Friday Prompt: Answering Questions

Burning through the fog
"Writing is the act of burning through the fog in your mind." - Natalie Goldberg

In one chapter of her beloved book Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg urges young writers to  “Make Statements and Answer Questions.”  I’ve taught her chapter on the importance of being specific before, but I decided to add this chapter to my syllabus for the first time this Fall, and as the semester has progressed, I’ve been finding myself returning to the raw courage of its advice again and again—both in my teaching, and in my own writing.  In “Make Statements and Answer Questions,” Goldberg observes that many young writers (and indeed, experienced writers, too) feel timid about putting their ideas out into the world, and so, in their hesitancy, they often fill their writing with questions and indefinite statements (“Isn’t that terrible?” “Maybe she’s right”).  There is indeed something quite vulnerable about the act of writing for an audience—of making a claim and expecting others to listen to it.  To do so requires boldness, a kind of brash willingness to allow one’s own ideas to stand alone, at the risk that one’s audience might not agree.  Goldberg encourages us to cut the apron strings, so to speak, by challenging ourselves to confidently answer each question we find ourselves asking: “Making statements,” she writes, “is practice in trusting your own mind, in learning to stand up with your thoughts” (93-4)  And later:

“Don’t be afraid to answer the questions. You will find endless resources inside yourself. Writing is the act of burning through the fog in your mind. Don’t carry the fog out on paper. Even if you are not sure of something, express it as though you know yourself. With this practice, you eventually will” (94).

Call it the partner to the questions prompt that Mia posted in 2009, if you will: today’s prompt was inspired by Goldberg’s call to write with confidence.

Prompt: Write a poem consisting entirely of answers to questions. Try to mix answers to small, concrete questions (such as “May I have a second slice of cake?”) with answers to bigger, nearly unanswerable questions (like “What do trees do when they feel cold in winter?”).

Weekly Prompt: Specificity

Four wild daisies. (Not just flowers).

This week in my intro comp class, my students read a chapter from Natalie Goldberg’s book Writing Down the Bones, in which she urges aspiring writers to use specific language in their descriptions, arguing that, just as a person deserves the dignity of being called by the name that is unique to them, an object, an idea, or whatever it is that becomes the subject of one’s writings, also deserves the dignity of specificity (77).

I like this idea—that to write specifically is not only to render a subject more vividly, but it is to render that subject with an ethical hand: truthfully, respectfully, with acknowledgment of its dignity.  There is much talk in the arts of how to create ethically, with genuine concern for the dignity and humanity of the subjects that we handle in our work.  I like the idea that to write ethically involves more than paying attention to the greater political implications of our words; that such concerns are extremely important, but that as writers, in order to render these themes well, we also have a responsibility to pay close scrutiny to the elements of craft—if we are not paying careful attention to the colors and tonalities of our words, to the very palette with which we wield our art, then we are not honoring the subjects of our writing, either.  How that attention to detail pans out, of course, will be very different in every case (there is, in my opinion, no monolithically “correct” definition of, or approach to, solid craft).  But the idea that the attention and respect which a writer pays to his or her subject will be conveyed in the detailed inflections of his or her work seems very wise to me, indeed.

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