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I’m tempted to list this article under the ‘love/relationships’ section. Because that’s what I have with writing: love, a relationship. (Sometimes hate, too; sometimes loathing. Writing can induce a very special type of self-loathing, triggered by hours spent at the keyboard, fingers moving furiously but not a single worthwhile sentence appearing on the screen. Then, later, abandonment of the project. Hours tick by, sometimes days, depression leaks in, soon delirium. Blank Word documents lurk beneath the hidden miasma of my brain, enticing, and then it’s back to the writing thing again. But that’s not what this is about. This is about writing as a lifestyle. Not about the bad days.) Writing, my splendid partner, consists of so much more than just writing – the act of putting words to paper. In the same way a romantic partner is made of more than nice eyes and witty humor, so is writing multifaceted and charming in unexpected ways. This is my love letter to writing.
Writing is a skill, a craft. Any aspiring writer must – must – learn writing’s rules, grammar and all. Being able to comfortably convey one’s emotions while remaining grammatically correct can take years. After that, every writer is rewarded with the ability to experiment. They’ve mastered the rules – now how can they break them? Virginia Woolf and James Joyce used the stream-of-consciousness narrative style; Nabokov’s unusual word choices make him distinctive; Italo Calvino wrote in second person. Anne Sexton’s poems are daringly honest, E.E. Cummings obliterated punctuation, Dante dared to compose poetry in vernacular Italian rather than the then-customary Latin. The list goes on, but a writer doesn’t have to be renown or even original to experiment. In fact, I am experimenting right now, with nonfiction. I’m a novice with essays, and subsequently essays offer me the exhilarating thrill of newness that accompanies foreign territory.
Writing requires fearlessness, whether that fearlessness is noted or not. Do not mistake the common introversion of writers for meagerness; writers are inching out of their comfort zones always.
Consider a writer of fiction. Perhaps this writer has been writing for three years, and has never written anything outside of first person. One day, they try third person. They attempt it briefly, smack in the middle of a work that’s otherwise in first person, and the sentences suddenly feel impersonal, sterile and cold, like crawling into the clean sheets of a hotel bed and finding you miss your used comforter. The sentences clank and stumble, and the writer mutters, “Dreadful!” and hits backspace until all the evidence of experimentation is cleared off the page. They continue in first person, taking a deep breath and leaning back, comfortable again. Third person failed. But they tried. And they’re going to try again. They won’t be able to help it. Eventually, third person will feel good to them. They’ll like it. It’ll become just another tool to be applied when appropriate, left alone when not.
A personal story: As previously mentioned, nonfiction is new to me. For me, writing fiction was never voluntary. I did not decide to write – something insisted I write, something I’ve never been able to identify. My beginning endeavors with nonfiction started similarly. I had ideas about current events and personal philosophies, and these ideas swished around my head like some noxious fluid. I kept them around for a while, hoping that if I ignored them they would stop their swishing, but ideas are insistent like nothing else. Eventually, they had to be written.
Deciding to write down my ideas was the easy part, the relief. It was like a therapy session, during which all the anxious patient’s worries are rationalized away, but then the patient has to reenter the world and figure out how to function with their new, rational thoughts. I had no idea how to write nonfiction – still don’t. But this is fun, this is experimental. While writing fiction involves frequent daydreaming, nonfiction requires mindfulness. I must focus, become aware of my thoughts, locate and name them precisely. Writing nonfiction has required me to expand my reading, as well; I’ve discovered essays, speeches, blogs, journals, and letters. Each page of nonfiction is like a meal consumed, and I’m bloated on words. It’s satisfactory. I lean back and metaphorically pat my imaginary stomach. A glutton.
Despite the newness of my nonfiction writing, the essential act is the same. From Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, Prose describes writing as an act, “…done one word at a time, one punctuation mark at a time. It [requires] what a friend calls “putting every word on trial for its life”: changing an adjective, cutting a phrase, removing a comma, and putting the comma back in.” There’s a sweet familiarity about this process. It’s comforting.
Finally, the most lovely thing about writing, the cute freckle on its left temple that you find so endearing: Writing is an active process. Doesn’t sound as cute as a freckle? Doesn’t matter – it’s more fun. In my journey of reading more nonfiction, I’ve acquired a tome of Winston Churchill’s speeches. In 1908 he addressed a club of authors and said to them, “The fortunate people in the world – the only really fortunate people in the world, in my mind, – are those whose work is also their pleasure.” Churchill spoke of a writer’s pleasure – the active work.
Writing is not something one can do on autopilot. A teacher can grade papers while watching television, a cop in a safe town drives around aimlessly, a bored construction builder seeks distractions (radio, chatter, cat-calling), etc. An artist once told me he enjoyed drawing because it allowed him to zone into a state of tranquil “serendipity.” When he was drawing he would occasionally cry out, “This is it, this is serendipity!” But even that serendipity lacks what writing has. An artist reaches a moment in his or her craft when lines and shades and colors are made from muscle memory, and the brain is partially free to roam elsewhere during the time of creation. Never so for a writer.
Writers cannot write without focusing. Writing is perhaps the only time, in my busy world, when I am so singularly focused. Each word is intentional, deliberate, consciously chosen. This is better than serendipity, and certainly better than television or cat-calling.
My friends and I enjoy watching the BBC’s modern remake of Sherlock. In one recent episode, Sherlock Holmes could be seen driving a car. My friends and I agreed that this seemed uncharacteristic. One of my friends commented, “I wonder why the screenwriter made him do that,” to which another friend responded, “He probably wasn’t even thinking.” No! No! That is the very glory of writing – that the writer must always think! And, once that can be appreciated, one can realize that Mark Gatiss, the screenwriter of the episode, made Sherlock drive because Gatiss had a goal in mind. The writer always has goals – usually more than one per scene. Perhaps Sherlock drove a car to seem more human, to show that his character is evolving, that living at 221B Baker Street is changing him. Sherlock Holmes driving could very well be a sign of his moral development. I’m not concerned with what was actually intended, at least not for the sake of this article. But something was intended, and that’s the beauty of writing.
Rather like a romantic partner, writing makes life more interesting. I may disappoint myself as a writer, often (Never fear! Keep practicing!), but writing will never disappoint me. It’s a beautiful process and I’m honored to take part in it.