They were a lively group of students, and we chatted for an hour, discussing topics we were all interested in. They asked smart questions.
When we were wrapping up, I asked them a question: “What is your relationship to reading and writing?” At that moment, they morphed from T-shirt-clad physical specimens and became generic graduate students, indistinguishable from all-in-black, cigarette-smoking studiers of literary theory and bearded-and-geeky future scientists. It’s all we do, they wailed, and it’s hard.
The journal articles he makes us read (they said, directing accusing fingers at my colleague) are dense and boring. We’re getting good information, but it can be painful. And, they said, we have to learn to write like that.
No, I said, you don’t.
I’ve heard that song from graduate students in every discipline, and from faculty members, junior and senior, at universities across the country. The message: You have to write the same way as others in your field. You must use multisyllabic words, complex phrasing, and sentences that go on for days, because that’s how you show you’re smart. If you’re too clear, if your sentences are too simple, your peers won’t take you seriously.
Those who know that they are profound strive for clarity. Those who would like to seem profound to the crowd strive for obscurity. For the crowd believes that if it cannot see to the bottom of something it must be profound. It is so timid and dislikes going into the water.
I’m not an academic. As I’ve said, I never even attended college for the purpose of serious study or career preparation. I’m an autodidact if you want to be gracious, a dilettante if you don’t. But the quest to expand the horizons of one’s knowledge is a demanding one nonetheless, so I have done my best to read what the real academics have written on subjects I’m interested in, as well as shoot the breeze conduct rigorous interviews with a few of of my friends with advanced degrees and/or former academic careers dozens and dozens of prominent intellectuals throughout academia, and what they’ve told me has dovetailed with my own experience: there’s a whole realm that consists of technically smart people who have turned away from trying to make any real difference in the world with their knowledge, and spend their time in a cerebral circle-jerk, talking to themselves and others like them in an inscrutable private language. I like to flatter myself that I’m smarter than the average bear, but I’ve read academic tracts that left me glassy-eyed, with a trickle of drool from the corner of my mouth and thin tendrils of smoke trailing from my ears.
It’s a shame, because while I do agree that one should strive to be understood, especially when the goal is to actually impart information, I’ve really come to appreciate most of all when someone can enlighten and entertain in equal measures. The problem isn’t just that too much intellectual writing is devoted to pointless meandering through labyrinthine thickets of signified signifiers signifying signification, it’s that it has no style, no grace, no sense of humor. Pace George Orwell and his rules that Toor quotes, writing can be clear and artful; there’s no need to have such a ruthless, stripped-down, utilitarian aesthetic that always aims for the lowest common denominator.
I have heard it said that the defining characteristic of a writer is that writers absolutely must write. They can’t help it. It’s a compulsion. By that metric, I am not a writer. By that metric, I am pretty much the opposite of what a writer is. Most of the time, I have to be forced to write. This post, for instance, is prompted by my desperately needing to work on something else with a looming deadline. Yes, it’s still writing, but my only alternative is doing the dishes. There have been days this week where I chose a sinkful of dishes instead.
I like writing. I’m good at it. I’ve come to realize that my writing has made a few incremental changes for good in this world: swaying people’s opinions, helping people better appreciate some neglected things.
But do I need to write? No. I have been happy with my life without writing being a part of it.
B: But why, then, do you write? – A: Well, my friend, to be quite frank: so far, I have not discovered any other way of getting rid of my thoughts. – B: And why do you want to get rid of them? – A: Why do I want to? Do I want to? I have to.
>I never was one for keeping diaries or journals, and in my school days, writing was just another task to be done for a grade, with as little effort or fuss as possible. Until my late twenties, in fact, the most writing I ever really did was in the form of short poems or song lyrics. But having spent a few years now making a more-or-less regular effort to set down my thoughts on whatever topic catches my fancy, I don’t know what I’d do without it. Writing is how I solidify my thoughts; it’s a tool to focus my awareness. Along with music, of course, it’s how I get right with myself and the world, a way to find harmony and beauty that I can’t find anywhere else.
I don’t have to write in the sense of a compulsion, and I’ve never bought into the oft-heard advice that says aspiring writers have to devote a certain amount of time each day to writing a certain number of words. The calendar has nothing to do with it. If I don’t have anything really pressing to say, or if I’m too busy or tired, writing can wait. I enjoy the act of writing, and it really does energize me and lift my spirits to grapple with thoughts before finally expressing them in words to my satisfaction, but when I’m just going through the motions to force myself to conform to some artificial timetable, it’s worse than if I just wait however long it takes until inspiration strikes. If I felt the need to mindlessly jabber just to distract myself from the unsettling sound of the wind whistling through my head, I’d have a Twitter account. But for me, thinking is just as much part of the process as the actual work at the keyboard. You need to allow time for new information to filter in, for new experiences to occur, for new perspectives to spontaneously emerge before you can write anything meaningful. I find the best way to do that is to stop worrying about what I want to say, and go listen to what other people have to say. The interconnectedness of the blogosphere serves the purpose of keeping my mind stimulated. And while I’ve never wanted to be the kind of blogger that has to have an immediate comment on every piece of breaking news, there is a certain drive to stay abreast of what others are talking about, to see if you can add your two cents to a conversation before it dissipates, and that, more than saying, “I have to write a hundred words a day, no exceptions,” is what helps with the discipline of it.
So while I have yet to feel like a slave to my keyboard or my blog, writing is the necessary third link in the chain, following observation and reflection, that makes me feel complete. That process never stops. In that sense, then, yes, I have to do it.