First off, let me apologize. I tried to write about several other topics: WikiLeaks, the U.S. educational system, even the new iPad update, but commas kept popping up, asides, and self-reflections on self-reflection, so I give up, and I invite you to check back in a few days after this need to write about writing has blown itself out. In reality, it’s hard to be more self-indulgent. Most people don’t actually want to know how the magician makes the elephant disappear. Fortunately, I don’t know either. Like I said, feel free to come back later…
Writing is the only art form that is so thoroughly about itself. All art forms are potentially symbolic, of course, but not so unavoidably self-referential. Hard to paint about painting, compose about composing or act about acting, but writing about writing is so natural that sometimes it’s hard not to. Shakespeare could barely avoid it, and if you read any great writer long enough, you’ll run across the piece that is either explicitly about itself, or so thinly disguised it makes Clark Kent’s glasses look like a burka. Don’t get me wrong, other art forms comment on themselves, guitar licks phrasing past licks, Beethoven out-bounding Mozart, Picasso refiguring the masters, but only writing can be about itself while it is also about something entirely different. The inside-of-it but outside-of-it thing that writing thrives on–The Open Boat, if you will.
“In the beginning was the word, and the word was God.” That’s writing for you. The word is on the page, and that word is God, and God is the writing of that word which creates God. In one sentence, an entire cosmography is born. The Hebrew goes even further and means something pretty close to, “In-beginning created God,” so the word be-re-SHIYT, “in-beginning,” is the word before God that creates God. I’m not being intentionally obscure; it’s this sort of self-reference that is the purview of writing and nothing else outside of self-consciousness. Undoubtedly, it has something to do with writing’s status as symbolized language and the deceptions language makes possible. Naturally, deception itself goes pretty far down the ladder: our distant capuchin monkey cousins deceive their companions for food all the time, but writing like this is more than simple deception. It is fabrication. The most sophisticated kind of deception, the lie. And though there is no way to reach into our simian past, we might speculate without blushing that lying for material gain was born right alongside lying for spiritual gain; we call one underhanded and the other art.
Writing is self-consciousness, and the farther it moves away from self-awareness, the worse it gets. Clichéd writing is nearly devoid of self-consciousness, but too much isn’t good either; too much self-consciousness leads to no writing, or writing that is so ironic it is masturbatory, or so self-involved that only your closest family members will give it the time of day. Modernist writing flirts with this, and in spite of the brilliance of some of its most luminous, it’s a tendency of dubious worth. Certainly, the hyper-literate deserve their fun too, but in the telling of stories, complexity gains no purchase on the truth that simplicity does not. It is unquestionably beautiful to watch Proust slalom down an entire page on the ski of a single sentence, but it is of no less worth to ball the truth into a fist and smack someone in the jaw with it as Raymond Carver does. On the other hand, maniacal simplicity should be no more elevated than its frizzy-haired cousin, complexity. The focus on either mistakes technique for the real objective of lying for spiritual gain, and that is depth.
Great writing, which is unavoidably spiritual, even in it’s fiercest materialist iterations, requires a magnanimous spirit. Arturo Bandini, of Jon Fante’s, Ask the Dust, knew this when he said that he could never hate a Mexican because he, Bandini, was a writer; writers had to love things. Hate kills art–among other things. Of course, for most of us, at some point the spirit flags; if you don’t believe me, watch a great artist lose his art in the animosity of his feeling for the newspaper business in the Fifth Season of The Wire. A magnanimous spirit, or if I may be allowed to play with cliché for a moment, a great soul, is concerned with technique only so far as the technique promotes the possibility of depth. And when I say depth I mean just that, the traveling inward towards an expanse, a profundity, a magnitude, the range of possibilities not seen this side of Bardo.
Yes, depth is the point. It doesn’t matter what sort of vehicle we use to get there, from Hemingway’s brevity to Joyce’s dizzying locutions of the night, from Biblical parable to Buddhist Jataka, to Flannery O’Connor’s mad compressions of Catholicism and violence, they all lie for spiritual gain. And lie they must in order to achieve spiritual abundance, because we are made of flesh. Our flesh is too gross, too heavy and wet for spirit’s arid magnitudes, and so we must create more slender sons and daughters to venture there. Jesus, Hercules, Buddha, Mohammad, Moses, Baha-ullah, Whitman’s “I”, Rumi’s “I”, Dante’s “I”, Jeffers “I”, Shakespeare’s Prospero; the gates to that kingdom are wide as a brane and tiny as a Planck length, and only the thin spans and insubstantial cables of metaphor will carry us over the threshold. The magnitude beyond them can only be explored by the lie, or if you prefer, the fiction, or the metaphor, the myth.
I know, of course, that for many of you it is a stretch to mash Jesus and Gautama into the same California Roll as the rest, but that’s the way I read them–mixed metaphor and all. They, along with the rest of their super-human crew, are the greatest human metaphors, greater even than the flesh. Lots of religious studies scholars disagree; in fact, several argue that the contents of the various books are nearly irrelevant; we should watch the adherents: what do they do? But for me, following the adherents is secondary scholarship. Instead, read the originals–unless you’re an anthropologist, in which case the adherents are your originals. Either way, people’s aspirations are no less relevant than their failures.
There’s a lot of leeway in this little schema. Writing is a broad human activity, and I’ve wandered into religious territory because that’s my concern; it need not be yours. Writing for entertainment alone is not a waste of time, no more than anything is a waste of time, since it’s all just time’s wasteland anyway. But I write to find the things that are larger than myself. I write in hopes that I’ll discover something, and in that way it’s entirely selfish. Please don’t mistake me, I want to find you–badly. I have no desire to write in obscurity, but if I focus too much on quantity, I fear that quality will prove more elusive than it already is. Indeed, it is exactly my selfishness that yearns for friendship.
Know that I am looking for you. When I write, you’re on my mind, in your living rooms, stuffed in your cubicles, hiking alone in the woods, the billionaire, the unborn, the dead, even the racist, especially the Muslim, the Dravidian, you there dying of AIDS, living with cancer, saving for breast implants, shooting at Crips, searching for Jimmy Choo’s, attending your daughter’s funeral, picking out clothes for your suicide bombing, all of you, enemy and friend, stranger, I am thinking of you. I know my writing can do nothing for you, but I hope that because of you, humility will hollow out this body that isn’t wholly body, turn it to a reed, teach it to play music it has no business playing, dance the jig it has no business dancing. It’s a vanity, no doubt, but a large enough one to keep me busy ’til the end. I look forward to being trampled by you all, and offer this meager arrangement of words in exchange.