Thank you, again, for your patience as you awaited this post, which was delayed due to the November madness known as Thanksgiving. Thank you too for your tolerance of a literary blog that has recently looked like anything but a literary blog, due to the November-Decemember madness known as finals. I guess, even at the end of the day, even a writing student is still a student, so thanks for putting up with my craziness. I promise I'll start sounding intellectual and geeky again soon.
As my last full-time semester of undergrad draws to a close, I've begun to realize how easy it's been to focus on the negativity of it all. Hands down this has been the toughest semester of my life -- academically and emotionally. Exceptionally challenging courses + grad school apps + senioritus + sad about graduation + life = one horrendous roller-coaster ride. Thanksgiving break was good for me as a time to wind down and contemplate it all with a calmer mind. In the busy-ness, it's so easy to get lost in the misery of things that I'll miss, things I wish I did better, and things that I've just plain hated. But at the end of the day, Self, look where I am. Even if I completely fell apart, failed every course this semester, and got rejected by every grad school I've applied to, I've still accomplished so much, and lead such a rich life.
So, fully aware of the cliché involved in this move, here's my list of things that I'm grateful for -- this semester and always:
Books: because a well-turned phrase is more delicious than a box of chocolates
Notebooks: because a scattered mind requires a place to keep scattered thoughts
Mornings: because they have possibilities
2 a.m. Writing Sprees: because "even night is not night enough" for the inspired writer (Franz Kafka)
Bribed Proofreaders . . . I mean friends: because my writing is close to my heart, and deserves nothing less than to be discussed heart-to-heart with someone I trust
Art: because every so often, I need to break from being the artist and to simply appreciate someone else's art
Music: because it is the one force that exclaims what even words cannot
Silence: because it makes the inner voice so very talkative
Deep Conversations: because there is no subject, no drama, no story, without people made vulnerable
Love: because, at the end of the day, everything is worth nothing without it
Reader, finals are kicking my senioritis-infected-but-still-a-perfectionist-bitch tush at the moment, so I'll keep it brief.
As I was reflecting on my last post regarding freewrite (written in freewritten form), I thought it might be helpful to try a few more let-loose writing techniques that allow me to release a creative flow without the burden of polish. Oh trust me, it hurts -- it hurts a lot. We all know how much I shudder at the thought of producing anything that isn't my best. But I'm gradually trying to embrace the idea that, for creative output to be the constant habit that I want it to be, it can't possibly all be perfect -- it will slow me down, and make me go insane. So -- at your expense, reader -- here's another attempt to write without polish, one big chaotic mess of words:
make me your hideous diary your cave of secret despair
the bright little jar to hold your joys i will encompass you
Alright. *Intellectual side off* Here we go: so
this weekend i had a little bit of a breakthrough regarding writing
habits, because we should all know by now that my habits are terrible,
but more so i'm terrible at changing them, i just tend to assume that i
can only write successfully the way i've been writing because hey, i
seem to be producing pretty good stuff so it must be working, right?
wrong. or, maybe some of its wrong. but the point is i psyche myself out
more than i should when i don't really need to. anyway, i discovered
this book by janet burroway called writing fiction (oh hey look an excerpt
just for you!) which remind me that i really ought to read more
metawriting / writing about writing / writers geek heaven resources when
i have the time, but this book had a chapter -- the beginning chapter
actualy -- that talks about what has always been the hardest part for me
in writing which is simply how in gosh darn's name do i start the damn
thing?? by now you should kno that i'm someone who is perfectionist i
hate putting anything on paper that isn't bperfect not just in terms of
proofreading (ah now you know why i didn't spellcheck here) but int its
content effect language WORDING holy crap that beginning has GOT to be
the hook that draws people in and every line after that must work
smoother than butter on warm toast (shit where did that anology come
from? corn central) plus i am a student working with deadlines sooo not a
moment can be wasted, so i think. full day of complete concentration
must be applied to the production of this story and yes of course as a
writer writing should be THAT dedicated, that meticulous, but i stress
myself out to the point where i stare at the computer screen that
intimidating white page glaring at me and can't put down anything for
the sheer fear of it. FREEWRITEmy teachers say IT'S LIKE A MUSICIAN
WAMRING UP WITH SCALES hey don't pul the musician one on me i AM a
musician so i know this but musicianship and writing are two very
diffrent things, in music THE PIECE IS THERE, it's RIGHT THERE in front
of you, now you just have to interpret, whereas the book is not written
nothing exists until you put down each and every word. ugh sorry i'm
getting carried away. anyways those are usually my stubborn responses,
but reading janet burroway is the first time i've heard the freewrite
advice and actually decided to apply it. because freewrite emma might
very werll seem like a waste of time to you but trust me, in the long
run, it'll relieve that awful headache of staring at a blank screen, the
dread of STARTING. so let your start be ugly YES FREAKING UGLY nobody
ever has to see it but you, it can mean nothing, or it can be a dialogue
with yourself about your work, for example two boys on road-trip (to where??? maybe fishing -- maybe their grandfather(?) or
uncle always took them fishing?) I don’t know too much about fishing so
what’s something I can do instead . . . camping? . . . you see? you
just avoided an obstacle before you got to it, and you did it in an ugly
fashion, and it saved you time and stress in the longrun. or even if
its not about your story and you're only complaining about intimadating
teachers or how much this writing process is absolutely awful the point
is to write SOMETHING, just DO IT, even if its only function is to be
lazy about a blog post during finals. :) Grace and peace to you.
I'd like to take a step back from the purely writing-related topics to talk about something more general and personal. The college experience, as a whole, has been haunting me relentlessly in recent weeks. Most likely, this is because it's currently November of my senior year. Finals are closing in, grad school applications deadlines are approaching, and my amazing, all-too-short years as a college student are coming to an end.
All-too-short? It's funny I should say that. After all, I've been in the higher education world for almost six years now. I was an early starter at college, going part-time at a community college at sixteen, so by now I've been an undergrad for a little over half a decade. That's a sobering thought. I'm only barely under 22, which means I've spent almost a quarter of my life in the college setting. By now I should be sick of it, shouldn't I?
But I'm not. In fact, I'm mortified that it's ending. Particularly at Westfield State, my college years have been the happiest I've known. If I had all the money in the world, I'd go to school for life -- and that's not an exaggeration. But it's not because I'm in love with all-nighters (which suck) or parties (which I never go to) or the delayed immersion into the "real world" (which is scary, but not paralyzing) that I wish to prolong the experience. My attraction to the academic setting is due to -- dare I say it -- a love of learning. I'm a scholastic glutton. I adore the intellectual stimulation, intelligent discussions, and detailed investigations. And of course, in an English degree, such pursuits are entirely useless -- how will analyzing the nuanced metaphors in a Keats poem achieve anything for society? How, indeed, will much of the knowledge we acquire in college -- particularly outside our field of interest -- help us professionally down the road? (I mean, Botany 101? How will plants make me a better writer?) Why expend our energy in so many areas of learning?
I can't speak much for society. But as an individual, I know that the act of learning itself has made me a better person. It's taught me to be curious, to examine closely, to never passively accept an idea without first exploring it myself. And I will never regret taking such a diversity of courses -- especially the "useless" courses; in addition to producing a well-balanced brain, they have shown me how a person ought not to be narrow in their interests. They've taught me to appreciate how multifaceted our world is, how vast and unknowable even as we constantly strive to know it.
To put it in the simplest terms, learning has taught me to think. In such a practical society that praises production and great works of progress, it's difficult to imagine that contemplation, on its own, is so valuable to human experience. But life is so much more than what we make; it is also how we see, how we feel, how we react. Contemplation is what keeps us from being utilitarian robots and makes us human. For my part, I've always believed that to be "a better person" means to strive for the best in our human capacities -- emotional, spiritual, intellectual, physical. Constant learning, then, betters the individual as our perception becomes deeper, wider, more balanced -- that is, as we make the most of our mental faculties.
Whatever the reason, learning is an art that I will cherish for life. I hope to never stop being curious. I hope never to stop exploring and asking questions. Most of all, I hope to never get so lost in the doings and happenings of daily life that I forget (God forbid) to think about it all.
What began last week as something intended to be short and simple turned into (as all my posts do) a lengthy rant. In last week's case, a sort of Divine Praises to Mary Oliver. (Non-Catholics, sorry for the vague reference. Catholics, sorry for any unintended blasphemy in my humor.) At any rate, clearly the adoring fan-girl side got the better of me.
To continue last week's discussion, I was describing Mary Oliver's portrayal of the habits of the writer, and how the little notebook she carries demonstrates a constancy in artmaking, a series of daily rituals that never end. It's a way of life I have yet to perfect, but one I am striving for always. Or rather, better to say that my environment is demanding it always. To quote another recent favorite female author, Virginia Woolf -- that frustrating but magnificently deep writer of the unconscious -- "Passing, glimpsing, everything seems accidentally but miraculously sprinkled with beauty" ("Street Haunting"). Everything I encounter calls for attention. Every image on the street is a detail -- who's to say how vital a detail -- in a story I don't know. Every stranger or even friend I pass by, as I catch snippets of their conversation or notice an expression on their face, is carrying a life-story, one that I will probably never know to the full -- yet, "into each of these lives one could penetrate a little way." These observations are fragments, fragments of stories everywhere. Pieces that the writer gathers and ties together to make something whole out of it all. At the end of the day, every fragment of my life is a piece of the story I am longing to write.
And so, Ms. Oliver, here is my humble tribute to your small notebook, your "Pen and Paper and a Breath of Air," all your glorious writing habits. My descriptions, single words, equations, poetic phrases -- but most of all, my fragments:
Excerpts from a Little Pink Notebook
The thrill of being that first bird who breaks the blue morning silence
A father gently shaking the child in his arms at the most intense parts of the music, to let her feel physically what is occurring in him spiritually
Is it only I who finds Whitman to be repulsively full of himself?
A sparrow drops soundlessly. I've always admired them for their reclusive nature, for speaking only when absolutely necessary.
For at least thirty years, and at almost all times, I have carried a notebook with me, in my back pocket. It has always been the same kind of notebook -- small, three inches by five inches, and hand-sewn. By no means do I write poems in these notebooks. And yet over the years, the notebooks have been laced with phrases that eventually appear in poems. So, they are the pages upon which I begin.
~ Mary Oliver, "Pen and Paper and a Breath of Air"
As an antiquarian at heart, there are few writers in the contemporary world with whom I can relate. A notable exception -- one who I've come to appreciate as a great heroine of the literary world -- is Mary Oliver. Though she is best known as a poet, I confess that I have actually not yet been acquainted with her poetry. But her nonfiction is brilliant. If I could make my writing look like any author's in the world, it would be hers.
Last summer, I encountered a little book of essays by her in a small bookstore. (Actually, it was a whole shelf, and with a skimpy wallet I had to struggle to settle for one selection.) The collection I bought was called Blue Pastures, and within days I had devoured all its words and wisdom. Oliver is an absolute sage in presenting the writer's day-to-day existence. Her essays in Blue Pastures are very much about the process and journey of being a writer. What I loved most about them was their eloquent manner of portraying the writer's life as something intimate, something contemplative. We see her at her desk frowning at interruptions, or outside wandering the wilderness, or as a young girl absorbing Whitman -- and always as a reflective, almost prayerful kind of scholar. It as though her whole daily universe was writing: the observation, the inspiration, the creation of it. In this sense, she has shown the habitualness of writing, how much it must saturate the writer's every moment.
One essay in particular stood out to me: "Pen and Paper and a Breath of Air," which provides excerpts of a small pocket notebook she keeps for moments of inspiration. For about a year now, I've kept a similar notebook -- mine pink and tattered from being stuffed haphazardly in purses and backpacks of all capacities. Whenever a phrase haunts me, or a certain sight I pass strikes me, I whip it out to jot down whatever words I can to record the idea. (This usually occurs while driving; I can't tell you how many times I've had to pull over to write even two words down.) In reading "Pen and Paper," I was glad to see this tradition validated by another, established writer. But more importantly, it struck me how much Oliver and I share -- if I dare presume so much -- in regards to the dailiness of our writing.
There is no moment, to my knowledge, when the writing process stops for me; it is always happening. True, the times I physically sit down to write are relatively sparse. My perfectionist nature is such that the actual practice of putting words into a word document is one to which I must devote an entire day -- hence, it is not a frequent ritual. But for me, writing is more than simply that one step of physical production. It's a habit, an addiction, a constant mode of mind. I see sunlight -- I appreciate. I read a book -- I contemplate. I hear a phrase in my mind -- I am inspired. These are the necessary steps in writing, which take about 80% of the entire procedure. What is finally written, what finally goes on paper (or, on the computer) is something I've accumulated throughout the day. The process never stops.
To be an artist -- and I truly mean be, in terms of identity and existence -- one's artmaking must never end. It must be the lens through which one sees and feels everything, even if only on the subconscious level. It ought to permeate every aspect of our life. It is very much like being in love: even when we are not physically embracing our beloved, love never clocks out, it is always there.
Recently, I was having a conversation with a friend who is a musician by profession, and who has read some of my writing. In discussing the differences of our work, said friend made an interesting comment about the contrasting dynamics (ha) of how we approach our pursuits: “My work is mainly interpretive, whereas yours is entirely creative; you have to create something out of nothing.” Whether this statement was a compliment of sorts or simply an observation, there was something about it that stuck with me, and not necessarily in the right way. I think it was the word he used:
Geez, what a weird word.
It shouldn't be so strange to me. After all, I've frequently referred to my writing as “creative” work, and “create” is only a suffix away from that. Certainly, creativity is the leading element for what I do -- it takes a creative mind to arrange words and ideas into a story, to make language aesthetically pleasing and entertaining. And certainly my friend's description was accurate, in this sense: the written story, the arrangement of words, doesn't exist until I put it all together. So why does “create” bother me so much? Maybe it’s because I've never thought of myself as (to add another suffix) a “creator.” An artist, yes, but a creator never. For a religious person like me, the term "creator" connotes a divine parent, One who forms true substance out of true nothingness. The act of creation here, then, is a godly one, since it originates solely from the will of He who creates and not from any preexisting materials. I'm sure my friend wasn't thinking as philosophically as I am about these terms, and I'm certain that comparing me to divinity is nowhere near to what he had in mind. But to think of myself as someone who "creates" seems conceited, in a way -- not to mention inaccurate.
Perhaps this is only my own, silly paradigm, but I don't see artists as creators. Inspiration, and consequently art, doesn't simply come from nowhere; it is not pure creation-out-of-nothingness. Rather, art by its nature -- by human nature -- is driven and provoked by something outside of itself. As humans living in reality -- a reality made up both of the physical world and the interior processes -- we are constantly being affected by our experiences. We didn't invent this reality, nor did we order it to influence us in certain ways. We are simply submerged in it. Where individual creativity arises is in how we react to that already-created force.
Even those abstract works, which claim to be a pure creation of will detached from representation, are still but reactions to reality -- in this case, the wish to question it. We can't escape the world or the ways it influences us; even our deepest, rawest interior life is still a part of reality. Art is always, in some form or another, tied to the environment we live in -- be that a direct representation or a depiction of emotional response. In this sense, the artist is not a inventor of something new; she is an interpreter, and expresser of what she perceives.
Am I insulting artists by lowering their status from creator to interpreter? I don't think so. From my view, there could be nothing more dignifying than drawing ourselves closer to our own humanity. We artists are not so different from anyone else, I believe. We are not some elitist group bestowed with the power to reshape reality. We are human. We see the world, we feel it, and known or unknown we try to react to and express that experience (and, for some reason, the way in which artists express it gets more attention).
Clearly, tomes could be written about the subject, and I apologize for the philosophical ramble. For fear of boring you for too long, let me draw it to a close with a more personal illustration:
For my own part, I have only ever thought of myself as an "appreciator," as one who is simply in love with everything I see. A lover looks at his beloved without any claim in her creation. He doesn't attempt to reinvent, reshape, or replace her (why would he?). Instead, in his limited way, he makes desperate, passionate endeavors to simply express her -- to gesture to her beauty, to capture her essence with his lovewords. When he pours out his emotions, it is she and her influence that he lauds, not himself. He is praising, in other words, the miracle that she was created. So it is when I write. I don't want to reinvent, escape, or question reality. All I want to do is point to the created world, and say, "Look how lovely it is." Whether you are religious or not, there must clearly be something greater driving the artist other than the artist's own wishes. And it takes a kind of humility, I think, to admit that.
Some of you may recall my bitter letter to Franz Kafka a few weeks back, in which I lamented about settling for fiction in order to avoid the merciless nature of nonfiction. From this, I imagine it would be easy to conclude that I am a disgruntled fiction writer who is dissatisfied with the genre I have chosen. But in spite of my natural, frustrated love for nonfiction, I must admit to you that I don't entirely hate fiction. I find it to have value on many levels. Sometimes, I believe, fiction can make us see reality more than reality itself can. Of course, here the literary criticism nerd in me immediately wants to delve into Viktor Shklovsky's concept of defamiliarization and the Aristotelian doctrines of art's moralizing potential, but I will spare you that unnecessary torment. For now, I will leave it at this: sometimes, we need fiction to make us look deeper at reality, and to wake us up to life's possibilities and purpose.
But for me, fiction has always been a shield. It's been my way of dealing with pain, even small pain. I take struggles that I've encountered, or seen those close to me encounter, and give it to someone else -- a fictional character. Only, I exaggerate it. Distort it. In my sadistic little way, I make the protagonist suffer more than me. It's strangely, wonderfully satisfying.
But beyond this sadism, there is also a kind of masochism -- albeit, a cowardly kind. When I encounter hardship, some stupid, creative voice inside of me says, "Oh my gosh, this will make an amazing story." I can't help but to see the charm in suffering. I find myself inexplicably drawn to it, desiring to shape it into something breathtaking. But understand, please understand: this isn't courageously facing my pain. It's distancing myself from it. Because, once it's on paper, dressed up in lovely little words, it's not mine anymore.
I guess I consider myself luckier than most, because I've found something to do with my tragedies: I turn them into a story. I crumple and twist them and knot them into a bow, until I've created something awkwardly pretty. I'm lucky to have found writing, because I don't know if I could deal with tragedy any other way. I envy the bravery of those who don't have writing and have to deal with the reality of their hardships--
Want to know what revision feels like for a writer?
Have a baby. Love that baby. Form it, nurture it, watch it grow in all its baby beauty. Then take that baby, pull off its limbs, stick the arms where the legs should be and the head where the chest should be and the eyes where the mouth should be and just throw out the ears altogether. Then hold up your disfigured, discombobulated baby to the world, with tears in your eyes and a forced smile on your lips, and say: "Look everyone, I fixed it."
(Disclaimer: I'm not actually advocating that you do this. Please don't mess up babies.)
The process of revision has always been a gory, painful process for me. As a perfectionist who can barely put down the word "the" without considering a stronger alternative, I'm always striving to make my writing flawless the first time around. My writer's brain doesn't know the meaning of "a rough draft" -- I'm simply incapable of producing cursory, unpolished, BS-ed work. That doesn't mean all of my writing is a publishable work of genius, though. It just means that my brain doesn't know how not be OCD-thorough.
It's having this perfectionist's curse, I think, that makes revision all the more excruciating. By the time I submit a short story or essay to my teachers, I've already put an obscene amount of sleep-deprived, nail-biting hours to generate my best work. So when a class workshop ends with a page full of suggested revision notes, it's like someone has taken a pencil to my chest. It's like someone telling me, "Your best wasn't good enough."
Maybe I shouldn't take it so personally. But I don't think I'll ever enjoy being told to bring my work to the dark dungeon of revision -- and I don't think I'll ever wander there by my own choice. Revision is not at all like the actual writing process. The bittersweet, meticulous steps of delving into a story, discovering its motions, and gradually building it will never be the same as revision. For me, revision feels like throwing a dam into a river, disrupting its natural flow. This is particularly true for musically-inclined writers like myself, who work to shape sentences around a sense of rhythm. Asking me to rearrange or alter the rhythms I've made would be like asking Beethoven to rewrite his foreboding Fifth Symphony in a waltz meter -- it throws everything off.
One of the most thought-provoking -- and intimidating -- explanations for revision came from my first creative writing teacher in college. She defined it as "Re-Vision," separate from editing in that this process requires us to consider our work from a different angle, to explore other possibilities, even to the point of reshaping it to be an entirely new piece. By instinct, all of my creative molecules wanted to protest in uproar against this maxim. I wanted to say, "But once you open the door to 'other possibilities,' where does it end? How will you ever know when a piece is perfect?"
But that, my dear Self, is just the point: there is, and there never will be, perfect.
The aim of revision is not to make perfection. Revision never claims to be the successful achievement of that one, perfect, flawless version of a story or poem. Writing, like life, is limitless -- a single story could transpire in any one of a hundred million different ways. There is no right, or wrong, or better, or worse -- there is only contentment.
Writer, don't be afraid of revision. Don't take the call to explore new avenues as an insult. Take it as a challenge -- to examine yourself critically, to pull yourself out of the mud of stagnant, narrow-minded thinking. Don't see it as changing to please others. Please yourself, boldly. Learn to be content, even with your most disfigured work.
1. distress or uneasiness of mind caused by fear of danger or misfortune.
I have to tell you something.
Utterly, hopelessly terrified.
In my opinion, my life has been full of a few too many existential questions lately. I guess being a college senior who loves writing but still has no idea how she plans to feed and clothe herself will do that to you. There are a myriad of questions that are -- no, not metaphorically -- making me lose sleep at night.
I once thought that people who found their dream were lucky; that once you know what you're meant for, the toughest part is over. You basically know what you have to do to get there, the rest is just a matter of hard work and careful planning. (Okay, that's really simplifying it, I know, but bear with me . . . ) I knew there would be obstacles, but if it's your dream, it's worth it, right?
The funny thing is, no one ever told me that I would have doubts about my dream. The more writing courses I'm enrolled in, the more I discover that inspiration is not the limitless wellspring I once thought it was; it dries up pretty quickly, especially under a lot of stress. (Don't believe the rumors: working under pressure isn't actually all that productive for artists.) As someone who wants to go to grad school for creative writing next year, this is a horrifying realization. What if I go to an MFA program, and then can't write anything? What if this is all a phase, a spurt of artistic luck, and then three years down the road I discover that I don't have the stamina to be a lifetime writer? What will I do then?
There are other questions related to grad school and near-future plans, ranging from wondering if I'm applying to the right genre to wondering if I'm even applying to the right field. But a major concern, I have to admit, is the travel aspect. Yes, I'm a homesick sap -- the idea of going to school anywhere beyond a few hours drive from home puts a queasy feeling in my stomach. Facing an unknown place with unknown people all by my lonesome is not really my ideal adventure. What if I'm lonely; or don't know how to take care of myself; or can't handle sleeping in an apartment alone at night because those irrational fears of Slender Man coming after me suddenly increase by a hundredfold? At the end of the day, it seems like life is just one big fat question mark:
What if everything I'm doing is a mistake?
These were the kinds of questions infesting my thoughts one day at school. I could barely walk by my teachers in the hallway without feeling like I was going to have a meltdown. But on this particular morning, stepping into the escape of a public restroom, I had an epiphany--
--yes, in a bathroom stall, of all places.
I halted as I entered the stall and let the door clank shut behind me. Being located on the basement level, the windows in this restroom hung about five feet above the floor, extending the length of wall. For privacy purposes, this particular window was frosted, its whiteness grimy with age. I recognized the shadows of trees behind it. Cracks of sunlight flashed between branches as they shook in the wind, projecting on the glass as small, quivering circles. I found myself leaning back against the door, staring in ridiculous awe at these orbs of light as they danced madly across a sullied bathroom window.
That was when I remembered why I'm here. Why I'm a writer. Why everything is going to be okay. Because I know that, no matter where I go, or what I do, I can take my eyes, ears, hands, nose, and tongue with me. No matter what wrong turns I take, there will always be something beautiful to see.
Don't bend; don't water it down; don't try to make it logical; don't edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.
~ Franz Kafka
Kafka, you haunt me.
Whenever I read these words, I am divided. One half of my heart swells in awe of your insolent wisdom, at your unabashed defense of the artist's impertinence. You forbid us to whitewash, to pretty-up the ugly corners of life. Do not tread lightly on reality, you insist, but delve deep, and without apology. Show life with all of its thorns, no matter who objects. Where inspiration leads, the writer should follow with frenzied passion.
The other half of me spits at you.
I don't believe my heart was made for fiction. It goes against everything that has made me a writer -- a love for daily life, a quiet belief that every "normal" person, including myself, has a story. The little struggles we encounter each day say much more about our humanity, I think, than some grand, fictional misadventure. The truth is, I long for nonfiction. I long for its contemplative nature, its ability to find meaning in the mundane. Most of all, I long for its potential to highlight reality, and say, "There's no need for fiction. Life is dramatic enough on its own."
But I need fiction, Kafka. I need it terribly.
With nonfiction, there comes a risk. There are many things in our lives that contain all the elements of a good story -- a mother's coldness, an uncle's cancer, a best friend battling alcoholism. If we stop to look around, we realize that the people we interact with everyday have tales begging to be told. But this fascination with the trials of others is dangerous. It requires us to investigate and speculate about people's private lives. The nonfiction writer must intrude -- often without permission -- upon someone's darkest, most intimate secrets.
What is wrong with us, Kafka? Why is it the darkness in people's lives, that which makes them most vulnerable, that inspires us most? We are sadists and parasites. Our work thrives upon the draining of others for our own gain. We delight in their shame, their injury, their deformities, exposing them for general entertainment and "the sake of art." We cannot see someone's wound, and leave it be. In our sick fascination, we pick at the scar, peek beneath its stitches, until it bleeds. Because as a writer, as an artist, we must know what’s inside.
You did well to choose the word "mercilessly," my dear Kafka. To write directly from reality, we have to adopt a kind of indifference. We can't care too much about our subjects; otherwise, we'd always feel guilty, and never write anything for fear of violating their privacy and soiling their reputation. This is why I write fiction. It was never because my life was uninteresting. My family life has been rocked by death and mental illnesses. My friends have been torn by scandal and abuse. There are always things to write about. But my conscience is my weakness. I don't have the stomach for trespassing onto others' lives, for being an invader. For you see, the greatest danger of being a writer is not the lack of things to write about. It is the risk of someone getting hurt. Did you ever love anyone, Kafka? Or did not loving give you the freedom to write?
When creating this blog, some of the most notable reactions I received from loved ones were a mix of intrigue and confusion regarding those two fancy words at the top of the page. In short, these reactions were finally summed up with my sister's raised eyebrow accompanied by her incredulous comment: "Hmm, 'Antiquarian Desiderium' . . . That's a mouthful."
Yes, yes it is.
I suppose words like "antiquarian" and "desiderium" are rarely encountered in day-to-day conversations. A quick search on the internet, too, shows some disagreement about their modern definitions. (Wikipedia, for example, tells me that "desiderium" means an internal sin within the mind. An interesting bit of trivia, but a statement on Christian morality wasn't what I was going for.) In this technological age ruled by Urban Dictionary and Twitter's 140-character limit, it's hard for me to defend my attraction toward an archaic vocabulary.
So why would I, a struggling writer who could sorely use a catchy self-marketing venue, give my blog a title that most readers can't pronounce?
Simple. Because I like cool words.
I can't help it. I've always been a sucker for those obscure, polysyllabic words that sound closer to their Greek and Latin origins than to English. I find myself getting giddy every time an unfamiliar word pops up on my Dictionary app's "Word of the Day" feature -- a textbook example of "geek behavior," I'd wager. It's not normal, I know. But it's one of my quirks.
I blame much of this strange infatuation on my childhood reading list, which consisted mainly of 19th-century British novelists like Dickens and the Bronte sisters. For years, I was positively saturated with their verbose language and outdated words. Sometimes -- okay, many times -- this proved to be a cause of social embarrassment, when I tried imitating their way of speaking in public. (Let's not even go into the time I dropped the obsolete synonym for "exclaim" . . . )
And it hurts a little, because I'd love to use cool words in public. But I'm not a fan of people staring, either.
Recently, as I've become more aware of my often grandiloquent -- sorry, I mean long-winded -- writing, I've wondered if it has anything to do with my musical background. Do my musician's instincts draw me to the rhythms created by these lengthy words? Do I hear them in my mind and imagine the tone they produce? Do I admire the unusual phrasing, the sense of legato that comes from stringing many-lettered terms together? Who knows. It's possible.
Basically, cool words just sound cool.
I wish I could honestly say that I'm naturally sesquipedalian (ooh, that's a good one) in conversation, or even in writing. But I'm not, really. I'm what G. K. Chesterton calls "a child of my age"; I've learned, for the most part, to go along with the societal demand for simple language. That's not to say there's nothing valuable in the colloquial, though. I admire the urban wit of contemporary writers, who are able to address the common man with their clever use of street jargon and pop culture lingo. Language is always developing, and so it should be.
But still, still I find myself asking, Why can't we use cool words? Our English language is amazing. Somewhere in the dusty recesses of our dictionaries, there are words you never knew you missed. Words that describe things you never knew could be described within the confines of a single word. (Like, crepuscular? C'mon, people!) It's hard to be a writer who's fascinated by the sounds and sophistication of an old-fashioned vocabulary. If you don't completely go over your readers' heads, you'll probably come across as a show-off, as someone trying sound like an elitist and claiming to have a higher intelligence than everyone else. It sucks. You have to hold back a lot.
Damnit, why can't we just use cool words?
I truly admire contemporary writers who are, somehow, able to smoothly incorporate cool words into their work (Mary Oliver I love you!). It's a delicate skill, and something I hope to acquire one day. For now, though, I can only pray that my favorite words don't become too obsolete before I find a convincing way to use them.
Oh, by the way:
antiquarian -- adjective
1. pertaining to antiquaries or to the study of antiquities.
2. of, dealing in, or interested in old or rare books.