My Writing Processes: A Blog Hop

Thank you to David Mosley over at Letters from the Edge of Elfland for suggesting I undertake this “blog hop” task.

I will let him describe the process for you:

Michelle over at Soliloquies––an excellent blog that mixes philosophy, life, and writing––has invited to participate in a Writing Process Blog Hop. She has previously invited to a similar ‘event’, though in the previous case it was an award of sorts. I was remiss in not attending to the previous invitation and so willingly and gladly do I participate now. The Writing Process Blog hop invites bloggers to answer four questions about what, how, and why they write. The bloggers are then encouraged to recommend three other bloggers to do the same. (Mosley, “My Writing Processes: A Blog Hop”)

Here they are:

1. What are you currently working on?

I feel a little abashed by this question. It implies that I actually am working on something literary.

Up until a few days ago, I was working on trying to help my students learn how to write. Most of the time I am teaching persuasive writing, but this past semester I agreed to teach a Creative Writing class for the first time. So I had the much easier job of being the literary critic rather than the anguished author.

Still, I learned a few things. My favorite unit was murder mystery stories. As we investigated how these stories work, I began to realize just how important form can be. Mysteries demand attention to plot structure and physical objects more than most other genres do. Character development is ideal but not essential to a good mystery (witness the success of relatively static characters like Columbo, Magnum P. I., Miss Marple, etc).

Interestingly, it is all too easy for inexperienced writers to wander too far into the psyches of their characters and their motivations rather than into plot. Too often my students tried to turn their mystery stories into novels— they got the emphasis all wrong. They wanted to focus on character and dialogue primarily like Jane Austen, because, for a new writer, that seems easier.

Am I writing anything besides this blog?

I write music. I play guitar and write songs. It’s really interesting how similar – and how VASTLY different – writing music is in relation to writing poetry.

I have been reworking a paper I wrote in college on Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, and I hope someday to publish it. It has already been rejected, however, so I have lots of work to do! There is a lot of pressure in the literary academic world to say something new, although the writing I admire most simply tries to say what is true and usually results in being ancient.

And a private fun project of mine is writing my own Narnia book. It’s about Susan Pevensie’s daughter, and in the last six months I’ve made it to chapter three. The fact that Susan never made it back with the others “beyond the Stable door” has always bugged me to no end.

It’s the Hans Urs von Balthasarian “universalist” in me.

2. How does your work differ from others in its genre?

Well, I suppose I can say two things about that.

1) Although all blogs, even if they fall under the “Catholic” genre, are as different as the writers who create them, I do think that my blog is attempting something unique. It is a sort of casual, musing way of reflecting on the art of teaching — in particular, teaching in Catholic schools, which for better or worse is a whole epic educational saga in itself. Many other blogs have a more political, theological or family-oriented focus: for example, the mommy blogs, the “public square” blogs, the ecumenical/theology-debating blogs, all of which I love reading.

But I’m not really doing any of those things. I touch on theological and political issues insofar as they relate to my experience working with high school kids, but my writing focuses on the act of trying to engage in a very specific type of relationship and to perfect a very particular type of art. (Teaching is an art, by the way.)

2) Because I am an English teacher, I often end up writing about literature. But I don’t really write about it in the way many other blogs do– I’m not usually evaluating it on its own merit, or providing reviews of it, or even really describing my own personal reactions to it. Instead, when I talk about literature, I almost always talk about it in reference to a very particular and frequently hostile audience: teenagers in a “school” setting.

For better or worse, I often think about literature as a vehicle for learning certain skills. I suppose that’s very “Common Core”-ish of me. Notice that my primary successes with Dante seemed to be using his illustrious Commedia as a vehicle for reading strategies.  Julius Caesar was great for teaching persuasive techniques.

Sounds rather utilitarian I guess, but that is a hot topic for another time…

3. Why do you do what you do?

What do I do again?


I feel that teaching is primarily what I do, and writing is an extension, a goal, a byproduct, and even an “efficient cause” of my teaching.

Well, then I suppose I write and teach because God is pushing me into it, and I’m trying my best not to get in His way (with varying results).

4. How does your writing process work?

I’ve written about this phenomenon before, but I have found that my best writing (the stuff I don’t scrap) is pretty spontaneous. As Flannery says, “I write to discover what I know.”

In high school and college, friends of mine who painstakingly outlined their ideas beforehand seemed to be engaging in an impossible task. Even others who think a lot about what they want to say, even if they never create a formal outline, are engaging in something I have never been able to do. I have no idea what I want to say until I say it.

A wonderful professor in college (painfully) taught me the importance of revising. So now I do that instead of just allowing my unsupervised thoughts to wander about.

Most of the time.

Well, like David Mosley, I am going to nominate three other bloggers to try this out.

1. Ironical Coincidings by Joseph Simmons. Joseph is a friend of mine from college who takes a much more analytical, philosophical approach to his work than I do. So I’m really interested in what insights he will have into the writing process.

2. Comos in the Lost by Artur Rosman. I am relatively new to Rosman’s blog, but I read it almost daily, which is saying something since most of my time is spent sifting through high school essays. His own “About” page says “He is husband, father of three, professor, public speaker, translator of several books (Polish to English), and onetime television personality (several times) on Polish TV. He is presently writing a dissertation on the Catholic imagination of Czeslaw Milosz at the University of Washington in the Comparative Literature department.”

He is also a fellow admirer of Hans Urs von Balthasar. When Rosman writes, I often feel like “oh, that is what I want to say, but am not really equipped (intellectually and otherwise) to put into words!”

3. The Wine Dark Sea by Melanie Bettinelli. I have actually been reading Melanie’s blog since I was in high school. I found it while looking for stuff about what the University of Dallas was really like. She is a UD grad and writes with clarity, humor and grace about family life, poetry, and more.


Wilbur Wisdom

Let me introduce you to one of my dearest poets, Richard Wilbur.


At the University of Dallas, all the English majors participate in a Literary Study class during their junior year of a chosen poet. My chosen poet was Richard Wilbur, and so I have spent many hours and days with his poems.

I was thinking of him today thanks to a wonderful post on the power of labeling by Alexander at his blog, Retrievals. Yes, his post is on the new movie Monster’s University. To understand the connection that provoked my thoughts on Wilbur, you will have to read to the end of his post to where he makes the fascinating point about labeling. Go read it.

Anyway, I think it was Wilbur who really convinced me to love poetry in the end. For a long time, although I loved novels, I shied away from poems. They seemed purposefully and annoyingly difficult– or worse, [the ones I read in high school were] confessional. Poets seemed to be so preoccupied with themselves and their own feelings. It was Wilbur who convinced me otherwise.

I think his words on the dangers of confessional poetry apply to blogging as well:

I do feel that the truth, especially the truth about oneself, is hard to report, and that if you set out to confess, what you are likely to do is tell lies in addition to reporting some of the truth. And the fact that you are consciously part of the material of the poem may lead you to falsify in ways that are not good. There are good fictions and bad fictions. The kind of fiction that glamorizes you is not good either for your sake or for the reader’s, and I think that very often the confessional poet is drawn to glamorize himself, whether he is aware of it or not. (The Paris Review, The Art of Poetry No. 22)

I would venture to say that, similarly, the best bloggers are not confessional writers. Their blogs are not about their personal lives, although over time you get a pretty good idea of what they are like through their exploration of other things. The same is true with the best poets. Although intensely personal, the best poets are not exclusively so. I think this is largely what separates amateur poetry (even if it is technically brilliant) from masterful poetry– the great poet can write from and within his feelings but is not limited by them from comprehending, in some sense, the feelings of others. That is why I have always rather disliked Wordsworth’s definition of poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling.” This is no doubt involved, but if it stopped there we would only have confessional poetry.

Sylvia Plath

Consider Wilbur’s critique of Sylvia Plath’s work. In his frequently discussed poem, “Cottage Street, 1953,” Wilbur describes the first time he met Sylvia Plath:

Outliving Sylvia who, condemned to live,

Shall study for a decade, as she must,

To state at last her brilliant negative

In poems free and helpless and unjust.

Here is the full text of this (rather controversial) poem.

An interviewer, like many others, questioned Wilbur’s diction here. “Unjust?” Personal, yes. Painfully honest, yes. But unjust?

Wilbur responds this way:

Its helpless one-sidedness. I tried to sprinkle a whole lot of words around there that would add up to a kind of just estimate of her. That, together with the picture I had given of her as a slumped, pale, drowning person. Let the record show that I said brilliant: “her brilliant negative. In poems free and helpless and unjust.” I suppose she was freed by the onset of her desperate condition of mind to be brilliant in the way the poems of Ariel are brilliant. At the same time, she was helpless because it required that condition of mind to bring on those poems. She was unjust because a sick and prejudiced perception of things is—well, that’s the limitation on the usefulness of her poetry to any reader, I think. It gives you some insights into a desperate condition of mind that is not absolutely foreign to the rest of us, but that goes farther towards morbidity than I’ve ever gone, thank God. At the same time there’s a lot she can’t tell you. She’s all wrapped up in herself and her feelings about her children, and herself as a writer, and her fantasies about her dead father, and her arbitrary connections between her dead father and her husband. I don’t suppose we need to know that her father was not a Nazi in order to read that poem [“Daddy”] rightly, or do we? In any case, she’s rather unjust to him. She’s certainly unjust to her mother. (Ibid)

Unfortunately I think this tendency on the part of some writers toward confessionalism has seeped into the way we read poetry, and the way high school literature is traditionally taught as well. So many of my students find it difficult to read any work, and most especially poems, without resorting to the biographical explanation of details: “Well, Emily Dickinson was a crazy recluse so that’s why her poetry is so weird and hard to understand.” Or “Tolkien is saying that about the ring because he lived through WWII and was using the ring as a metaphor for the atom bomb” or other such nonsense.

The difficulty, of course, is that there can be a lot of truth in this. One’s history does influence one’s writing. But limiting writing of any kind to one’s history, to oneself, is either a mistake of the writer or the reader or both.

 Wilbur’s explanation of the true role of a poet is something I think bloggers and other writers should always aim for:

One of the jobs of poetry is to make the unbearable bearable, not by falsehood but by clear, precise confrontation. Even the most cheerful poet has to cope with pain as part of the human lot; what he shouldn’t do is to complain, and dwell on his personal mischance.

Read the fascinating interview at The Paris Review.

What writers and bloggers do you suggest achieve this “difficult balance” (a Wilburian phrase) or “precise confrontation” with reality?