Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Three Words About Writing: Plato, Emerson, Bugbee

Last weekend I was at a small writing conference in Vermont, where I was asked to give a meditation on writing with a love of wisdom.  Although I'm a philosophy professor, I'm not sure I have a bead on loving wisdom yet. 

(To paraphrase Thoreau, there are nowadays plenty of philosophy professors, but not so many lovers of wisdom.)

Instead, I offered a reflection on three ideas that matter for me as I write.  Here are three that I keep coming back to:

First, a word from Plato: "Follow the argument wherever it leads."  And try to find good interlocutors.  If you surround yourself with people who say "yes" to everything you say, your writing and your thinking will both atrophy.  If the trail leads uphill, it's no good to stay on the level path.  Plato seems to have used writing as a way of sketching out how one might begin to solve problems.  He didn't give answers so much as good questions.  His dialogues survive because they are such good invitations for us to try to work out the solutions ourselves.

Second, Emerson: Your journals are your savings accounts.  Your life is the way you earn deposits.  "If it were only for a vocabulary the scholar would be covetous of action," he wrote. "Life is our dictionary."  Without action, there is no experience; and without experience, the writer's vocabulary becomes continually narrower. Emerson wrote in fragments - very short essays, or sentences - in his journals, and when he sat down to write his essays and lectures, he found those fragments to be a rich vein of inspiration and even of finished work.

Finally, Bugbee: "Get it down."  Write forward; don't edit too much.  Keep writing, and as much as possible, write the way it comes.  Attend to experience as it is given, without trying too hard to color it or shape it.  Practice seeing, and seeing honestly, and write what you see.

This isn't by any means a whole course in writing, but it is a place to start.  And often, that's what writers need: to start.

Then keep writing.