The Philosophy of Writing

Some of the selections below come from my college notebook. They were jotted down during a class titled The Process of Writing conducted by Professor Emeritus S. Leonard Rubenstein at Pennsylvania State University.

Professor Rubenstein is the most brilliant teacher I ever encountered in all my years as a student.  I always thought of him as the American version of Socrates as he asked a lot of questions designed to get us to think about what we were writing, how we were writing and why we were writing.

Some of the selections below also come from from Professor Rubenstein’s book, Writing: A Habit of Mind. You can find a copy on Amazon.  It is the only college textbook I ever purchased that was not required reading for a course.  It is a treasure that anyone interested in the craft of writing should consider exploring.

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Honesty as a Skill

“He who thinks naked is ugly will not be able to write.  All his energy will go into trying to conceal himself. Look at a writer’s images, his similies, he metaphors his analogies. If he uses what he knows, what he understands, he has authority. His images are his autobiography. They are drawn from where he has been, what he has done, what he as seen, whom he has known.”

“He who writes must choose to reveal, for everything he writes reveals himself.  His sentence structures.  His rhythms, his references, his emphasis. What would you call that quality in a person’s writing – his personality? His sensibility? His voice? You have many voices; each person to whom you speak evokes a different voice; each voice tells you more about yourself. Whomever you speak to, creates you.”

“Writing is not an act of charity. It is an act of clarity. We need meaning. We need each other to obtain meaning. We must examine ourselves in others; others in ourselves.”

“To be naked is to use the skill and power of honesty.  Anything else in writing is only protective. We may avoid pain, but we do not learn or teach anything.  We cheat.”

“Intention to be honest is not enough.  The honest man writes to find out what he thinks, to test what he thinks, to change what he thinks.  He suspects himself always. He knows honesty is a skill that must be exercised always. People want to be honest; few know how. The skill is simple. All men know their reactions, few men can identity what they are reacting to. The skill of honesty is to hold one’s reaction at bay in order to discover what is causing it. The skill is difficult.”

“The writer must be honest. If he wants merely to seem honest, he will spend his life learning the symptoms of honesty. He may learn so excellently he may even deceive himself.”

“Honesty, for a writer, is not a virtue, but competence.”

“We are not out after confusion, but clarification.  We start with perplexity and drive to understanding.  It is part of human nature to go through that process.”

“Writers become incomplete when they deceive themselves. Then their writing becomes ineffective.”

“All good writing must have direction and a destination.  Each sentence must have a point to which each word contributes.  Each paragraph must have a point to which each sentence contributes.  Writing is a process of recognizing the point.”

“There are no prescriptions for writing honestly, only principles.”

A Composition is a Universe

“Whomever you speak to, creates you.  His needs, his expectations, his abilities draw attention to how you feel and think about the things he needs and expects. You begin to form a profile of purpose and attitude and information. He creates the you who addresses him. He makes you know more about yourself. Be grateful to him.”

“The writer’s purpose is not to report his emotion, but to cause the readers.”

The girl is beautiful. Does this sentence describe the stimulus provided by the girl – or the reaction undergone by the writer? What is in the sentence for you to react to? What is being reported to you – the girl’s condition, or the writer’s condition? Do you think the girl is beautiful? Do you agree with the writer? Disagree?”

“If the writer wanted us to think the girl is beautiful, the statement, the girl is beautiful, is lazy and cowardly. If he told us the colors, shapes, and dimensions of the girl; the sounds of the girl; the grains and textures of the girl; the musks and aromas of the girl; the taste and flavor of the girl – and he believed the girl was beautiful – would he say something so limp and useless as, ‘The girl is beautiful’?  The writer is saying, ‘I won’t let you see her, but take my word for it, the girl is beautiful.’ How can I believe the girl is beautiful if I don’t react to her myself? If the writing is successful, the questions vaporize.”

“The meaning of experience is itself, not anything said about it. We know an experience to the extent we undergo that experience. The writer who aspires to provide whole and responsible knowledge must understand, respect, and use the function of fiction to create experience.”

“Good writing does not record a situation; it transforms itself into the situation. Words disappear. A universe comes into being.”

“Statements about another man’s experience provide knowledge to the intellect.  But that kind of knowledge is partial and dangerous.  Knowledge must be provided to the flesh, to the nerve, to the bone, to the marrow.  We know an experience to the extent we undergo that experience.”

“Being poetic about a place destroys the poetry of the place.  The place is poetic as it is.”

Discussions on Aristotle’s Rhetoric

“Persuasion is not the intention of rhetoric, but the accident.  The intention of rhetoric is to find the truth.  It is the truth that persuades.”

“True rhetoric has only one purpose.  Not to serve the vanity of its speaker.  Not to serve the vanity of its listener.  The purpose of rhetoric is to serve the health of its subject.”

“Ability to write flows from the proper state of mind.  Ability to write is knowing and stating and resolving ignorance.  A writer needs questions.  Questions cause answers.  Who makes something clear for others, makes it clear for himself.”

“If a man intends to impress someone his work will not be clear, because he does not intend clarity, he intends to impress.”

“Argument is an instrument of discovery, not an instrument of imposition.”

“You cannot succeed unless you run the risk of failure.”

“The truth exists within us.  All we have to do is remember what we already know.”

“A judgment is the enemy of investigation, because a judgment terminates investigation.”

Random Notes on Plato’s Phaedrus

“The man who needs to be adored doesn’t even know what love is. He merely needs another person’s reassurance to fill himself where he is lacking. He wants something in return for his love.  Unless you love yourself, you cannot love others.”

“No philosophical answer belongs to someone else, but ourselves.”

“We owe it to each other to help one another recognize the truth we find within ourselves.”

“It is better to fail at an honorable task, than to succeed at an evil one.”

“Truth is the sum of all things.  Each thing is a part of the truth.  If the part is taken from the sum, it becomes a lie.”

“Emotional understanding is something more than intellectual understanding.”

“Ideas are a dime-a-dozen.  Power comes in execution.”

“If the essay ends when it ends, it fails.  The essay must begin when it ends.”


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