The Only School In The World

by jkatejohnston

28 September 2013

Dear Max,

Mostly I don’t mind paragraphs because I don’t think about them. I just go by what looks good on the page. But when I do think about them (and why was I even doing that?) I resent them. Because a paragraph is supposed to have One Main Idea, but why would you want to think or read about only one thing at a time? Paragraphs are against surprise, and I’m for it. They’re against wandering, and I’m for it. Everything interesting in the world starts out as a digression.

The whole problem with language is it’s linear. You can only put one word after another in a long, long line, trudge, trudge. But it doesn’t feel that way. It feels full of texture, surprise, mess, dimension, things that don’t make sense but work anyway. You have to escape the linear, escape anything that feels like a system, and paragraphs try to trap you there. Curse them. Or ignore them.

One of my seriously mixed blessings is a naturally sorting-and-naming-things turn of mind, logical to the point of idiocy, as Quentin Crisp put it. It’s handy for law but kind of limiting for writing. It’s the kind of mind that’s easily trapped by the academic paragraph. I wish I could write pure story, but I have a terrible weakness for my own opinions and for thinking things through, perhaps even mind-fucking them to death. What I’m writing now is an example.

Maybe another way to put all this is, paragraphs don’t exist in the spoken language, so where’s the life in them?

None of this would have passed through my mind if it weren’t for Marvin Mudrick, the founder of the College of Creative Studies at UCSB. He was a teacher and writer. This is what he said about paragraphs.

I can’t stand the idea of formal prose construction or development. It has no interest to me, and that’s one of the reasons I think that the teaching of composition is poisonous. And one of the reasons why I think—I think that composition probably can’t be taught because I don’t think it can be taught as poetry or as fiction. So I think that the next best thing is not to teach composition at all but to teach the writing of narrative prose. Because what anybody writing narrative prose knows is that he doesn’t have to write logically. He knows that he can be effective by the medium, he knows that he can free-associate, he knows that he can do all kinds of things. Even a novice writer knows that. But I mean when you start talking about things like topic sentences and paragraphs...I don’t know what a paragraph is, so do you mean to tell me that some wretched remedial English teacher knows what a paragraph is? IF YOU KNOW WHAT A PARAGRAPH IS, THEN WHAT YOU HAVE WRITTEN IN NOT WORTH WRITING. Because no piece of writing that flows has paragraphs in any sense that I understand. Sometimes I make a paragraph simply because it looks nice on the page. I mean I happen to like it because it looks nice. Why else would you want to make a paragraph? I don’t know from paragraphs. (Mudrick Transcribed 260.)

But that’s not even the part I’m thinking of. I’m thinking of where Mudrick said that for years and years he wrote academic prose and it turned his stomach. And if you read his first book, the one about Jane Austen, it’s pretty stiff stuff.

I wrote a while back about Williams Carlos Williams and his disastrous early attempts and what he was able to write later, that unbelievable naturalness, he had to battle for it. Mudrick had to battle for it too. And Al Stephens—he had to fight and find his way out of that Stanford Poetry Workshop/Yvor Winters rigid formality and all the status that came with it. They were brave.

Mudrick and Al Stephens—so opposite in temperament—were the poles that world spun on. I mean the world of the College of Creative Studies, my darling, darling school, which is either the only school in the world or not a school at all.