Burn Away the Fog

The act of writing something, whether it is a poem, a short story, a blog post, or only a recipe, is an attempt to establish order, clarity, even certainty about that thing of which we write. None of us, I would argue, is entirely clear about everything within and around us, and we have to struggle to achieve that clarity. Neither prophets nor clairvoyants nor scientists nor historians have an absolute corner on perceiving what is "really real," and yet--I would further argue--the act of writing can be an excellent method for nailing a piece of reality, a tiny crumb of truth, a nugget of something that for a fleeting time at least cannot be denied or altered.

Goldberg writes that this clarity of which I speak is often denied us, adulterated, skewed, and blurred by our own inability to be clear. We hesitate, prevaricate, surrender, modify, or feel the need to shore up or back away from our ideas, our feelings, and in so doing our writing becomes murky. We see darkly through the glass of our own words.

What I find also interesting in her discussion of this point is that she locates the problem with her gender. Women qualify their statements, and so do minorities, she says, relying on some old study of such things from the 1970s. (What did they know in the seventies anyway? From my adolescent perspective of those days nobody knew anything, which of course proves only that I was an adolescent in those bell-bottomed days.) The fact that I have observed is that I tend to fail in clarity too, but I am neither a woman nor a minority, so whatever these studies to which she refers were about, they clearly were incorrect on this point. All writers struggle to be clear.

Goldberg writes, "Writing is the act of burning through the fog in your mind." I like this idea because it suggests something I think is true about the writing process. Our minds follow pathways that quickly become familiar ruts, and then after a time, they become deep ruts from which we might find it difficult to escape. The placement of words to reflect ideas is a process prone to ruts. These ruts constitute, in part I believe, the fog in our minds. 

But this fog can be anything. It can be inattention to detail. It can very possibly be failings of understanding and communication handed down to us by our genes, our parents, our education, or our perspectives on the world and all that is in it. It can be not having enough time to write. It can stem from a dishonesty with ourselves or with others, or from a failure to think things through. The fog in our minds is part of the mortal human condition, part of the curse of being on this blundering side of the veil of forgetfulness.

How can we overcome this fog of the mind in our writing? Goldberg's chapter on the subject presents basically two methods: first, be aware that the fog exists and revise carefully, thoroughly, honestly, to remove it; and second, use questions to ferret out truth, and then answer as deeply and truly as we can.

To this short list I might also add to read others carefully for moments of especial clarity. When do other writers say something so transparently that it rings within our heads and we can't forget it, can't get it out of our heads? Figure out how that works and then you may be able to imitate it. 

An example of what I mean occurred to me just the other day. I chanced across Keats' poem, "Sharing Eve's Apple," and the recurring images for apple, mingled with subtle sexual references, all came together in the startling last line, "O cut the sweet apple and share it!" When I read that last line it had a strength that surprised me, and as I thought about why I should be so impressed by that line, I realized Keats had led me there. The clarity and power of that line was enhanced or accentuated by the running metaphor of the apple. Plus, I think the simple, powerful verbs "cut" and "share" helped give the line its memorability. This technique is something I want to try to imitate.

To conclude, then: burning away the fog in our writing means

1) Being aware that the fog exists and trails from our minds out on to the page.
2) Revise carefully to excise it.
3) Use questions to focus our writing and be honest with the answers.
4) Collect examples of clear writing, whether it is poetry, prose, technical writing or anything, and make an effort to understand how it works in others' work and to imitate it.


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AuthorWilliam Reger