Saturday, January 06, 2007

On Writing and Not Writing

Many writers have written eloquently about why they write. For me, the more appropriate essay might be "Why I don’t write". In my life I've oscillated between two extremes of perception when it came to writing. On the one hand, writers have something to say and a burning desire to say it, and so they have to write, and, if the writer is sufficiently talented, art simply flows onto the page. On the other hand, writers work hard at the craft of writing, laboring sentence by sentence, page by page, burnishing the prose until it gives off its particular luster, unique to that writer. In the event, the truth appears to be some combination of the two poles. In the first instance, I haven't written, I've told myself, because I've felt that I have nothing to say and that I feel no burning need to write. In the second instance, I've had a hard time imagining myself doing the work.

Doing the work, that’s the rub, isn't it? In recent years, as I've become more and more immersed in literature, the problem has presented itself again, in a different form: the work needed now is how to become a better reader. Attend to the words on the page, follow up on allusions, write about what I read. These are what I know I need to do, what I want to do. But still, I perceive the kind of work that might be necessary to be a better reader, and by extension a writer at all, and I blanch at the effort required. All too often, I've been able to slide by with a minimum of effort. I have, indeed, tended to make something of a virtue of this. But writing, like life, is not easy. When I read what other people have written about this or that book that I've read, I overlook as insignificant those observations that I also made myself. William H. Gass, writing about Paul Valéry's prose pieces in his preface to his own Fiction and the Figures of Life, wrote that Valéry "dared to write on his subjects as if the world had been silent." Too often, I do quite the opposite. I don’t write because the world has emphatically not been silent. Many things have already been said about a great many things, so I discount my own thoughts as obvious or unoriginal, even when thinking or writing for myself. As if the obvious is not important; as if originality is to be valued above all else. As if the less obvious and more original ideas and writing magically appear unbidden without work.

I don't tend to make Resolutions, but one thing I want to do this year is be freer with what I write. I am continually astonished by writers and what they dare commit to words, to write down at all, let alone publish for others to see. When I say "dare", I'm not really talking about shocking or controversial content, although certainly I find myself amazed that Philip Roth, for example, writes about sex the way that he often has. Not because I'm a prude, but because often it's simply embarrassing. Perhaps not a great example. Here's another one: when I read fiction that plays with form, or where the writer has adopted an extreme form, I am often impressed with the commitment. I've started reading Thomas Bernhard's Correction and, once again, as in Bernhard's other works, there are the lengthy sentences, the huge blocks of words, the accretion of detail, the repetition.

And then there's the willingness to address time-honored subjects, "as if the world had been silent" or even in full acknowledgment of the distinct lack of silence. Last year, I read Walter Benjamin's memoir Berlin Childhood around 1900. At the end of the book, there is a brief piece called "The Moon", excised by Benjamin in the 1930s, but published anew with this latest edition. In "The Moon", he writes:
When the nightlight, flickering, then brought peace to my hand and me, it appeared that nothing more remained of the world than a single, stubborn question. It may be that this question nested in the folds of the door-curtain that shielded me from noise. It may be that it was nothing but a residue of many past nights. Or, finally, it may be that it was the other side of the feeling of strangeness which the moon had brought on. The question was: Why is there anything at all in the world, why the world? With amazement, I realized that nothing in it could compel me to think the world. Its nonbeing would have struck me as not a whit more problematic than its being, which seemed to wink at nonbeing. The moon had an easy time with this being.
I find this passage beautiful, but I'm struck by the commonality of the anxiety. Why the world? Not an original problem. Benjamin troubled himself to write it down, and wrote beautifully about it, yes, but it's the trouble to write it down that interests me here. In the past, I would have told myself that there was nothing especially interesting about the question, or about having had the question, and any thoughts I might have had surrounding it I would have consigned to oblivion, because I simply wouldn't commit the simple question to the written word, which meant, further, that I wasn't able to develop the line of thinking, that I was consigning all related thoughts similarly to oblivion, that I was therefore not developing my thinking. My modest goal for this year, then, is to allow myself to commit more thoughts to words, to write more. To overcome the amorphous fears preventing me writing. Seemingly simple, but a world away from my established non-practice.

1 comment:

Bobby said...

I sympathize with your quandary, and I'm sure many others do as well. Having the urge to write, but perhaps not the ego or vanity to carry out the task, or suffering impediment with an overly analytical nature. I think you are right to force yourself to "just write". The challenge will be, of course, to force your well developed internal editor into abeyance to allow the words to issue freely. In my own (limited) trials with this problem, I have found it useful to approach my writing in terms of feeling, rather than thinking. Benjamin, I would hazard to guess, wrote about the moment not because he thought it such an original idea, but because of what the idea did to him - what effect it had on his person at that time in his life. The idea itself isn't so significant as is what it did to him, which answers a need we have as readers that is orthogonal to a writer's demand on himself for originality - the need to identify and affirm, to say "Yes, life is like that!". That a piece of writing answers this need doesn't qualify it as art, for sure, but it's a good place to begin.