I often wonder how it was that gluing sentences and paragraphs together became what it has become to me, which is something of an obsessional activity that I frequently wish I could find a way to stop just because it is so damned difficult.
I occasionally (mostly when my guard is down) think of myself as a writer, if on no more self-congratulatory basis than that I have spent a lot of time doing it, likely more than most people. Just doing it, not necessarily doing it any better. I am relatively certain it works the same way as shooting a basketball, which I also did a lot, when I was younger. Did both much more than most people, and probably better than many of them, but some of those people who did the one or the other less than me were yet somehow, and to my everlastingly bitter envy, better at it.
Somewhere on my hard drive, occluded from my efforts now to find it, I have saved a quotation from some unknown writer defining the identity roughly thus: a person who has greater difficulty putting words together than most people. Because of course we are not satisfied with the first, quite workable words that appear. Or the ones after that. Or sometimes not even the next ones.
Another saved quotation that I cannot find (but this one at least I do remember to be from Claude Levi-Strauss, so the mind is not yet completely gone!) goes something like this in my memory: “I do not write in a happy frame of mind. The only relief comes when I have finished.” Maybe he says “I write only to be finished writing. That is the only relief.” In truth, I would prefer him to have said that latter thing, even though I suspect he didn’t.
Both half-remembered sentiments are fully consonant with my own understanding of the subject.
Ah, you are thinking a very good question, are you not? If it’s such a pain in the ass to do, why do it at all? Why not find something less painful on which to spend your time?
Because there is the possibility that, with enough labor and sheer luck, it might turn into something other than writing.
I don’t know how widespread the view that this is possible is. I suspect that most people who are not obsessed with this thing as I am have the healthy attitude that writing is writing, no more and no less, as chocolate cake is chocolate cake and an outfielder’s mitt is an outfielder’s mitt, and it’s best not to expect them to transform themselves into things they are not, and besides it’s quite enough that they are the one thing without giving them the extra burden of potentially being something entirely different, isn’t it?
But I know that I have this questionable tendency to want to make writing into something more than it is, and I have had this disease as long as I can remember. I would desperately like to think (against the evidence) this is a characteristic that further solidifies my claim to be a writer, since who else would do such a ridiculous thing?
What writing is, objectively: Scratches made with a pencil or pen on a page of paper, or pixels on a screen produced by pecks on a keyboard. Nothing more than a collection of little shapes, arranged in particular orders and disorders.
What I tend to want to make some of it into is an object of veneration. I approach some books, some pages, some passages, some paragraphs, some sentences, some phrases with the trepidation and wonder of a child for the first time coming upon a living thing under a stone or in a tree in the wild, marveling, enrapt, desirous of protecting and preserving the rare beauty, deeply fearful that this desire cannot be achieved, terrified that I will ruin its magic if I pay it too much attention, and yet unable to turn my gaze away.
A writer, Michel Leiris, whom I love dearly, masterfully described his own childhood recognition of the communal magic of language in the first essay of his multi-volume autobiography.
He recalls, as a child, dropping a toy soldier during play and joyfully exclaiming “’Reusement!” on discovering that the toy had not shattered. His faulty French was duly corrected by an adult listening in. The word Leiris had meant to use was “Heureusement!” (literally, ‘happily,’ or ‘fortunately’), and he had not previously been aware of the delicately aspirated first syllable, barely discernible when uttered by cultivated Parisian speakers of the language such as the members of his family. (I had once the delicious writer’s experience of living for a few months in the same neighborhood in which Leiris lived as a boy).
He describes the moment as one of stunning discovery of the fact that language exceeded his merely personal universe and linked him mysteriously and profoundly to others in its structure of rules and norms.
Elsewhere in that same autobiographical work, Leiris wrote of writing as a means to escape death—failed, of course, but what other method offers any more promise?
[I wish I could find the exact phrase, but as usual when I want to find a book, I have no idea where it is in either of the two sizable personal libraries I’ve accumulated over the years, one in the ground floor office here at home, one at work. And after a failed attempt wandering for 10 minutes downstairs searching fruitlessly for the book, but finding many others I’d nearly forgotten I own, death appears in another familiar form—the thought of all the reading and rereading I plan to do, someday when there is time, and then the immediately subsequent thought that I ultimately and inevitably will not get around to doing most of it in time.]
Leiris’ words, so far as I can recall them, depicted writing as a two-fold cheating of death. There is the thought of posterity, the idea that your written words will remain when you do not and someone might read them after your death and thereby resurrect you, in a sense. And there is also the immersion in the craft, the manner in which writing takes your attention and thereby prevents you, at least while you are writing, from fretting about the coming of death.
I am engaged in the second of Leiris’ cheats right now.
And two pieces of writing in my possession do the work of the first cheat, of resurrecting disappeared writers and bringing them before my eyes as I read what they wrote, more intimately than all others I know.
This is because of who those writers were.
Of all the pieces of writing I know before which I stand in awe, and there are many, these two occupy a place untouched by others. They are holy things for me. They express thoughts that I want to protect from the world’s pollution. (Though I contradict myself, perhaps, in communicating those thoughts here).
They were written by two people I am relatively certain would not have considered themselves writers, but the words they wrote mean more to this reader than any others.
They are two pieces of writing done by the mother of my mother and the mother of my father. My two grandmothers.
I keep them in the protective case of my phone, which has become the substitute for the wallet I once carried and long ago abandoned. There, they can be consulted at any moment, and often I will take them out when I have a free moment, while waiting for some other event to take place, and look at them.
They fortify me. These collections of scribbled symbols instantly bring the faces of their writers into my mind, and then I can hear their voices, saying things they would have told me in life and also things they want me to know from where they now speak.
One is a small guardian angel card that was given to my paternal grandmother by a friend and which she at some point passed along to me. She had written her name and the name of the friend on it, in the uncertain, achingly endearing cursive that she learned as a child of immigrants who did not learn English until she went off to public school. This woman’s pristine spirituality, I am now certain, was one of the most permanent causal forces acting on my own life during the four decades of our shared existence in this realm, here obviously and directly, there delicately and all but undetected.
The other is the Easter greeting at the head of this present bit of writing, which was the close to a card sent to me at a foreign address by my mother’s mother. Her love of the natural world insinuated itself into my own heart deeply and permanently. She yearned to travel and never got the opportunity to do it. I had a dream once that I would be able to establish myself sufficiently before she got too old so that I would be the one who enabled her to see parts of the world she had not seen, but I failed to make the dream real.
They are both gone, but I have them with me in these two pieces of their writing.
These are my memento mori, my messages of love from two souls dearer to me than I can hope to say, two women who loved me unconditionally and asked nothing in return, my two angels. God speaks to me nowhere more clearly than through these words they left for me.