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.”