Madman, Architect, Carpenter, Judge: Roles and the Writing Process
by Betty S. Flowers
Professor of English and
Director of the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library
the hardest part of writing?" I ask
on the first day of class.
someone offers, groaning.
"No, it's not getting
started," a voice in the back of the
room corrects. "It's keeping on once
you do get started. I can always write a
sentence or two-but then I get stuck."
"Why?" I ask.
"I don't know. I am
writing along, and all of a sudden I realize
how awful it is, and I tear it up. Then
I start over again, and after two sentences,
the same thing happens."
"Let me suggest something
which might help," I say. Turning to
the board, I write four words: "madman,"
Then I explain:
"What happens when
you get stuck is that two competing energies
are locked horn to horn, pushing against
each other. One is the energy of what I'll
call your 'madman.' He is full of ideas,
writes crazily and perhaps rather sloppily,
gets carried away by enthusiasm or anger,
and if really let loose, could turn out
ten pages an hour.
"The second is a kind
of critical energy-what I'll call the 'judge.'
He's been educated and knows a sentence
fragment when he sees one. He peers over
your shoulder and says, 'That's trash!'
with such authority that the madman loses his crazy
confidence and shrivels up. You know the
judge is right-after all, he speaks with
the voice of your most imperious English
teacher. But for all his sharpness of eye,
he can't create anything.
"So you're stuck.
Every time your madman starts to write,
your judge pounces on him.
"Of course this is
to over-dramatize the writing process-but
not entirely. Writing is so complex, involves
so many skills of heart, mind and eye, that
sitting down to a fresh sheet of paper can
like 'the hardest work among those not impossible,' as Yeats put it.
Whatever joy there is in
the writing process can come only when the
energies are flowing freely-when you're
"And the trick to
not getting stuck involves separating the
energies. If you let the judge with his
intimidating carping come too close to the
madman and his playful, creative energies,
the ideas which form the basis for your writing will never
have a chance to surface. But you can't
simply throw out the judge. The subjective
personal outpourings of your madman must
be balanced by the objective, impersonal
vision of the educated critic within you.
Writing is not just self-expression; it
is communication as well.
"So start by promising
your judge that you'll get around to asking
his opinion, but not now. And then let the
madman energy flow. Find what interests
you in the topic, the question or emotion
that it raises in you, and respond as you
might to a friend-or an enemy. Talk on paper,
page after page, and don't stop to judge
or correct sentences. Then, after a set
amount of time, perhaps, stop and gather
the paper up and wait a day.
"The next morning, ask your 'architect' to enter. She will read the wild scribblings saved from the night before and pick out maybe a tenth of the jottings as relevant or interesting. (You can see immediately that the architect is not sentimental about what the madman wrote; she is not going to save every crumb for posterity.) Her job is simply to select large chunks of material and to arrange them in a pattern that might form an argument. The thinking here is large, organizational, paragraph level thinking-the architect doesn't worry about sentence structure.
"No, the sentence
structure is left for the 'carpenter' who
enters after the essay has been hewn into
large chunks of related ideas. The carpenter
nails these ideas together in a logical
sequence, making sure each sentence is clearly
written, contributes to the argument of
the paragraph, and leads logically and gracefully
to the next sentence. When the carpenter
finishes, the essay should be smooth and
"And then the judge comes around to inspect. Punctuation, spelling, grammar, tone-all the details which result in a polished essay become important only in this last stage. These details are not the concern of the madman who's come up with them, or the architect who's organized them, or the carpenter who's nailed the ideas together, sentence by sentence. Save details for the judge."