Presented at the 2019 OutLines Undergraduate Symposium.
“Writing and rewriting are a constant search for what it is one is saying.” – John Updike
What am I trying to say?
Something is on my mind and has been for quite some time. It is always pulsing in me, sometimes quietly, sometimes vigorously. It is always pushing at the confines of my brain, wanting out but not knowing the way.
What am I trying to say, that I can’t?
It is love. My love, for you.
This new experience, all these new feelings, they overwhelm me, consume me. When I try to grasp the full picture, the full scope of it, it slips away beyond my comprehension.
Its power is astounding. And after experiencing it, a thought came to mind.
“I have to try.”
Try to understand it, try to capture it in some tangible form. Try to express it.
So I turned to writing.
I wrote a letter to you for your birthday. When I finished it, I folded it into an origami heart and gave it to you. It was beautiful, but I was frustrated.
It barely scratched the surface. Even though they were true, the words didn’t feel special. They didn’t feel the same way that my love for you felt. There was so much more to it than what I had managed to put on paper.
But I had managed to put something on paper. I felt better after the letter was finished, because now there existed some words instead of none, that conveyed how I felt.
Some words that helped me make sense of my feelings. Of my experience.
Writing gave me a medium to try and make sense of such a powerful experience. Writing allowed me to try and describe the gravity of my feelings, and because of that, it allowed me to describe how much that experience means to me.
But, it was only through multiple tries that I was able to finally produce a tangible expression of my love. I didn’t sit down with what I wanted to say already clearly laid out in my mind. I had to rewrite that letter over and over, choosing new nouns and adjectives each time, placing them in a different order each time, writing whole paragraphs only to scrap them entirely for something else.
Writing that letter was trying in a different definition of the word. It was taxing. Any serious writer will tell you that writing is hard. It takes a toll on your mental health, and sometimes even your physical health.
And yet, still we write, because it is a means of expression like no other. It lets us work through our joy, our pain, our sorrow, our fears, our human experiences by allowing us to try over and over again to convey the meanings behind all of these things. Writing helps us understand why something pulls at us, pulses within us, consumes us. It helps us understand why things are important to us by showing us what they mean.
One of our fundamental characteristics as human beings is that we do not simply see our world or our lives in terms of survival, we see them in terms of purpose. We are desperate to find meaning in our existence and the existence of things around us. We do this by creating symbols, and one of the clearest examples of human symbol creation is language. We have created the word “chair” and given it the meaning of “an object typically used for sitting”, as an example. Writing, art, music and dance are all methods we use to create and manipulate symbols in order to give meaning to our lives and our experiences.
In his book, “The Psychology of Writing”, Ronald T. Kellogg explains the difference between the two main types of symbols we create. There are public symbols, like the word “chair”, which are easily and universally recognizable, and there are private symbols, like our feelings. These are individual symbols that we create for ourselves, and therefore cannot be replicated exactly in another person’s mind. They cannot be easily or universally recognized because they are personal. Their meaning is intrinsically tied to the individual they belong to.
Writing is one way we can attempt to translate these personal symbols into public ones, so that they can be more easily understood, both by ourselves and our readers. When we read, we are able to draw knowledge and understanding from the words. When we convert our experiences into physical words, we can discern new meanings in those experiences, or unearth the meanings that were already there, but just unclear. Writing is revision. A re-vision. A vision of ourselves, of how we see the world, how we experience it. It comes through in our style, our content, the way we structure our pieces, no matter what we’re writing. And when we write, we take those visions and see them again in a different format—a written, visual format. It changes the way we understand those visions, those experiences. It makes their complexity and their gravity easier to comprehend. The words become the extensions of our ideas and emotions, which allows us to assign the meanings behind those words to those experiences.
But translating and re-visioning are arduous tasks. It isn’t simply a matter of taking a fully conceived, perfect idea already in our head and putting it into the appropriate words. Our minds are not linear, by any means. They are maps, vast and ever-growing, branching out in every possible way. Each line diverges and crosses other lines a thousand times. Each piece of knowledge and experience we possess is connected. So when we attempt to translate these pieces into another form, we are never working with a singular idea. Instead, as Kellogg puts it, “the process is a struggle to generate and shape ideas, with the translation from the personal realm of thought to the public realm of text spurring further invention and insight on the part of the writer.”
This is why we rewrite. Rewriting allows us to entertain all of these connected pieces that emerge when we write. We can analyze each piece of information that occurs to us, deconstruct them and reconstruct them. We can determine their value, their power, their relevance to our work. Only by actually taking the time to sift through all of the bits and pieces floating in our brains and pick which ones to use in our writing, can we clearly express the image in our minds. Only after having considered all of the related information in our minds, and using them to our advantage, can we fully realize exactly what it is we are trying to say. And writing allows us to do this in a way that speaking can’t. When we write and revise, we can streamline our ideas into clarity. In her article, “What Being an Editor Taught Me About Writing”, Anna Pitoniak writes, “this is the great benefit to writing. You can be more articulate on the page than you are in real life. You might hem and haw while you’re speaking, but in writing, you have the chance to go back through and eliminate all of that throat-clearing.”
Trying to express my love for you in that letter was difficult. But even despite all of the problems I encountered along the way, the thought occurred, still.
“I want to try.”
I didn’t feel defeated or discouraged each time I couldn’t find the right words. I felt invigorated. Because even after facing the seemingly impossible task of conveying my mind to you, it wasn’t impossible. I did succeed, to some extent. Even though writing that letter was a trying task, it was still a way for me to try and show you my love.
And the truth about writing is this; it is hard. It will always be hard, in some way. But paper and words will always be a vessel, my vessel, to pour my heart and mind and body into, and show the world what my experiences mean. Even if no one else can understand it, my writing will always be a way for me to understand my world.
The possibility exists that I will never be able to say exactly what I meant to say to you. Maybe what I want to say to you doesn’t even exist in any conventional language, but in one that belongs to you and I alone, that only you or I can understand.
I do believe, though, that someday I will find the right words to say what I want to say to you. But right now, I only have three. And I hope you’ll understand me when I say them.
I love you.
About the Writer
Michelle Clevett is a writer and aspiring editor currently studying
Professional Writing at York University. With a deep love for storytelling
and a passion for editing, she continues to be amazed each day by the power
of writing. Seeing a piece transform into its greatest potential and being
part of the process is one of the simplest joys in her life. In her writing, she
strives to explore the deep emotions that make us human, and create stories
that resonate with us long after we’ve turned the final page.