On Writing: The Hunchers, the Librarians and War

The enduring conceptions of what we nowadays call the “writing process” come from two camps: the Ugly Hunchers and the Mincing Librarians.

Hunchers are characterized not only by their grotesque facial features and typically poor posture but also by their gnomic pronouncements on the composition process. The chief Ugly Huncher of our time is no doubt John Ashbery, who in the early Nineteen Seventies renewed the Huncher philosophy with remarkable pith. “Poetry,” he said, “is mostly hunches.”

Plato, despite his relative talkiness and reputed beauty, is the most famous of the Hunchers.  All Huncher Pronouncements are considered merely afterwords to his. He said, speaking of the poet: “…he is a manufacturer of images and is very far removed from the truth….” There have been many Hunchers and many Huncher pronouncements since, of course, but I give Plato pride of place not only for his thorough-going Hunchiness, but also for his figurative bleakness. Reading his words, I am always persuaded he is right: the poor poet toils away in the dark, creaking image factory, way out in there in boring suburbs of truth, far from the vibrant metropolis where the philosopher kings whoop it up every night. And there he has stood for millennia, poor, benighted, stooped and weary on the assembly line, forever stitching together his dank bolus of falsifying imagery. Plato always convinces me, for awhile,  that whatever it is we do when we write cannot be discussed–and certainly not in the open air and the strong, cleansing light of the sun, as one would discuss, say, the progress of a garden vine or the habits of a charming pet.

Plato inhabits what we might call the First Huncher Position. The idea, perhaps also implicit in the comment by Mr. Ashbery, is that Poets Are Idiots. But there is also a Second Huncher Position, one that dwells not on the simplicity of the poet’s mind, but the complexity of the poetic product. I call this the Hideous Mongrel Theory of Poetry. It goes like this. No story, no poem is purely blooded. No one has worked for years, as people do with dogs or racehorses, to establish a clean, predictable line of descendants from a single source of good genes. Each poem has many fathers and mothers. Each poem is mongrel. And each poem is two-headed, three-headed, four-headed. What seems to be a singular poem is actually two or three poems or plays fighting it out like cats in a bag (or like mongrels in the trailer courts of language). Look closely at any poem, even the simplest, and you will see several poems, even many poems, each with its own dubious heritage. It is the same with stories and plays and certainly with novels. A piece of writing is not a singular creature. It is a colony. And each member of the colony, each sentence, each word, has its own lineage, its own strange face, its own gait, its own inclinations.

T. S. Eliot, a Closet Huncher, sums up the Hideous Mongrel theory elegantly, but with great discretion. Always decorous, he does his best to disguise with a euphemism the genetics of the monstrous, three-headed pup dropped with a plop into the proper workshop or literary journal:

“It is not in the nature of things that there should be a point-for-point correspondence between the mental processes of any two poets. Not only do poems come into being in as many ways as there are poets; for the same poet… the process may vary from poem to poem. Every poem has its own embryological pattern…” (emphasis added)

Embryological pattern? We know to what he alludes: bastardy, monstrosity, excess digits, random mutation.

Whitman is perhaps more to the point.  “Something long preparing and formless,” he says, “is arrived and form’d in you.” Whatever it is that like the Alien has built up in us from the digestive gases or the ethers, we cannot know. We may have a hunch about it. We may figger it’s probably its own singular monster, one unlike any other monster that grinds through the ribs of any other poet. But what it is and how it forms, where it comes from and how it arrives, we don’t know. We hunch around our hunches and sometimes we splat out a poem. This is the Basic Huncher Position.

Opposed to the Hunchers and their ridiculous, though picturesque theories, are the Mincing Librarians. The Librarians believe in metonymy. In Mincing. That is, they believe in division by parts. The Librarians are the ones who take swords to the quaint metaphors nurtured with such care by the Hunchers. The most influential, though least recognized, of the contemporary Librarians is Janet Emig. Haven’t heard of her? You only think you haven’t heard of her. Janet Emig coined the Librarian’s Big Sneaky Term. That term is “writing process.”

According to Emig, who developed her theory while studying the composition process of high-school students, writing consists in:

  • · “Pre-writing,” which consists of planning, research and outlining
  • · Drafting, which is the initial composition
  • · Revision, which is review, modification and organization by the writer
  • · Editing, which is proofreading for clarity, conventions, style, whether by the writer or another
  • · Submittal, which is sharing the sharing the writing, possibly through performance, printing, or distribution of written material

(I have quoted here extensively from the Wikipedia entry on “writing process.”)

When you become sickened, if you are not sick already, by seminars, colloquia, talks, discussions and papers, like this one, on the “writing process,” you will know who to blame: Janet Emig, who, bless her heart, was only trying to figure out how to teach idiot high-school students to write five-paragraph essays. That her Big Sneaky Term became big at all is a testament to the littleness of contemporary thinking about whatever it is that we do when we write.

But the Librarian model has always suffered from a certain sketchiness. Emig’s model obviously follows from Aristotle, our first great classifier, who also analyzed the writing process as consisting of steps. For Aristotle, of course, there were but two steps: figuring out what to say and then saying it. Falling from a chair might require fewer steps, and less analysis, but otherwise creative composition seems to be among the simpler phenomena ever analyzed by the Great Classifier. Emig’s model is Steppier than Aristotle’s (it could hardly contain less) but her method obviously devolves from his.

The problem with the Librarian’s model is that whether it contains five steps or two, none of the Steps, and certainly none of the “analysis,” teaches us much about the creative act of composition. It is all very well to include a step called “Drafting” in a model of a writing process, but what does “Drafting” tell us about how poems and stories really get made?

This difficulty becomes most apparent when we look at the Librarian explanation in its purest form. For this most elegant and generally applicable model, we turn to Elder Olson, who has described The Librarian’s essential sense of the “writing process” as well as anyone has:

“… the poet… is operating as a poet only insofar as he is constructing constitutive parts and assembling them into a whole; in those operations only does the poetic process exist…”

And this process, making parts and arranging them into wholes, is, I hasten to add, the same one used by the fiction writer, the playwright, the ad man, the architect, the house-builder. Olson’s definition has the virtues of clarity and relevance; unfortunately, it tells us nothing about the writing process as a process unique to writing. Writing is another of those things humans do and humans do it they way they do most things–with some focus, many distractions, with love, or boredom, or maybe with genius (as if we could define that!) and with no particular understanding of the process itself. No one knows what Olson’s “parts” are. Nor his “wholes.” The writer works with words and sentences, but they are not really the parts. The parts are both smaller and more subtle and larger and more powerful than words and sentences. And what are the “wholes?” Unless the writer strictly imitates a piece of writing already written, who knows? The whole is what the writer is trying to get to, and she stops when she gets there, maybe, if she doesn’t run out of energy or inspiration first. But what is the “whole”? Define it at your peril.

In short, the working writer trying to understand her process must read any Librarian’s account as a soldier reads Caesar: with interest, but remembering that the battle itself is altogether muddier, bloodier and rattier than Caesar ever knew. And that what happens in the trenches when the Barbarians begin their howling charge is probably explicable, but perhaps only by old, battle-scarred soldiers, who can generalize based on their experience of many battles with Barbarians. The younger soldiers, and perhaps even the earnest Librarian, may, in the event of an actual battle, be altogether too preoccupied with the festivities to take many notes.

I do not assume that I am yet a soldier with enough experience to say what the battle is truly like. And, of course, writing is only like a battle in a rather florid figurative sense. But it is useful, if only as an exercise in imagination, to imagine one of these old soldiers, probably now a limping, drunken grandfather, and to listen to what he says as he rattles around in his cups late at night. I often hear him, or someone like him, when I write. Sometimes he speaks faintly, sometimes more strongly. Sometimes he is full of folly and I listen as a dutiful grandson listens, half-aware, sunk in the muds of my own dreams and worries, lulled by his voice yet eager to be on my way. Other times, what I hear from him seems to shine in the air like a star.

What he tells me is always a story. He is not an abstract talker. He cannot tell me what battle was. He cannot even tell me what battle is. But he can spin a tale, sometimes, that I cannot forget. He always talks of war–he has never known anything else–but never as “war.” It is always a battle, this one, that one, always the particular siege or rout or enfilade. He talks as well as he can. It is important to him to get the details right. And over time, if I listen carefully, these details seem stack up into a kind of truth–a small truth, a battered one.

What do we learn from the old soldier? First, that there are few useful general truths about war. The battles are various, their outcomes always different. What worked this time might work next time, but then again, it might not. And second, that luck plays a bigger part than any general is willing to admit. Often the battle is decided by weather, or by a flock of birds that signals the arrival of flankers, or by the presence of a single ditch that no one saw until a clumsy corporal fell in. But the main thing? It’s a fight. He is emphatic about this. What you gain you must take.

This is the crux of it, right here, the question I most want to ask. How do you do it, how do you take it, seize the day, stand your ground, rout the enemy?  How do you win?

Here the old man smiles, and takes another drink. Here, he knows, he is telling me a Big Secret. “Ambush,” he says. “Ambush is always best. Know the terrain. Set up in the best spot, on the best ground, the high ground, and wait with cool patience.”

And then?

“Well,” he says, grinning, “You must kill like a champion. You must be fast and ruthless and cold. You must love to fight.”

But there must be more to say. Some secret behind the secret. It’s difficult to believe this is all there is to war, about which so much has been written, so much lore, so much romance, such strategy. I tell him this. He seems offended. I wait. He settles down, takes another drink.

“Look,” he says, finally, staring right at me, trying to make me understand, “Peace is for dogs.”

“That life I had,” he says, “It’s the only life.”

He gets up to leave. He has said all he’s going to.


Arrington, Phillip K. “Tropes of the Composing Process.” College English. Vol. 48, No. 4 (April, 1986). 325-338.

Ashbery, John. “Craft Interview with John Ashbery.” The Craft of Poetry. Ed. William Packard. Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1974. 111-132.

Olson, Elder. “The Poetic Process.” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Autumn 1975), pp. 69-74.

Plato. “The Republic.” Book X. The Dialogues of Plato translated into English with Analyses and Introductions. Trans. B. Jowett. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1892. 13 February 2009. <http://oll.libertyfund.org/title/767/93816>.

Whitman, Walt. Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. New York: The Library of America, 1982.

“Writing process.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 10 Feb 2009,06:11UTC.14Feb 2009<http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Writing_process&oldid=269715645

Fiction’s Frilliest Genre Gets Real(er)

Note: A version of this article was originally published in the San Antonio Current in 2002, and was reprinted in the Detroit Metro Times in 2003.

She gasped as he plunged his fingers beneath her heavy skirts. He grinned like a pirate when he discovered her honeyed folds — No, wait — as he plundered the honeyed core of her desire. Yeah, plundered is more pirate-like. Arrr! She reached out, tentatively, until her trembling fingers brushed the soft suede of his breeches. She felt enormous heat and hardness there, and knew she touched the pulsating evidence of his manhood. Pulsating evidence? Hmm… the throbbing shaft of his manhood. “Oh,” she gasped, her swollen, tortured lips sheened with the dew of her desire. “In truth, you may prove to be far too much man for me, Aelred.” “There is only one way to find out, my lady,” Aelred growled. In one move he bared himself to her, the enormous beast of his need rearing up from its inky thatch…

If I tell you I write romance novels, odds are you’ll think I sit around all day in my pink satin robe, popping bonbons while dreaming up passages like the one above (the purplest of purple prose that sprang, like Aelred’s manhood from its inky thatch, from my own imagination). For those who have never read one, the idea of a romance novel conjures images of a shirtless Fabio clutching a frilly female on the cover of a book filled with references to his throbbing shaft, her velvety sheath, the glistening dew of her passion, the devastating extent of his arousal, and the quivering mound of her femininity.

No wonder the romance genre still exists in so many minds as a ridiculous and easily dismissed form of fiction.

Fact for the uninitiated: Those flowery, gooey allusions to penis and vagina are generally found only in historical romance novels, not contemporaries. Another fact: Even historicals have updated themselves, often beyond recognition as “just” a romance novel. Read Patricia Gaffney’s fabulous Wild at Heart (Signet, 2002) for a case in point.

Take the term “bodice ripper.” Coined by the media and still used — by the media — to describe any and all romance novels, the phrase has been both outmoded and out of favor for decades. Originally invented to describe historical romantic fiction of the 1970s and ’80s, in which rape was, unfortunately, a common initial phase of the courting process between hero and heroine, the term “bodice ripper” is now, thanks to the efforts of feminism, frowned upon by the romance writing and reading communities. Continue reading “Fiction’s Frilliest Genre Gets Real(er)”

The Salad Days: Part 2, a short story

          That summer was the hottest on record. Coll hired on a roofing crew run by his old high school friend Bobby. In 2001, shortly after the planes hit, Bobby turned twenty-five and got married so he started telling everyone to call him Robert, but Coll still called him Bobby. Bobby was a savant of sorts. He was good at math and building things, but a heavy dope smoker, and socially inept to a fault. He talked too much and had no tact whatsoever. They re-roofed seven houses that summer. One day while they were rolling out the black tar paper and spiking it down with the staple gun Bobby started in on Coll.

            So Coll, you got a girl. She freaky?

            You see, fellas, Coll replied to the group, what you have to understand about Bobby here is that he lacks the proper upbringing. As a child he had impetigo and his old man just put him in the garage for six weeks. That and he’s never really liked any woman he’s ever been with, if you can call them women, and so he has no respect for them or other people’s personal boundaries.

            Hell Coll, you did let her pee on you, you son ‘va bitch, I can see it in your face. Besides, don’t get all fussy just because you’re stuck doin real work for a change. Where’s all that college got you now, huh?

            It was nearly time for the regular three-thirty break when Coll lost his balance and dropped the full four by eight foot sheet of plywood he and Bobby were carrying up the ladder, flaying the skin off of Bobby’s entire right calf. The fight didn’t last long, but it was a good distraction from the heat and the toil. The guys on the crew sensed that to get involved was to cross an invisible but very real line. Hobbling across the yard, Bobby screamed obscenities, and jabbed at Coll with his hammer. The first swing of it missed Coll’s face by an inch, but the second landed good and solid on his left shoulder. Coll balled his fist and in one swipe silenced Bobby, who slowly arched backwards, lowering to the ground as would a slain gladiator. On the way to the emergency room no one spoke, but Coll knew he was out of a job.

The Salad Days: Part 1, a short story

Adam Coll lay on his red sofa directly in the stream of the whirring Zenith A.C. window unit. Through the pane he could see the staggering hot blue summer sky, filtered only by the slightly shimmering leaves of the old cypress in the side yard. At 33, being recently unemployed, he had no plans for the day, nor any real direction for the near term of his life. Around 1 o’clock he rolled over on the sofa. Placing his feet on the hardwood floor, he rose and walked into the kitchen where he drank the last of the milk from the fridge. Buttoning his haggard Levis and slipping on his sneakers, he stepped out the back door and walked the gravel drive to his white pickup.

The radio said it was 101 degrees. Having sat on the dash all morning the wayfarers burned his face a little. The disc jock played The old man is down the road as Coll left the neighborhood. Airport boulevard stretched out in front of him in a downhill line all the way to the river. Sleepy old town, not a damn thing you could do about it. The interstate gleamed white hot and Coll glanced out over the trees of the black land prairie to the east and then to the hills west of town. A woman with big Jackie O glasses passed him in her Mercedes. You could hate the rich, but you couldn’t beat them, he thought.

The city pool was quiet. He stretched out on a bench and opened the Laferriere paperback. Romance floated across each page, and the steaming sun lulled Coll into a heavy sleep. Down the rabbit hole, he saw his childhood home, the woods where he used to hunt with his big black sheep dog, Lucy. The brown creek rippled under the downpour of rocks made into hand grenades. Viet Cong sniped at him from the trees; he escaped across the train tressel and over the hill through the ragged barbed wire fence onto Mr. Reinhardt’s land. There in the shade he rested, drawing enormous female breasts in the dirt with a stick.

America’s Small Literary Mags Decline; Can We Take Up the Slack?

DialJan1920Mother Jones has an interesting article on the grand tradition of American literary magazines.

After more than a century of founding and subsidizing literary magazines as a vital part of their educational missions, colleges and universities have begun off-loading their publications, citing overburdened budgets and dwindling readership. Despite the potentially disastrous consequences to the landscape of literature and ideas, it’s increasingly hard to argue against. Once strongholds of literature and learned discussion in our country, university-based quarterlies have seen steadily declining subscriber bases since their heyday a half-century ago—and an even greater dent in their cultural relevance.

Now, while most readers get their fiction fixes from books, not lit mags, it’s hard to overestimate the impact of university and independent journals on the direction of American writing. This is where writers go to read. And learn. And build reputations. Now even the glossy magazines aren’t printing much fiction.

Just 17 years ago, you could find fiction in the pages of national magazines like The Atlantic, Elle, Esquire, Glamour, Good Housekeeping, GQ, McCall’s, Mother Jones, Ms., Playboy, Redbook, and Seventeen, and in city magazines and Sunday editions like the Boston Globe Magazine, Chicago, and the Voice Literary Supplement. Not one of these venues (those that still exist) still publishes fiction on a regular basis.

My question: Can we take up the slack? Is there a place for more fiction online, at sites like DogCanyon? We have one wonderful serial, Mary Lowry’s “Henhouse.”

How ’bout more? My own view is, “Absolutely.” Fiction is about opening our imaginations and our hearts. It shows us truths that can’t be reduced to polemic or argument. So, what do ya think?