This essay sorta exhausted me, in its exhortations to write all the time. As someone who’s somewhat obsessive in his thinking anyway, I don’t need to hear the command to pay yet more attention to my writing and my thinking. But as I read this, and also looked at this essay about writers’ spaces (and how it’s all too easy to romanticize and even worship a writer’s physical things, when we would be understanding an author much more, it seems to me, when we actually do what they did and sit down and write), these two posts got me thinking about where the words come from. I’ve written about this before, but it’s so fascinating to think about how writing fits into one’s life, how in a way, writing is more of a way or mode of living than it is a hobby. I’m also reminded of the Annie Dillard quote: “Society places the writer so far beyond the pale that society does not regard the writer at all.”
In recent weeks, I’ve been writing down on my pocket notes some of the funny, strange, or otherwise unique things my students say in class. (I’d post an example but I’m afraid that actually sharing these things publicly might make my students too self-conscious.) My students seemed to think it weird at first that I’d record what they say, but today, some students seemed pleased to have their words recorded. I’ve turned their unpremeditated utterances into long-lasting symbols on paper, and now their recorded words can be read back to them (or to third parties) at my whim. (There’s also the issue that I may not have heard their words perfectly, but how I write them is how the statements get recorded.)
I’m not recording dialogue for any particular purpose (as if it were research) — there’s just something fascinating for me both in the recording of real-life speech, in the easily taken-for-granted turning of sound into symbol, and also I really enjoy some of the funny things kids say, the particular ways they use language. It seems really simple to write down things people say, and yet, maybe it does put me beyond the pale. These aren’t the words of interview subjects who want to present themselves in certain ways, although of course we all want our speech to make us appear witty, charming, etc. The statements I write down are just glimpses, with minimal context, of the behavior of real people — and yet, somehow, some little aspect of this behavior has become more substantial — how fleeting, how unreal, is most of our experience unless and until it is written.
Our experience, of course, remains fleeting; what we write down of our experience is less a reflection of reality or of real experience, and more a record of what words and ideas about real experience came through my mind, my mind-voice, and got onto the paper. I don’t narrate my life — well, I seldom tell myself what is going on at the moment — I know what’s going on, I know what I think is happening now and what I think I should do next. But I do tend to think — a lot — during my conscious hours, and this thinking takes place mostly as words. There are images and feelings as well, but it’s a wordstream that would appear if there were some way to transcribe my … what’s even a good term for this? It’s all metaphors of course — the stage of my mind’s attention? “Interior monologue” is often used but it already implies language. The mind’s TV of words and images? It’s funny how hard it is to describe what it’s like to be conscious, to have a mind, to communicate how that mind feels and works.
How when I’m actively doing things, I forget I have some locus directing my actions (many of which may be “muscle memories” and thus not arising to conscious thought at all). When I’m feeling a certain mood, these don’t seem to be controllable, though, like the weather, they’re frequently changing. My thinking that arises to the level of self-awareness that I am thinking (and becoming aware of my own thinking, that’s something I think I’ve gotten better at, through the practice of writing, of taking notes when a discrete idea forms) often comes when I’m driving or showering or otherwise doing things that don’t really engage the conscious mind in a way that teaching, conversing, or reading do.
This is a mess of words here, perhaps not conveying much, perhaps giving rise to some sense of identification in some readers. Perhaps not. But this post has been an attempt to describe what it’s like to be a writer. Of course, I don’t know what it’s like to not live as a writer. I don’t even know why I live as a writer — perhaps being a writer has made me a more thoughtful person towards others, or perhaps my thinking separates me from others socially. Perhaps I have shaped, through repetition, my mind to become that of a writer’s; perhaps my biology and my upbringing conditioned me at least part of the way to becoming who I am.
In a way, this aspect of being a writer — the Daily Being a Writer — is certainly not about getting published, and it’s not even mainly about connecting with others (with this rambling post as Exhibit A), or maybe it is about that, a little. And I don’t think this Daily Being a Writer is what we admire or appreciate about our favorite authors, so many of whom were jerks to be around. But Daily Being a Writer — maybe let’s call it, A Writer’s Being? — is not even what the friends and family of Hemingway and Kerouac would have known. Only the writer him/herself can know this. This Writer’s Being is natural to me, and it is obviously one way to be a human alive on this planet, and it is obviously not the only or even necessarily best way of living a human life. This way of living, this Writer’s Being, just seems so fundamental that questions of “am I a real writer?” or questions about how to create more suspense in a novel don’t even make sense in this context. I am, so I write. I exist, and how I exist is by thinking and writing. It’s not even noble or praiseworthy or pitiable or describable by any adjective. It just sorta is. And for some reason, putting words on paper feels good.