“What is writing for?” My latest post at Relief

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Every month in 2014 I’ve written a short piece for the blog of Relief Journal, a literary mag I had a hand in starting a few years ago (I was the original fiction editor). This month I tried to work out why two common ideas about the goal of writing — that it should communicate clearly, and that it should awe the reader with its profundity — aren’t satisfying explanations of the process I love, and what a better (albeit metaphysical) description might sound like. The result: “What is writing for?”

Here’s the gist:

To me an unread story is a gesture of love left unconsummated.

Unrequited might seem a better word, but it’s not: there are books you haven’t read but for which you still feel affection. (Consider the American love affair with the Bible.) In some cases not having read the story keeps the love alive. The pages do not always contain what we’ve been led to believe.

As a reader I don’t seek consummation for reasons of clarity or mystification, although both sensations are part of the experience. What I look for is something closer to communion.”

And here are some of my earlier posts, in case you missed them:

The Good Apocalypse. A meditation on the paradoxical hope in our seemingly hopeless dreams about the end of the world.

Horror and Resurrection. One era’s glory becomes another’s fright. How a work of art, out of context, conjures all the wrong thoughts.

Reading Milton. Out Loud. In the Car. Poetry makes more sense when it’s read aloud … just don’t tell the kids.

My Kind of Clever. If you’re too subtle people walk right by without seeing the layers underneath. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

Nothing in writing

Remember, young man, there are some things which should be done which it would not do for superiors to order done.”

–Abraham Lincoln, speaking to cavalry officer Lewis Merrill, whose decision to execute Confederate guerrillas in reprisal for the murder of a pro-Union man Lincoln condoned after the fact, though he had declined to approve the order in writing.

And here’s Joyce Cary’s narrator in Not Honour More, Captain Latter, explaining why one’s superiors (in this case Lord Nimmo) never put such orders in writing:

My God,” I said to Varney, “Don’t you see the racket? Who’s going to carry the can? … It’s the old game they played on us in Africa — the everlasting Nimmo game. The everlasting game they always have played — nothing in writing. Nothing definite — nothing you can pin on them afterwards. The verbal instructions gambit specifically invented for mugs like Tommies and coppers. Theirs not to reason why. Theirs to take it in the neck both ways.”

I picked out some Horween leather and had this journal cover made overnight.

For weeks I’d had the website of Springfield Leather Company open in my browser, since it’s one of the few sources online for Horween leather. Then I found myself in Springfield, Missouri and started wondering if there was any connection. Turns out I was literally down the street from the leather supplier, so I raced over for a look. It was worth it.

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Rolls of Horween Chromexcel, Dublin, Essex, and more.

Rolls of Horween Chromexcel, Dublin, Essex, and more.

The problem is, I’m going to be on the road for the next few weeks. Carrying a rolled hide with me across country would be inconvenient to say the least. Plus, while I’m obsessed with quality leather goods, I have pretty much given up on trying to make them myself, even as a pastime. I wanted to buy some Horween leather … but what would I use it for?

Then inspiration struck. My writing journal is a Seven Seas Writer from Nanami Paper, and because I use the thing day in and day out, I bought a Gfeller skirting leather cover for the notebook. As luck would have it, though, I left home with only a few pages left in my journal, so I packed a new one for the pending switchover. I began the old journal in late October, and its 400+ pages include a lot of notes and outlines for Cartago, my most recent novel. Toward the end, it also includes the start of what may very well turn out to be my next book. In between are essential outlines I need while traveling.

Meanwhile the new journal is filling, and moving the leather cover back and forth between the notebooks got to be a pain almost immediately. Solution? Buy some leather to have a new cover made!

Pre-cut leather pieces for wallets, notebooks, etc. The large tan piece is Horween Essex.

Pre-cut leather pieces for wallets, notebooks, etc. The large tan piece is Horween Essex.

A few doors down from Springfield Leather is a shop called Norseman Custom Leather. When I walked in with four square feet of Horween latigo, I found Joe Ridinger hard at work reupholstering a limousine interior. Could he make me a journal cover? No problem. In fact, it was  ready for pick-up the next day.

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While the fit and finish on the Gfeller cover is superior, the job cost just $30 — and did I mention it was finished overnight? We don’t really live in a world where you can choose leather, walk a few doors down, and have leather goods made to your specs. At least, I thought we didn’t. If you happen to be in Springfield, things work differently.

DSCF6334 DSCF6337Both of my notebooks now have a leather cover, and I look forward to comparing the way each one ages. My wife was so impressed with the result that she bought some golden-tan Horween Essex and is having a cover made for her own Seven Seas journal. I can’t wait to see how that one turns out.

When books stop taking up space in the world, will they stop taking up space in the mind?

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Each year I spend most of the summer traveling, which leads to an annual dilemma: which books to bring. I wrote about the problem a number of years back for Comment: “I Know What You Read Last Summer.” Should I bring the books I want to read with me, planning deliberately, or should I live off the land, reading whatever I happen to find in bookstores as I travel? This is a similar challenge to that faced by campers planning an excursion into the wilderness — and to be honest, it’s part of the fun.

When I talk about this now, however, an increasingly number of reading friends propose a simple way of untying my Gordian knot: “Get a Kindle already!” they cry, wondering how I’ve managed to live so long into the twenty-first century without being told that the Physical Book is dead and we have killed it.

As a matter of fact, I have the Kindle app on all my devices, and I do read e-books from time to time. Whenever I take an interest in a new book and gather from online research that the physical edition is poorly designed or made, I opt for the e-book. I’m aware of the technology’s advantages both to readers and authors. From a reader’s perspective, e-books can be obtained quickly and carried everywhere, taking up no discernible space. The type size can be increased, the background color changed, and a limited number of other word processor-style adjustments are possible.

Even so, I find the form of digital books disappointing at this juncture, a fact I explain in more detail here: “The Form of Digital Books.” The fact is, I rarely need to read 1,000 books at once, having them all in my pocket hasn’t proven much of an advantage. Choosing a volume to carry and sticking with it has helped me finish a number of rewarding books I wouldn’t otherwise have persevered with. Also, when a physical book is well-designed and well-produced, the reading experience is more satisfying to me than reading the same book digitally. That’s not a condemnation of e-books, or a jeremiad against all things new. I’m just saying that, in my experience, the book is still better technology than the e-book for many applications. And if taking notes by hand is better for your brain than tapping them out on a computer, I can’t help wondering if the same is true about reading.

In addition to being a reader, I am an author. E-books are a godsend for my kind in many ways. They’ve fueled an explosion in readership, and at least in theory authors can earn more money on e-books than physical ones (a fact that has as much to do with the byzantine ways of publishing as with the difference in production cost between physical and digital books). The fact is, if you’ve read my books — and I hope you have — you probably did so on an e-reader. My e-book sales far surpass the sale of my physical books. Believe me, I’m grateful.

The books we want to hold in our hand, though, are the ones we really cherish, either because of the beauty of their form, or because of their content. I’d like to think I have readers who, having read my books in digital form, want to have them in the more tangible physical form, too. That’s how I behave as a reader: the books in the cloud don’t occupy the same prominence in my life (or for that matter, thought) as the ones in the room next to me, or the ones in my hand. Something about their physicality, their embodiment, makes them more real. They don’t go away when the power switches off.

I’m at peace with the notion that printed books are going the way of vinyl albums. They will become the exclusive domain of purists, appreciated more as fetish objects than as a practical means of conveying information. That doesn’t diminish my appreciation of them at all. And it doesn’t dampen my desire, when the circumstances are right, to travel with a finite number of heavy, printed books instead of the more portable and infinite digital alternatives.

 

The Quantified Self. Qualified.

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On the right, an old-fashioned way of quantifying life: telling time. On the left, the latest thing, an activity tracker.

Astronauts with their life support systems and athletes with their stats have always lived quantified lives. For the rest of us the trend is somewhat new. While it may appear that I am under house arrest, tagged by law enforcement with a bracelet alarm, that fact is, I’ve tagged myself. Next to my trusty watch (which could use a good servicing if the cockeyed date/date wheels are anything to judge by) is something called a Fitbit Flex, a neoprene clad activity tracker that minds my every step. The illuminated dot in the photograph is the first of five that light up as I progress toward a daily goal of ten thousand steps.

Clearly I haven’t made much progress.

The trend is not new, to be honest. We have always hunted for ways of quantifying our identities, especially our worth. Samuel Pepys in his seventeenth century diary ended each year by totting up his credits and debits. His was a quantified self of sorts. All that’s changed is our ability to track everything, including the stats once beneath our notice.

Something else has changed, perhaps. We’ve managed to suppress the instinct telling us quantification is a fool’s game, that pursuing quality by measuring quantity is simply never going to add up. Maybe we know better now than to confuse the two, or we’ve figured out that (as much as we resist the thought) quantity does equal quality in certain avenues, whether it’s the number of dollars in your bank account or the number of steps you’ve walked today.

Writers already lead uncomfortably quantified lives, measuring our worth in the number of words written today, in the number of books in print and how well they’ve sold. All of these metrics speak to one kind of quality –– my quality of life –– without addressing another, the quality of my work. The best written books aren’t always the bestselling; in fact, some days I see no correlation at all. But this is true in the world of work generally, where most of us are paid for our time rather than the use we make of it.

I appreciate the words of a prayer Wendell Berry quoted recently, as reported by my friend Alan Cornett at Pinstripe Pulpit. This comes from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, and reads like a repudiation of quantity over quality:

Deliver us, we beseech thee, in our several callings, from the service of mammon, that we may do the work which thou givest us to do, in truth, in beauty, and in righteousness, with singleness of heart as thy servants, and to the benefit of our fellow men [...]“

You want to get paid for your work, but you need to work for higher motives than pay. You have to sell books, but you need to write them for higher motives than selling.

The fact is, I don’t want to be measured, but when the task is intimidating I submit. A whole novel to write from scratch? Word count, please. A diet-and-exercise regimen? I’ll take the activity tracker, silly as it looks wrapped around my wrist. Quantification for all its faults keeps hopelessness at bay with the promise that, however daunting the task, all you have to worry about for the moment is one simple metric. Perish the mystery. And it’s so very easy to track.

The consolation of fiction

mencallitchanceWith apologies to Boethius, I’ve never found much consolation in philosophy. Other things, yes, but not consolation. Medicinae tempus est, philosophy tells Boethius, it’s time for medicine.

I don’t disagree, but my medicine comes from novels.

And I don’t think it’s a question of escapism versus reality. Philosophers and novelists alike seem to dish up both courses. It’s just that, in order to find something, you may have to lose yourself a little first, and fiction is where I’ve always found such self-loss easiest to encounter. Thomas Narcejac once described the novel as “a method of understanding which one has to use when the means of scientific or philosophic investigation become inadequate,” and that’s how I’d like to think of my penchant for stories. In novels I face up to things I never seem to in other kinds of writing.

The weekend before my wedding I found Jean Giono’s The Horseman on the Roof in a Chicago bookstore, and a few months later spent many idle afternoons in the baking Houston summer dipping into that novel. Escapist fare, you might say, but that’s not how I experienced it. The cholera-plagued landscape of southern France became a map of my own psyche. What I remember about the book isn’t the plot, but the sense of self-awareness that resulted from the experience.

The same thing has happened with all kinds of novels –– the good, the bad, the truly awful. I’ve valued them as much for what they taught me as for any inherent value they possessed. Stanley Weyman’s A Gentleman of France (pictured above) electrified me more than the story itself had any right to on account of the solace it brought, the deeper knowledge of myself. The same thing happened reading A Portrait of a Lady while lying on a couch in a room with thick green carpet. It’s the experience I hope my own readers have had with my books.

For initiates, it is hard to fathom the lives of people on whom the magic of novels does not work, the ones who dismiss made-up stories and find their consolation in numbers, say, or in sports. When they stare at my bookcases, wide-eyed, and ask, “Have you read all these?” I feel a gulf open up: two lives glimpsed across a wide chasm, each unintelligible to the other.

This consolation, like philosophy’s, is not for everyone.

 

Things that don’t matter don’t keep getting done. Things that do become second nature.

Not to put too fine a point on it: discipline and necessity are intertwined.

It’s only in the past few years that I’ve kept a journal, despite the fact that the very first writing book I read, Hallie and Whit Burnett’s guide, devotes a chapter to the importance of this creative discipline. Over the years I tried, kept up the habit for a month or two, then burned out. Now it’s so easy calling it a “creative discipline” a second ago seemed like a stretch. What’s changed? The switch flipped, interestingly enough, when I began writing and publishing on a regular basis.

Same thing happened to me in graduate school. Here I was in the mecca of craft, with a coveted spot at a top creative writing program, but I found myself writing much less than I had before. The only time I wrote was when there was a workshop assignment due. That work, hastily bungled, would be praised or savaged (or both), and then go into a drawer never to be seen again, let alone revised. I was producing pages for the classroom, not writing for publication. As a result, a lot of what my teachers tried to drill into me was absorbed only as theory.

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Keeping a creative journal used to be a chore. Now it’s second nature.

Later, after a three year hiatus, I returned and finished my degree. In the meantime I’d started writing for myself again, and cared more about the prose than I did about class participation. All the theory became real, because I needed it for my work. Just as the journal stopped being a chore once I couldn’t live without it, my education started making sense once I actually started using it.

Which leads me to wonder whether, faced with repeated failure trying to maintain any kind of discipline, if instead of redoubling your effort (failing again, only with more at stake) it wouldn’t be wiser to look for the underlying issue. Soldiers in barracks clean their weapons for drill, and have to be ridden by superiors even to do that. Soldiers in battle keep them clean so they’ll keep firing. All that changed was the sense of necessity. Things that don’t matter don’t keep getting done. Things that do become second nature. The key to any discipline, I suppose, is figuring how to make it matter.

Metaphor

If it sounds too religious to call metaphor an incarnation, then let’s call it a manifestation, for it makes available to the senses what is often intangible, invisible, unknown, obscure; metaphor brings to light, it reveals, it unifies the fragmented, it is an act of creation indeed.”

– Mark Jarman