Dear Sappho,

I thank you for your kind ear and I apologize for my late reply. When Christmas is past and spring is on the horizon, time seems to move strangely. I feel caught in mid thaw.

Also, I admit that your last letter gave me some pause. The writing process you described seems to effortless and efficient. Mine is so primitive in comparison that I shudder at the thought of telling you. But your ear has been, as I said, kind. If that doesn’t deserve trust, then what else does? Whenever kindness goes unanswered, I feel that something valuable falls out of the world.

May I be honest and humble enough to catch it.

I work with two disadvantages. 

Firstly, I am, courtesy of my autism, sensitive to sound. Even the silent whirr of a computer processor can scramble my thoughts and render them (to my mind, anyway) second-rate. So, I write my first drafts in longhand. It can get monastic: silence and scribbling with a fountain pen or even a glass quill. 

Secondly, I carry others’ judgments and words with me for too long. I’m opinionated, a people-pleaser, and I have a good memory (I never need to take notes about something if I either read it or watch it twice). I have strong feelings about art (writing, in particular) and I have a strong urge to defer to others. This cognitive dissonance can either sell me down the river or make me argumentative. In order to create some psychic distance and reclaim my own thoughts/feelings, I need complete isolation from social media (or even my books, if their ideas are rattling around in my head too much). Again, it can get monastic.

Once I have that first draft in hand, I transfer it to my laptop. This change in context gives me a brand new perspective on my draft. I “mask,” using the same social muscles demanded by a quick e-mail or a social media post. I type 80-90 WPM, so this process isn’t too onerous. By the time I’m done, I usually have the final draft in hand. 


I use music in the same way, though not in the same manner. It’s complicated. 

As you can tell from my noir piece, I like to do deep dives on genre and forms. It’s how I learn to both love an ars I didn’t love before and deepen bonds I feel naturally. I study ars and try to find what makes them sing (and, because they are artes, I believe that every genre and form is worthy). 

Until my sophomore year of college (2014, or thereabouts) I did believe in Platonic ideals about forms, as if there’s Good Story and Bad Story. Sense came to me, drop by drop. 

Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert entered early. “It’s not what a film is about, but how it goes about it.” My poetry professor assigned us Sound and Sense by Alexander Pope and one passage struck me as so true that I needed to live by it: 

True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,

As those move easiest who have learned to dance.

‘Tis not enough no harshness gives offense,

The sound must seem an echo to the sense

Regarding giving criticism, this part of John Leonard’s piece “Smash-Mouth Criticism” struck home: 

First, as in Hippocrates, do no harm. Second, never stoop to score a point or bite an ankle. Third, always understand that in this symbiosis, you are the parasite. Fourth, look with an open heart and mind at every different kind of book with every change of emotional weather because we are reading for our lives and that could be love gone out the window or a horseman on the roof. Fifth, use theory only as a periscope or a trampoline, never a panopticon, a crib sheet or a license to kill. Sixth, let a hundred Harolds Bloom.

Critics aren’t meant to pass judgment. Critics are, like the other half of a Greek chorus, dancing back.

Polyphonic Writing

In terms of actually sitting down to write, I’ve always thought in terms of polyphony. There’s the central voice, the introduction of imitative voices either as harmony or as their own counter-themes, the multiplication of voices(depending on length), development, synthesis/sublimation, and then resolution. Johann Sebastian Bach (I try to play at least 30 minutes of Bach on my piano each morning), Henry Purcell, et al. are my muses.

Maybe I have a mild case of synesthesia, but I can almost hear it when I finish an essay. I’ve not cracked it to the point that it’s a formal technique, and I probably never will.

Of course, the polyphony changes with the form. I’m not blind to character or my Writing 101. In essays or articles, the arguments and subjects are the voices. In my screenplays or plays, the voices are in the dialogue. In fiction (I’ve done over a dozen short stories, published one, finished a bad novel in high school, and I’m working on a new one), the narration operates like article voice-setting and the dialogue functions like screenplay voice-setting. 

That’s my inspiration, anyway. It’s a construct which helps me write, even if it doesn’t promise to materialize in any concrete, mathematically provable way. I think one of my plays (“Concurrendum Duarum Vocum,” or “The Meeting of Two Voices) came closest. I managed to interlace two voices for three monologues.

There are some similarities between this and a Hegelian dialectic. In terms of pure reasoning, it follows the same roadmap of thesis, antithesis, and then synthesis. For me, though, that’s a purely intellectual exercise which doesn’t reflect my aims. I want to recreate the same delight of a well-crafted fugue, the same swell of melody and rhythm in the language itself.

But if mere desire equated to achievement, then the world would be much better than it is. As always, ars ipsa loquitur. 

Until our next correspondence.