Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Why I Write

There is something magical about writing. It is only because he has to read so much flavorless, lifeless writing that the average person is wholly unaware of this. The simple power of black markings on a piece of paper that can convey not just information but thoughts and visions of other human beings is captured beautifully in a scene from the film Black Robe. In 17th century Canada, Father Laforge is being taken by Algonquin guides to a remote village where he is to become the new priest. One day, Chomina, the Algonquin leader of the party, sees Laforge scratching on something with a feather quill.

"Black Robe, what you do?" Chomina asks Laforge.
"Making words," Laforge replies.
"Words? You don't speak!"
"I will show you," Laforge tells him. "Tell me something."
"Tell what?"
"Something I do not know."

Chomina pauses to think, then tells Laforge,"My woman's mother die in snow last winter."
Laforge writes down Chomina's words in his book. Then, followed by Chomina, he walks over to his young assistant, Daniel, and hands him the book. Daniel opens the book and, puzzled, reads aloud what Laforge wrote: "Last winter, Chomina's wife's mother died in the snow."
Astonished, Chomina grabs the book from Daniel's hands and examines it, convinced he's just witnessed some kind of magic.

I listen to people - actors, musicians, scientists, academics - talk alot about how much they love what they do. "Find something you love doing," they all say, "and if you can get paid for it you will live a happy, fulfilling life." It has been precisely my inability to find a suitable, let alone a desirable, profession for myself that has steered me, all my life, toward writing.

At the beginning, it was the only way to make a living that seemed practicable, given my early and rather drastic conclusions about working a "job". I thought I could manage to become a writer, even though the only thing I had to recommend me was what I believed was a genuine taste for it. I knew what good writing was and I believed that I could manage it myself.

Then came the many years of looking for something to write about. I took as a kind of guiding principle an aphorism by E.M. Cioran: "One does not write because one has something to say but because one wants to say something." That may be so, but it helps immeasurably if by just saying something it also happens to be worth saying.

Then, of course, there is the gulf between the writing about real people in real situations and the writing that sells. There is the kind of writing that tries, before everything else, to be good as writing, and there is the kind of writing that is tailored to some market. (The people who write books about how to be a writer never mention this.) There is a narrow middle ground, a bridge between literature and writing for money, but it is extremely precarious. Graham Greene was, for many years, one such writer who managed to placate the two muses, to negotiate the narrow bridge. But there was always the nagging feeling, past the 1940s, that Greene was erring on the side of art, but still erring - that his popularity came at the expense of his talent. And the example he set has been followed by much lesser writers, who had not even one great novel in them. "But much of what made him Graham Greene," wrote Michael Levenson, "was that dogged daily duty of staying alive as a writer, and while others dried up or died, he published his way to fame." ("The Unquiet Englishman," The New Republic, 1995)

Greene claimed that he wrote 500 words a day. That isn't much compared to Jack London's 1,000 a day, or Trollope's 2,000 (and Trollope had a day job at the post office). Even if one writes with ease, setting for oneself a daily minimum is a discipline that I could never manage. Writing for a deadline, I have found, is often the only way to get to the end of a piece of writing. As Auden claimed, a poem "is never finished - it is abandoned." With a few exceptions, I have never heard of a serious writer who loved to write. People who love music but who can't play a musical instrument make the common mistake of assuming that the pleasure they feel when they listen to a musician perform is shared by the musician himself. For the person making the music, the experience is altogether different. Certainly writing well has its highly personal satisfactions, not least of which is the elusive, fleeting transcendence of self. But look at any writer's life and try to imagine them admitting that writing is anything but a chore - a kind of mental hard labor, sitting alone for hours of the day, filling page after page, struggling with words that never seem to quite catch what it was they meant to express, that have s spurious life of their own on publication, with nearly always an unsatisfying result. It answers a deeply neurotic need. One has only to observe the struggles of so many gifted writers to make a living entirely from their writing to see what a thankless profession it can be, once one has chosen to be more than a pen-for-hire.

The only attention I ever managed to attract to my writing in the past twelve years has been for my film criticism. But the most important event in my life as a writer occurred just eight years ago when I became, for the first time in my life, politically conscious. Of course, it came about entirely through reading. Ideas that I had always been aware of suddenly made powerful sense to me. And, strangely, it is only since I accepted the sense of them that I began to see greater possibilities in my writing. I quickly learned that there is an agenda behind every piece of writing.

When I started this blog five years ago today, my expressed intention was to gather all of my film writings together in one place, with my name on it, reflecting my own agenda. Since disembarking in the Philippines in November 2007, I have had a great deal more than films to observe and to write about. But having no fixed residence for my first several months here made it difficult to concentrate on the blog, and the number of posts dwindled to nearly nothing. Since the Fall of 2008 (a seasonal demarcation that doesn't exist here in the tropics), I have averaged close to two posts a week. I have avoided diaristic entries or occasionalia, and I never managed to compose a piece at a computer (I don't have one). I have written them with pen and paper in my home before transferring them to my blog in one of several internet caf├ęs. In my [in]capacity as a retired man, this is the closest thing to going to work as I can get. I have commented on as wide a variety of subjects as I could. Looking over the posts from the past three years, I have commented on film (my touchstone), literature, politics, sexuality, religion, sports, history, and that most thorny of subjects, my own life.

I published 100 posts in 2009, 105 in 2010, and 132 last year. I am on track to publish another 100 this year. If I averaged 750 words per post, that's one good-sized novel I could've written every year for four years. At 80,000 words per year, that's 160 days' worth for Graham Greene, 80 for Jack London, and just 40 for Anthony Trollope. It's something to think about.

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