My thoughts at first raced. They shouldn’t race at the idea of a theoretical writing question. But they did. I thought: What would everyone else write? What would be the cartilage in between? What are Carlo and Charles doing with this? Do I have anything to say? Do I care about this question? Do I understand the question? What is doing it right versus breaking the form? Ugh, I have no idea. Why am I having anxiety about this? If I have nothing to say, write nothing. But I have never had nothing to say. So, here. Here is my something.
Once, a friend gave me a first draft of a profile of a musician he was writing about and it had four ledes, one right after the other; each lede, one thousand words. It was meant to mimic the spinning of a record. When he told me that, I was annoyed. I had never thought about form following thesis. While I was reading it, I just kept thinking, When does this story start?
This question of doing it right versus breaking the form feels very academic. I don’t mean that to be pejorative. It’s just not something I can relate to. I don’t debate writing very often or think about various forms. I didn’t go to J-school; I barely majored in English. My degree is in art and my writing started with deadlines for my weekly high school newspaper. I don’t write—as I should—on a regular schedule, independent of assignment. If I don’t have a deadline, I’m fucked. I just won’t write.
I guess I have done both. I have written extremely traditional newspaper reporting, pyramid-shaped who-what-where-why-when-up-top kinds of things, and some of them have been the way that story should have been written. And better for it. As a writer, I resent how hard it is to present things in a simple, clear way. To follow structure and form and let a story tell itself. Other pieces I’ve written have been fragmented and more experimental, like trying to convey what it feels like to be a spawning salmon while writing about the actual natural journey, or writing about a manic episode in the manner of having a manic episode, a narrative dictated by racing thoughts and anxieties.
But I reject the binary, I even reject the idea of a method in between. Because here’s the thing: the question, which seemed innocuous at first, and like something I had very little to say about, is really a grand-big-giant question about writing itself. How do we do it? Why? In what way? What is the best strategy to convey ideas, feelings, stories, people, life, atmosphere, color, sound? How do we use words to capture attention? Sometimes I can sneak in an experimental sentence or approach in an extremely conventional story. Other times, scientific research can be folded into a paragraph that just describes feeling. But there are so many variables. Who is reading? What is the context? What is the venue?
Most important to the process: am I bored writing it? If I’m bored, there is no right way. It’s always a puzzle, a balance, a mixture of as many perspectives and feelings and sensory explosions and details as you can get into one well-crafted, long-winded, circular sentence. Or maybe an elegant simple sentence? Doesn’t even have to be a sentence.
What is the right way? I have no idea.
What is the wrong way? Not doing it at all.
What did we learn here? Jaime should probably never think too hard or too often about writing! Because my brain goes explode.
Jaime Lowe is a frequent contributor to the New York Times Magazine, the author of Mental and Digging for Dirt: The Life and Death of ODB, and a contributor to This American Life.