Thursday, 25 October 2007

I know, why don't you write about why you love to write/why you write, and what you like about literature? Your own philosophy of your art.

Just hit play and start reading. Soundtrack!

I said in the comments of my books post that the person who found my intentional error got to pick my next topic,

Mel won the contest, finding the intentional error and being kind enough not to mention the numerous typos. That’s right: Hamlet was written by William Shakespeare, not Victor Hugo.

Mel’s question was “Why do you write?”

Why SOME people write:

For legacy. Nobody remembers England’s top swordsman in the year 1603, but everybody remembers Billy Shakespeare was writin’ him some plays. Some pretty good ones, too.

It’s validating, even gratifying to see one’s name in print – if you go to the TWU Library, you can look up and read my honours thesis: something I wrote is in a library! That’s pretty cool, isn’t it? It proves that I exist, in a way.

But here’s my real answer: why do I write?

In my second year of university, I bought a bunch of pocket-sized notebooks, and began carrying a notebook and two pens everywhere I went. Still now, nine years later, I always carry pens and pocketbook. The book catches phone numbers and appointments and, more importantly, little things that I notice around me.

You see, if waking up early helps a person feel (and thus BE) more productive, and having regular quiet time helps a person feel (and so become) more spiritually centered, and keeping a dream journal helps a person remember more of their dreams, then journaling helps me feel like I’m paying more attention to the details of life, and inevitably, I DO notice more, simply from the habit of writing down what I see.

It’s not for posterity, that’s for sure: having all those notebooks cluttering my shelf was never the goal -- and going over old journals has rarely borne fruit in the idea department – maybe two grains of wheat in a pile of chaff. In fact, during my second year in Korea, I lost the journal of my entire first year in Korea, in a food court. It was gone forever, but I wasn’t really upset:

The greatest benefit of keeping a journal, I realized then, is simply being the kind of person who is in the habit of noticing, and who respects his own thoughts and observations enough to write them down. The habit of noticing may lead to realizations, and even self-knowledge; it may not lead anywhere except to wonder, and that’s OK, too, but by conditioning myself to be receptive, I become more of the person I want to be – one who sees the world like a child, as a place spilling out wonder from hundreds of tiny cracks that nobody notices, or that everybody else also notices, but promptly forgets (I don’t actually think I’m that special – I just think I entertain thoughts and observations that other people dismiss – my filter’s on different settings, is all).

The little details? They can fill a life up, I’m convinced, with wonder and texture, differentiating one day from the next, or, if unnoticed, their absence can leave a life blank and indistinguishable from day to day. I love my day-to-day existence. Ask anybody who sees me every day.

In summary: I write because it makes me into. . . I won’t say a better person, but it makes me more and more of a person I’d like to be around.

Then, once it’s enriched my own life, why do I write about it and share it? Well, if you see a beautiful rainbow, you point it out to your friends, don’t you? I hope to publish. . . maybe this would be like sending a picture of a really great rainbow to a photography magazine, or putting it on your wall, so even more people can go “well goldurn, that’s a purty rainbow.”

I have another conviction: that every human has a deep desire to know and be known. We yearn for connection. Whether it’s because we long for the closeness we had with God in the Garden of Eden, or because our transcendent soul reaches through dharma to pull us back toward harmony with the true nature of things, or because we’ve been genetically imprinted to be social creatures by aeons of natural selection favouring the humans that work better as a unit, the fact remains that communion with others is a fundamental desire for almost everyone.

Writing is a way to know and be known.

I can know myself by writing – the directions stories take reveal something about myself, and the important things in my life. It’s a common phenomenon for people to discover that the simple act of talking, or writing a problem out often gets them over the hump of solving, or coming to terms with it. In my own life it has certainly been true that the communications I have with friends near and far have helped shape my self-knowledge. I can also share, and connect, and maybe we won’t feel so lonely, if we know that we were both deeply touched by a John Keats poem, or a Salinger novel.

Next question: why stories, then, Roboseyo, Rob, Roboseyo? Wanting to tell a story has little to do with noticing life’s details and trying to be as awake and aware and mindful as possible. Wouldn’t poetry do nicely for that?

Ah, that’s true. Poetry does nicely for little details and textures in life, and poetry was an important outlet for me all through my schooling. But. . .

Arthur Lee and Love: Alone Again Or -- again, hit play and read on.

First of all, I love stories. Love, love, love, LOVE stories. It’s my conviction that stories are the most powerful way to learn something – that’s why cultural values are transmitted through folk tales, myths, fables and morality tales (if you don’t believe me, read a book of Korean folk tales notice how the different values praised in Korean vs. Western folk tales exactly parallel many significant cultural differences.) People understand nihilism better after reading “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” than after reading a hundred pages of Nietzche. Holy texts use stories: every place you go searching for meanings, you find stories, for better and for worse.

The same way humans crave connection, I believe humans crave narrative – narrative gives MEANING, a purpose to the connections. A quotation from the Jewish Theological Seminary says, “A human life is like a single letter in the alphabet. It can be meaningless. Or it can be part of a great meaning.” We all want our lives to be part of a greater meaning. We want the random events of our lives to be part of a greater meaning, too. The story of us can be part of a great metanarrative like

“The Victory of Reason over Superstition”
“Humanity Careens Toward Ecological Disaster”
“Preparing for the Second Coming”
“Rising From The Ashes Of The Korean War”;

we also fit our lives into smaller narratives like
“The Courtship of Deb and Brad,”
“The Rude Guy at Work”,
"How I Learned to Stop Grieving and Love My Life"

and we even remember and define events and relationships with micronarratives like
“That Crazy Night Piper Tricked Me Into Drinking Bacardi 151,” or
“My Failed Attempt to Become a Tea Expert"
“The Rise and Fall of My Friendship With X”.

Scientists say the universe is made of atoms. My old Professor Szabo once said the world is made of stories, and I say the universe is made of meanings. Sometimes the meaning is as simple as "It is what it is", but reaching for meanings is our greatness. We're the only onese who could imagine ourselves improving our lot (another kind of narrative) rather than resigning ourselves to a life of hunting and being hunted.

So, Roboseyo, what are you trying to accomplish when you write?

I’m fascinated by stories, and by people, and the choices people make. Choices don’t appear in a poem, nor do characters (a poem is too focussed to ever catch more than a single gesture, a single facet) – you need a story for more than that. And if I can add some of the wonder of life’s little details and the poignancy of a person making an important choice, and the honesty of a character who seems to really breathe . . . well, that sounds like the makings of a pretty good story, doesn’t it?

I also believe that writing is an act of hope: hope that it IS possible to connect with another person, to write and be understood, to read and understand, to find a way for two minds to (partially) be one. It is an act of faith in humanity, that we CAN reach each other, and maybe even improve each other’s lives. Sometimes it takes a bit of courage to believe that, but I think writers must.

Of poetry, John Keats said once that “I feel assured I should write from the mere yearning and fondness I have for the beautiful, even if my night’s labours should be burnt every morning and no eye ever shine upon them” – John Keats, letter to Richard Woodhouse, 17/10/1818

He didn’t write to have people pat him on the back and say, “You’re a great writer” – he was given over to the beauty of the world he saw, and the best way he could express it was to write, regardless of who read it later.

Those moments of beauty and insight, those moments of choice and truth, are the ones we live for.

Sometimes, I think the job of a writer at its purest, is to get the hell out of the way – characters and images and stories come, and a humble writer, committed to serving the story, will interfere as little as possible as the story takes its most perfect form. This requires a self-critical eye, or, I prefer saying, the ability to listen to one’s own writing, and encourage it (like a parent to a child) to become its best self. If I try to control it too much (like a protective parent), the story will never be bigger than my own limited abilities, but if I can get lost in the wonders of the moments and characters I want to create, maybe I’ll move out of the way enough that they can take the step from my mind and/or senses, onto the page, without getting cluttered by my own ego.

(For a great example of a humble storyteller, watch Million Dollar Baby or Unforgiven – Clint Eastwood is a very humble filmmaker, willing to step out of the way and let a story tell itself; exactly the opposite of Martin Scorsese, whose films are great, but always seem to be saying “Hey, look at this guy! He sure is a great filmmaker!”)

Here’s a long quote from Flannery O’Connor, the subject of my University Honours Thesis, and one of the most influential writers in my life:

”People are always complaining that the modern novelist has no hope and that the picture he paints of the world is unbearable. The only answer to this is that people without hope do not write novels. Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. I'm always highly irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it's very shocking to the system. If the novelist is not sustained by a hope of money, then he must be sustained by a hope of salvation, or he simply won't survive the ordeal.

"People without hope not only don't write novels, but what is more to the point, they don't read them. They don't take long looks at anything, because they lack the courage. The way to despair is to refuse to have any kind of experience, and the novel, of course, is a way to have experience. The lady who only read books that improved her mind was taking a safe course--and a hopeless one. She'll never know whether her mind is improved or not, but should she ever, by some mistake, read a great novel, she'll know mighty well that something is happening to her.

Any questions?


bradj said...

Waitasec, Rob. Deb and I kissed courtship good-bye. We full-on dated! :-)

I write to see myself in the mirror. It's often only when I put something into words that I see the ways I need to change, or catch a glimpse of what matters most to me, or stay still long enough to appreciate anything.

Photography does that too, sometimes better, sometimes worse...

bradj said...

As I've thought more about this, I've realised that I also write to be my own dictionary. I write to lock down what I mean, what I stand for in a way that I can read that again later.

The cool thing about primarily writing on a blog is that it's constantly under revision... :-)

Roboseyo said...

I like how you say that -- to write a self-dictionary.

sometimes I'm actually loath to write about some things, because sometimes an idea or an interesting afternoon or a conversation gets crystallized by being committed to words -- I have a few stories that I new remember not as they really happened, but as I tell them for the story, and it's a few subtle differences that make for better storytelling, but that sometimes excise the ambiguities or subtleties, or certain details.

that's why I think writers often need to be careful about waiting for the right time to write about something -- to give their feelings about a topic or an event some space and retrospect.

Even WB Yeats was constantly revising his poetry, even long after publication, to improve them.

though there may also be a point where a writer has to turn the page or let something lie.