ is as indispensable a prescription for the teacher of writing as for the writer.
What else is a writing class good for? A class is good for ear training. Why ear training? What does training the ear have to do with publishing a best-selling novel by tomorrow, becoming a Poet, or writing the memoir that you have planned out in your head? Training the ear to hear is essential because the ear is where your most important and indispensable editor resides. We will learn to listen with the whole body for sound and shape, rhythm and repetition, tone and texture. To listen to the silence.
It doesn’t matter what genre you are writing. If the writer has no ear, the text can never sing. If the writer cannot hear, the reader never will. Whether you aspire to poetry or prose, you must prepare your ear to be of service to you.
A painting is meant to be seen. Music is meant to be heard.
And text is meant to be seen and heard.
I’m not suggesting that we destroy the printing press and go back to an entirely oral tradition, though David Abrams in The Spell of the Sensuous might argue eloquently for such a step. Reading a text silently – the black print on a white page – is effective, efficient, essential – and entirely capable of producing not only writers but also readers who are tone deaf.
So a writing class can train the ear by doing virtually everything aloud: I read aloud, then you write; you read aloud and then we listen. We listen to what you have written in order to hear the sound of what you have done — as opposed to the subject. I don’t ask you to read aloud in order for us to evaluate or recommend or sympathize or compare you to everyone else in a class. We won’t raise our eyebrows, frown, feel envy, or encourage you to give up because the other writers are so good. Comparison is toxic. Good and bad aren’t allowed into this writing room. The critic is asked to get lost. Run away. Scram. Go. Now. Right now. Get lost. Leave us alone.
If I can read your handwriting, I’ll sometimes read your words aloud so you can hear the sounds your words have made, sounds you might not have noticed as you were concentrating on writing the first draft.
This small three-step process sounds so simple and so ordinary that perhaps you are waiting for me to get to the point and explain what you will do in class. You’re waiting to find out.
But I have made the only point that I need to make. I made it up there in the second sentence: in a class we do virtually everything aloud. I don’t give out copies of text written by you so that we can critique your pages with written remarks — as if we know so much more than you do about what your words are meant to do. I don’t set up general rules for writing and ask you to follow them. I don’t spend much time on your fear of writing, or your attraction to writing. I assume that by being here in this class you have both fear and attraction. I don’t ask for proof of your being a reader, or proof of your being a writer. I assume you are both, and that what you have read previously, or what you have written previously, are of no importance to what you will do in this class.
That’s not true. Every word you have ever read contributes to the strength of your work as a writer. And ever word (and song or symphony) you have ever heard contributes as well to the strength of your work as a writer, work which always requires attention to rhythm and sound.
In this class there are no prerequisites. Your choice to be here is the only qualification necessary. No one ‘allows’ a writer to write. A writer, like all other artists, chooses herself. Authorizes herself. Presents herself. You inform me that you are ready to write when you sign up for a class; I do not have or want the right to include or exclude you.
In every person lives an artist: a creator, a maker, a person driven by the desire and need to express. Let’s repeat that word: to express. The composer expresses. The singer expresses. The dancer expresses. The painter expresses – sometimes like a Lee Krasner and sometimes like a Mary Cassatt and sometimes like an Emily Carr. Those who teach artists -if they are any good at what they do – create an environment that enables expression. The artist must allow time to pass (months? years?) for the acquisition of skill, for the confidence to grow, for the audience to be found, for the censor to be silenced, for acquaintance with the predecessors to be acquired. Time is necessary for these things to happen. Time — and the support of others who understand the circuitous route — or labyrinth – – which the artist follows.
I don’t ask you to identify the subject or the genre that you intend to work in when you sign up for a class. I assume that some of you who want to write poetry will start writing prose. Or the reverse. I am sure that if I ask you to talk about your writing life, each of you will reveal the most significant and most important proof of being a writer: that you choose to write. And choosing to write is the only requirement you need in order to write, and in order to be in this class.
You might write dozens of pages in this class, and you will wonder what to do with them. You fear ridicule. You want an audience; you fear an audience. You wonder whether you are required to publish in order to justify taking the time to write. You want to publish; you don’t want to publish. You do want to write. Or you want to publish but you don’t know how to find a publisher. Or you have submitted to a publisher, and you have been rejected. Rejected, but you have not quit writing. Perhaps, however, you are discouraged and in doubt. Or, on the other hand, perhaps you have been waiting all your life to fly, to soar on streams of words that you have made.
Maybe you read books as a child under the covers by the light of a flashlight. Or you read every book in your local library before you were ten. You hid in the bathroom in order to finish just one more chapter. Or you did none of these things, but now you find yourself mesmerized by the magnet of a blank page.
I tell all of you, over and over again: You are in the right place. You are in the write place.
If you were in class last week you might have heard heard images written by Yeduha Amichai:
Two lovers lie together like Isaac on the altar
and it feels good. They don’t think about the knife
or about the burnt offering –
she thinks about the ram and he about the angel.
Another version: He is the ram and she is the thicket.
He will die and she will go on growing wild.
Another version: The two of them get up and disappear
among the revelers. (from Open Closed Open)
Or you might have heard cadence in the words of Jane Kenyon:
Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.
Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come. (from ‘Let Evening Come’)
Or perhaps you heard the seductive opening lines from several prose pieces: ‘Picture a forest…’ or ‘They’re all dead now…’ or ‘Call me Ruth…’ or ‘All our Sundays were exactly alike’ or ‘Roses and apples and snow continue to fall while the living carry their keepsakes’ or ‘Once upon a time and a very good time it was’.
Or perhaps you would have heard the remarkable beat in the last line of Knut Hamsun’s novel The Women at the Pump: ‘Small things and great occur; a tooth falls from the mouth, a man out of the ranks, a sparrow to the ground’.
If you were in class last week, I would have asked you to listen to a passage, and then to write a page of your own, in solitude but not alone. You would have written a first draft (writing adrift is what I call the first draft) in response to the heard words. You would have been invited to read your words aloud in order to hear the sound: the key and pitch and tone and rhythm and repetition of your own words, as well as to hear the silences between the words. This first draft is a draft that you can enlarge or revise — or abandon when you get home. It’s all up to you.
Writing is work, as you well know. This work we do in class isn’t about permanence. It isn’t about performance. It’s about practice. It’s rehearsal. It’s about doing scales. It’s yoga.
There is no ‘spell check’ for sound on any computer. For a ‘sound check’, your text must be read aloud, by each writer, in her own voice, in order to hear what is found there. To see the sound that is heard there.
In the beginning was the word. In the beginning was the heard word.
Why don’t I ask you to bring a draft to class, a draft that the class could critique? A draft that we could help you improve? How else can I improve my writing? you ask, if someone doesn’t tell me what is wrong, or how to improve?
For the last class, I will ask you to bring a revised draft, though we won’t critique your words. We’ll only applaud your words because by the last class you will have learned a dozen ways to re-read and revise and re-enter your text on your own, and by then you won’t want our critique – you will just want our attention.
I want your ear to be able to hear the harmony in text through listening to the words of published texts, the words of your peers, and your own words. Perhaps you’ll save the first drafts that you do in class; perhaps you won’t. Many first drafts are similar to doing scales on the piano: you do the draft to strengthen your skill. Some first drafts reveal to you a new solution to a text you are already writing. Some first drafts release emotion that has been getting in your way, emotion you might not know you have, or might think you have buried. We will honor your tears with silence here. I will say, and more than once, that ‘Where there are tears, there is more story’. If you have tears, you can write about their cause, but we won’t ask you for the cause.
A few of your first drafts will shock you by their content, their efficiency, their force, their beauty, their perfection. A poem called ‘Dedication’ is a first draft that still, a decade later, surprises the writer Lorie Miseck. It has pleased dozens of readers and listeners. It appears in her first book of poetry called the blue not seen. Writing a poem or a page that is nearly perfect in the first draft is rare, however; you want to be aware that writing a perfect first draft is no sign that you are ‘really a writer’. And not writing a perfect first draft is no sign that you’re not. No, it’s just a sign that you watched a miracle happen on your page, and it might happen again. But don’t count on it! Most writers work through several drafts before they are satisfied.
In every class, I will invite you to enter into making sound; in every class you will come one step closer to hearing the necessary and elusive marriage between sound and sense, between sound and shape, between sound and silence.
Before you leave the first class, I will advise you to take no advice, including the advice to take no advice. I will remind you that your favorite novel might have been published without first appearing in a writing workshop. I will suggest that you read aloud a dozen pages from a book you like before coming next week; that you record and then listen to at least a page of your own writing; that you read aloud a text you remember hearing in childhood: the nursery rhymes, songs, sayings, prayers or skipping games; that you listen to a poet read aloud in a language unfamiliar to you. I will suggest that you listen a dozen times to the Bach cello suites, and if you have already done that, you will know why I suggest doing it.
Well that’s what would have happened in the writing class last week.
And that’s what will happen again next week.
I don’t teach you: the text teaches you.
Published in West Word Edmonton 2005
Eunice Scarfe’s short stories are widely published and have won awards (Prism internatonal at UBC, the U of Alaska, Descant among others). She has taught classes for women who want to write since finishing her MA in creative writing at the U of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. She believes that we can write ‘for the health of it’ in unrevised and daily pages or that we can write for the hard art of it (bearing in mind Gertrude Stein’s words: ‘remarks are not art’). In either case, we as women are invited to write – an act that for hundreds of years was denied us by virtue of being excluded from literacy. ‘If you have lived, you have a story; if you can tell it, you can write it; and if you don’t write it, who will? Do you want to be one whose story is told about her — or forgotten?
Or do you choose to be the author(ity) of your own story – as found on pages of poems and prose that you yourself have written?