Writing Is the Work of Discovery

Over the past year I’ve been reading, and rereading, a page or so at a time, one of the best books on the process of writing that I’ve ever encountered.

That book is Several short sentences about writing, by Verlyn Klinkenborg. I recommend this book to every writer, budding or established.

What Klinkenborg gets so right is his attention, at the granular level of composition, to the interaction between thinking and writing, and the acts of discovery that arise for any writer who thinks deeply about his or her developing words on the page.

But first, a writer needs to let go of a certain amount of baggage:

The central fact of your education is this:
You’ve been taught to believe that what you discover by thinking,
By examining your own thoughts and perceptions,
Is unimportant and unauthorized.
As a result, you fear thinking,
And you don’t believe your thoughts are interesting,
Because you haven’t learned to be interested in them.

There’s another possibility:
You may be interested in your thoughts,
But they don’t have much to do with anything you’ve
ever been asked to write.

. . . What we’re working on precedes genre.
For our purposes, genre is meaningless.
It’s a method of shelving books and awarding prizes.

As you can see from the above examples, Klinkenborg often divides his sentences into what look like lines of poetry. He does this, I think, to emphasize the structure of his sentences, and therefore his thinking. It also allows readers to pause at their own pace, as they take in his insights.

This tactic also makes it easier, I’ve found, to dip into the book at any point, and immediately find something of value, such as this nugget:

Anything you think you need to write—
Or be “inspired” to write or “get in the mood” to write—
Becomes a prohibition when it’s lacking.
Learn to write anywhere, at any time, in any conditions,
With anything, starting from nowhere.
All you really need is your head, the one indispensible requirement.

This section especially spoke to me. It reminded me of one of the times when I struggled with my writing (just one of the times—at least this writer has grappled all my life with the task of shaping my words into a state of readability). In 1980, I lived in the small village of Kosangbé, in Ivory Coast, West Africa, where I had accompanied my wife, the anthropologist Alma Gottlieb, on her first stint of research among the Beng people.

I, however, am not an anthropologist, I’m a writer. In the beginning of that year among the Beng, I was forced to adjust to certain living conditions in the village.

All Beng villages are structured this way: each family lives in a compound—four or-five small, mud-brick buildings that surround a central, open courtyard. Most of the living during the day takes place in this open courtyard.

Here’s a map of a Beng compound in the village of Asagbé, where Alma and I lived in 1993:

As you can see, this compound isn’t protected by a wall or fence or gate. There’s always ample space between the buildings of any Beng compound, so any person strolling from one end of a village to the other walks through various neighbors’ compounds—which is, essentially, akin to walking through a series of living rooms.

All of the above may explain why there is no word for privacy in the Beng language.

My initial reaction to the Beng’s very present social world, whenever I needed to write, was to remain in our two-room, mud-brick house and work at my desk. A Beng friend, Yacouba, quickly advised me not to do this, as it would raise great suspicions among our neighbors. Any person who tries to avoid others is distrusted, as they must be up to no good. The misuse of spiritual power—specifically, what would be called witchcraft by the West—is a great concern among the Beng people.

So, every morning, I hauled my small desk out of the house and into the compound, where everyone could see what I was doing.

This solution created its own problem.

Remember, the Beng have no word for privacy. There was no way to be invisible in the lively back-and-forth of the compound. Women pounded yams with large mortars and pestles, children ran about playing games or running errands, elders from other compounds dropped by to chat with anyone who might be interested, someone might arrive with juicy village gossip, and because the Beng are a ritually polite people, everyone arriving had to say Hello.

Saying hello is a complicated procedure in Beng culture. Alma and I spent much of our first months among the Beng simply learning how to say hello properly. Hello requires a call-and-response of several exchanges, and the wording changes depending on whether it’s morning, afternoon or night, or whether a man greets another man, or a woman greets a man, or . . . you get the idea. So many possible variations. The entire process takes at least a half-minute to go through, and I must have responded to a hundred or more greetings a day.

A lot of interruptions for a writer trying to breathe a little life into his inert prose.

I accepted my place in the compound and its conditions. After all, Alma and I were guests among the Beng. We tried our best to behave as a proper Beng person might.

But those interruptions. Sitting exposed in the compound, I could never snag more than a few minutes to myself. My typewriter sat before me as more of a metal lump than a machine I could tap at.

Yet during that year I managed to complete a few short stories, and numerous letters. So what happened?

Philip Graham writing in the village of Asagbé, 1985.

Eventually I learned to write in two-minute increments. Whenever a spare moment arrived, I offered myself to my imagination and dashed off a sentence or phrase in my notebook, or pounded out a sentence on the typewriter. All I needed, to paraphrase Klinkenborg, was my head—and the incentive to take advantage of every gift of quiet that came my way.

In so doing, I learned through trial and error what Klinkenborg advises so eloquently:

You have no idea what you’re going to say
Until you discover what you want to say
As you make the sentences that say it.
Every sentence is optional until it proves otherwise.
Writing is the work of discovery.

That hard-won ability to jump from one to sixty MPH turned out to be a great blessing once I returned home to the U.S. Since then I’ve carried a notebook with me everywhere. I am always scribbling away in one, knowing that much of what I write down will not necessarily be used, but will at least lead me, eventually, to something that can be.

Or, to quote Verlyn Klinkenborg once again:

How do you begin to write?
. . . You’re holding an audition.
Many sentences will try out.
One gets the part.


To learn how I eventually discovered a Beng solution to extend that two-minute window reserved for inspiration, you can read this excerpt from Parallel Worlds.


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