An Arrangement of Words

I tried to name this blog “First Draft” as a reminder to myself not to become stressed out by the need for perfection. I didn’t want to be swallowed into the albatross-laden mania of endless revision and persnickety fine-tuning and an ambitious amount of content. Not for here. It was only a blog after all. But of course, the names First Draft and My First Draft and The First Draft were all taken (seemingly by bloggers who haven’t posted in years, if they ever did) and I was forced to come up with another name.

In May of 2007 I had the incredible fortune of attending Richard Ford‘s two-week writing seminar at Columbia University. The man had invited me himself (another story for another posting) and I traveled from Seattle to New York to learn as much from the Pulitzer-Prize winner as I could.

The class was a refreshing exercise in finetuning one’s writing skills. From undergrad and graduate classes, I’d only experienced the workshop format, where some 10 to 20 students sit in a circle and critique each others’ manuscripts. However, Ford wasn’t really interested in reading any of our writing and thought more value lay in a different approach. He wanted us to examine stories closely and discuss issues of writing, then later apply the principles and methods to make our own work better. And he wanted us to do the change-making or editing in private, on our own. Find our own way. As Ford reminded me later in a discussion about book editors and anyone else who may offer feedback, “Remember, you are the final arbiter of taste.”

Anyway, on the first day of class he distributed a chunky packet of stories and essays about writing. One of the essays was by a man named Walter Benjamin, a European scholar from the early 20th century. Benjamin had several revealing things to say about the novel and its format and one’s approach to writing it. We spoke about how imaginative experience gives voice to what its like to be alive at a certain time and place in history, and Ford pointed out that the written piece’s nature is to be artistic, a pulling together of things. “That’s intelligence, a composition,” he said.

He went on to remind us how each piece of writing, each piece of art holds its own value, makes its own contribution simply because it displays “words that are arranged in a way that they haven’t been arranged before.” I don’t recall if this phrase sprung from Walter Benjamin’s essay or Ford mentioned Dionysius of Halicarnassus himself (the Greek historian who first used the term), but the idea resonated with me. It’s helped me remember the value of what I do everyday. I have a vision, I have a voice, and both are unique. I hope this bit of simplistic yet profound wisdom reminds other writers that their vision, voice and ability to arrange words are unique as well.

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