…because some thoughts are worth remembering
When we think of writing, we think of it as a product: a story we read, an article we skimmed, a report we submitted, an application we mailed, or an email response we have yet to send. When I read the classics, the beauty of the language was often lost on me as a non-native speaker, but I assumed that the words streamed out of the tips of the authors’ favorite fountain pens.
There is great value in knowing that writing is both a product and a process: it can be more than a way to arrive at that written product, but also as a tool for thinking.
Many of the people I managed confused the two, and as a result, their written product suffered (because they failed to use it as a thinking tool and the writing became an output of strung words that wasn’t clear). It wasn’t until I saw writing as both a process and a product, that I was able to guide my staff. I would review their work and think to myself “is the writing unclear because the writing skill was poor, or is it unclear because it merely reflected an unclear thought, a thought that wasn’t thought-out?” It is clear in editing when they were able to use writing as a thinking process: I see their thesis, the point of the writeup, in the last paragraph. Sometimes it takes a paper to formulate what you wanted to say, and it often appears as a conclusion. When it happens, my markup is usually a big circle around the last paragraph with an arrow pointing up with a comment, “You got it! This is your introduction”, and the rewriting process begins.
This rebuilding process reminded me of how Louis C.K. talked about his writing process for his comedy shows. He writes his material…a catchy opening, an interesting pivot to another topic, a poignant juxtaposition, followed by tragedy over-exaggerated to make a point that reintroduces themes from previous bits, to end with a big bang that tops the show. Then he ditches everything except for the last bit, the crème de la crème, and starts over by building higher on the highest note. He refers to this iterative process as “folding the samurai sword” when the blacksmith would strengthen the sword by folding the hot metal again and again*.
When I was in college, writing was very difficult and I had to do a lot of it. Perhaps because English is not my first language, every sentence would have to be crafted deliberately and there was nothing natural about the process. Once written, I would hesitate to delete anything because I put so much effort into it. It wasn’t until I went to a peer writing center and met an engaging senior who saw that I did have something to say, but my writing techniques were not there. She began to trim down my writing to the essence of what I wanted to say. She shaved off even other good ideas because they detracted from the point I wanted to make. She showed me a trick, “See, you put that idea aside. It’s a good idea. So you save it as a separate document. There. You see? You can do something with that later, but now we write this paper.”
With this and other techniques under my belt, I realized how the mechanics of writing could affect the way I thought. I would come up with ideas and analyses I didn’t have before I started the writing process.
One time, I showed my draft to my Humanities professor, troubled that I had a clear thesis in my mind but my sentences seemed to point to another direction. Her advice was that I should listen to those sentences, and figure out why they keep ending up in another direction, and it’s OK to rethink your thesis.
Thanks to my liberal arts education, Professor Maeera Shreiber, and my writing tutor who would become my good friend, Trena Klohe, for teaching me how to fold the samurai sword.
*Folding the sword, or orkaeshi tanren (折り返し鍛錬), literally “folding back forging” is more than just folding. Between each folding, the sword is cooled in water, then heated back up in order to oxidize the steel surface removing the impurities within the steel.
Photo: Tokyo, Japan