The Dialectics of Writing: How the Magic Arrives

Gail Godwin justifies her struggle with the demons of writing by stating, “What is produced is a little bit different from anything I planned. There is always a surprise, a revelation. During the act of writing I have told myself something that I didn’t know I know I knew.”

“…something that I didn’t know I knew.” Wow. That constitutes magic, by my standards. The outcome, if we are to believe Godwin, and I do because it happens to me all the time, is impossible to predict or control. But how is that possible? It’s our mind, after all. What is happening in there that we can’t/don’t see? What mysterious alchemy is catalyzing that change, and most important, how can we harness it?

To hear Godwin talk about it, the whole enterprise is like a rogue drone that sets out on a journey but makes an unscheduled landing. Interestingly, we plan to write a paper or book, poem or article, but we can’t really plan the ending. Surprise! I’ve told myself something I didn’t know I knew. A powerful, invisible transformation, and we have no say at all.

We at least have a word for this process: dialectics, where A + B = C, with the outcome retaining characteristics of A and B, but being fundamentally altered at the same time, like a child of two parents who can’t predict its eye color or femur length. All they know is that the baby is related.

We do have some tools that aid in this magic. The first is the practice of giving room for this newborn to appear, such as free writing and reflections. They give the mind a playground to stretch its legs and get out of the box we typically assign it to, what with our obsession with outlines and demand for early thesis statements. These crimp thoughts and tell them where to go rather than letting them lead the way.

But I have found another, more structured method on the spectrum of control vs. anarchy. It involves a dance—a dialectical one—between the thesis and the rest of the piece. Rather than prescribing a rigid order of creation of elements—first your thesis, then topic sentences, etc. etc., this playground of thought can be given a push by having all the elements of an essay interact. It offers writers a chance to enter their thinking process anywhere, whether it be the thesis straightaway, or the support, or a quote they want to include, and then build the structure from there, with each part calling out for its own needs, and in doing so, arriving at the end result so everybody’s happy—even if it’s a new idea not contemplated at the outset.

So, I’m saying we can orchestrate this discover process up to a point, but we cannot determine the outcome. Again, like parents, we can accompany the child into adulthood, but we cannot determine that offspring’s future.

To answer my question—Can we predict or control how Godwin arrived at a totally unexpected and novel piece of information she didn’t know she knew?—the answer is, sadly, no. But we can chum the waters with reflections and keen interplay among rhetorical demands and devices. A backdoor entrance, to be sure, but as a parent, I’m all for giving my kid every available opportunity.

For those who need more control, you are sorely out of luck because that control will choke off this precious voice and preclude any magic at all.

Published by Nancy Burkhalter

I am in love with words. Trained as a linguist, journalist and researcher, I write, teach writing, and research everything about writing, especially how writing aids critical thinking. I've taught around the world, including three years in Kazakhstan, and a year each in Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Germany.

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