Wednesday, July 27, 2005

On Writing.

A while back, at one of the other ABA (may the celestial light of the heavens be forever upon it) blogs (Nigela’s, I think, but not sure), someone was kicking around the idea of what it means to be a writer, and offering some successful writers’ quotes on the topic. I was thinking a bit about this myself recently, and decided to post a highly belated response.

So what does it mean to be a writer?

To be a writer is to be a searcher, seeking the small in hidden and overlooked places, the shining grains of sand trapped between the floor tiles. It is to extrapolate the grand from the minute, appreciate and describe the wonder of the grand, and be able to see each quality in the other.

To write is to be yoked, enslaved, to your imagination, leaving it nagging you for attention, distracting you from more immediate affairs, to be partly here and partly somewhere distant. It is an unquenchable need to explain the inexplicable and encapsulate the boundless. It is an incurable sickness, an obsession, a disorder begging for order but frequently attaining only release—creating vacancies for the next bout with intellectual anarchy and chaos, seeking the calm between the storms at sea.

Being a writer involves indulging and subsequently denying the unslaked and unslakeable thirst of the ego: it entails being as selfish as an only child, yet as giving as life. It involves feeling, indeed immersing oneself, in the pettiness of everyday existence then ultimately transcending and denying it; it is the Hindu god Shiva, the creator and the destroyer. It is a craft and a construction of saws and hammers, that measures and binds, builds and fastens, yet also rends and shatters.

Writing is a fortress unassailable, locked and fixed, ironclad and frozen; it is also an invitation, aglow and inviting, into the open door of the author’s mind. Writing is a unique art, active and passive at once, that can be fully realized in the doing, but also in the observing: it is as inseparably tied to reading as night is to day.

Writing burdens and unburdens the author; it weighs like a bundle of sticks on a pack mule, yet feeds like repast to the famished. It begs and offers alms, based on its author's and reader's interwoven demands.

The actual practice of writing is much like shooting free throws or lobbing darts: the way to accuracy follows on the heels of the error-laden wreckage of incompetence and defeat. Great writing requires the patience of a saint, the discipline of an athlete, the boldness of a smuggler, and the shy, retiring, terror of a recluse. Small wonder, then, that few are up to the task.

To write well is to see the world in terms of the secret places in your heart, your loves, your dreams, your fears and desires, to be a passionate advocate for your values and concerns—and to also see the world in the very next moment as if you never existed at all, as objective and detached as a stone watching clouds pass overhead.

Writing involves painful honesty and clever deceit, the courage to reveal one’s innermost self and the challenge of selling him; it is the recklessness of abandon and the calculated balance of form, like a tightrope walker falling off of and advancing forward on a rope at the same time. It is a bundle of paradoxes and contradictions as essential to each other as partners on a trapeze or comrades in arms. It is the sparing austerity of Hemmingway and extravagance of Dickens. Writing hides the truth among lies and lies to tell greater truths, bending and shaping reality by bending and shaping the mind describing it, like a malevolent force that tempts and conquers by offering the conclusion that it can be itself conquered.

Writing is a club and a scalpel, rudely bashing and bludgeoning and then cutting lines as straight and fine as a surgeon’s, cutting so that she can heal. It is also a paramour’s caress, a friend’s humor, an avuncular kindness, sage words of advice interspersed with harsh words of rebuke. It is a labor of the heart’s love and a vent for the spleen, a place of profound justice, a place of whim and caprice. It is a force alternately logical as mathematics and then suddenly, cruelly random and arbitrary as the will.

The printed word, beyond anything, is an unreachable illusion of perfection, a desire to catch and cage a fantasy version of yourself that will ever remain one day beyond your grasp, “so close, and still so far out of reach,” as the prophet Tom Petty once wrote. Writing involves angst-ridden, constant revision of sentences and paragraphs that rewrite themselves into something unintelligible the moment you aren’t looking; it is a hungry dog waiting for you to drop the food scrap of an idea so that it can run off with it and never return, a blind alley down which one chases ghosts.

Being a writer is humbling, and often humiliating. It is throwing everything that you have at your subject and sometimes failing hopelessly for lack of skill. It is looking at things you wrote only weeks and months earlier as if they are telegrams from a different dimension, the constant need to blush and think aloud, “I actually put that in print? But it is also the satisfaction of getting it right, the moments when you do not blush, and think the same sentence with a very different emphasis: “I actually put that in print.

To write is to produce words and ideas sometimes topical and transitory, fleeting and ephemeral, and to sometimes manufacture constructs as permanent and rigid and enduring as a mountain; at its rare best, writing does both.

To write well is to have a gift that demands recompense, a possession that owns its owner. It is using the mind to traverse the soul, the very human tendency, as the brilliant John Gardner put it, to “map out roads through Hell with their crackpot theories.” It is an endeavor ultimately as fruitless as trying to understand water by breathing it, as richly rewarding as a dream in which we can breathe under water.

And that’s what I think about writing. How about you?


Blogger Hamel said...

You jerk, EJ.;) You ask "How about you?" as if I could come even close to matching the beauty of your response.

That said, I consider myself a writer because I have to write. I have no choice in the matter. It happens all the time. I'll be reading a book, grading papers, working in the woods near my house, and an idea comes. Sometimes it creeps to me, cautiously and slowly, unclear at first and then a vivid, lively image. Other times it's as though an idea leaps from a limb above me, lands before me and screams. Sometimes the ideas are beautiful, sometimes ugly, sometimes they're selfish or whiny, and sometimes philosophical and profound (for my simple mind), but no matter *what* the idea, I simply must release it. My release? Writing.

To be a writer, in my mind, also involves a bit of narcissism. If any of us who write for the public, be it a blog or a reporter or novelist or anyone who puts words on public display, really thought we sucked and were stupid, we wouldn't put the words out there. Not only are we as writers thinking, but we're also looking for responses.

I know that's why I write most often. It's a way of saying "Here's what I've been thinking. What about it? Am I a fool or not?" That's why I love posts that create dialogue, and not just the "Nice job" or "You suck."

So, that said, I am a writer because I have to be (regardless of my skill), because it's how I release my thoughts and how I solicit feedback and, most of all, it's how I think and see just where and how I fit in this world.

Wed Jul 27, 09:27:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Nigela said...

It was my blog, and I quoted a letter Terry Tempest Williams wrote and later published in her book "Red."

I would never refer to myself as a writer. Not yet, at least. I do hope that one day I will think of myself as such.

That said, I write because I love words and reading. No matter how much I pull out my hair at the end of a semester, I secretly love writing term papers. The more the merrier. I love writing about books, about an author's specific word choice, because writing, for me, is a way of thinking. And perhaps I love writing because I'm not a perfectionist, but someone who likes to rework and revise. I appreciate, more than anything, teachers who read and comment on my papers. This relates to Hamel's point of creating a discussion v. "good job." In my English classes, I can tell the people who like writing v. those who think of it as a chore by the way they take their papers back. The latter flip to the end for the grade, and then head to office hours to complain, without so much as glancing at the other 20 pages of notes in the margins.

Here I will say I had the most wonderful high school writing teacher who I attribute my love for writing to and my ability to (sometimes) carve out a decent sentence. I won't mention his name, though.

Wed Jul 27, 10:01:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Natalie said...

Beautiful post, Jer. I often wonder why I can't just keep a diary under my bed and be happy to write in that. Part of being a writer for me is writing for an audience, teacher or newspaper reader or blogsurfer.

My goal is to make people think about things in a different way...but I write to get things out of the stew in my head.

Sometimes some very strange things bubble up.

Thu Jul 28, 08:36:00 AM EDT  
Blogger The Evil Jeremy. said...

Thanks, folks. I feel like I should clarify something, though: my definition of a writer is a person who regularly writes; I don't reserve the definition for someone who does so exclusively for pay. In this regard, I think of us all as writers. To be sure, some writers are better than others, and much writing plainly sucks, but the definition of a writer is for me is self-chosen, rather than imposed or rewarded from without.

That being said, I would very much like to be paid at some point for what I write.

Nigela, I like your ideas regarding revision. A salient difference between writers and nonwriters, by my definition, is the desire to imrove upon a work already begun versus dropping off an undercooked essay like its a hot potato and never wanting anything to do with it again.

Thu Jul 28, 05:50:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Nigela said...

EJ, I'm confused. Is the potato hot but not cooked all the way through? :)

Thu Jul 28, 10:49:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Zaira said...

hiya! zaira here..kinda new here, heard bout this blogging stuff from my friend Tricia so i tried signing up too..and i am! i just wanna say hi and i just viewed your blog..nice!..visit mine too...i wanna know your thoughts or whatever..sure to have fun blogging!

Thu Jul 28, 11:46:00 PM EDT  
Blogger The Evil Jeremy. said...

Allright, so it wasn't the best simile ever. They can't all be gems :). (Although a potato could very well be hot on the outside and cold in the middle, as you know well from working in a restaurant and doubtless having had one sent back at some point for that very reason.)

Zaira, thanks for stopping by. I'll come check out your blog.

Fri Jul 29, 02:16:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Nightcrawler said...

I, and everyone else, should be very happy to know that our education dollars weren't wasted on you. Well done! You captured the essence of what it means to be a writer. The compulsion, the painstaking attention (that should be) given to every single word. The frustration of tackling a subject greater than your ability and the rapture of crafting a piece greater than you thought yourself capable of. Excellent work EJ!

Fri Jul 29, 07:34:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the Zaira comment is spam...given her topics of interest and the picture on her blog profile. I didn't go any further though, so I might be wrong

Mon Aug 01, 08:48:00 AM EDT  
Blogger The Evil Jeremy. said...

The Zaira comment is spam. I didn't delete it because I think it's funny how many people actually went to "her blog" and posted comments in response, despite the fact that it's a link to a porn site. Amazing how dumb people can be.

Mon Aug 01, 04:55:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re: "Zaira," dumb is a little strong, EJ...perhaps lazy, or naive to assume that the blogosphere remains free from porn spammers. Some people just stop by to say "hi" without bothering to read the profile, or every link on the profile. Funny that you made a comment promising to stop by "Zaira's" blog, then bash others for doing same. Tsk, tsk, EJ, the spammers are the enemy, not the passive, friendly, slightly naive/lazy bloggers.

Mon Aug 01, 06:01:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Hamel said...

EJ, I didn't think you were too harsh. I thought of stopping by her blog, but wondered why she hadn't posted a specific about your post.

To me, visiting the blog is courtesy, as she visited yours. That's nice.

Going there and not noticing what the blog was really about is, well, stupid.

So I found you nice as well as intelligent enough to read. (Is this my good deed for the day, or am I defending someone purely evil?)

Mon Aug 01, 08:45:00 PM EDT  
Blogger The Evil Jeremy. said...

Perhaps I was a little overzealous in the word choice, anon. Thank you for the defense, Hamel, and I agree that there's a difference between returning a visit and failing to recognize an "interests" list that reeks of cooking porn-spam from nine miles away.

Mon Aug 01, 09:17:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous maya said...

shiva is only the destroyer.Brahma is the creator.

Wed Aug 03, 07:52:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Katie B. said...

Wow! How fun is it that you were hit by a porn star? Yurrr a hott boy now.

I like the parts about revision. I was reading one of my professional journals the other day and was mad, mad, mad at the editing errors - in a professional journal!!! Arrrghhh...Was the editor on vacation?
I make my students revise, revise, revise. And then I have the kids reflect on their process. We work on process quite a bit.
Although, most of my writing in the blogsphere is just junk. I love your "painful honesty." In other places I tend to revel in my own ruthless honesty.

Fri Aug 05, 11:58:00 AM EDT  
Anonymous pohanginapete said...

Nigela: I'm with you when you say, "I would never refer to myself as a writer" (although I probably have and probably will —inadvertently, I trust). However, it's mostly because writing is something I do; for me the verb is what's important and the noun is just another tag. I guess I have a double standard, though, because I'm happy to refer to others (like EJ) as writers. The difference is that if I call myself a writer it sounds pretentious. It's like calling myself a poet—something I never do (no qualifications about that one); instead, I say I've written poems (note the tense; I have no idea whether, despite my efforts, I'll ever again write anything that might be called a poem).

EJ: If the difference between writers and nonwriters is indeed the desire to improve upon a work already begun, then Kerouac wasn't a writer. You might agree (and someone—was it Truman Capote?—said that what Kerouac did wasn't writing, it was typing), but I don't. Kerouac wrote some awful stuff but some of his work was luminous.

Lots more I could rant about, but if I do, it's less likely to be read, and one of the arts of writing is to say more with less.

Mon Oct 10, 03:53:00 PM EDT  

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