Thursday, February 15, 2007

This is Really Something

I've recently asked my students to write some "This I Believe..." essays patterned more on less on the lines of the essays on the NPR web site of the same name. As I've been reading theirs I've been turning over in my mind some of my own core beliefs, one of which has to do with the inherent value of writing, not simply as a means of communication, but as something more personal and ultimately self-referential. As I type these words, for example, I am to some extent aware that there is a group of readers out there, like you, who will be at some point be reading them. But my primary motivation in writing has never been to get a message out to you, the readers. Most of the time, as I write, I am not really thinking too much about my readers, real or imagined. I'm thinking about the words, watching the way the sentence takes shape, trying to figure out what comes next. I'm writing first because it's interesting to me, and, at least sometimes, clarifying, and because it satisfies me at the end of a half hour or an hour or two or three hours to have a coherent body of words in front of me that seems to have come from... somewhere.

So yesterday I got an email from a colleague referring me to a recent essay by Stanley Fish entitled "Why Do Writers Write." In it, Fish describes his reactions to a radio interview conducted by Diane Rehm with Irish author Colm Toibin, who seemed to be brushing off comments from callers thanking him for the influence of his work in their lives, and "asking for recognition and empathy." Fish is initially put off by the author's stance, but after listening further, decides that perhaps Toibin was right after all:
I saw that what I had first regarded as a suspect evasiveness was in fact a determination to be faithful to the practice he was dedicated to and a refusal to claim for that practice effects that could not or should not be its objective. If a reader feels consoled or comforted, that’s all to the good, but it’s not what writing is about. Writing is about crafting sentences and building them into paragraphs and building the paragraphs into arguments and narratives. What Rehm and her listeners were proffering was a rationale for the act that was not internal to its demands, a rationale that could take the form of an external justification: I write so that you will feel better or I write so that the world will become a better place.
Fish ends his essay with a rationale for writing which makes a clear case for the writing as a means of achieving intrinsic satisfaction:

If you’ve found something you really like to do – say write beautiful sentences – not because of the possible benefits to the world of doing it, but because doing it brings you the satisfaction and sense of completeness nothing else can, then do it at the highest level of performance you are capable of, and leave the world and its problems to others. This is a lesson I have preached before in these columns when the subject was teaching, and it is a lesson that can be applied, I believe, to any project that offers as a prime reason for prosecuting it the pleasure, a wholly internal pleasure, of its own accomplishment. And if your project doesn’t offer that pleasure (perhaps among others) you might want to think again about your commitment to it.
I think this is pretty much exactly right. I don't know about the "beautiful sentences" part; although I admire beautiful sentences when I find them, I don't think I'm primarily oriented toward producing them. If anything, I think I would aspire to be a craftsman rather than an artist. But the part about "the satisfaction and sense of completeness," and the pleasure in writing, "a wholly internal pleasure, of its own accomplishment," yeah, that I can relate to. Don't get me wrong, if you've come this far, if you're still reading, I appreciate that, and I hope that what I have written holds some interest for you and gives you something of what you may have been looking for when you checked in. But it wasn't my primary motivation for sitting down to write this tonight.

The New Yorker magazine used to have a promotional videotape—I loaned my copy to a student and never got it back—which included interviews with various writers like John McPhee and Ann Beattie. I remember in particular the segment with Jamaica Kincaid, who was talking about the now-famous and widely anthologized piece "Girl." What she said, basically, is that she sat down to write it and when she got done with it she put down her pen and knew immediately that "This was...something." She sent it off to the New Yorker and it was pulled out of the slush pile and that was the start of her career as a writer.

I think that it's important that those of us who are teachers find ways of making it possible for students, at least some of the students some of the time, to come to experience that internal pleasure, the satisfaction that comes from having written something that is satisfying not because the teacher likes it, or because it did or did not get published in the literary magazine, but because it just felt great to have written it.

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