The Under Ground Writing Project

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A Misunderstanding of Explication: Apologetics vs. Analytics

Posted by Oliver on January 23, 2015 at 10:35 AM

Last night I got asked an interesting question: Do you ever explicate your prose or poetry?

Initially, I misunderstood the question, but answered it anyway because I didn’t realize I had misunderstood it. When she explained what she meant, I answered that too. Here’s both answers.

When I misunderstood, I thought my friend meant, “Do you ever explain your writing?” My answer to that was, no, I try not to. She asked why, and I gave a two part answer.

Part one (the main part): I feel like if my writing requires explanation then I did something wrong. If I did something wrong then the writing requires repair, not explanation.

Part two (possibly more important, really): If I propose to take my writing seriously, then the writing I produce deserves my faith and respect. If I put forward a piece of writing and claim it’s in some state of completion, then it deserves autonomy. Once I start explain it I start shifting the importance of the piece of writing. The importance of it ought to be in its relationship with whoever reads it. If I start explaining it, then the relationship shifts to a relationship between myself and the reader, when it ought to stay between the writing and the reader. Explanation from me merits a kind of intervention between the reader and the writing. I become a third wheel in the reader’s experience. I ought to be able to sacrifice whatever ego boost I get from the experience of hearing the reader’s cooing—or booing—and let the writing stand for itself.

I just thought of a third part: Some have said that much of my writing defies explanation. I would never believe the truth of that. When the explanation for a story requires a longer word count than the story itself, though, I hope I can be graceful enough to bow and accede obscurity.

So that’s interesting. It turns out that what my friend meant was: Do you ever use tools of literary analysis on your own writing? Like, while you’re writing and afterward too.

I found this more interesting but also simpler. My immediate answer is yes, I definitely do. That’s all I answered her, because she understood what I meant. I didn’t sleep well last night, though, so I kept thinking about my answer and the implications of it.

I consider myself a craftsman. I have a great respect for tools and a greater respect for the good usage thereof. I love listening to conversation about technique and reading books about technique and seeking interviews with authors I respect to find out about their technique. Technique is gorgeous—tools are gorgeous. Sometimes I think of myself as existing inside this metaphor: all of the thought impressions of the universe constitute an unformed block of cracked marble, I am a (very) fledgling Michelangelo, and I’m obtaining my first set of chisels in the form of Aristotle’s Poetics, Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, and Bugs Bunny’s sense of irony.

Right, thing about that is that it sort of applies to writing technique. There’s a different attitude taken in the approach to literary analysis. Overlap obviously exists between the two; both require consideration of mechanics like plot, tone, grammar, etc. You could never divorce creation entirely from scrutiny. That said, Roger Ebert never made a movie, and people rarely quote Steven Spielberg’s opinions of movies. By a similar token, writing and literary analysis assume very different attitudes toward their subject, and they therefore have quite different tool sets.

I bore all that in mind when I answered my friend with a simple yes to her question about whether I explicate my writing. I often think about my writing as if it’s a book that I’m reading. I’ll make attempts to analyze its flow and tone consistency, and I try to look at it like a literary analyst while I’m writing it. People will ask me what I’m reading, and I’ll sometimes answer with an impetuous, “Well, I’m writing a book right now. It’s really interesting.” Even though I answer impetuously I mean it seriously. I try to treat the books I write exactly like the books that I read.

I can tell you, it gets damned exhausting to apply all the techniques of literary analysis to a story simultaneous to applying as many applicable techniques of story construction as I can remember in any given moment. If my trains of thought were literary trains then they’d be the entire train network of southwestern Europe. It’s tiring, but it’s supposed to be work, for Dickens’ sake. You should be tired after writing. Rejuvenated too, but mostly tired.

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