The Shipwrecked Writer

Many things must happen to a piece of writing before it finds its way to an audience, or at least many things should happen. The piece, whether novel or memo or poem or investment prospectus, must be made to cohere. It must find a core that binds its disparate parts together. It must know what it seeks to achieve with the reader, and it must be relentlessly shaped to work only toward that effect. It must be worked over, reconsidered, re-envisioned, lost and found.

But before all that, in the beginning, it first breathes in the atmosphere between you and language. At times necessarily reckless and wanton, illogical and impolite, inconsiderate, it will squeal, shout, cry, beg, mumble, and even try to stubbornly fall silent. It must be allowed everything but the silence. It must be allowed every mistake, every digression and indulgence. It must be allowed to fall off stairs and thump its head, to bounce on couches and beds until they break, to look at dirty pictures and try out curses.

In that first encounter between you and language, there can be no prohibitions except silence. Every emotion—fear and greed and lust and selfishness and sentimentality and tenderness and love and generosity—has a place in that encounter.

I say this because first, last, and always, this meeting with language is all I have. Everything else I have ever sought to sustain me in my writing has evaporated eventually. The desire for love, for friendship, for fame and fortune; the need for the approval of others; the hope for someone for whom reading my words would matter to them as much as writing the words matters to me, however much these forces can—and do—matter in life, as sources of writing I have found them to be vapors.

In this way, we writers are, I have come to believe, alone. Or rather, we have but one true partner: language itself. For every question, the answer is, “more words.” For every problem, the solution is, “write more; write it again; keep going.” At every moment that I want to turn away for some other inspiration, some plan, some device to guide me, I hear the sound of language swirling in my head, and I am left with two choices: to stop writing, or to listen to what language has to say.

This approach to writing reminds me of something the philosopher Kierkegaard once wrote:

And this is the simple truth – that to live is to feel oneself lost. He who accepts it has already begun to find himself, to be on firm ground. Instinctively, as do the shipwrecked, he will look around for something to which to cling, and that tragic, ruthless glance, absolutely sincere, because it is a question of his salvation, will cause him to bring order into the chaos of his life. These are the only genuine ideas; the ideas of the shipwrecked.

If I am to write, I must write as one shipwrecked. Romance is hard work.

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3 thoughts on “The Shipwrecked Writer

  1. Romance is hard work indeed!

    Your post made me think of some of my favorite lines from Mike Batt’s version of “The Hunting of the Snark”:

    “…I’m not lost, I’ve only been mislaid,
    I know one day
    I’ll find the sun, though now I’m walking in the shade…”

    I like the attitude, especially for a writer – one might not find the words right now, but that does not necessarily mean that they are lost… just mislaid.

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