The process of writing

di Magdalena Jiménez

My reflections on the process of writing are the consequence of my personal experience, the knowledge that I have acquired throughout the years from different disciplines such as linguistics, narratology, psychology and even psychopathology. After so many frustrations in my profession as a language teacher, some time ago I came to the conclusion that there was a cognitive problem in the inability of a lot of students to write, that is to say, to transmit their ideas in a harmonious way. My students certainly did not have any cognitive problems, they were simply not trained to organize their ideas, to perceive the logical progression of sequences and eventually to improve it from an aesthetic point of view, feeling their own rhythm of language. What I feel nowadays is that interest in writing is decreasing progressively and this is a real pity. I consider that if we teach students to master and eventually to love this dimension of communication, we are setting the basis for helping them to grow and think in a more harmonious way. In these few paragraphs I'll try to analyse different features of the fantastic adventure of this process.

First of all, I would like to say that to narrate and to tell about oneself to others can be considered one of the most ancient and universal activities of mankind. Probably it is not only to do with a primitive aesthetic need. We might more usefully think that these aesthetic needs are an evolved expression of a more elementary need. Thus, different levels in narration can be identified. The most sublime work of art can nostalgically allude to these primitive needs behind its aesthetic mask. If these primitive needs, that philogenetically and ontogenetically are previous to the work of art, had not found a person who had mastered the technique, they could have been expressed as an incomplete story of the interior world of an adolescent, the story of the experience of a friend or the interrupted story of the psychoanalytic patient who can sometimes be distressed by the desperation of not being able to translate sensations into words(1).
Every story can be considered as an attempt to understand oneself and the world. Human beings are very intolerant towards the unknown. So, we can hypothesise with Ernesto De Martino that primitive humanity lived in a situation of fusion with nature. Then, with the development of culture the discovery of a personal individuality and the need for separation was a painful event that stimulated the need for human beings to regain possession of this world again and the best way to do it was to tell stories about it(2). The supposition that narration represents a fundamental need for human beings is supported in the philosophical field. On this regard, Ricoeur(3) considers that personal identity can develop through narration. This French philosopher takes into consideration the m_meté and the ipseité. The former makes reference to the continuity between child and adult; the latter opens the "self" towards projects, towards difference. This narrative identity might have a parallel in the psychoanalytic context with the arduous attempt to overcome the compulsion to repeat(4).
Continuing with the psychological dimension of writing, we can consider the content of a story as a consequence of conscious and unconscious life. as well as personal sensitivity. With an aesthetic manipulation a story can also have positive consequences for a person's self-esteem. This experience does not have an apparent utility like games but eventually it may become what Kohut has defined a self object as part of a development process of a balanced narcissism. For this reason, the final product is special, personal and unique: if it is accepted, it means that author-readers are on the way to loving themselves healthily.
As for the technical characteristics of writing, the first one that I would like to focus on is the ability to order sequences in a logic way. This can be considered fundamental to balancing interior chaos and to giving priorities in order to create the architecture of personal writing. The next point is choosing particular langage and think of the coherence and the cohesion of the whole. The last but not the least consideration is the taking into account of the aesthetic features, trying to balance these different aspects and always keeping in mind communicative intentions. For this reason, revision is a vital step in this process so as to get rid of minor errors. If everything is clear the interlocutor will feel somehow blessed and loved because he will not have to struggle to understand the maze of the other's thinking.
On the other hand, if we compare the oral language with written, we grasp that the latter is a more stable and universal act of communication but it is not static. In fact, the different versions are the expression of a movement towards an improvement either in the ideas or in the aesthetic. Besides, when there is no pressure of time, in an intimate situation creativity may come out smoothly but it is not always the same: writing has various degrees of complexity and purposes in different fields and periods.
For instance, writing has had a special function in many countries of Latin America. In Nicaragua "writing laboratories" have been developed in which poetry emerges as a spontaneous expression without metaphors, symbols and other stylistic proceedings. It seems that the common purpose is to combine individual experience and revolution. It is a sort of folk poetry or a new epic in which the singing of a whole country flows together(5). Generally, the testimony of socially comitted authors has contributed to denouncing crimes perpetrated and, eventually, to getting rid of unfairness and dictatorship in this area of the world.
As far as foreign languages are concerned, I think that there is and should be a cognitive transference of abilities from L1 to L2. In fact, research has demonstrated that the mastering of L2 is higher when students show a better level in L1(6). For this reason, it would be benefitial to pay attention to the written and metalinguistic level of language right from primary school, in accordance with the cognitive development of children, and above all, in accordance with piagetian and neopiagetian studies(7). There is no doubt that narration can contribute not only to mastering writing abilities, but also to developing imagination. On this score, an English psychoanalyst has alluded to the concept of "transitional area": an intermediate area that can help children to become autonomous and to start the individualization and separation process from parents. Hence, if teachers help students to do this from childhood, they will give them pleasure in communicating, the ability to reflect and organize ideas and the opportunity of expressing themselves and laying claim to their own freedom(8).
Moreover, preventative psychology uses writing as a way of reducing tensions in the family. In fact, the "problem tracker"(9) is a sort of form that the member of the family involved has to fill in so as to become more conscious of the conflict that causes emotional tensions. It is a way of becoming more objective and of putting off any action that could harm the balance of relationships. Perhaps another way to prevent conflicts in teenagers might be to urge them to write, in order to help them to understand this conflictual period of life better and eventually acquire more security.
Another field of interest is psychiatry. In fact, therapy with groups of patients with severe illness is sonetimes based on the comment of texts that might be written by the patients themselves or/and simply read in the sessions. Besides, the narration of a psychotic patient can be an attempt to give cohesion to his chaotic world as we can perceive in David Cronenberg's latest film. In fact, the main character, Spider, tries to reconstruct his past through narration but his version clashes with reality and in a moment of intense confusion and anxiety he tears up the book notes in which he is reviewing his past. Unfortunately, his attempt at achieving internal cohesion does not succeed because his degree of fragmentation is too high, so he eventually goes back to mental hospital.
I would like to stress the importance of this therapeutic aspect of writing that I have mentioned. Although there are many difficulties to overcome, challenge has to be faced because the "endorphins" of writing will benefit us like after a race. Writing is the way to know oneself better and to be ready to understand others. For instance, the main character in the novel Lost in Translation(10) succeeds in analysing her bilingual condition through her story from her immigration to Canada. The book takes the reader to an initial world, where the mother tongue, Polish, fills all the spaces of existence, towards another tongue, English, the tongue of maturity, that becomes the interior tongue at the end. There is a definite reconciliation with the mother tongue, thanks to a reflection about the connotative power of language.
One final observation, an important Italian author, Pavese, reminds us of the difficulties of writing. He thinks that before reaching a masterpiece there is a terrible calvary of attempts that do not succeed. After all this suffering, the author's soul can produce creatures that are on the earth just like so many human beings. So, art is the best way to reach God because it gives an author the power of creation(11). Probably, authors are people with a special ability which enables them to build a universe (12) but, although ordinary people are not usually so talented, everybody would be advised to try to imitate authors, as far as possible, without omnipotence: certainly without trying to be God.

January 2003


1) Cfr. G. Martini, Ermeneutica e narrazione, Torino, Bollati Boringhieri, 1998, p. 17.
2) Ibid. p.18-9
3) Cfr. P. Ricoeur, Se come un altro (1990), Milano, Jaca Book, 1993.
4) It is an unconscous process in which the patient repeats old experiences without remembering the origin of the pattern, and think that it is due to the actual situation, Cfr. J. Laplanche, J.B. Pontalis, Enciclopedia della psicanalisi (1967), Bari, Laterza, 1981, p.70.
5) G. Gerardi (ed.), Le rose non sono borghesi,, Roma, Borla, 1986.
6) Cfr. M. Malakoff, K. Hakuta, Translation skill and metalingistic awareness in bilingual in E. Bialistock (ed.), Language Processing in Bilingual Children, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1991.
7) As it is well known Piaget hypotheses a progressive development of the capacity of abstraction that children usually reach when they are 12 years old.
8) The Spanish philosopher Laín Entralgo affirms that to express oneself through writing is the best way to develop one's own personality. Whoever succeeds will have more possibilities to transmit personal and others' experience. This capacity is the most valuable gift in favour of freedom.
9) AA.VV., Educar con inteligencia emocional, Barcelona, Plaza § Janés, 2000.
10) Cfr, E. Hoffman, Lost in Translation, Great Britain, Minerva, 1989.
11) Cfr. C. Pavese, Vita attraverso le lettere. 1928.
12) I even dare to say that the possiblity of creating a fictional universe has represented the way of reaching an interior balance in the case of many authors. Otherwise, who knows what kind of disturbed condition they might have found themselves in.