An Algorithm for Writing?

Excerpt from Mark Edmundson’s essay “Under the Sign of Satan: William Blake in the Corporate University”. (2012)

The engineering student sits in the fiction writer’s office and asks questions about her craft. This fiction thing, this art thing, what is it about? What is it about exactly? He has read some novels and plans to read many more. His grade point average is high. His SAT scores are also impressive. A nearly perfect score on the verbal test—he makes sure to mention this. He is—he knows—very smart.

But this fiction thing and poetry as well. How does one begin? … There are, he’s heard, guidebooks that give step-by-step instructions. Does the teacher advise trying one?

The teacher’s way of writing fiction is to find an image, something that lodges in her mind for no reason she can understand. She writes the image down. She describes it as well as she can from a vantage point that is—maybe—not quite her own.

And then what? The student is truly interested.

She waits to see what will happen from there.


Sometimes something happens. Sometimes nothing.

This is writing? This is what you do?

Other people do it differently. But yes. I wait to see what will happen. She tells the student that if she lets her attention float with just the right amount of freedom, she’ll eventually go somewhere she’s fascinated by going.

Why don’t you just start with what fascinates you?

I don’t always know, the writer confesses. I don’t always really know.


Edmundson is a professor of English at University of Virginia.  He has collected his various essays in the 2013 book Why Teach: In Defense of a Real Education. As the title of both essay and book implies, Professor Edmundson has grown increasingly more disconcerted about the transformation of the liberal arts college into a technical trade school.

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