It is always a good idea at the beginning of the New Year to take stock of what you’ve accomplished in the last. I started this blog six months ago, and after waking in the early hours day after day to work on it, the most burning question I’ve arrived at is: Why the hell do I do it?
…of waking early and still missing the sunrise; of navigating the blogosphere rabbit hole; of writing stories and my own insights on literature and the creative process; and finally, of attempting to catch up on the all books I’ve heard of but never had the time to read: both the established classics and more recent works.
This last, the study of the literature of the past and present, has been more than enlightening: it has provided sustenance.
But the volume of good literature out there is overwhelming; I sometimes feel like a man trying to tickle salmon from a river, the mouth of which is antiquity, the source the future. Each passing form hinted at beneath the rushing water is the spirit of a great writer, poet, or philosopher. One cannot possibly capture them all. Even those poached writhe and thrash in your hands so that beneath the sunlight and wrapped in nature’s armor, they glint and scintillate, becoming less a single referent creature whose features—hooked jaw, empty eye, fin and tail—are easily discernible and more an ineluctable spectrum, that is both less and more than its physical vessel.
Perfecting one’s craft and finding a form is both a lifelong journey and a fool’s errand.
Nevertheless, we are glad to throw ourselves in the river.
I have come across a number of writers who tackle head-on the question of why one writes. After all, only infrequently does the writing bring us reward. George R. R. Martin (yes that one) said in a recent interview: “You can work on a book for two years and get it published, and it’s like you may as well have thrown it down a well.”
But reward depends on what you value. There is external reward: money, fame, power, and the respect and admiration of others, and internal: that through due diligence and honesty of observation, the writer can work out a greater understanding of human nature and decipher the existence, whether supernal or those that reside in the mundane passage of events.
The next few posts will offer perspectives from different writers on the reasons they write.
I’ll begin with a writer that I discovered at about the same time as I began this blog: William Gass.
Weakness and Power Through the Written Word
The essayist, novelist and philosopher William Gass is a tough nut to crack. His work is very often inaccessible. His ideas, as original as they may be, are sometimes obscured in a fog of wordplay and made murky by semantic association. John Gardner accused him of over-intellectualizing his fiction and not allowing the “fictional dream” to unfold of its own accord. But that was a long time ago. Since Gardner’s death in 1982, Gass has continued to write, putting out beautifully written—if not dense—prose. He is amply brilliant. His knowledge of writing and writers is profound and self-imposed, meaning he always has his own opinion about them.
Thus far, I have stuck mostly to his essays. Some suffer from over-stuffing (Ford’s Impressionisms). Some are withering in their derision (Ezra Pound) and take apart with surgical precision certain sacred cows of the literary establishment (Pulitzer: The People’s Prize). Others take new tack on old subjects (Nietzsche: The Polemical Philosopher). Still others are surprisingly sentimental, in the best sense of the word (Robert Walser, Finding a Form.)
It is in the latter two that we find a more sympathetic voice, as Gass’ sympathies lie with the intellectually adventurous writer and philosopher, even unto madness. And it is in the last, Finding a Form, that he mentions what made him become a writer.
From “Finding a Form”
In the introduction, like the rest of us, he blames his upbringing.
“The writer, by choosing to write rather than ride Beckett’s bike or Don Quixote’s nag, is choosing to relate to the world through the word…. In my case, at least the choice was an illusory one, for early on in my life I felt overwhelmed by the world…. It was a world which was certainly no worse than average, not much better either, so it was not one inherently overwhelming, one which would do the strongest of characters in. No. It found in me a weak respondent, a poor player. I was the sort of actor who specialized in exits.
“Passivity, self-mortification, substitute gratification, impotent bitching, drink: these were the ways of life set before me. Now, when considering the insides of a writer, pondering the psychology of the occupation, I always look first for the weakness that led him to it; because, make no mistake, writing puts the writer in illusory command of the world, empowers someone otherwise powerless, but with a power no more pointed than a pencil.
….But for me the world became a page; that, I said, with Stoical acceptance, is the way I wanted it; it is what I would have chosen. It is natural to speak of your own weaknesses so winsomely they will seem strengths, as if everyone else is inadequate if they do not have your inadequacies. We also contemplate what we cannot control. I contemplate the world through words.”
The writer then, according to Gass, is someone in search of control over their circumstances. This assumes, therefore, that the writer was initially someone to some degree powerless.
I’d be interested in thoughts by other writers as to whether or not Gass’ interpretation rings true in their own experience.