What Am I Really Writing About? Mining and Shaping Your First Draft


Writing can be a wisdom path, a spiritual practice, a way to know an order larger than we otherwise can account for.  In his book, A Brief History of Everything, Ken Wilber discusses how we cannot get away from the fact that our universe and everything in it is comprised of hierarchies.  He says the trick is to tease apart the natural ones from the pathological or dominater ones.   He says that virtually all growth, from matter to life to mind occurs via natural holarchies (his word adopted from writer Arthur Koestler’s word “holon,” for part).

There are orders of increasing holism and wholeness–wholes that become parts of new wholes–and that’s natural hierarchy or holarchy.  When any holon in a natural holarchy usurps its position and attempts to dominate the whole, then you get a pathological or dominater hierarchy–a cancerous cell dominates the body, or a fascist dictator dominates the social system, or a repressive ego dominates the rest of the organism and so on.

In writing, the left brain may take over and dominate and distort or detour the rich unconscious design and material emerging or the unconscious may refuse to listen to the left-brain’s contribution and remain unsayable. (Writing we say the unsayable by reaching for it and by recognizing and facilitating natural holarchies in the shape of the images and details.)

How do we get there? How do we commit words to a page and then allow the natural holarchy to emerge?

As a student in David Wagoner’s poetry classes in the late seventies at the University of Washington, I learned about the way he thought of drafting as having three stages–invention, shaping, editing. What I’ve learned is that most of us don’t easily surrender to the first stage of writing– the mad scientist stage, the not-at-all-sure-I-know-what-I-am-doing-but-it-is-what-I-am-compelled-to-do stage–so sometimes exercises that provide a little structure feel comfortable and help us do the inventing because we are sure we at least have some guidelines.

Once we produce that inventive, generative writing, no matter how we encourage ourselves to get it on the page, we have to sift the wheat from the chaff, find the shape waiting to come into relief as a sculpture would. To do this, we have to recognize what our piece of writing is addressing emotionally and upon what emotional occasion we are writing.

It’s not easy to start putting words on a page while we are worrying about what they will turn out to say. It’s not easy to put words on a page if we feel insecure about not knowing–not knowing if the words will ever amount to anything, not knowing if whatever they say will be something we can deal with, not knowing if we will be up to writing with the power that whatever we are creating deserves.

All this not knowing can make the left brain and our ego feel threatened, and threatened, those parts of us might go into overdrive to try and prove they are up to the task. The voice of the unconscious, the right brain may be silenced or driven to take drastic measures to be heard–full rhymes and odd rhythms might appear, discordant word choices may show up as well as odd, distracting references. These moments of rough masonry are often the ones that hint most directly at what is not being said. The job is to trace the words to that point and see why they went underground, why the ego and left brain felt you were stumbling and stepped in to keep those words from getting written. Then write them.

One response to “What Am I Really Writing About? Mining and Shaping Your First Draft

  1. Sheila, I like this framing of the writing process— “invention, shaping, editing” — as more accurate (and perhaps more attractive) than writing, revising, and editing. Shaping makes me think of clay, the words we’ve put on the page in our invention stage the malleable material with which we shape something recognizable. And the word shaping has a creative and playful feeling to it, perhaps allowing me to tune into my intuitive mind more easily. Thanks for the post.

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