On Writing

The art of writing is an exploration of our unknown selves. As Adam Phillips has said, we do not write to say what we believe; we write to discover what we believe. The empty page or the blank screen is an invitation: come fill it with your words and discover who you are. All real writing is about self-exploration. The greatest writing gives the author more pleasure than it can ever give a reader because it tells the author someone about himself or herself that would otherwise never have been known.

People who do not write, or do not write much, sometimes imagine that the great writers start with a worked-out plan and then painstakingly execute it to a pre-defined formula. Great writing never works like that. The author no more knows the way the story will unravel than the reader, and part of the pleasure of writing is to have one’s story and one’s characters take over the plot and start to force it to go in directions that the author might never have imagined or even wished. The creative process is about bringing into being that which but for that process would have no being. As Wittgenstein once so powerfully put it, “The first time I knew I believed that was when I heard myself saying it”.

“We do not know ourselves very well. Neither, fortunately for us, does God.” Those two sentences stand at the start of my unpublished work Between Silence and the Word: A Study in Creation that I wrote over three blissful summers in Princeton in the mid ’90s. What that book argues is that if we share anything with God at all, if a God there be, it is that we find out who we are by speaking, by bringing into words what would otherwise remain buried in silence and unknown. And it is not – it most emphatically is not – that but for these words only we would know the secrets of our hearts; it is that but for these words even we would not know the secrets of our hearts. Self-expression is creation and self-discovery and self-realisation; we become more by speaking, writing, acting, doing. As Eberhard Jüngel once put it, Gottes sein ist im werden: God’s being is in becomingAnd God becomes through speaking as we become through writing.

Of course one must first learn the language of writing. One can no more write well if one can neither spell nor use grammar correctly than one can play an instrument without mastering the techniques required by that instrument. But what makes writing so powerful and evocative is that it becomes a conversation with a part of oneself that would otherwise be completely inaccessible. Or perhaps I should say that “for most people” would be quite inaccessible. There may be people who can speak to themselves inwardly in the same way, but for most of us the act of writing sets up an other over against which and through which to argue and discover what one really believes.

And the problem is that what one really believes may be as shocking to oneself as what other people believe is sometimes shocking. On a daily and lifelong basis we are engaged in a battle with ourselves to discover what we can tolerate and what we have a need to suppress; Adam Phillips says the same, the life is a battle to manage those aspects of ourselves that we find unacceptable. But acceptable to whom? If I am not who I believe myself to be, who is it that deems me acceptable? If my truer or better self is hidden, sometimes exposed and expressed in writing, who is it that I the writer before these revelations am to myself? What makes us “rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of”? Why would we? Isn’t our comfort zone the place we prefer to be? But writing is not entirely voluntary; writers are driven to write, to expose what might otherwise remain hidden forever about themselves or about the world.

Inside the house of the mind that writing explores there are false doors, distorting mirrors, convoluted staircases and terrifying dungeons. Sometimes writing, for all its courage, is deceived by those false images and distorting devices, and repeats what it thinks it is obliged to repeat or what it deems safe to repeat rather than explore the spaces behind those deflectors. We come to a door and face a choice whether to open it or turn aside to more familiar and comfortable places, thereby adding another layer to our collusion with self-inflicted blindness.

But there is another kind of distortion to which writers can fall prey, and it is far less easy to see than a door or a reflection in a mirror: sometimes we sense that our writing is developing in a direction that leads to dangerous discomfort and disturbance, and we veer away from it instinctively as a helmsman will avoid breaking waves. But great writing has to venture closer to the source of danger, and its ability to navigate the waters around it is its strength and its lasting power.

The possibility of newness gives rise to interesting philosophical questions, and to some extent those questions occasion doubt about that possibility. After all, everything said uses words that are not new, yet they can be used in ways that have never been used before. Sometimes we are confused in this respect by a common and pernicious fallacy: that if the number of words we have is finite, the number of things we can say with them is also finite. By analogy with numbers, we can see that this is untrue: the ten digits 0, 1, …, 9 can be arranged not only to form an infinite set of numbers, but a transfinite set of numbers, which is to say numbers that cannot be counted. So if that is true of ten digits, it is even more true of the hundreds of thousands of words in a language. What follows from this is that the notion that we might be able to program a computer to generate a list of all possible sequences of words is not only difficult: it is impossible.

So as we add one word to another, what governs the navigation of our thought through the complex tree of possibilities that can arise? When we start with a blank sheet of paper and a pen, what is the relation between what has not yet been said and what will soon have been said? There is something here about order and disorder, about energy and entropy, about information and knowledge, about the “no longer” and the “not yet”. And in this creation, this marshalling of the molecules of ink from their inchoate reservoir into lines upon a page, irrevocable change occurs: something new enters the world. And what was not written – like the missing lives we will never live – will remain unwritten, for even if and when we return and revisit the idea and write it again, it will not be the same; it will not be as it was when first we drew upon the page.

Picasso famously once said that he decided and discovered what and how to draw by drawing, and the same is true of writing: this blank page has no destiny, no text that is already its own but as-yet unwritten and somehow embedded in it waiting to be discovered; what will occupy the third line cannot be decided until we have first filled the second. Writing is to the page as painting to the canvas and as making love is to the beloved. Someone – I haven’t yet been able to trace it (George Steiner in Real Presences?) – once asked “For which of us has ever made love anew?” To which the only appropriate answer is “Someone who has never made love anew has never made love at all”.

Gabriel Garcia Marques allegedly once wrote “It is not that as we grow old we cease to fall in love, but that as we cease to fall in love we grow old” (I need to check the exact quote), but more probably wrote “It is not that as we grow old we cease to dream, but that as we cease to dream we grow old” and so it is with writing and the creation of newness. It is possible, indeed it is highly likely, that our brains die when we stop thinking new thoughts that arise from and with the creation of new neural pathways, and so to as with Marques, “It is not that we grow old we cease to think new thoughts and dream new dreams, but that as we cease to think new thoughts and dream new dreams we grow old”.

To be truly in love is to be made alive by the promise of the other (I first wrote “by the presence of the other”, but “promise” is far better and far deeper and has far more scope, and I note the change of mind because the difference is itself worth drawing attention to). A writer is in this sense in love with the blank sheet of paper because it promises something that almost nothing else can provide. And so the pleasure of writing, which for some is little short of a compulsion, lies in the encounter with promise in a way that is almost exactly analogous to the desire for the other that drives us when we are in love: the writer can no more be herself when she does not write than the lover can be himself when separated from the beloved.

Adam Phillips (again from @Brainpickings) with his Jewish background, perhaps unconsciously or even consciously affected and influenced by the Talmudic tradition, observes that it is in conversation that we find ourselves, not in monologue (I think I may already have said this), but I am not sure he is entirely right, for writing is a peculiar kind of monologue, albeit a monologue where the written begins to become the interlocutor. The writing, like but not quite like the speaking, which can so easily be ephemeral, lost and forgotten, assumes its own existence: “What I have written, I have written” as Pontius Pilate notoriously once said. And there is an interesting point here, for human writing is in this sense as the biblical authors conceived of divine speaking. Unlike human speaking in its ephemeral transience, divine speaking is conceived by them as permanent and unrealisable: “For so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11). And the Hebrew word for “Word”, dabar, is the same word as the Hebrew verb “to drive”; words are “driven out”, “sent” on a purposive course that will achieve an end. When for the biblical authors God speaks, God creates: “And God said, ‘Let there be light!’, and there was light”. This is not a causality of speech and action; speech is action; there is here no distinction between God’s existence as one who speaks and God’s existence as one who creates. And so it is, albeit on a more modest scale, with human writing (and, to a lesser extent, with human speaking).

Words assume a life of their own: they are written or uttered and then taken into a world of language and culture where their significance can not longer entirely be under the control of their author. They can be a gift, but they can as easily be a curse, for what can be understood can also be misunderstood. But like our children, our words also remain to a greater or lesser extent our responsibility, or at least things for which we feel responsibility, and we do not like them to suffer ill-treatment or be abused. So the much-argued issue of the significance of authorial intention is nicely illustrated by the analogy with parenting: yes, our parents made us, but they are not responsible for everything we have become or every purpose to which we have attended. “Our words, insofar as they mean anything at all, must mean far more than we can ever know” (Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge).

Writing creates an other which is “to us” and “for us” (Martin Buber’s pro me), but it is not an other which can ever remain ours, and so it must also be for and to others. And so the creation of the written or spoken other cannot but involve separation, which is to say that the creation of the written or spoken other must involve the practice that Rilke ascribes to love: “We need in love to practise only this: letting each other go” (Requiem for a Friend).

This “letting go” connects with another aspect of Phillips: that when we speak or write we must place over there and as an “other” something that has already gone beyond our control and therefore may as easily challenge or offend us as please us, something that we have created that demands that we come to terms with it. And some of this may so offend us that, as we noted before, we veer away from it or wish we had not written it or had not said it (or even had not made it). And so the written as other becomes like an interlocutor, a conversational partner who will not always say what we would like to be said. So Phillips is right to say that much of life in general, and this is especially so of our creative lives, involves coming to terms with aspects of ourselves that we are uncomfortable with, and even aspects of ourselves that we would rather repress. For him, psychoanalysis offers a possible but not guaranteed path through this morass of uncertainty, but writing can also afford such a remedy.

Writing also involves letting go because if we seek to write while retaining complete control of what is written the process cannot flourish any more than a human relationship can flourish where one party tries to control the other. To move from monologue to dialogue the written as other must be permitted the capacity to go to places and in directions we might not initially either imagine or intend.

Writing that is not creative, which is to say writing that is turning the handle in a predictable and stereotyped way in which what comes later is predictable from what comes first (Ilya Prigogine says something like this in one of his books on complexity theory where he observes that in most books what comes in the second half is entirely predictable from what comes in the first), is better called scribbling (I am looking for a better word; perhaps “drafting” would do, but even that isn’t right; perhaps “dictating” does it because of the obvious double-meaning). To scribble is to make marks mindlessly, marks to which one has no personal or essential connection, marks that might as well not be made for all the difference they make to the great scheme of things. Lawyers are the quintessential scribblers because their writing is intended to eliminate ambiguity and diversity and possibility in order to achieve an entirely controlled and unambiguous text that cannot be misinterpreted.

Ursula le Guin reminds us (also courtesy of @Brainpickings) of the partnership between the writer and the reader, for to all great writing there must correspond great reading, just as to all great speaking there must correspond great listening. Great reading augments the creative process by imagining new worlds that are stimulated by writing but not constrained by it. Just as what is written cannot contain or convey all that might have been written or all that has not been written, so what is imagined by the reader from what is read cannot be known to the writer, and so the question whether the author “intended” the written to be understood as it is by the reader is just the wrong question: far better to ask how much has been understood by countless readers from what one author has written and be content with that as a measure of writing’s greatness.

“He allowed himself to be swayed by his conviction that human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.”

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera

We are reborn in writing because we become another to ourselves, but that for some is a reason not to write, not to think, not to speak; it is as if we are afraid that in becoming we lose our being rather than discover and enhance it; it is as if in change we identify an enemy rather than the friend that is the source and essence of life. Some ask about continuity of self in a world of change and flux where everything is being renewed, but presence is less important than promise, and history than future. What we have been liberated from in the transformative creation that dissolves the past in order to create the future is any sense that we are obliged to be in our present what we may have been in our past. In the renewal that creates discontinuity we are set free.

And this is what is really entailed in “the promise of the other” that makes us alive, whether the other be writing, speaking, a person or a lover: that in communion with this other we are transformed and remade, and in the hope that has no expectation we are reborn.

And as an afterthought which is another promise rather than an ending, it is important to recognise that, just as there is no finite limit to what can be written, we must live with the terrible realisation that what we can write but do not write may never be written, rather as the lives we can live but do not live will never be lived.


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