Writing Craft

The Pen is a Seismograph for the Heart: Don’t Plan Your Writing

I have been engaged in an impossible task, filling out an application form that asks about my literary ambitions. Rather, advises Kafka: Don’t Plan Your Writing

During one of Kafka’s appointments with the young writer Gustav Janouch, recorded in his memoir Conversations with Kafka*, Kafka showed Janouch a questionnaire:

of an inquiry into literature which I think Otto Pick had drawn up for the Sunday literary supplement of the Prager Presse.

He pointed with his forefinger at the question: “What can you say about your future literary plans?” and smiled: ‘That’s a silly question. It’s impossible to answer.’

I looked at him without understanding.

‘Can one predict how one’s heart will beat tomorrow? No, it’s not possible. The pen is only a seismograph pencil for the heart. It will register earthquakes, but it cannot predict them.’

Don't Overplan Writing Kafka JanouchI seem to have always been a planner. That is, I lay out the full plan first, it gives me comfort. Perhaps I am not certain enough in my writing to allow it to simply register from the heart. Who knows? I cannot drive in the fog only seeing as far as the headlights allow (as E L Doctorow says we must, as writers). But surely when one is driving one knows the destination? Perhaps. But driving is not writing. Writing is a work of the heart. The pen is its recorder.

“Rembrandt and Shakespeare, Bohr and Gauguin, possessed powerful hearts, not powerful wills,” writes Dillard. Yet I really enjoyed clarifying my thoughts on what kind of research and writing, if any, I want to conduct. I am a writer–I write, and I must know my field, as we all must do. So I learn the writing about writing. I am also then a researcher and critic of how writing is performed, conducted, bled out of the body.

The very clear question that came to me yesterday as I was filling in this “literary questionnaire” was this: “how do we write ethically and write well when faced with global environmental crises, biodiversity loss, and species extinction?” This is my question–and as well as “writing ethically and well” I am also a researcher who wants to explore and reveal these mechanisms and crafts of writing, for others.

Perhaps, however, it is good for those of us who are planners–and over planners, of course, when we are afraid, uncertain, and sink back into our comfort zones–to listen to Kafka. Don’t Plan Your Writing. That is, to ensure that those things that need to come from the heart–the seeking of knowledge through writing–or as Le Guin puts it, the “ideas, not opinions” of our writing–are not overplanned, are allowed to emerge alive and writhing. We all have ideas for books and pieces of work, and perhaps we need to drive towards those ideas (they are mountains, aren’t they, visible in the distance?) and pay attention to the earthquake that is happening on either side of the road (and perhaps, even, under it?).

We should take heed from the lesson that Ogion the Silent, a mage of Earthsea in Le Guin’s fantasy fiction, gives to his pupil Ged. If a wizard tries to control the winds or the shakings of the earth in one place, the world’s energies–or the heart’s–will simply emerge elsewhere, perhaps contorted or misshapen. Balance and Equilibrium are the nature of the world. Best, if one can, let the earth shake the heart quake.

*The legitimacy or veracity of Janouch’s memoir has been called into question; although I am with Francine Prose on this: if Kafka didn’t say all of the things he is attributed, he probably would have, or should have. 

About Alex R Lockwood

I learn as much about the the art of living through literature (especially Kafka) as I do through other people. I read and write fiction and non-fiction, and research the cultural value of the creative writer; the ways that literature impacts our lives; the craft of writing, particularly what it means to be a non-anthropocentric (vegan) writer; the representation of animals; and the ethics of human-animal relations in literature, media and culture since 1945. This site is a platform for capturing the threads of different literary projects and, I hope, offers something to those thinking through the value of reading and writing in their lives.

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