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Hi. My name’s Philip and, apparently, I’m an addict.
Turns out, try as I might to neutralize it, I’m addicted to words. And sentences. And paragraphs. To grammar. And stories. And books. Glorious books! And thus I’m back with you today — as Tom and Pam and Charles may have already known I would be. Eventually.
George Orwell reminisces that he knew from the age of five or six that he was going to be a writer, though he qualifies this certainty with the recognition that “[b]etween the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books.”
I, likewise, seem to find myself “outraging my true nature” on an almost daily basis as I — consciously or otherwise — scheme to try to keep the siren call of the keyboard at bay. ‘Cuz I’m already busy enough with work. And with family. With trying to keep the house clean, and pay the bills, and plan for this summer’s vacation. Yet the more I try to quash these impulses to compose, the more they coalesce — fester, really — below the surface, gaining ground on me even as I struggle to keep them in check.
It hurts to write — at least to try to write well. It’s a difficult, solitary, alienating process, and not for the faint of heart. But it hurts me more, though in a very different way, not to write. As with the protagonist of the very first short story I wrote for Writers’ Group who simply can’t keep the supple iconography of a once-glimpsed adolescent bathing beauty out of his mid-life noggin, eventually such suppressed agony will always find its way to the light:
“It is this crescendo of images [of the young, scantily-clad teenager] that he fears most. They would come upon him without warning, overpower him and leave him nearly spent, exhausted from trying to keep them at bay, but, as on the very day itself, unable to look away, unable to disentangle himself from the misery that the images would eventually leave draped around him. In the midst of the memory, which he now suffers with alarming regularity, he feels fragile, barely capable of controlling himself. He feels encumbered by some sort of toxic, sexual Tourette’s, anticipating the twitching and sputtering and pornographic language of his obsession that he imagines at any minute must surely come pouring from him like rancid, projectile vomit, leaving him shaking and used up and alone, with nothing left to him but his own strangely muddled desires and humiliation.”
How’s that for a creative call to arms?
It is with a similar, nearly debilitating anxiety, that I continually find myself stringing words together. Not because I want to, you understand, but because — as much as it hurts and as much effort as it requires — it ultimately does me less psychic damage to write than not to write. And yet as true as this may be, even this is only true up to a point. Because that’s what writing is as well — a shifting quicksand of ideas and perspectives where we cling to certainty at our peril.
“Art is a lie that let’s us realize truth,” posits Picasso. And this is certainly as valid for writing as it is for painting. Perhaps even more so where “stories” are concerned. Still, the fact that fiction isn’t “real” has always been something of a sticking point with me as well. What kind of a person freely chooses to spend huge swaths of his limited lifetime in the netherworld of make believe at the expense of his actual human existence? With his literal head — or, more explicitly, perhaps, the imaginative capacity of his mind — stuck up his proverbial arse?
I guess there’s “truth” and then there’s “Truth.” The former is rather more straight-forward than the latter. It’s the brick wall that you walk into when you’re not paying attention to where you’re going. Or the 9-to-5 work you do on a daily basis without really thinking about it. It’s the place where you simply “act” and “re-act” to whatever your life throws at you. A place where “being” is only as valid as the natural laws — physical, chemical, biological — that constrain such a reality.
Creatively, however, as writers we’re after something far more elusive than the simple interplay of physics and chemistry and biology. What we’re after, I would argue, is no less than “Truth” itself. That’s the value the writer brings to the table. What is it to live? To love? To dream? To suffer? To exist as a human being? A real-word response to these questions only gets us so far. On the other hand, what the artist seeks to expose, I believe, is the Platonic ideal that animates the very essence of an issue, the existence-ness of existence that unites us in ways that our mere bodies simply cannot. The once and always, perpetually elusive, physically transcendent, “heart of the matter.”
Why do I write? To lance some some sort of intellectual, creative boil that continues to arise within me unbidden. Ultimately, I suppose, it’s all a mind trick. Everything’s a mind trick. These are not the droids you’re looking for.
Or are they?
(Written on the occasion of my return to my local Writers’ Group earlier this year after an eight month absence.)
‘Art is a lie that makes us realize truth’ (Pablo Picasso, 1923)
For me, when I break it down, I think writing is a meta thing.
I write, I am slowly beginning to realize, to figure out why I write. Not to re-present a life, but to seek to expose Life. The search for some kind of Platonic essence that transcends existence by its very existence-ness. A sort of philosophizing from first principals without the requisite guise of academic convention.
Maybe creating all art is like this. I dunno. All I know is writing and architecture. What you might consider the “slow-burn” arts. Where the practice of the visual arts (drawing, painting, sculpture) or music (singing or playing a instrument) is concerned, on the other hand,— those forms of artistic expression with substantially more inherent immediacy — I draw a blank. Nada. I’ve a huge appreciation, certainly. But insight or ability? Not so much.
And that gets me into trouble sometimes — ‘cause I get jealous. Jealous because the painter or singer can make an instant, visceral connection with an audience in a way a writer — at least a writer of anything longer than a haiku or short poem — simply cannot. Plus, once they reach a minimal level of competence in their field (not always an easy thing, I grant you that at least), they can generate and be out there flogging their latest still life or love song in little or not time at all. As competent as I become, however, it takes me a long time to write and publish that novel. And if it doesn’t quite take off, well, that’s years of my life I can’t get back.
In just under two weeks from now my writing group is undertaking a public reading of some of our work at a local library. I was instrumental in backing the group into this particular corner because early in the new year I kept on at them about how frustrated I was that yet another local artist was having a lovely showing of their watercolours or oils in the library foyer. Or I had been to a benefit concert where the singers and musicians had those in attendance tapping their feet, clapping their hands, and hooting with appreciation. Meanwhile, all we did was meet sheepishly once a month and read passages of our latest work to one another. But damn it, I challenged (pleaded?), we were artists as well! Weren’t we? (The answer, of course, was “yes,” but, as our intrepid facilitator Tom pointed out, apparently some of us “artists” needed a little more external validation than others!)
God only knows how the evening is going to turn out. We’ve put posters up, and are trying to get the word out with PSA’s and news releases, but, in my mind’s eye, I can already see the assembly in front of me as I stand at the lectern about to get underway. The first row comprised of a handful of spouses and / or significant others (who, by now, have probably heard the material enough times to be thoroughly bored with it already) and a few really close friends who feel obliged to attend though, if truth be told, they’d probably be having more fun at home watching the Stanley Cup playoffs with a cold beer in hand. Then, behind them, a veritable sea of empty seats. Empty until you come to the last row that is. The last row is packed — populated entirely by a gaggle of hobos and rubbies, whose “Free Admission” has gained them unimpeded access to the “Light Refreshments” advertised in our promotional material.
I wish I had some clever McLuhan-esque interpretation of how this should go down. Or, at least, some explanation of why we’re not going to pull in the same droves of people we would if we were, say, an amateur jazz quartet instead of just four writers. Something about how the medium relates to the message. Because as engaging as the various snippets of our stories might turn out be, ultimately we’ll be nothing more than talking heads. Nobody’s going to be stomping their feet or singing along with abandon.
Maybe these reading things only work when the author is already well known and the event is more about simply being in the same room with such an accomplished wordsmith than it is about listening to what he or she has to read. Maybe, until you’ve already made a mark of some sort, you should simply be satisfied if every now and then someone curls up alone in a corner somewhere and dives into something you’ve written. Maybe, in the final analysis, that remains the best way for writers to communicate with their “audience” — not with them sitting in front of you, but, instead, with them in that place where they truly have the time and freedom to embrace the work, to sit and think with the author’s mind.
The disconnect I suppose I’m stumbling over here is that writers aren’t typically performers in the same way as, well, performers, are. (Traditional storytellers might be, but that’s a different blog altogether). If you’ve got a half-way decent voice and can play your own guitar accompaniment, hell, you can busk on the street — singing somebody else’s songs — and people will typically throw at least some coinage in your direction. I wonder how much money I’d make standing there reading somebody else’s book out loud? Ironically, it’d probably be about the same amount I’d make standing there reading my own work — zilch!
Okay, the pity party’s almost over. As convoluted as my ravings have become at this point, I think what I’m trying to say — with a tip of the hat to Tolstoy — is that though the creative process seems strangely similar from individual to individual, different types of artistic endeavours are difficult in different ways. I think one of the reasons writing is so hard is because people think it’s so easy. Most folks would admit freely that they can’t paint, or sculpt, or play the oboe or piano, but I imagine many of them think they could write something, in one form or another, if called upon to do so. They can speak after all, and writing’s just an extension of that, right? This has the tendency, as you might imagine, of de-valuing the writer’s currency. Of placing our work in the realm of the potentially “do-able” for most folks, rather than the realm of truly inspired creativity like, say, writing a pop song!
For me writing’s hard. Like pulling a full-grown elephant out of my butt hard. Then again, maybe I’m just a poor writer.