Verlyn Klinkenborg and Liberated Writing

Every Emerging Writer at Randolph College teaches the same 1-credit course, but each writer gets to design the course according to his or her interests and strengths. With a title like “Exploring the Creative Writing Process,” my natural inclination was to design a course that combines reading like a writer with writing like a writer. Deep insight into the creative process cannot be gained without these two skills. Here’s how it runs in this semester’s course catalog:

ENG167: Exploring the Creative Writing Process
In this class, we will explore how reading and imitation inform and deepen the writing process. Using a variety of texts, we will focus on how a writer accomplishes something, rather than strictly what a writer is trying to say. We will develop the habits of questioning and making connections as we discuss these texts, then apply these observations to new writing of our own. Beginning with nonfiction, we’ll imitate techniques such as repetition, woven chronologies, and lists. Experimenting with fiction, we’ll imitate contrasting flashbacks, stream-of-consciousness, and the use of metaphor-as-conclusion. We will also look briefly at poetry, imitating form. We’ll spend our final classes considering revision and inviting the techniques we have imitated to inform our own, developing styles.

My class is small but willing, and I’m very excited to see their first assignments. We get to meet in a historic Virginia red brick building (well, they’re all like that around here) with an epic entrance, high ceilings, comfy classrooms, and yes–Ladies and Gentlemen–actual chalkboards. And chalk. More than anything else, this last detail made me prickle with excitement when I got my first tour of the campus. No 21st Century Whiteboards here, no Siree. And no stinky whiteboard cleaning solution that never works. No Bob. Just the basics–dust, dry skin, and all. I like it.

Other than the first-day-of-class basics, I wanted to bring my students something a little different for yesterday’s class. Months ago, my uncle sent me Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several Short Sentences About Writing. Although it is designed to help students trained in academic writing “un-do” inhibiting habits learned over the years, I find some of his insights especially inspiring. Here are his thoughts on sentences, for example:

Your job as a writer is making sentences.
Most of your time will be spent making sentences in your head.
In your head.
Did no one ever tell you this?
That is the writer’s life.
Never imagine you’ve left the level of the sentence behind.

Most of the sentences you make will need to be killed.
The rest will need to be fixed.
This will be true for a long time.

The hard part now is deciding which to kill and which to fix and how to fix them.
This will get much, much easier, but the decision making will never end.

A writer’s real work is the endless winnowing of sentences,
The relentless exploration of possibilities,
The effort, over and over again, to see in what you started out to say
The possibility of saying something you didn’t know you could.

Likewise, here is what he has to say about revision:

Finding flaws is how you learn to make better sentences.
Enjoy it.
You can’t prevent yourself from repeating a mistake you haven’t noticed.
You’ll have to read your work many, many times to find all the problems embedded in it.
Even experienced writers have to do this.
Some flaws do a wonderful job of hiding.

So, you’ll be revising each sentence as you compose it,
Composing each sentence as you revise it.
And you’ll read and reread every sentence you make many dozens of times,
Sifting out problems as they materialize in front of you.
You’ll be looking for flaws.
But also for opportunities—and for missed opportunities:
Things you might have said, ideas you might have developed,
Connections you might have made.

Revision isn’t only the act of composition.
Revision is thinking applied to language,
An opening and reopening of discovery,
A search for the sentence that says the thing you had no idea you could say
Hidden inside the sentence you’re making.

Pretty helpful, eh? I love the way Klinkenborg’s use of line breaks forces the reader to slow down. And I love how he has articulated something that we all know is true, though many young writers are asked to ignore it throughout their educations. Hopefully you’ve found his words liberating as well. Write on!

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