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What We’re Reading: Every Writer Has A Thousand Faces

2016 June 30
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What We're Reading

Not so long ago… okay really, forever ago in Internet Time, we interviewed poet, teacher, and essayist David Biespiel about his opinions on the ins and outs of MFA programs. I’m returning now (perhaps in the hazy disillusionment of my own MFA experience) to his book for a little guidance, better yet: a wake up call.


Every Writer Has A Thousand Faces by David Biespiel (Kelson Books, 2010)

If you’re anything like me, a preface to a book on creative technique and craft that features Adrienne Rich is a fairly sure guarantee that you’ll make it to chapter one. While that’s the case in Every Writer Has a Thousand Faces, David Biespiel shows less of an interest in delivering what you think you want and instead offers the reader what they might (or probably) need. This is a book about wandering and fixation, boundaries and boundlessness. By the end, you may discover a new friend—the Artist inside you—who’s ready to take a stroll through a fresh process, a creative journey.

Now, reviewing a craft book is kind of tricky, I mean, I can’t just give away all the craft tips! So I want to explain why this is an important summer read. For me, at least, summer is slightly less stressful than the other nine months of the year. Maybe the American education system has also conditioned you to breathe a little easier June through August. In any case, now that I feel less pressure, I am more willing to consider my craft and method of crafting. And really, that’s what David’s book is—a proposal of another method of creativity and creative output. He never mentions submissions or contests, reading recommendations, or even educational programs (and thank goodness because my browser history is chock-full of all that jazz in blog and article form). Before sitting down with this text, my summer plans went something like this: revise, revise, revise, submit, draft. Maybe that’s your plan of attack, and more power to ya!, but I can say with total confidence that the first three verbs on my to-do list would have been fraught with frustration, “submit” clouded with self-doubt, and “draft” with dread. (You guys, I’m just being honest.) Instead, reading this book just reminded me that there are many paths to “success” (whatever that is). What Every Writer includes, instead of the advice de rigueur, is a well-spring of ideas for how to jump start the creative process, valuable examples of athletic and visual artists who exercise this proposed method, and, perhaps most importantly, OODLES of empathy for the writer/artist who is battling their own stuck process and potentially self-doubt or frustration. Sound familiar? If you’re interested in a fresh approach to your writing, I say, dig into this read and discover your other 999 faces.

If I had to sum it up, Every Writer proffers an order of operations: Palette, Passion, Failure. Yup, I said failure, but Biespiel said it first. Before you fail though, you might begin with a lengthy dabbling or brainstorming method that might begin with a “word-palette,” a method where you sit down and essentially doodle language. A list of language forms itself, out of your mind, associations, and surroundings. The word-palette leads to a version of an experience (story, poem, et cetera). “The more you investigate change, the more you discover what you hadn’t known to see. In other words, the known unknowns become all you confidently know,” Biespiel explains. In my understanding, expanding the drafting process in this way allows for feeling and passion to enter into many versions of poems where stress or frustration may have formerly governed revisions.

I use the word “version” very intentionally because so does Biespiel. In fact, one could sum up this text with a very simple maxim: “versions not revisions.” The reason is simple. With the draft-and-revise method, one is only ever trouble-shooting and adjusting the draft that already exists. And we all know what happens when you come to a road block and you simply cannot “fix” what’s in front of you. You scrap it and feel like crap. But did you ever give the poem/prose a real chance to fail? Perhaps not, because the revision process was dictated by the problems in the original draft, and where can imagination or exploration enter in when we are confined to an initial creative impulse? Enter Palette; enter Passion.

The word-palette exercise frees you from constipated drafting: “No one wants a tepid attitude in your marks,” says Biespiel. “Write with a fierce attitude—whether it’s a sentence or scene—and that’s what readers will most positively respond to.” The marks he refers to are: sentences & syntax, lines & stanzas, characters & scenes. Whatever your medium, your writing will be imbued with your attitude, and your attitude is inevitably shaped by your engagement and your process while drafting. Biespiel proposes, therefore, that you explore with all your might the “marks” you employ and let them lead you to discover the version of whatever you are writing.

David says he forms these word-palettes over weeks and days, carrying around a folded sheet of paper that serves as a catchment for all the language, thoughts, lines, and the title that comes to mind. Then,

As for what I create from the words on the list? Well, if I like what comes of it, great. If not, I move on. I pick words out of the version, start over. Make a new list, do it again. I’m not making drafts and revising to fix it. I’m making lists of words to see what resonates within me. And then thinking about how I feel about the words and the resonances.

Failure does not sound so bad when you can recycle the palette and reinvent the poem/prose that first evaded you. “[B]y throwing up air ball after air ball in your writing, you master the distinction between miss and swish—which because of their consonance, assonance, and rhyme these two words would fit wonderfully onto one of my word-palettes!” So what kind of ball are you playing? Draft-and-revise or miss-and-swish?

More importantly, I leave you with the question that Adrienne Rich posed to Biespiel and the Stegner fellows: “Are you in it for the long haul?”