Saturday, April 17, 2010

Why Writers Think Backwards

By: Stephanie Duncan, MP publicity assistant, writing from The Festival of Faith and Writing

Apparently, writers think backwards.

Countless authors this weekend have said that they write not what they know, but in order to know. As professor and poet Jeanne Murray Walker put it, “My writing is a feedback loop, in that, by writing, I discover, I am able to name what I feel.” Author Scott Russell Sanders said similarly, "I write into confusion, in the hope that I will end up in a higher degree of clarity."

But what about all those story maps we did for homework in second grade? What about sequence and plot and three-point essays? It seems almost nonsensical to understand through writing, instead of writing what we already understand.

Yet, this seemingly backwards writing method has won the very authors who use it Newberry medals, so we’ll give them a chance.

Jeanne Murray Walker, a professor at the University of Delaware whom I quoted above, gave us an example from her writing life. She described an image she saw once that haunted her, and she did not know why until she spilled her thoughts onto the open page. One day she watched a nursery truck transporting six Maple saplings, off to where she supposed they would be transplanted into new landscapes. The image struck her as almost savage: here these trees had grown together in the nursery, in some sort of community she imagined, and now they were being uprooted and separated forever!

She went home and wrote a poem about it. Her agent told her that to be so dramatically empathic with twigs she was either crazy, or resonating with a deeper theme of which the saplings were only a symbol.

So she thought. She did not know at first why the injustice of the scene shook her so, but knew that the theme of being uprooted disturbed her. It was not until years later that she connected the fact of the moment with another significant happening in her life: her daughter and family had just moved a thousand miles away, and Jeanne was adjusting to, though grieving, the distance.


  1. Wow. That's amazing and now I don't feel quite so 'weird' anymore for writing that way.

  2. Agreed, Sara! I used to write poems like that...starting with an image, then moving into words, the meaning of which I myself was not even sure of until I finished the piece. I used to feel like it was not really good writing unless I was intentional about its symbolism, significance...but now I feel somewhat validated :)


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