The theory of ‘Burrowing’

The first time I learned to write was during my final semester as an undergrad at California State University, Northridge (CSUN). I had gotten ‘A’s in all my writing workshops before then, so I lied to myself and thought I could write well. But one special lady, Katherine Haake, made me realize there’s more to writing than just spitting out words and assembling them together to form a complete whole.

Haake, a feminist theorist, was a myth in the Creative Writing circle at CSUN, before she ever became a reality for me. Stories about her circulated to all the creative writing majors. Some warned never to step foot in Dr. Haake’s class because she was crazy, and her class was intense, concentrating too much on theory. Others embraced her eccentricity and commended her for her wild theories of writing. I had met Haake briefly because she was my creative writing advisor, and she seemed harmless enough. Yes, she was always over an hour late for her appointments and came in scatter-brained and confused, but beneath her shabby clothes, white hair, and thick glasses was a brilliant advisor and I wanted to see what all the classroom fuss was about. So I sucked it up and signed up for English 465 – Theory of Fiction. Katherine Haake, of course, was the instructor.

The whispers started even before Dr. Haake stepped into the classroom that first day. Most of the so-called Writing majors did not want to be there, but they had no choice. This was their last semester as well and Haake’s class was the only one being offered for that specific section, which was a requirement, no substitutions allowed. As I suspected, Dr. Haake was about 15 minutes late, thankfully, since I was also running behind. She walked in with a yoga mat, scatter-brained as always, and a bit out of breath. Were students actually scared of this tiny, harmless woman? As the class progressed, I began to understand why she had received her reputation.

Haake was a theorist and I can almost guarantee that over half the students in that class had never had a theorist for a creative writing instructor. We were used to writing stories, poetry, essays, and papers without applying any theory to them. Dr. Haake required theory in our writing; it was an essential part of the curriculum.  Since the first day, I was no doubt confused by the theories Haake taught and was determined to hate her, and the class. But a big part of me, the insecure part, also needed to impress her, so I was determined to “get it.” Haake spit out theory after theory, throwing out names I had rarely even heard, and barely had the chance to study. Everyone in the class was confused, and no one knew what Haake was talking about. We were bored, we were intimidated (how can someone be so freaking smart?), and we were utterly clueless.

When the concept of “burrowing” became the lecture topic one afternoon, everything suddenly made sense to me, including Haake and her teaching methods. Before Dr. Haake introduced the term to her class, I was incredibly lost when it came to writing. I knew I loved to write, and felt comfortable doing it, but my writing had no form or rhythm. I’d be inspired – by a moment, a song, a sentence – and I’d write, not putting much thought into the actual words. My stories were personal, inspired by the things I knew, and they were more about telling than showing. It was good to get the words out,  but they had no substance for anyone other than myself. “Burrowing” changed all that and made me view writing differently; it was an art that needed to be mastered and perfected, not just a hobby.

Haake refers to burrowing as “a particular way of working the language,” which is “informed by, not derived from, Derrida’s concept of supplementary.”  While I have absolutely no idea what that concept is, nor do I understand Derrida or his theory (perhaps soon?), I easily picked up on the concept of “burrowing,” and it really helped me become a much more successful writer. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the first story I wrote using “burrowing” as an example was the first story of mine to get published.

The term basically asks the writer to “dig” into their writing like a mole would burrow into the ground. Since I am often inspired by sentences and phrases, burrowing would allow me to let that first sentence lead into the next, which would lead into the next, etc, until a complete story had been formed. As Haake states, “one becomes two, two becomes three, three becomes four, and with each addition, the entire story shifts and grows…as you dig and dig, things appear, layer after layer, deeper and deeper: words after words after words.” She adds that, “this is how language drives writing, how writing becomes an intransitive act, how not thinking opens out into text, how we as writers disappear into the writing, and the whole concept of pleasure.”

The idea is to take a word or sentence and burrow into it – supplement it – following wherever it takes you until it stops or you lose the desire to continue. Then add another piece of language  and repeat the process. I began my first burrowing exercise with the sentence “My father brought his mistress to my mother’s funeral” and worked from one word to the next, each set of words calling for another until a whole was formed. Before I knew it, the short story “Lies My Mother Told Me” was born and it was accepted by the first literary magazine I submitted to.

“Burrowing,” as simple as it sounds, was a genius concept that greatly improved my writing. It was the easy way for me to learn how to write well, and is a wonderful way to turn the struggling writer into a successful one. The phrase is more in the language of the writer than the theorist, and more relatable for the average writer. Burrowing can help writing form a rhythm, and allow language to become more musical, while telling the same story the author planned to all along.

Go ahead and burrow into your next story; you’ll be amazed at the results.

Write on!

The Accidental Blogger

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4 Comments

Filed under Theory

4 responses to “The theory of ‘Burrowing’

  1. Julia Smith

    Pretty interesting site you’ve got here. Thanks for it. I like such themes and everything that is connected to them. I would like to read more on that blog soon.

    Julia Smith
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  2. Jennifer

    I’m currently a student at CSUN and taking Dr. Haake’s Theory of Fiction class and we just started to try the burrowing technique. It’s difficult to start but what you wrote gives me a new window to try out. Thanks a bunch.

  3. Jennifer

    I’m currently a student at CSUN and taking Dr. Haake’s Theory of Fiction class and we just started to try the burrowing technique. It’s difficult to start but what you wrote gives me a new window to try out. Thanks a bunch.

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