Writing – and rewriting – from the inside out, by Rosalie Warren

Long ago (it must be 25 years – help!), when I was writing my PhD thesis, one of my supervisors gave me a piece of advice I will never forget. Not because it was full of timeless wisdom (it may have been, but if so it passed me by) but because I didn’t understand it and it gave me the heebie-jeebies. She advised me to ‘Rewrite Chapter 3 from the inside out’. As though writing Chapter 3 hadn’t been difficult enough, in the conventional ‘start-at-the-beginning-define-your-terms-adduce-your-evidence-express-your-arguments-draw-your-conclusions’ kind of way. But no, apparently that wasn’t good enough, and my much-sweated-over chapter now had to be turned inside out like a grimy t-shirt having to be worn a second day because you lost your luggage. Partly, I feared that the turning inside out would expose all the messy loose ends I hadn’t tied off quite as neatly as I should have. Perhaps that was the idea? Or maybe my supervisor simply thought my chapter needed some restructuring and would benefit from a thorough teasing out and reordering of its various strands.

I never did take her advice. I felt as though, if I did, not only my thesis but my head would fall apart. Instead, I made some cosmetic changes and hoped for the best. From that point on I resolved not to give my supervisor the chance to give me any more advice like that. Thinking I was being very clever, I deliberately planted a number of mistakes in the rest of the chapters, to distract her from any more suggestions of that kind. (I’m sure there were plenty of unintentional mistakes there, too.) Looking back, I suspect she may have been more aware of my tactics than I realised. Anyway, the thing somehow got written and I passed, thank goodness, even though I failed the ‘kettle test’. (I was asked – why?? – at the beginning of my viva to make tea for the various members of the examining group. Yes, of course, I was the only female present – silly me!! Those were the days. Anyway, being me, I failed to work out how to switch the kettle on. Much merriment ensued, but fortunately I still passed.)

The idea of rewriting from the inside out has stuck with me ever since. Whenever I revise a piece of work, I think of it, and give thanks that no one is asking me to do it. It may sometimes be useful advice – others may find it helpful, but not me. If I write something, I like to feel it’s already the right way out. It may need a lot of revision – every single word in it may change at least twice – but no way am I ripping off my literary clothes and getting dressed again from scratch.

There’s another sense to the phrase, however, especially if we change it to ‘Writing from the inside out’. This no longer suggests restructuring, but something even more fundamental, primal and uncomfortable. It’s more like ‘writing your heart out’, which has become a bit of a hackneyed phrase but more or less says what I mean. Putting your insides on the table, maybe. Revealing your inner self for all to see.

Some believe this is the only kind of writing worth doing, certainly where fiction is concerned. The quotation ‘Writing is easy. You just sit down at your desk, open a vein and bleed’ has been attributed in various forms to several writers, including Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe (see here for further discussion. Maybe they all said it, in one way or another). Richard Yates, one of my favourite writers, said similar things and certainly seems to have suffered a great deal in his life and work. (Yates wrote ‘Revolutionary Road’ and a number of other novels, many of them semi-autobiographical. Details in the excellent biography by Blake Bailey here.) Natalie Goldberg’s very popular books on writing as a way of life (e.g. ‘Writing Down the Bones’) also embody this idea, of using writing as a way of exploring your deepest self, and connecting with your readers through a revelation of those murky depths.

I’m not quite sure how I feel about all this. I know that writing as therapy can be an incredibly helpful and comforting thing to do and that it can lead to all kinds of insights and breakthroughs, both literary and life-changing. I also know from experience that it can produce rubbish as well as, occasionally, better stuff. It’s become unfashionable these days to think of creative people as ‘suffering for their art’. These days we are shown examples of ‘successful’ people in all walks of life, including bestselling and prizewinning authors. We are encouraged to pursue our dreams but not often told that the road can be a painful one, and not just because of average author earnings being so low (though that’s part of it, of course). Perhaps any kind of writing, or any kind that you share with others, involves the kind of self-exposure that can really hurt if readers don’t like it (or even if they do). This could apply to a children’s picture book or a cosy crime novel, as well as to a piece of literary fiction that probes the depths of your childhood trauma. Though I do suspect that one generally has to dig deeper to produce the more serious, literary stuff. And I realise too that some children’s picture books probably come from a very deep place. Maurice Sendak’s ‘Where the Wild Things Are’, perhaps? You can’t get much deeper than a childhood nightmare, I suspect.

There’s also the much-needed reminder in today’s world to ‘take care of ourselves’. I’ve sometimes written something that I’ve felt afterwards has gone too deep for my own comfort, whatever anyone else may make of it. Digging deep into our psyches may be good for us sometimes, but we need, I believe, to be careful. Writers and other creative people can be prone to depression and other mental illnesses. It’s perhaps impossible to disentangle cause and effect here, but probing one’s past can provoke all kinds of uncomfortable feelings, sometimes involving self-judgment, shame and guilt. At the very least, it needs to be done in a spirit of kindness towards oneself. That’s what I’m currently learning, I believe, and some of the lessons are painful.

Of course, this kind of work can also offer huge release and healing, and I’m certainly not trying to discourage it. Just be kind to ourselves as writers is what I’m saying, and don’t let our analytical brains rip our self-respect to shreds (Rosalie, are you listening to this?).

Life is a risky game and many forms of earning a living are much more dangerous than sitting at a desk with a pen and paper or a laptop. It’s good to remember how fortunate many of us are, to have the liberty and opportunity to write. I’d draw back from describing any of my writing travails as ‘suffering’, put in the context of what others in this world undergo. But writing, nevertheless, can be painful, when you really get down to digging out the inside of yourself.

Finally I’d like to draw attention to that sense you get occasionally as a reader, that you’ve hit gold. Something sparkles – a nugget of truth? I suspect that often, when this happens, the gem in question is one that’s been dug up by an author who wasn’t content to scratch the surface and perhaps risked something to dig down, retrieve and share it. I suppose that’s why, as writers, we sometimes like to go deep – in the hope that every now and then we’ll bring something to the surface that a reader may recognise as ‘true’.

Happy reading and writing!

Follow me on Twitter @Ros_Warren


Bill Kirton said…
Wise words, Ros. You made me reflect on how my approach to the job has changed since the early days. Back then, I dived into things, not much caring whether I was handling stuff that was fantastical or real. If a turn of phrase pleased me, that was enough. I sort of took it for granted that I was a writer. But with dotage comes reflection, and now I suppose I have greater respect for the whole process. And when I look at some of the interior me, it seems far too complicated, embarrassing, or some other epithet which seems too clogged with 'significance' to make it remotely interesting in an objective context.

BUT... that's actually liberating, because rather than use whatever it is directly, I scratch around it until I find some metaphorical angle I can exploit, which makes it much easier to externalise and, I suspect and hope, potentially more interesting to readers.

Thank goodness it's still enjoyable, though.
Sue Imgrund said…
There seems to be a big difference between fiction that appears to have been written to a "what's hot" checklist, which feels predictable, manipulative, even, and writing that genuinely comes from the heart (or is it the soul?). It's such a pleasure to read a book that may have been written decades ago, or by someone in a land thousands of miles away, or a completely different culture and feel that sense of universal humanity: I feel what they feel. I think that's what people mean when they say writing still feels "fresh" after so many decades.
Umberto Tosi said…
My mother used to tell me that if I put my shirt on inside out I'd "get a surprise" that day. I a lot of that as a spacey, bookworm kid (along with putting clothes on backwards.) But I don't remember many surprises. Nevertheless, I was buoyed by my mother's prediction every time. You're engaging remenisense has convinced me that "inside out" will work for writing, however. I will apply the suggestion of your erstwhile dissertation supervisor forthwith. One way or another, I feel certain that there will be surprises. There always are. Thanks!
Rosalie Warren said…
Thank you Bill, Sue and Umberto, for your comments.
I found on my older son's first day at school that I had completely failed as a parent (I got used to this feeling over the years) by not teaching him to put his coat on, so his first attempt meant he somehow put it on inside out and upside down (I'm afraid he inherited this particular ineptitude from me anyway).
What a thought-provoking post - I am more of a 'skimming along the surface' writer, even when writing about death etc, but I can see that sometimes I would benefit from diving into the murky depths a bit. I think the problem might be if the writer got stuck down there for good. I think it's better if you can see a bit of daylight in what you're reading!
Rosalie Warren said…
The coat thing sounds very much like me (and my son), Cecilia. And I do agree about not getting stuck in the murky depths!
Enid Richemont said…
A fascinating post, Rosalie. Think all of my writing is done from the inside out, but then needs restructuring.
Rosalie Warren said…
Thanks, Enid - that's interesting.

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