It hardly seems necessary for me to justify not writing, given the low readership of this blog. But I still wanted to say something about not writing, because I’ve been thinking about it, even if no one else has. Let’s begin with a collection of quotes by important writers telling aspiring writers to write:
“If you want to be a writer, you have to write every day. The consistency, the monotony, the certainty, all vagaries and passions are covered by this daily reoccurrence. You don’t go to a well once but daily. You don’t skip a child’s breakfast or forget to wake up in the morning. Sleep comes to you each day, and so does the muse.” – Walter Mosley
“How do you write? You write, man, you write, that’s how, and you do it the way the old English walnut tree puts forth leaf and fruit every year by the thousands” – William Saroyan
“Quantity produces quality. If you only write a few things, you’re doomed.” – Ray Bradbury
“The way you define yourself as a writer is that you write every time you have a free minute. If you didn’t behave that way you would never do anything.” – John Irving
“Write.” – Neil Gaiman
“Don’t just plan to write – write. It is only by writing, not dreaming about it, that we develop our own style.” – PD James
“Write. No amount of self-inflicted misery, altered states, black pullovers or being publicly obnoxious will ever add up to your being a writer. Writers write. On you go.” – AL Kennedy
To stir the pot a bit, let’s add a voice of dissent: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money” – Samuel Johnson
I could have found an equal (perhaps not equal, but close) number of quotes telling writers not to write unless they have something to say. But I went with the superegos instead. They’re better at representing conventional wisdom and better at giving professional advice (even if “professional” advice isn’t exactly what you’re looking for). There’s another school of “write-all-the-time” thinkers, those who talk about writing as life, as necessary, as a compulsion, and so on: quasi-theological pronouncements on the nature of the word, the essentiality of language (so anthropocentric!), writing as freedom (is it really?). Here’s one version (I’m using google, so forgive the narrowness of my sources – mostly Americans, mostly people that everyone reads):
“If you are destined to become a writer, you can’t help it. If you can help it, you aren’t destined to become a writer. The frustrations and disappointments, not even to mention the unspeakable loneliness, are too unbearable for anyone who doesn’t have a deep sense of being unable to avoid writing.”- Donald Harington
Needless to say, I can help it. I can not write for long periods of time (I scrawl a bit, but it’s not for sharing, at least not here). I can busy myself with alcohol and movie-watching/-making and time-wasting and flirting. It’s not that hard, I promise (not talking would be another story; let the ascetics go to hell, since they’re already there, anyway).
So we have two positions here (and that third one – represented by Dr. Johnson – that I threw in on the sly): one says that a writer is someone who writes all the time; the other says that a writer is someone who writes all the time. Let’s do away with the holy business of writing, though. The first question that should be asked in an inquiry into the nature of a vocation, in any case, is what the practitioners of that vocation do. And let’s not begin with the tautology, either (they write). Because that’s not what they do, if we’re looking at their writing as social practice, if we’re looking at it as a form of social labor.
So let’s figure out what they do. Let’s read.
Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, “Freedom,” like his previous one, “The Corrections,” is a masterpiece of American fiction. The two books have much in common. Once again Franzen has fashioned a capacious but intricately ordered narrative that in its majestic sweep seems to gather up every fresh datum of our shared millennial life. Franzen knows that college freshmen are today called “first years,” like tender shoots in an overplanted garden; that a high-minded mom, however ruthless in her judgments of her neighbors’ ethical lapses, will condemn them with no epithet harsher than “weird”; that reckless drivers who barrel across lanes are “almost always youngish men for whom the use of blinkers was apparently an affront to their masculinity.”
What’s going on here? Well, Sam Tanenhaus, a writer, is describing a long piece of writing by Jonathan Franzen, also a writer, and praising that piece of writing for its ability to observe, describe, elaborate. (He’s making an offering at the temple.) After a bit of reflection, a couple of themes are recognizable in this little chunk of writing:
- Writing-as-profession: Tanenhaus is the senior editor at the New York Times Book Review. On top of editing, he makes his living reviewing pieces of literature. Franzen makes his living writing those pieces of literature (and giving interviews and writing articles and giving lectures and so forth). We have, then, two professionals engaged in a game of sorts. Tanenhaus praises Franzen. Tanenhaus probably really likes Franzen. Franzen is famous. Tanenhaus secures proxy-recognition. Franzen’s fame increases. Circulation occurs.
- Writing-as-revelation: We are being told that Franzen sees things that we do not see. For example, college freshmen are called “first-years” and young men express aggression through complex means, such as cutting people off on the highway. In this category, we should also mention the ideas of writer-as-doctor, writer-as-priest, writer-as-god.
- Writer-as-celebrity: The entire piece revolves around the idea that we can get something from Franzen – not just knowledge, but a kind of aura or élan – and that we’ll thereby become happier or better people (cf. writer-as-doctor/priest).
- Social hierarchy: Franzen>Tanenhaus>You. This is more complex than it might seem. Presumptions that we live in a meritocracy are patently false. This is nowhere more apparent than in the complex social rituals that exist in hierarchical systems (contrary to seeing blatant examples of these hierarchies as more exploitative than “normal” relations, I see them as doing us the favor of revealing what we already implicitly know).
So what we see, then, is not one kind of role for a writer (priest/analyst), but a number of roles, which include “professional,” priest, doctor, celebrity, and better person. (NB: I’m deliberately ignoring Foucault’s important essay, “What is an Author?” I think some of the claims are overblown – “The coming into being of the notion of ‘author’ constitutes the privileged moment of individualization in the history of ideas” – but I neither want to interrogate nor defend them. I recommend the essay to anyone who is interested). But let’s examine another role, one that will no doubt be familiar to those versed in the early works of Jacques Derrida. Writers make inscriptions in a legible medium capable of storing content (Of Grammatology makes much of the proliferation of words ending in -graphy – calligraphy, choreography, geography). That is to say, the act of writing is an act of making a mark, like taking a shit in the woods. And the act of making a mark is an act of writing, like taking a shit in the woods with intention.
This is to say that something like communication is entailed in writing. But also that other things that have nothing to do with communication, like money and power, are entailed in writing (“No shit, Sherlock,” as I used to say when I was twelve). It’s also to say that the act of writing is not the necessary act of self-divulgation or freeflowing unloading that representatives of the “write-to-live” school make it out to be. One writes not because one must unload the workings of the mind (what chutzpa!). Writing is an act of inscription and, as such, it is an act among other acts.
All this is to say nothing new. The inscription debates of the 1970s (known as structuralism, post-structuralism, grammatics, etc.) more or less exhausted the subject of what writing is. Romanticism persists, but it rings hollow. One particular kind of romanticism about writing, though – the moral injunction – tends to have more cache than others.
“Maybe the greatest sin is neither of these two ancient ones [the lust for power and hubris]; the greatest sin may be the new twentieth-century sin of indifference” – Peter Drucker
“It is the duty of every citizen according to his best capacities to give validity to his convictions in political affairs.” – Einstein
“The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing… ” – Einstein
“Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.” – Paolo Freire
“We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers. A time comes when silence is betrayal. ” – Dr. King
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. ” – Dr. King
“First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up, because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak up for me. ” – Pastor Martin Neimoller
“The simple step of a courageous individual is not to take part in the lie. One word of truth outweighs the world. ” – Solzhenitsyn
“I swore never to be silent whenever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” -Elie Wiesel
“Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is that numbers of people all over the world have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience… Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war, and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem.” – Howard Zinn
These are compelling quotes; I won’t pretend they aren’t. I won’t pretend they’re coming out of naiveté, either, because they’re not. Nor will I take the typical critical position of holding myself at some distance and saying, “I understand what these people don’t, because I critique ideology.” It wouldn’t be true, for starters. But to know perfectly well that injustice is taking place and to remain silent – not only to remain silent but to believe, not naively but with conviction, that one has nothing to say – this is the position I see myself coming from.
This is a strange position to take. False modesty, possibly (or genuine self-doubt). But it’s also a refusal. Adorno continues to invoke anger for his statement that writing lyric poetry (I believe he had in mind poetry that “praises/uplifts” the soul) after Auschwitz was barbaric. He later gave a quasi-retraction of this statement, in which he said that it’s wrong to censure a victim of torture for crying out, a gesture that I think fits in very well with the nature of the statement itself. On the one hand, the statement is absolutely right: it is barbaric (or naive) to continue to hope in the face of oblivion. On the other hand, it is absolutely wrong: humans continue to exist, and until that is no longer the case, then they must be able to express their solitude. Writing both is and isn’t barbaric.
But, in the name of honesty, I should say what it is that I haven’t been writing about: Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, police repression, the continuing economic crisis, love and hate, global warming. All issues that I feel myself deeply invested in and deeply committed to, yet also unable to talk about with a sense that I am doing them any justice. And there’s the rub. Once, when I saw myself as a critic, I could write – critique is easy. But when I began to regard myself as deeply and acutely enmeshed in everything that I previously wrote about, the idea of continuing to write began to feel, to use a provocative word, barbaric.
But let’s not romanticize it too much. There was also apathy on my part, in spades. An apathy that hit hard during the budget debates of Summer, 2011. It was then that I saw in very stark terms that political theater could take place unhampered by any number of dissenting voices, any number of banging drums or loud exclamations of injustice. That these men and women – on the right and the “left” – were lying during these debates was patently obvious. And there were many of those who called them on it, castigated them, cried out against the theft that was being perpetrated. Yet the outcome was predictable from the beginning, and everything went according to a Neoliberal script. The Republicans demanded austerity (from those who could least afford it), the President outdid them in their fiscal conservativism, the Republicans demanded more, Boehner promised to renew this theater at the next round of budget discussions. And then: apathy. It seemed like the only possible reaction at the time. How could I take justice seriously in the face of such overwhelming cynicism? What could I possibly add to the discussion? Better to get drunk, I thought.
This is not a recovery-of-my-voice story, and it doesn’t end with what a friend of mine has called the “shrug toward Utopia.” This is simply an essay on not-writing. An attempt at saying something different from what I have said. We write because we write, and I haven’t written because I find my words, perhaps not barbaric, but absurd.