Monday, August 15, 2011

Writing/Reading - Creation/Consumption

Throughout most of college I only wrote for school, never for myself, and I hated that.  I was always so harsh with my own creations—smothering all my own children, as it were.   I wanted to write, just could never get it going. 

Entering my final semester of university, I was in the lowest of low periods.  At first I was confused in the wake of a difficult breakup; later I was devastated by its emotionally brutal aftermath.  Right around September and October 2009, I was as down as I’ve ever been in my life.  I’d never ever felt so alone in the world. 

And rather suddenly, I stopped being such a vicious critic of my own compositions.  Normally when I write, I want to be fair and thoughtful and make sure I’m considering all sides of whatever the topic happens to be.  I always try to anticipate objections and address them pre-emptively.  If I see a logical weakness or notice some inconsistently applied standard, my brain pounces.  But in that onerous time, my brain was teeming with words, sentiments, arguments, accusations, pleas, and rebuttals, and they needed a way out.  Somehow the perfectionist in me just retreated, and finally I allowed myself to vomit out all the poison.  Thousands and thousands and thousands of words, unedited.  Sometimes hot-blooded or hyperbolic or cold or dramatic or unfair or irrational.  But most importantly, they came out freely, and I stopped judging myself.  I stopped feeling guilty for feeling.  For a couple months I just wrote everything that came to mind regarding my feelings, until the torrent relented.

In the moment, the catharsis was important.  The pressure had built and built until the old perfectionist had been forced to relinquish his grip on my self-expression.  It let me move from a sort of unbearable tempestuous fullness to a black-and-white peaceful melancholy.  Calmness and sadness like a still winter meadow, blanketed in snow.  Yet more important than that catharsis was this: the inner pedant was gone.  Free, free, I was free!  Not happy or healed or confident, but no longer shackled to that cruel master.  I could write, as much and as badly as I pleased—I no longer cared about the imperfections.

After graduating I moved to Switzerland, where the winter outside perfectly complemented the winter I felt in my heart.  I spent so much time thinking and writing, sorting out my feelings about the break-up and about life after college.  I had various small jobs, none of which had any long-term potential, and I spent some time traveling.  Soon after deciding to join the Peace Corps and starting my application, I traveled in Germany and Ireland alone for a month.  As it regards writing, this solo journey was an important moment.  I started keeping a journal, and for the first time in my life I was actually successful.  I kept up with it, and it never began to feel like a burden.  It wasn’t driven by an overwhelming emotional impulse.  Rather, this was probably the first time in my life that I had written consistently and purely out of inspiration.  The sense of accomplishment was amazing.

Since that time, I’ve become ever more comfortable with my own writing.  I have always read a lot, and the more I read, the more I understand my differences with all the writers I admire.  It just doesn’t bother me anymore.  I am who I am, warts and all.  No more insecurity about whether the writing is good enough—what’s important is the expression.  In the last three months, I’ve produced far more writing than any other three-month period of my life.  This makes me happy.

On the subject of writing, there are some things that I want to address.

Years ago, Stöff told me something that has always stuck: 

It’s better to write than to read.

God, that is so true.

I took him at his word, but I barely ever wrote back then.  It seemed a bit strange coming from him, a person who has read many thousands of books in his lifetime.  I’ve always been a reader, and at times I’ve been a little too pleased with how many books I had squirreled away in my home library (it’s always a good thing when I come across a person who’s burned through more books than I have).  But Stöff’s assertion stayed with me, and at some point in early college I stopped thinking of reading as a purely healthy/commendable pursuit.  Don’t get me wrong—reading is a fantastic thing, and everyone should read plenty.  But the idea that a person’s intellectual worth or achievement is correlated to the number of books they have read is false, and toxic at that.  Reading can open your mind, improve your understanding of language and the world, and make you feel in ways and see from perspectives you never could have without a book. 

Generally speaking, however, it is a passive activity.  Like tourists in an art gallery taking pleasure in the paintings, most bookworms move from one volume to the next with little or no downtime to truly process what they’ve read.  They delight in the text and sigh—oh how interesting!—and then move along to the next world.  Time goes on, details fade, and after interval they retain only the barest familiarity with the book.  How exactly is this different from watching television or movies, or going to a museum and seeing all the expensive artwork?  At the moment of exposure, it feels like you’ve encountered something profound, yet invariably the impressions fade away.  In the end, you saw the book/painting, but it never truly made it past your eyes.

 And in this way reading is just entertainment—something diverting, the ultimate purpose of which is the pleasurable passage of time.  This itself is no evil, but can you really call it a virtue?  Can such readers really look down on sports fans and roll their eyes, saying “bread and circuses”?

Please, don’t mistake me.  Reading is a wonderful, wonderful thing.  To my mind, the only shame is when people proclaim it as an end in itself, rather than the tool it should be.  Perhaps books are like bricks: you need a few if you want to build something, but a pile of bricks isn't the same as a house. 

Like watching movies or sports, reading (especially fiction) is passively immersing oneself in the lives and labors of active people. 

·      You see those sweaty, fist-pumping athletes, pushing the limits of human physical ability: focused, disciplined.  All in.  But you don’t see the hours they spend practicing, the care in their diet, the endless travel, the struggle to overcome injuries.

·      You read a book that is the product of long, intensive research, thought, writing, editing, wrangling with editors and publishers.  You get the finished merchandise, but you don’t see the first fifteen drafts of the manuscript.  Someone dedicated himself heart and soul for months or years to produce that volume that you blew through in one sitting while listening to music. 

·      You watch a movie for 90 minutes, enjoy the pithy dialogue, the special effects, the emotional payoff.  But you don’t see the coordinated effort of hundreds of specialists or the jitters of the screenplay author as he watches his baby grow under the aegis of a bunch of other artists with their own visions. 

Those diversions and entertainments are the product of active people, people who are creating something, or who at least demonstrate the kind of passion and discipline that make almost any pursuit compelling.  They are really alive.  We hunger for that.  I know I do.  It’s how I want to be.  To feel alive, I have to do

That’s why writing is better than reading, even if I can never produce something that is the equal of the authors and artists (and human beings in general) that I revere.  Fittingly, reading is one thing that brought me to this realization—specifically, the book Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.  I think I can say that it is the most important and influential book I have read as an adult.  It helped me to understand something I had felt at a deeper level for a long time, namely the difference between art and entertainment, and my discomfort with the thoughtless consumption of both of those things.  We consume so much, and our appetites are never sated. 


·      Education is not intelligence. 
·      Intelligence is not wisdom.
·      No matter how many books you read, you will never read all the worthwhile ones. 
·      No matter how many books you read, you will never read your way to wisdom, fulfillment, or contentment.
·      Reading a book—even a great one—is only as profitable as the growth it provokes in you.

Again, this is not to vilify entertainment or escapist reading or watching sports or any of that stuff.  I partake of all these things myself (more than I would like), and they serve a real purpose.  Just let’s not delude ourselves about the actual value of our diversions, and let’s not set ourselves above others because we choose a more esoteric way to waste time. 

The greater point behind writing is better than reading is: Creation is better than consumption.  Creating is being yourself, exploring yourself, expanding yourself; it’s living in your own reality rather than imbibing someone else’s. 

Maybe you ask: why is it better to toil in my own reality rather than revel in the majestic, variegated, already developed realities of other human beings?  In that case, I don’t have an answer.  I just know that in order to feel truly alive, you need to live in your own reality.

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