Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Better late than never.

Ernest Becker won the Pulitzer Prize for The Denial of Death... in 1974. I'm reading it for the first time, partly to research some ideas about death, partly because I am always looking for a perfectly reasoned argument for why the humanities should be funded, why reading fiction isn't a frivolous waste of time, why we don't all get degrees in chemistry or computer science and work for Intel.

Anyway, back to Becker. He argues that "hero stories" are intrinsic to human culture. They're intrinsic to the individual--that I want to be a "hero" because a "hero" is assured the best of the gene pool, the biggest piece of meat, the safest shelter. (I'm simplifying here, but...) The more willing we are to admit to and accept our inbuilt quest for heroism as a matter of dignity, the less likely we are to shuffle along, heads down, toward a flawed or ignoble heroism: such as "the viciously destructive heroics of Hitler's Germany or the plain debasing and silly heroics of the acquisition and display of consumer goods, the piling up of money and privileges."

It seems to me that writing is an act of dignified self-interest. In creating a story or poem, the author is at the top--the author is the organizing principle in a system of meaning, and accepts that role joyfully and voluntarily. And in being aware of this power, as creator, as hero, the author may become even more powerful yet:

If everyone honestly admitted his urge to be a hero it would be a devastating release of truth. It would make men demand that culture give them their due--a primary sense of human value as unique contributors to cosmic life. How would our modern societies contrive to satisfy such an honest demand, without being shaken to their foundations?

So, keep writing, save the world.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Writers reading, writing, and thinking

We live in a country where less than half the educated population has read a novel or poetry chapbook since leaving college. Yet I'm surprised when a writer tells me he doesn't read. "I have my own style. I don't want to be influenced by anyone." Or: "I know what gets published. I can write better than that."

I read two books a week outside of work, sometimes more if I am doing research, and still I feel I don't read enough. But I will give up reading forever if one of these aliterate writers produces a manuscript that isn't unintentionally unoriginal.

There is a symbiotic relationship between language and thought. We limit or broaden our thinking by exposure to language that is either dull or crisp, cliche or fresh. If a writer engages with ideas only through conversations, news reports, ad copy, and campaign speeches, her or her source of thought is a small, muddy one indeed (no matter the quality of the mind absorbing it). And it will show up in the writing.

Over sixty years ago, George Orwell described two writing problems that evolved from this small source. "The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not."

An editor is only helpful when the writer's ideas are already sound. I can tune a piano that already exists, but I can't build one out of spaghetti. Reading is a writer's responsibility--and a pleasure, muse, friend, and teacher.

The ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive. --Malcom X