It’s the element of surprise–the things you discover about yourself through your reactions during writing–that drives your writing forward. Often when talking of others we’ll say, “I can hardly wait to hear what his reaction will be.” Or, “I was very surprised by her reaction.” Why do we make these statements? A person’s reaction (or lack of it) reveals something about the way we think of that other person. It confirms our preconceived notions of this individual or we discover something new through his or her reactions. The same is true of the writing process, except we are discovering something about ourselves through our reactions, not something about someone else. This also applies to your readers. An audience is interested in your subject and the genuineness of the characters you’re presenting; but what they’re really looking for is a sense of discovery, the chance that they might find out something about themselves that they didn’t know. Robert Frost said it well in talking about poetry: “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader; no tears for the writer, no tears for the reader.”
Let me finish this introduction to the first principle with something that happened to me a number of years ago. I was teaching a poetry class, and it was the second from last day. I told the students, “Tomorrow, why don’t you just bring in something that you wrote, or something meaningful that someone else has written, and let’s just read these to one another, give each other a verbal pat on the back and go happily on our separate ways.” We’d criticized each other’s work enough during the semester.
The day came, and people read their pieces. One of the students was a woman named, “Mary Kay.” She said, “Let me read a poem that I wrote last night to my daughter.” We all looked at each other–during the course of this class she had written at least twenty poems about her daughter. Here was number twenty-one. She read the poem, and as she did, there was something that was missing. It was flat, it didn’t work. When she was done we all offered suggestions. Change this image. Move the last verse up to the front. Band-Aid solutions that didn’t really make much difference. I have to admit I was disappointed. Here was a writer with fire and energy in her writing, and I had worked with her for an entire year first in a short story class and then in this poetry class. Now it was painfully obvious that after all that instruction she had written a piece that was not succeeding at all.
I was inspired to ask her how she happened to write this particular poem. She said, “I sat down to write something about my son…” Our jaws dropped. Over the course of the year she shared everything with us–told us about her sex life, her frustrating job, her relationship with her mother–all, in the most intimate details. She had never once mentioned a son. As it turned out she was estranged from this son; they hadn’t communicated in five years. This was the most difficult problem in her life. When I look back at her piece of writing, I think that the real subject was that son. It was a difficult subject for her to face, she hadn’t been able to confront it in her real life for a long time. Now she had become confident enough in her writing about other subjects to address it. She wasn’t succeeding, at least at first, and that’s what caused her to retreat to her past successes of writing about her daughter. But, the language wouldn’t let her. The language threw up a red flag that said: Wait a minute, there’s more here. There’s something more important than this beneath the surface that needs to be addressed. I said just that to her–that the real subject was her son and that’s where the poem waited. About two weeks later I received a nice letter from Mary Kay, and in it was the poem. It was incredible. It had all the fire and energy of her earlier work, but also a new depth of feeling that was quite moving.
As we get back to the writing exercise the task for you is to find the subject beneath the surface and react to it genuinely, on paper, in such a way that allows a reader to participate in that reaction. The difficulties of writing have less to do with the form words take, and everything to do with the subject’s being relevant to you, now. Vague detail, garbled word order, even poor grammar are symptoms that there is no urgency in the subject for you. Correcting these exterior things won’t help–any more than altering a metaphor in Mary Kay’s poem about her daughter would have helped. On the other hand, if the subject is vital, you will make it vivid, precise and grammatically clear. Your life depends on it. Language, not only recreates things we care about, it tips us off when we are wasting time on subjects that we have already exhausted. These subjects (no matter how weighty) are boring to us as writers and boring to our readers. There’s nothing new in them for us to learn.