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Writer-Writes-Alone

[Paper included here to the glory of God and according to the wishes of Dr. Candace Spigelman.]

by Brandon Zinnato

Drip. Drip. Drip.

     The writer sits, cold and alone in the dank and musty garret. Water drips behind him somewhere, falling noisily from ceiling to floor. He has long since ceased to notice. Ink drips from the tip of his quill pen as he lowers it once more into the inkwell and hastily pulls it out so that it can return to its task of noisily scratching over his curling sheet of old paper. And the water behind him in his garret keeps dripping, but still he does not care. Inspiration has struck, and he will likely remain writing, completely absorbed, all night.
     Such a romantic picture of the solitary writer in the garret, sitting alone until struck by inspiration, must look slightly different in every writer’s mind, yet he likely holds a similar niche in most of these writers’ imaginations. And why not? It is exciting somehow, and it seems likely that in spite of the pain of his stark life in a lonely tower, many writers would secretly love to be that little artist hunched over his parchment and pen instead of the more comfortable computer screen that is generally found glowing in front of them. And, like him, what writer does not dream of being inspired? It feels wonderful to write when the words are flowing easily. Yet is this how real writing usually works?
     Linda Brodkey quite obviously objects to this image of a writer, as evidenced by her 1987 essay, “Modernism and the Scene(s) of Writing.” The image of the absorbed writer producing his prose at the top of his own dimly lit tower – which Brodkey calls “the writer-writes-alone” or “the scene of writing” – is one that she does not even associate with herself in terms of her own writing, and yet states that “the scene of writing is a text that many of us find ourselves reading when we think about writing” (396). It captures her mind, even more than thoughts of the way in which she actually writes – which is not in a garret with the feverish pace brought about by inspiration.
     So what is wrong with this metaphor invoked by Brodkey? Surely it should be possible to quickly write an inspired piece, sitting alone in an attic; perhaps there would be no quill pen, but an old typewriter is not too romantic to consider. Simply to cut off your contact with the outside world – for isolation is one very important characteristic of our garret – and write out a long and convincing work – inspiration being the other key point – is not an impossibility.
     Consider, however, the two most important features of Brodkey’s scene of writing: inspiration and isolation. Inspiration is one of particular interest, because to be able to write freely from beginning to end, perhaps clean up any surface errors that crept in due to the writer’s haste, and then put the work aside is a kind of writing that would seem ideal. In an essay entitled “Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Writers,” Nancy Sommers compared groups of writers at these two different levels. She found that the student writers whom she studied “use the word inspiration to describe the ease or difficulty with which their essay is written, and the extent to which the essay needs to be revised” (48). In other words, the students explained that the more inspired they felt, the easier the words flowed, the fewer changes they had to go back and make.
     Such is not the process used by Sommers’ experienced writers, however. She quoted one as stating, “My first draft is usually very scattered. In rewriting, I find the line of argument. After the argument is resolved, I am much more interested in word choice and phrasing” (50). In other words, the paper does not come onto the page fully-formed. Whereas the inspired writer expresses immediately – perhaps slowly but certainly at a regular pace – what they wish to say, seasoned writers who use the written word as part of their career admit that this is not the case. Sommers writes, “these revision strategies are a process of more than communication; they are part of the process of discovering meaning altogether” (51). The writer does not have the idea completely set in his mind when he begins. More than one of Sommers’ experienced writers admitted that the first draft is about finding their ideas, or that they can only take their idea so far before putting it down on paper (49). This process of partial inspiration with much revision is in great contrast with the steadily-flowing pen of the garret-bound writer.
     “Garret-bound” is a fitting term for this fellow, who not only writes under the greatest of inspiration, but always writes alone. Brodkey, in fact, emphasizes this aspect of the scene of writing even more than the inspiration; remember her alternate title for the little man, “the writer-writes-alone” (396). Once more, there would seem to be little problem with this. How many writers seek a quiet place to write, where they can be alone for a little while? Yet Brodkey is extremely vocal against the idea of complete isolation. She writes

It would be absurd for someone whose life is so obviously entailed by writing to deny that writing is woven into the very fabric of her social life. Despite this overwhelming evidence, however, I am at crucial moments almost fatally attracted to the scene of writing, so much so that in order to send drafts to friends and colleagues I must first exorcise the image of the writer-writes alone (396).

Writing is thus a social activity. She discusses times and ways in which writing is a shared activity, asking friends for help to bring her writing (imperfect because it was certainly not as fully inspired as that of the garret-sitter) to a better state.
      This process of help in revising her work raises the simple question of, “Why?” For an answer, consider the example of Raymond Carver. Discussing his earliest writing education in college in the essay “Creative Writing 101,” Carver told the story of his relationship with a teacher named John Gardner (1584). As Carver recalled, Gardner “believed in revision; it […] was vital for writers, at whatever stage of their development” (1584-1585). Writers were to go over their works again and again under the guidance of a teacher, in this instance Gardner. It was not just revising; it was revising with added input from an outside reader.
     This input was something that the writer in the garret clearly lacked, but it was something that Carver valued very highly. During writing conferences with students, Carver recalled how “it was and still is my impression that during that period he took my stories more seriously, read them closer and more carefully, than I had any right to expect. I was completely unprepared for the kind of criticism I received from him” (1585-1586). Carver described in detail the kind of changes suggested by the more experienced writer: exacting, very detailed, and in his own words, “invaluable to me in my development as a writer” (1586). This kind of outside help, though not what was expected, certainly helped Carver to write superior work as he grew. And it is also particularly what Brodkey’s scene of writing is lacking. This lonely writer has no such teacher, no colleagues, no one to turn to. He is entirely isolated.
     Though Brodkey did write that “I sometimes long for a garret,” she added that “my own writing experiences contravene the romance (for my prose has been immeasurably improved by these [outside] readers) […]” (397). She is not isolated, and very glad for that fact. The “writer-writes-alone” is on his own, inspired somehow to produce finished prose in one sitting with no contact with the outside world. And thus Brodkey finds this metaphor unlike all the experience which she has actually had. The writer does not write alone, she would seem to tell you, nor is it about being inspired. It is about writing, and very often (at least according to the experienced writers discussed by Sommers) about finding ideas as the paper goes along and making changes accordingly through revision. Isolation. Inspiration. Quiet times and clever ideas that one really cannot fully claim as one’s own (thank God for these) are wonderful and have their place, but Brodkey tries for good reasons keep herself and other writers from being carried off to that cold, dripping garret.

Works Cited

Brodkey, Linda. “Modernism and the Scene(s) of Writing.” College English 49.4
         (April 1987): 396-397.
Carver, Raymond. “Creative Writing 101.” The Story and Its Writer. 5th ed. Ed.
          Anne Charters. Boston: St. Martin’s, 1999. From the forward to John Garner’s
          On Being a Novelist, 1983. 1583-1586.
Sommers, Nancy. “Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Adult Writers.”
          Cross-Talk in Composition. Victor Villanueva, ed. Urbana: NCTE, 1991. 43-54.
          Original in College Composition and Communication 34.1 (Dec. 1980): 378-88.