When I debuted this blog, I called it, “An Arrangement of Words.” That’s a phrase Richard Ford once said. It’s a beautiful expression, elegantly encapsulating what we writers do: arrange words to create a world and a truth. But as I realized I wanted to write about more than just my writing passion, I considered other titles for the blog. Finally, I found the theme that displays what I’m all about: cultivating a better life. Anyway, I still love that expression and thought writers might be interested in how I discovered it.
Richard Ford’s Class at Columbia University
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 winning author as I could.
The class was a refreshing examination of fiction writing. In college and graduate school, I’d only attended workshops. Workshops are classes where students sit and critique each others’ manuscripts. But Richard Ford wasn’t interested in reading our writing. He thought more value lay in a different approach. He wanted us to analyze stories closely and discuss issues of writing, then apply the principles and methods to our work. Instead of receiving feedback from amateurs, he preferred we figure out what was right for us. In response to a question about feedback from professional editors, he said, “Remember, you are the final arbiter of taste.”
Walter Benjamin on Writing
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. It’s a pulling together of things. “That’s intelligence, a composition,” he said.
Also, he talked about how each piece of writing, each piece of art holds its own value. It 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 Walter Benjamin referred to this phrase or Ford mentioned Dionysius of Halicarnassus himself (the Greek historian who first used the term). But the idea resonated. I now remember the value of what I do everyday. I have a vision, I have a voice. 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.