On Writers

I have not met many writers, in the flesh. Which isn’t surprising, I don’t think. I am not one of those who writes who likes to be around others who write. I avoid like the plague all writing workshops, poetry readings, bohemian gatherings, and the like. Writing, like all the arts, is a solitary profession. Any place where writers are gathered together is a place not of art, but of community. The term ‘artist community’ or ‘artist commune’ is paradoxical. The only community of artists is the unspoken one of solitary people at their craft. There are no greater companions I know of than the words in the books strewn about the 300 square foot room in which I live.

The writer, for better or worse, “puts the best of himself, not the whole, into the work; the author as seen in the pages of his own book is largely a fictional creation.” So writes Edward Abbey in the introduction to his book Abbey’s Road: Take The Other. Some would say the writer hides behind his words, but that is not quite true. He reveals himself through his words, but when not writing he tends to hide. Or, he needs to be reclusive in order to be reflective, has a need to be invisible in interactions so that he can reveal himself through what he writes. Abbey says it well, continuing,

The ‘Edward Abbey’ of my own books, for example, bears only the dimmest resemblance to the shy, timid, reclusive, rather dapper little gentleman who, always correctly attired for his labors in coat and tie and starched detachable cuffs, sits down each night for precisely four hours to type out the further adventures of that arrogant blustering macho fraud who counterfeits his name. You can bet on it: No writer is ever willing—even if able—to portray himself as seen by others or as he really is. Writers are shameless liars. In fact, we pride ourselves on the subtlety and grandeur of our lies.

Who is the writer, really? The words he writes seem so different from the way he acts. HIs words may be full of life, but when you meet the author of the words he could be reserved, not all there, as if he is hiding for you, from himself, from life. You may feel in his presence a lack of presence, an absence, a wish not to be seen, to remain invisible. Abbey links the phrases, “as seen by others” and “as he really is.” But these phrases do not necessarily correspond with each other. Others do not often see us as we really are, and this is especially true for the writer, who others likely see as something of a ghost, for the impression he leaves on others is so nebulous or non-existent. At times the writer sees himself in this way, and at these moments his writing may act as a way to counteract this ghostliness, to write himself out of himself and into life, in these moments when life and the self are opposed.

But the writer must remember who he is and who he is not. He should remember not to take much account of how he is seen. Just because he is seen as a ghost does not mean he is a ghost or should see himself as one. The writer lives on a different plane, a plane that could well be closer to the ghostly. In any case, the writer seeks to express the timeless, the eternal, what has truth now, what has always had truth and always will. To do that, he cannot live completely in time; or, if he lives only in time, he does not live a complete life. It is important for any writer that the majority of his time actually be ‘his’ time, that he does not spend it seeing others and being seen. What happens on the plane of social interaction, especially superficial and thus draining interaction, has a tendency to feel unreal even when it is happening, and fade quickly thereafter. It fades from memory but leaves a definite, and definitely unwanted, mark on the soul. What happens alone, whether it brings pain or joy, does not fade, and never carries with it the same strong sense of unreality.

Are writers ‘shameless liars’? Abbey claims that writers lie about who they are now by putting their ‘best creation’ in their words. And there is some truth in that statement, as there is some truth in that lie. But is it a lie? The writer is not willing to portray himself as others see him for he knows that is not really who he is. But who he is—he does not know. It is not true that no writer is willing to portray himself as he really is. That is exactly how he would portray himself, if he could. Any other portrayal of himself is a betrayal of himself. He lies because he must. He wants above all not to portray himself in any unreal way, but rather to become himself, and express the self he is becoming, the self he really is, rather than the self he wants to be or wants to be seen. Until he knows who he is, though, every word is a lie he hopes will lead him to the truth.

But the writer, who expresses everything with such seeming clarity in words, can easily get twisted up in those words. The words start to add to what keeps him living under a lie rather than provide him with a way out of lying itself. Already confused about who he really is, he can become more so the more he writes. What begins as a lie because he does not know the truth becomes a known lie. He must keep the lie going, as he is afraid that he is going nowhere, or that he has already gone too far. Instead of writing to become himself, he writes to express a glorified self, one that takes away some of the pain of his isolation, which is where his solitude, now corrupted, has led him. The glorified self, he hopes, will take away the pain of his isolation by putting him above others; in actuality, by putting himself above others, the glorified self brings about his isolation, and alienates him from who he really is. Karen Horney, in Neurosis and Human Growth: The Struggle to Self-Realization, describes this process as self-idealization.

Self-idealization always entails a general self-glorification, and thereby gives the individual a much-needed feeling of significance and superiority over others. But it is by no means a blind self-aggrandizement. Each person builds up his personal idealized image from the materials of his own special experiences, his earlier fantasies, his particular needs, and also his given faculties.

The self-idealization of the writer, his glorified self, is much-needed to the extent that he feels himself unneeded, without value, unable to contribute anything of worth to the world. The extrinsic value of his work matters little when it comes face to face with his internal evaluator and critic, perhaps his glorified self, who finds all his writing lacking in some or all ways. His glorified self will be unique to him, as Horney makes clear, though it will share aspects with other writers.

As a writer with a solitary vocation, and now with the glorified self, the one he looks up to who looks down on him, he might express a need to be left alone, a wish for a room of his own, the time and space necessary in order to create. All of which are real and actual needs. But he no longer wishes or needs to create works of art that express himself as he is; the need now is to create himself, to become the work of art, the glorified self, who is a great artist, a genius. Becoming the artist has become more important than producing the art. Others should look up to his glorified self as much as he looks up to it. Give it their glory. Yet when he is praised for the work he does actually do, he will not accept the praise. Either the work wasn’t good enough, or it wasn’t really ‘he’ who did the work. What sometimes looks like humility—not accepting praise for some work that he did—is actually the pride of the glorified self for whom nothing done is ever good enough. Why should he accept praise for something he could have done better? Everything could always be done better, and will be done better. Must be done better.

The writer may also glorify his aloneness, and his ability to bear it. “The strongest men are the most alone.” He sees himself as stronger than the rest by the fact that he is able to bear greater aloneness, more intense suffering. But he bears only what he has brought upon himself. And it must be borne, for his solitary endeavor has become more of a prison than a freely chosen vocation. His aloneness must be borne so it can bring him glory, fame, and applause. He must spend time alone without glory now so he can be together with glory later. He will write until he achieves all that the self he glorifies deserves. The unreal self hopes for the unreal. The more he is driven by the idealized self to reach these dreamlike goals, the more he forgets what it means to be driven, how little freedom he possesses as he grows more possessed. To be driven is to have no choice. Someone else has hands on the wheel, and they’re heading the wrong way.

Regaining the capacity to drive now becomes important. Although being ‘driven’ is seen as a positive trait in a society where becoming the glorified self, and being seen, are the highest of goals, in actuality being driven drives you only to the ground. But it does not ground you, since you are driven to fly like Icarus. You get the opposite of what you seek, though to all extensive, external purposes it may look like you are flying. It is not you at all, but your glorified self, the self that exists only in your imagination, that flies away from who you actually are. The more you are driven, the more you become not-you. You out-grow yourself, as the distance between who you are and the self you imagine being grows too vast to imagine closing. Writing is no longer a way back to yourself; it is a way to chase after what drives you forward, but you are always too far behind. Instead of finding the way back, you lose the way completely. You are blindfolded with your hands tied in the back of the mack truck which, if you are not careful, will drive you to the very edge of the abyss, and over.

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Part 2 of ‘On Writers’, and whatever else this essay has deteriorated into, will come at some unspecified time in the future. Await it in expectation. Or not.

“Forged in the Fire”

I look for and fail to find a single living poet. Because of this, when I read poetry, I read those poems left by the dead, left by those few who were truly alive, who were forced by overwhelming longings to divorce themselves from the coolly detached and burn themselves in their own fire. I do not seek to express a cool and detached position on reality. I have no icy illusions of chilling mastery. What feels real to me is the fire seething in my breast that I cannot escape. A poem is a prayer, a fleeting moment of wordless weeping, with no identifiable cause, shared between reader and writer. Are there no more poems that will shed light on the darkness that cowers in the cold and cramped corridors of my soul? Very well, I will have to create them myself. When the world has gone cold, it is time for me to bring it fire. I cannot become as cold as the world is becoming; if I do so I am lost. When no living poet can inspire me, it is time to seek inspiration within. What burns in me burns in silence, and yet I begin again, seeking to give sound to what would burn me to the ground without the words to give it meaning. I do not know in advance what I will say, and I will not let my ignorance deter me. I will not get a Ph.D. in poetry. I will not be schooled by the too-cool, pressed into submission by the passionless, or possessed by the indifferent. Indifference is one demon in me, but intensity is a stronger demon. I cannot write poems of hungers being satisfied, or of not being hungry at all; I cannot write poems of lukewarm fulfillment, of ease and unearned Sunday afternoon contentment; I cannot write poems of skating on the surface of frozen lakes, of letting myself be frozen. What is a poem that does not go through the fire? Not a poem at all, but words alone that leave me cold. The true writer, as wordsmith, forges his words under flame and hammers them onto the page, twists them until they no longer resist him, pounds them in until they drive him home, until they voice what never rests in the depths of his soul. Each word I write goes through the fire. It cannot be otherwise. Each word must be wrought like iron in a blazing furnace, then wrung like water out of a cold shirt just before it is flung aside by one who smolders with desire under the torrid desert sun.

“The Sorrow”

The sorrow is always closer to the surface than it appears. The need not to show it is part of it, and so is the need to dramatize it. The need to be part of it—whatever it is, wherever it is—that’s part of it too. A bar filled with young people on a Saturday night, sweat-drenched individuals with bodies so close together, yet each so separate from every other, and all of them trying to drink through it—that’s all part of it. It’s all a part of it, especially when it seems apart from it. We’re all trying to get out of the valley, where we were all told we should go, and we’re running out of gas. The mountains are always too far away. Even if we get there we aren’t there. The sorrow, unlike the mountains, is never too far away. Maybe you head off to work and realize just as you’re about to arrive that you forgot your lunch, and you feel a frustration out of all proportion to the forgetting. Forgetting your lunch feels like it felt to be forgotten by your friends one night as an uncertain thirteen-year-old girl. It feels like remembering that you’ve always been alone and feeling that you always will be, and not being okay with that, wanting it to be otherwise. The sorrow is so close because you are so far from any sort of source, yet it is too far to admit, to grasp fully. Writing about it is part of it. Even writing about it well does not make it less. Writing about it, and writing about it well, only brings it closer. The one who writes can feel himself becoming a part of it, writing himself into it, finding it even on a late afternoon in the crisp high desert air as he sits with his eyes closed on a cabin porch, with nothing that needs to be done, enjoying the November sun that warms his naked torso. The one who writes can feel himself becoming a part of it when he no longer feels himself coming to be or believe, when his grasp on what is true and what is false loosens, and is lost.

“The Pen”

The pen will not always write. This is not a function of writer’s block, but more simply because the pen has no ink. Actually, its ink is just irregular. Some words it writes fine; other words only the outlines of letters appear, though you press the pen into the paper as hard as you can. The absurdity of the situation drives you to madness. Before long you will rip the pen in half and then in pieces. You try and write the word ‘half,’ but only half of it comes in, the ‘h’ and the ‘l.’ You fill in ‘hell’ instead. You are half in hell, and the cause of it is a half-busted pen that lets you express half a life. You are unable to live your life without expressing it, that you know. But now that your one pen is failing you, you realize that even when the pen was working, you were still living half a life. The expression of life had taken over for the living of it, the words for the reality. To give such significance to words! That is the madness. The pen that breaks only brings you to the realization of your brokenness. It is the pain that comes when you realize that you have not been living life, only constructing a façade of life in your fatuous dreams. And now with the failed pen. You scour the room looking for another one, one more resilient, better able to handle the pressure you put on it, the pressure it puts on you. The pressure you put on yourself to use it to express yourself, that self you are always so far from finding, from knowing, from being. So far you have been able to express the self you are not yet, the yearning to be that self. But how long can you continue to express a yearning? How long, and to what end, will you express what you are not? As for the pen, it is nearing its end, so why can you not accept its ending? You cannot direct it to do your will, to transmute your confusion into something like clarity. The pen continues to record half of what you intend to write. You have to struggle to discern your own words, which themselves struggle to come out of you, struggle against you, help you sometimes to give up the struggle, the rest of the time only make it worse. The more words you write the more you exist in the trench that separates how you live from how you express the life you do not live, the half-lived travesty you wish you could call your life. But this life is no more yours than this pen is yours to command. Even this pen seems to have a life of its own, and you find yourself envying its freedom, even if it is a freedom to be nothing, to make itself invisible, to rebel against the commands of one who is no longer its master. You envy the pen that will not deign to write of your envying. You condemn its useless freedom, which records only half of your useless words, the words that are only outlines of letters, as you seem to be the outline of a man. The only true man is the outlier, who is not an outline, but an in-depth individual who encircles the false and picks out the truth at the center. But to return again to the pen. It seems to have gotten past its rebellious phase and now records faithfully your every word, whether adequate to the task or wholly inadequate. It is not for you to decide for now which words work and which do not. You let the pen move as it will across the page, using what words seem to come to it. Then you go back, with the same pen, changing some words and phrases, keeping others as they are. Many of the words are hugely inadequate to the task, which itself is huge, towers above the words. The task is to express, with the pen, Life itself, which cannot be expressed but must be lived. And so the task is impossible, and yet goes on.

On Writing

Writing is about learning to love, learning to live. Not a way to take you out of life, on the outskirts, writing only what you observe of life outside you. Writing means both observing the life outside you that you seek to take in and recording the life inside you seeking to be let out.

You overhear a conversation, someone talking on the phone. Much of what the person says is just chatter. In another mood, you might think it utterly trivial, senseless, without meaning. But this time you sense something else, below and beyond the words that are spoken, more to do with how they are spoken, and what is left unsaid. The voice does not know how to express the way it truly feels. It is cheerful in its chatter, yet you sense an unspeakable sadness just below each spoken word. You sense in the cadence of the voice what you feel within you. The voice stays light so as not to admit its heaviness; it stays bright so as not to let in a darkness that will engulf it from the inside. The voice is not meaningless; its meaning resides in what it does not say.

To write is to put down on paper what the voice cannot get out. Not to speak for the voice but to speak with your own in such a way that the other voice feels understood, is able to stand under your words as under a roof, temporarily protected from the elements, from the storm of the unspeakable, from the winter of the unsaid. The writer steps out into the winter storm that causes the other voice to retreat. If the one who writes does not perceive the full significance of the storm, why should he seek to bring shelter? He must be battered by the storm himself, feel without any shield the jagged blade of an arctic winter that severs him from all warmth, listen for the voice within him that must speak before the thunder closes in completely. If the writer does not feel the storm, does not feel the need to step out into it, if life to him is a vacation in the tropics, why should he write? Why should he do anything more than lie in the sun and congratulate himself on his good fortune?

I’ve heard people say writing is a talent, one to be grateful for. It is important to realize that writing is not simply a talent. Some people will have more talent, some less. But what matters is not how much or how little talent one has. What matters is how much one feels the necessity to step out into the storm to find the home that will bring true warmth and shelter. Finding this home can only come after you step out of what was your home into the homelessness of the unfamiliar night. You create your home with the uncreated material within you, what you come to find by stepping out into what must be walked through. And so you are walking through, just passing through, and the voice you hear on the phone is light and cheerful. You sense that it has not stepped out yet, that it has not experienced the homelessness that it must in order to come home, in order to create outside itself what already exists buried within.

I’ve heard people say writing is a hobby, like backgammon or ping-pong. Writing is no more a hobby than Search and Rescue is a hobby for those who perform that task. To write is to search for the soul, to rescue it from a world bent on submerging it, a subversive world which wants nothing but the absence of soul, which wants personalities based on acquisition and achievement. One who writes in order to achieve something in the field of literature would do well to step out into the night and search for the soul that is in danger of being submerged by the urge for prestige.

So writing is not a talent, not a hobby. Now to bring this essay back to what writing is. I started this piece by saying that writing is about learning to love and learning to live. To live, to be alive, is to love. You step into the storm when you realize that to love is no easy task, when you sense an absence of love everywhere you turn, when you turn in and sense an absence there, too, an emptiness where a fullness should be. You write not primarily to express that emptiness but to recover the fullness that has been lost, to unearth what has been buried in the climb up the mound where the highest point is also the emptiest point. In writing, the paper is the priest, the blank page your list of sins. To fill in the page is to be forgiven. To write of what you don’t know is to open yourself to what you can’t know. To write of your suffering is to open yourself to some power that might relieve it.

Love, Erich Fromm writes, “is possible only if two persons communicate with each other from the center of their existence.” In this quote, we find why love is the hardest task any human can undertake, and the most crucial. First, what is the center of one’s existence? Where is it, and how can one communicate from it? One answer to the last question is: through writing. The task of the writer is to dig deeper into the center and communicate what this search unveils. Communicating with another from the surface, from the outer edges of one’s existence, and calling that love, is a deceptive way to cover up the lack of any true communication taking place. Writing is equally deceptive if it does not come from the center where love and the soul reside. If the writing does come from the center, it is a way to love, a way to life, a path to becoming oneself. The poem that comes from the center of one’s existence is a declaration of love directed to no one in particular and so open to all individuals who are themselves open to their center.

How can you love, how can you communicate with another from the center of your existence, if you do not know where the center is? In writing, in searching for that center, you remove the superficial layers that separate you from your true self. The Catholic monk Thomas Merton writes, “The way to find the real world is not merely to measure and observe what is outside us, but to discover our own inner ground. For that is where the world is, first of all: in my deepest self.” This deepest self is the center of our existence, where each of us is most alive. Separation from the deepest self makes authentic communication impossible. Discovering the inner ground, and writing from it, allows each word we write to point to the wordless truths that cannot be written. “The deepest level of communication,” writes Merton, “is not communication, but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words. It is beyond speech, and it is beyond concept. Not that we discover a new unity. We discover an older unity. My dear brothers, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.”

Writing uses words in order to work towards the wordless, is a form of communication that comes from a deeper self in order to open the one who writes, and the one who reads, to the deepest self, the ‘original unity,’ the self who has no need to write. You write until you have no need to continue writing, until you have recovered the fullness that has been lost. But even when that fullness has been recovered, there is a still deeper spring, a deeper self that waits to be uncovered. You write until you have no need to continue writing, but continue anyways, not out of need or compulsion, but out of the joy of uncovering an ever-deepening self, of communicating in writing your discoveries of still deeper springs.