Sometimes an artist will manage to make something beautiful and it will have been on purpose. Other times, beauty will insist that we recognize the multitudes it contains. In these instances, before it will consent to emerge, beauty will require that we step aside, giving time and chance their hour to strut and fret.
Before you start clicking on those articles that claim to give advice about how to choose a topic for your next novel, remember that you could just drop by your local thrift store and look around for interesting juxtapositions and go from there.
Whenever you’re building something, whether out of Maine softwood or out of words, the best way to make the pieces stick together is to use connectors made out of the same material, wood pegs in the case of support beams, and strong, small words in the case of sentences and paragraphs.
Don’t get so caught up in making your argument that you forget there’s always another side to the issue. Don’t confuse making an argument (i.e., building) with having an argument (i.e., fighting). Think Oprah, rather than Jerry Springer. When you construct a good argument, you always give the other side the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they have good reasons for taking the stand they take. Reasons that are just as important to them as yours are to you. So spend some time looking at things from their perspective, and do it in front of your readers. At some point, try to inhabit the position of the people who think differently from you. Rehearse their position within your own text, and not just so you can take it apart and dispense with it, but so you can show that you’ve fully considered where those other people are coming from and why they think the way they do. Show them the same respect you expect to be shown. Civil discourse in a democratic society demands that we listen to each other and make room for each other’s perspectives. It’s not easy, and we often fail, but perhaps practice makes (closer to) perfect. If your essay is to be persuasive, you want to come across as someone who has considered all options before settling on a conclusion, not someone who insists on preconceived notions and refuses to listen to anybody else. As you construct your argument, you may think you are proceeding along one path, with its own perspective and values, diametrically opposed to some other viewpoint, but if you can imagine that you and the person with whom you disagree are both actually on the same path, then it might be a little easier to treat each other not as combatants, each looking inward and tenaciously clinging to preconceived notions, but as intellectual companions, in pursuit of truth together.
We must remember that writing is both verb and noun, both process and product. And just as physicists can’t precisely identify the position of a particle without giving up the ability to know its momentum with the same precision (and vice versa), so one can’t look at writing and see it as both performance and artifact of performance at the same time. To observe the act of writing is to look away, even if only momentarily, from the text (and vice versa). Attempts to think about a work of writing as either process or product limit our ability to bring the fullness of the thing under comprehension all at once. When we look at writing as a process, trying to get a handle on what it is writers know how to do and how they’ve done it, the clarity of our vision grows dim regarding the final product. As Heisenberg suggests, whenever we shift our gaze from one aspect of an object to another of its qualities, we still see the object, just differently, and we may still be aware of the first quality we looked at, but now we see it only peripherally. The same is true when we consider only the final product of the writing process, trying to apprehend the meaning we believe it contains, or to judge the text’s formal characteristics. We must necessarily restrict our consciousness of all the activity that went into the text’s production. To adopt, from moment to moment, as we must, one perspective rather than the other will always leave us with an incomplete understanding of the object of study. We can approach a sense of an object’s wholeness of meaning only through successive examinations from different angles, but we can never assume all viewpoints simultaneously, and thus full understanding in a single moment of perception ever eludes us. Theories of multiperspectivalism notwithstanding, this outcome is inevitable.
Sometimes you want to give the reader the sense that your text is meandering, flowing like a stream from one point to the next, with no particular shape to the route and no particular destination. You know what it is you want us to see, but you don’t want us to know it’s coming, not just yet. Remember that the shape of a stream is determined by the way the speed and direction of the current make it erode one bank more quickly than it does the other, causing silt to build up, slowly and almost imperceptibly, on the opposite bank, which accretion itself alters the speed and direction of the stream and starts the process all over again. The shape of a stream bed may not be premeditated, but it isn’t random, either, and we can mimic these dynamics in our writing. Take up a combination of elements, and set them flowing against each other, and give them some direction. Then regulate the forward momentum, adjusting the speed from time to time as you find it necessary for orienting the reader’s attention. At certain moments, it will feel natural to set down this or that heavy item that you’ve been carrying along. If there’s been enough scenery and bouncing around, we might not have even noticed that you brought it with you. Then hold your paddle for a minute, and watch the flow of the whole respond to these barriers you’ve set up. If you do your job with care, and pay attention not only to where you take us but also how you get us there, we will be thrilled by the journey, delighting in the eddies, the sights to be seen as we are swept closer to this or that shore, the surprises around each bend.
Times change, and styles fall out of fashion, but it’s worth remembering where we came from and what we used to do and how to bring it back and keep it alive (resuscitation, recovery). Sometimes we might want to mash up new and old styles or revive an old technique in the service of some new purpose (renascence, rejuvenation). So even as you try to keep up with the new ways, you should also stay on top of (allegedly) antiquated cultural practices (reclamation, restoration). Sometimes, if we aren’t paying attention, we forget the way back, or we hit a dead end, even though we know right HERE is where the path used to be. Remember: remnants of the past are not scraps. They are talismans, clues to the identity of our former selves. We preserve these monuments as reminders that there’s always something valuable hidden away at the top of an old stairway, even if it looks like what’s up there is only a blank wall.
Know how to read a text in the way it was meant to be read (of course), but also know how to read it in other, less conventional ways. Deepen your understanding by considering a text from a variety of perspectives. Read it from both the left and the right. Read it from both the past and the future. Read it backwards, as if it were printed on glass and you were reading from the wrong side, if you think that will give you a fresh way to make meaning of the text. Then go across the street (from LIU Brooklyn) and have one last slice of the “world’s most fabulous cheesecake” at the original Junior’s Restaurant before the place is gone forever.