Tag: t.s. eliot

Make Your Own Rules

T.S. Eliot once wrote that “When forced to work within a strict framework, the imagination is taxed to its utmost and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom, the work is likely to sprawl.” Given his background Eliot may have been talking about the creative restrictions of poetic forms but I think the principle applies to rules in general as well.

Art is one of the few places where you get to make the rules. When recording his fifth studio album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy Kanye West laid out some studio rules that included:






These rules may seem arbitrary to me or you but to Kanye these were essential to the particular situation he was in. Someone in the studio, possibly Kanye himself, was tweeting or blogging and no music was being made. So, in that hypothetical situation, the rules are there to prevent (or minimise) the sprawl of procrastination because it’s easy, maybe even natural, to turn away when there’s difficult work to be done.

On this dual nature of ours Don DeLillo wrote that “a writer takes earnest measures to secure his solitude and then finds endless ways to squander it.” If an award-winning novelist also struggles with procrastination (and still manages to write) we’re in good company.

So go ahead. Make some rules for yourself.

Finding the Right Words

Hemingway at his desk.

Each time we sit down to write something new we commence, as T.S. Eliot would put it, “a raid on the inarticulate.” We hunt for the right words to say what we mean but we often discover that we don’t know what we mean or that in the act of writing new meanings begin to present themselves so then the writing becomes a matter of reeling in the emerging meanings before they slip away.

Peter Elbow, a Professor of English Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has been a lasting influence on me since I discovered his book Writing without Teachers. In it he questions the conventional model of writing, that we first make our meaning clear before we start to write, and instead proposes an alternative model to “think of writing as an organic, developmental process in which you start writing at the very beginning -before you know your meaning at all- and encourage your words to change and evolve.”

For me the real treasure in this book is when Professor Elbow articulates the writer’s paradox, that it’s often difficult to figure out what we want to say until we say it, and says “The consequence is that you must start by writing the wrong meanings in the wrong words; but keep writing till you get the right meanings in the right words.”

It happens to us all.

When The Paris Review asked Ernest Hemingway what made him rewrite the ending to his second novel A Farewell to Arms thirty nine times Hemingway replied, “Getting the words right.”