Ruminations on Writing Parts 1 & 2

These are a pair of resurrected posts from before it was hacked. Part 1 was originally posted on December 30, 2012. Part 2 was posted on January 8, 2013.

I am republishing them because both continue to be relevant to writing and creativity, and they introduce ideas that I continue to reference when discussing the challenges of writing with other writers (or with seventh-graders who, in general, are completely uninterested in anything I have to say).

Part 1

Back in August, a writing friend contacted me with the admission that over the last few months he had been suffering from creative paralysis. He explained, “I was mired in self-pity by lack of response and under-appreciation of what I was doing by the populous. I put the brakes on everything and climbed into the ditch.”

To me, the most telling part of this statement was the prepositional phrase, “by the populous.” My friend didn’t hate his most recent project. He wasn’t frustrated that his work wasn’t turning out the way he had originally envisioned it. It wasn’t criticism that sent him into a creative tailspin. Instead, it was the ] feeling that despite all of the energy he had poured into his writing, giving his writing to the world was tantamount to shouting as loudly as he could to a room full of people who ignored him.

On this blog in the past I have facetiously referred to this phenomenon when I addressed my readers as “both of you.” The inference is that my words, pounded on plastic and visible on pixels, will reach a net audience of two. (Note the dual meanings of net…just another example of why I deserve to have more than two readers.)

Writers write from an implicit assumption that there will be at least one reader. The author writes, and the reader reads. Otherwise writing is the tree of the proverbial forest: if you write but no one reads it, do your words make a sound?

The construction of a poem or a story or a book requires an investment of time. For Raceboy and Super Qwok Adventures, I spent as much time in the post-writing process of editing and layout as I spent on the composition process: it was truly like working a third job. I realized that even if I were to add up the total amount of time my readers spend reading my words, the sum of their time will still not be likely to exceed the amount of time I personally invested in bringing that work to life. There is not a word or term in English to identify the point where the invested time of the reader exceeds the invested time of the content creator, but it is likely that a great many works do not ever break even.

When my friend faced this unarticulated realization about his total invested time versus the total time his readers had invested reading his work, he recognized that he had worked hard for a very small — maybe even negligible — return on his investment. And that sent him into a depression.

For most of my life, I imagined a writer’s words to be chiseled in the stones of time, etched for eternity to be read, pondered, appreciated, like constellations in the sky. It’s only been over the last six years as I’ve worked at the library that I’ve realized the impermanence of a writer’s words. The books that fill the library shelves live only while they have readers. I faced an entire shelf of Frank Slaughter’s books, none of which had been checked out in the last thirty years, and finally purged them to free shelf space. Slaughter sold millions of books over his career, but that career ranged from the 1940s to the 1980s. By 2010, they were ignored, possibly irrelevant, and essentially dead.

In the January 2013 issue of Wired, Steven Levy interviewed Tim O’Reilly. When Levy asked, “What is the future of books?” O’Reilly explained, “…I don’t really give a shit if literary novels go away. They’re an elitist pursuit. And they’re relatively recent. The most popular author in the 1850s in the US wasn’t Herman Melville writing Moby-Dick, you know, or Nathaniel Hawthorne writing The House of Seven Gables. It was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow writing long narrative poems that were meant to be read aloud. So the novel as we know it today is only a 200-year-old construct. And now we’re getting new forms of entertainment, new forms of popular culture.”

O’Reilly doesn’t use the p-word, but he’s referring to our paradigms about novels when he answers the question. We expect that our assumptions about novels are eternal and unchanging much like those constellations.

But the thing is, even the constellations won’t last forever. It’s a theme that came out in a different article in the same issue of Wired on an entirely different topic. Andrew Zolli explained, “The sustainability movement has been around for four decades. I think it may have outlived its usefulness. When they tell you they want to conserve the rain forest, save the pandas, and so forth, the message is always the same: They want to maintain a beautiful little picture of stasis. But we need to recognize that stasis isn’t realistic” (pg. 22).

We are trapped in a chronological progression like beads of a pearl necklace, a progression of experienced present moments, and our expectations from one pearl to the next pearl are that the pearls are the same, have always been the same, and will always be the same. Because each pearl has been round and white, we assume that every pearl is round and white, that every necklace is made from pearls. But what is a pearl? The form of the writing may evolve, the shape of the pearl may change, could become a bead, a chain, a rope, but it will always need to have a reader.

I write for the reader who I hope someday will read my words, invest his or her time to ponder what I’ve written; I write for the someday when the sum total of the time that my readers spend reading my words adds to a greater total than the time I’ve spent writing them. I write for the possible future that I hope exists despite the likely obscurity of oblivion that is inevitable, even for the stars. In the face of entropy, I write for those moments when a reader will read my words, when a connection will take place. Andy Warhol explained, “In the future everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes.” I write for that fifteen minutes, though it may already have happened, or it may never happen. I write for the unknown, unknowable listeners who hear the tree of my writing in the forest, who hear my shouts in a cacophonous room, who see my words glowing in a shape in the night-time sky.

Part 2

I noted the following in my original 2013 introduction to this post:
Since publishing Ruminations on Writing Part 1, I have torn my file cabinets apart. I was looking for a specific journal entry that I remembered writing. I could not find it in my laptop, in my external hard drive, in my various half-filled composition books that date back to 1995. Finally, after nearly a week, I found loose steno pages in a hanging folder titled “Essays/Thoughts.” I don’t have the exact date this would have been composed, but Roland Smith visited Bradley Central somewhere around my fourth year teaching, which would have been around eight years ago. Without digging through school yearbooks (which I don’t have access to at home), I would estimate this entry as having been written in November 2004.

Each book I read inevitably brings me to the same conclusion: “I couldn’t have written that — it’s too good.” This disheartening sentiment serves as a real downer when trying to buoy myself into believing my writings are equal to the task of publication. While listening to young adult author Roland Smith discuss his writing process at an assembly yesterday, I had a realization. A novel (actually, most writing from short story to epic) is written not in an instant, but over an extended period of time. I am, at every instant, a newly realized being who is completely unique from the self of a moment ago. At times I have access to stores of words which will later fall behind the boxes in my mind to be come covered with slimy growth. Perhaps an image from a discussion I listened to on Extension 720 is rioting between my ears and later the same image is deflated and pallid. Simply through life I change moment by moment, and it is this dynamic aggregate of me who is the true author of my writings. Not just the self who exists in this moment, but the accumulation of selves working to construct the words which finally take form. Thus a novel is, in a sense, able to be greater than the man who writes it because that man experiences so much more than a single man’s experiences through the building of the novel. When I am feeling inadequate as I compare myself against a novel, I am actually looking at myself in this moment and comparing me against the aggregate author who is the sum of all his parts and thus vastly wiser than I am.