Nick Ripatrazone discusses vertical writing, a concept he learned from writer Andre Dubus’s essay “The Habit of Writing,” which appeared in the anthology On Writing Short Stories, edited by Tom Bailey. Dubus writes that, instead of trying to force stories into being, he gives ideas time to gestate until the story emerges. As the anthology title says, Dubus is referring to his writing of fiction. However, giving the creative process time to work by allowing ideas to gestate also benefits nonfiction writers. Therefore, I’ve been trying to apply what Ripatrazone describes here to my own writing.
Dubus defines vertical writing by contrasting it to horizontal writing. In this passage, Ripatrazone describes the difference:
Horizontal writing is focused on amassing pages and words. When Dubus wrote horizontally, he wrote convinced that fiction was created through aggregation. Vertical writing, in contrast, values depth over breadth. Stories are written when they are ready to be written; they are not forced into existence by planning or excessive drafting. Horizontal writing seeks to move across the page; vertical writing seeks to dig into the page … . Curiously enough, by seeking to undermine the stereotype that writing is the result of inspiration, writers have fallen for the other, no less romantic opposite: that writing is factory work, and daily devotion is rewarded with final drafts. Both approaches are magical thinking. Vertical writing is no less work, but it is better work, work at the right time. It requires patience in the willingness to wait for a story to feel ready to be written, as well as the attention and focus necessary to inhabit the story once gestated.
Replace fiction and story with something like essay, piece, or work, and you have something that applies to nonfiction as well.
In my years of studying English, I learned to write literary criticism that removed any trace of personal interaction with the texts I read. Such academic writing is horizontal writing, and I became quite good at it. I can organize, analyze, and argue logically until the cows come home. But eventually that kind of writing wasn’t enough for me. I decided in my late 50s to go back to school to study psychology, and I ended up focusing on life stories. Life writing, by definition, demands personal involvement. Switching from my ingrained habit of impersonal writing to more personal, intimate writing has been a major challenge for me.
This concept of vertical writing gives me a new way to look at what I’m now working on, writing that values depth over breadth. After so many years of keeping myself at (my own) arm’s length, I’m trying to learn to drill down rather than expand sideways, to go deeper and see what I can learn about my world and myself. I never know what I truly think or believe about something until I’ve written my way through it.
I’m in a different place in my life than Ripatrazone is in his. Because he teaches high school English and has twin daughters just under two years old, he does not have a lot of time to write. He says that focusing on vertical writing has allowed him to use his writing time with more satisfaction than before:
A vertical writing life is no easy life, but it is deeper, more worthwhile. I feel like I have more ownership over what I create. I am no longer concerned with numbers; no more spreadsheets of magazines that I hope to conquer as if publishing was a territorial battle. Writing is the slowest of games, the most methodical of the arts. Its parts are nearly infinite; its wholes cannot be tricked into existence.
His references to numbers and spreadsheets pulled me up short, because I’ve been carefully using Excel to track my output since I began my challenge of writing a blog post every day in 2015. After three months, I had just about convinced myself not to worry so much about the numbers. I will continue to record my numbers (because, after all, we live in the era of Big Data), but I’m not going to fixate on them so much.
I’m going to concentrate more on the writing than on the recording of numbers, because:
Vertical writing is not easy… . It is very possible, very easy, to be owned by our goals. To be owned by our next book. To be owned by the feeling that we are competing with a world that outmatches us. Vertical writing — vertical living — has convinced me otherwise. It has reminded me why I began to write as a child: the joy of discovery, the surprise of creation, the power of imagination. When I used to write horizontally, I filled boxes with chicken-scratched, multiple drafts. I was concerned with speed and number, acceptances and rejections. Now I am concerned with depth and discovery, and the result is that I live with stories in a deeper way.
I need to focus on living with my own writing in a deeper way.