Wednesday, September 2, 2015

comment from a lurker

A guy who reads this blog for some reason sent me a note after my last post. I had just promised to dump my mediocre literary output and then call it quits. His recommendation was similar to what my literary adviser, Blake Kimzey, told me earlier. Here's what the lurker said:
Get over your ambivalence about writing and just submit to what you are obviously compelled to do. You like to write, and you feel a need to write. So write and make no apologies for it. Who do you want as your audience anyway? Why would it make any difference?
I write first and foremost for myself. Those who wish to come along are welcome. Those who don't are just too stupid to worry about. Yes: dumb, undiscerning, lacking in taste. 
 Regarding the piece in the commentary, if you want to draw out that thread, about how people not caring about art is art's problem, and apply it to writing, that makes sense to me. Avoid the cliched stories that you lament, and keep doing your criticism. Keep doing your writing, whatever that is. You obviously just do it because that's you.
If I could restate this argument to make sure I get the gist, as if this were couples' therapy, I'd do it thus: There are a lot of activities I engage in whose value to the world I don't question, but I still do them. Chess, sex, stupid games on my phone, beer, super hero movies, Korean food. I do them because they don't hurt anyone and I enjoy them, and so it seems like there's no harm indulging. So why look the gift horse of writing in the mouth?

Good point. I probably am quibbling too much over the "why I write" question. I don't question the habit of writing for most people. But here, as succinctly as I can put it, are a few reasons why I might question it for me:

1) I'm not sure literature is harmless.  Literature is great at some stuff that's critical for society, like imaginatively assuming identities of the "other," forcing readers to re-think the familiar by upsetting linguistic or narrative expectations, and by resolving complex facts of reality into a comprehensible narrative framework for understanding the world through metaphor, analogy, allegory, parable, and similar tropes. But, as every book on writing fiction tells you, literature isn't the real world. Reading too much of it, though, tends to muddle your thinking by making you treat the real world as though it were a story. At least it did me. I've made some terrible decisions in life based on the heuristic that it's what a character in a book would have done.

2) Literature is a dangerous temptation to me the way religion is. My commenter, in suggesting that I have nothing to lose by writing and possibly something to gain, presented me with a kind of literary Pascal's wager. In religion, I object to this argument by noting that just because I stand (in the U.S.) nothing to lose and possibly much to gain by believing in God doesn't mean I can make myself believe in something I think is extremely unlikely.

Literature took over a place in my life when I left religion. Its role was to help make the disordered universe seem to have enough order that I could live in it. But I end up conflating literature and life too much, thinking that there is a point to life like there is to literature, or that there is an intelligence behind the plot of my life and that one day everything will make sense. Or worse, that there is some great purpose to my life that I'm supposed to discover. Thinking like this is likely to make my life worse, rather than better, because I end up making decisions as though there were some magic key for me to discover that will unlock my life.

3) This applies to other types of writing as well as fiction. I can't believe anyone listens to anything I say. I have no idea what I'm doing in life, I can't figure anything out, and all I've accomplished with all my attempts to become an intellectual is the realization that I know nothing. I should really shut up and never write anything.

And yet, life often presents me with situations like what used to happen all the time in college classrooms. The professor would ask something and nobody would say anything. Eventually, I couldn't take the silence, and I'd raise my hand and answer. Then, I'd do it again. I'd try to give someone else a chance, but then that person would say something so stupid I couldn't take it, and I'd have to rush it to get the sound of that person's voice out of my head. But then, at the end of the class, I'd worry that I was an asshole for talking the whole time, even though nobody else seemed to either want to or to be any good at it.

That's what writing is like for me. I think I've figured a few things out, and nobody else is saying them. So I say them. Then, because I'm the only one saying them, I feel like I must be either a moron or an asshole or both. I can't share your confidence that if nobody likes it, it's them. I think that sometimes, and then I also think that it's me. I vacillate between thinking I'm an idiot and "they're" all idiots.

You're right that I feel "compelled" to write, like I'm supposed to do it. But isn't this more religious thinking? That because I think I have some unique wisdom, it's my duty to share it?

I don't know. I'll probably end up still writing, even after I try to quit. My best bet is to substitute something else for it. My family has been that substitute for a while, but I do kind of feel like I will always need something to keep my brain occupied, so I don't have to deal with all this school-room silence from the universe. I'm thinking either a whole new round of volunteer work or going back to school for a second bachelor's degree, this time in something more useful than English. 

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