Writing Journal, #5 – Apollo and Dionysus: Gods of Writing

An ancient image of Apollo

I’ve been in absentia for a while…. at first because I was finishing the book (got it done the day before Thanksgiving!), then because I was in recovery, then catch-up with other stuff.  But also, writing for me is like making a fire.  It can be very hard to start up, and may have to smolder awhile before it catches.  Then, when it does, the blaze is fierce, consuming everything standing in its way.   As it dies out, sparks remain that still can be ignited.  (I was tinkering for days even after I’d sent the manuscript off.)  But now that it’s been dormant for a couple of weeks, the fireplace is stone, cold dead.  I even have trouble writing emails!  It’s another reminder for me of how much the writing process, even when you are extremely disciplined, is organic:  although we can harness it, train it, contain it, we can’t really bend it to our will.  And that’s the way it should be!

In my graduate writing seminar, I introduce the notion that two “gods” govern writing:  Apollo and Dionysus.  (You can make them female if you like!) Apollo is the critic, the editor, the pruner, shaper, bringer of order to the chaos.  He clarifies, sculpts, is ruthless in getting rid of the extraneous, the unbeautiful, the ponderous.  It’s essential for the writer to make friends with him, to learn that nine-tenths (probably a conservative estimate) of writing is actually re-writing.  Unfortunately, too often we grow up experiencing him as the cruel “red pencil,” cold and unforgiving, who cuts at the heart, deflates the spirit, and robs us of our confidence in what we think and say. To escape his wrath, we cover our ideas with pretentious prose and verbal fog, learn to play by the “rules”—or just stop writing altogether.  It breaks my heart—truly, I’m not indulging in sentimental exaggeration here—to see how many of my students have been depressed and deadened by the would-be gods of “rigor” and “professionalism.”  We spend weeks in my writing course bumping those tyrants off their thrones.

Dionysus, the god of intoxication, is that unruly source of inspiration, creativity, desire, love, hunger that makes us want to write something in the first place.  And after too many years being caged (by school, by lack of confidence, by self-doubt) we have to learn to release him, have to get in touch with what we really want to write about, what we love, what we fear, what we dream. For those of us who went through graduate school, this can be much harder than making friends with Apollo! (Actually, a lot of academic writing, while it looks like Apollo, in fact needs a good editor desperately.)  But Dionysus can get out of hand, too—when we fall in love with, get drunk on our first ideas, our first drafts, or indulge in narcissistic self-disclosure (the most popular form of writing today, it seems), or are unable to hear criticism.   So we spend a lot of time in my course learning to give and receive each other’s responses honestly but warmly.  In this, I’m helped by two other metaphors: the sweetheart and the editor (I think these come from Natalie Goldberg).  The sweetheart—who always speaks first! –looks for what is lovable, the editor looks for what could benefit from the clear (not cold, but clear) eye of Apollo.  We never offer critique that doesn’t have both of these elements.

Experiences of your own to share?

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2 Comments

Filed under Susan's Writer's Journal

2 responses to “Writing Journal, #5 – Apollo and Dionysus: Gods of Writing

  1. Lisa

    I love the Apollo and Dionysus description! Everybody would have their own mix of the two to grapple with to achieve balance. We tend to champion the idea that everyone, not just those who write, can and should just go it alone, but it rarely (I wouldn’t dream of saying never) really rarely, works that way. That is why critique is important. Given this relationship between the one who writes and the one who critiques is, and should be recognized as, an intimate one, picking your partner is important. A partner just thrust upon you, as is often what people experience in school, has the potential of turning into a brutal encounter.
    I think the red pen that some fear is the red pen held in the hand of someone who wants to bring you down, laugh at your flaws, and leave you feeling worse. Those who criticize this way probably do so out of different motivations, but what they have in common is celebrating what they see as your weakness. A red pen in the hand of someone who wants to push you to excel, help, and partner with you because they see something worth nurturing is invaluable- if at times humbling.
    Just a question, do you think some people could become addicted to criticism to the point that praise itself becomes intolerable?

  2. Susan

    I love the idea that the relationship between the writer and the one who critiques should be seen as an intimate one. That’s exactly right, and it’s why developing communities of trust should be a goal of every class in which people share their work.
    Re. your question at the end, I think that what happens sometimes is (1) people get so used to criticism that they don’t trust any praise; and also (2) on the other side of things, people who do critique feel that unless they tear something down they aren’t doing “their job.” I see this happen at dissertation defenses; some faculty get the idea that the point of a defense is to expose the person’s weaknesses. (I think it should be to give them a chance to show off their strengths! and to help push their ideas forward.) Unfortunately a lot of students do the same kind of thing when given another student’s work to critique (e.g. in a seminar)– they fear that they won’t be seen as smart unless they have some devastating criticism. Of course, the fact is that every work has flaws; so if you are on the hunt for flaws, you certainly will find them. We need to develop practice at hunting for the gems, too!

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