A Writer’s Notes on Writing

Posted: August 15, 2007 in Literary Essay

What we writers do is simple: We let our fingers do the “talking”!

It’s a love of reading that leads us to writing. I am sure I am not alone in feeling this. When we read what we truly enjoy – nay, what makes us feel warm all over – we automatically think that we want to do it, too. This probably happens when we are very young. And when we are not even conscious of the desire to write. Not yet, any rate. Then come various influences. Certain poets or writers strike us as brilliant. Their words give us the goosebumps. And we begin to imitate them – and imitation is, of course, a form of flattery. As we keep writing – at first just for ourselves – we slowly begin to develop our own styles. A style is a way for a person to manifest his/her personality – his/her “persona” on “paper” – these words need quotation marks around them for obvious reasons (and I don’t need to spell them out, do I?).

I became an avid reader at an early age. I devoured book after book – at first in my native language (which happens to be Hungarian). In fact, if memory serves me right, the first book I ever read from cover to cover was The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, in Hungarian translation, of course. I quickly graduated to more “serious” reading, like Don Quixote. An uncle made me read five pages of it a day when I was in first grade. Every time he came back from work, I would have to paraphrase for him the plot of the story up to the point in the book that I finished reading. This may have been influential in my eventually becoming a professor of English (more of that later).

In fact, one of my earlierst “triumphs” as a writer was in third grade. Our homework consisted of writing a paraphrase of a narrative poem of about 12 four-line stanzas. I no longer recall what the poem was. All I remember is that during the next class the teacher asked me to read my outline out loud to the class. The reading was followed by a stunned silence. I must have done a good job of writing out the content of that poem. That “triumph” stayed with me all these years in my conscious and subconscious, too, I assume. It made me realize what I seemed to have been good at. Which was reading and writing. Writing, too, about what I have read. The essence of a professor of literture’s profession AND vocation. But I am jumping the gun.

At first I wanted to be a poet. Then a novelist. Then a professor of literature. The progression went something like this: I recognized early on that poets didn’t make much of a living (some did in the 19th century, where they were like rock stars – just think of Longfellow here – or Tennyson over in England). And I also realized that you had to be lucky as well as talented to write bestselling novels. So I figured that as a kind of insurance, I’d be a professor of English – that that would be my proverbial day job (not really thinking of the fact that professors didn’t make all that much money, either). But then I fell in love with the idea. And by the time I began to teach, as a graduate assistant at the Johns Hopkins University, talking about literature to my classes seemed like heaven on earth – so a vocation got born in me, a vocation that has never left me, not even in my old age, not even in my retirement.

But I want to get more specific here – about writing, that is. James E. Magner, Jr. was one of my favorite professors at John Carroll University, where I finished my undergraduate studies. He was a Thomistic mystic of sorts. And a published poet – though never a famous one. I shall never forget his definition of poetry (I still know it by heart):

“Poetry is the emotive and intuitive response to the impress of existence.” Simple enough. Notice the emphasis on two things: emotion and intuition. And the rather vague but nevertheless clear “impress of existence.” This means that the poem is a response to something in life – an imaginative response, to be sure (a response from the heart rather than “merely” from the head), but a response to something real “our there” just the same. A poet reacts to things and then feels compelled to reach for words with which to express his/her “reaction.” Poets don’t tell it like it is – so say most people. Ah, but they do! The way they tell it is the way (“like”) it really is! They avoid commonplaces. They give us words that seem never to have been used in the same way before. That’s because they want us to see – as if for the first time – things the way they see them. They want us to feel what they feel. They want us to experience their world in such a way that it becomes ours as well. They create. And we re-create with them. They create themselves – as “paper” (or verbal) personalities – and we go along with them willingly. Thus we become “them” – yet also remain ourselves. But somehow the reading transforms us just the same. We grow. We keep on becoming more and more what we really are, what we were meant to be.

Writers want to be read, too. Nay, they yearn for this! Not for selfish reasons. On the contrary. They want to share with others what they so keenly feel. It’s love really, at its most intense. A love of life. A love of this world. And in a way it’s themselves that they want to share as well. One of my favorite formulations of this is Edna St. Vincent Millay’s exclamation to some future reader in her lovely “The Poet and His Book.” The strophe that has stayed with me since my youth – when I first read and fell in love with it – is simple. The poet wants to know when she will really be dead. Not physically, of course. In the strophe she is already dead in that way. I think I’ll let the lovely lines speak for themselves:

Stranger, pause and look;
From the dust of ages
Lift this little book,
Turn the tattered pages,
Read me, do not let me die!
Search the fading letters, finding
Steadfast in the broken binding
All that once was I!

When we read a poet or writer, living or dead, his/her words come alive in us, in our hearts and minds and souls. It is really in the reading that the text exists “for real.” That it is resurrected, with the poet or writer, dead or alive. On the page, unread, the text is “dead letters.” In post office lingo dead letters are undeliverable, perhaps because the addressees are dead and buried. I don’t quite mean the phrase in that way. But I do mean to say that it’s not until it’s read that a text exists – in the heart and mind and soul of the reader – for the duration of the reading. And later, in memory of it. Though memories fade. In fact, it’s not until we read a text more than once that we really see just what’s in it – things we may not have noticed before. I once paraphrased something I read in one of Roland Barthes’s books. I said: the person who never reads the same book twice, is destined to read the same book over and over again. Later I checked what Barthes actually said. It was this: “those who fail to reread are obliged to read the same story everywhere.” (p. 16) Like most brilliant observations, this one is paradoxical, too. What Barthes means to say, of course, is that if we simply “consume” the text, rather than re-write it, as it were, we are not really getting all that we can/could out of it.

Very early on, when I was still a teenager, I came across a passage by a Russian writer (Dmitri Merezhkovsky) which, in English, would go something like this: “there are many who read, but there are few true readers, for a true reader re-writes the words he/she is reading.” (p. 290, the translation, from Hungarian, is mine) This made a deep impression on me, way back then. Much later I enountered the same idea in Vladimir Nabokov. This is how this other Russian writer puts the matter (and it deserves a longer quoation):

Let me define . . . [the] admirable reader. He [or she] does not belong to any specific nation or class. No director of conscience and no book club can manage his [or her] soul. His [/her] approach to a work of fiction is not governed by those juvenile emotions that make the mediocre reader identify himself [or herself] with this or that character and ‘skip descriptions.’ The good, the admirable reader identifies himself [or herself] not with the boy or the girl in the book, but with the mind that conceived and composed that book. The admirable reader does not seek information . . . but a specific world imagined and created by individual genius. . . . [The admirable reader] likes a novel because he [or she] imbibes and understands every detail of the text, enjoys what the author meant to be enjoyed, beams inwardly and all over, is thrilled by the magic imageries of the master-forger, the fancy-forger, the conjuror, the artist.(p. 11)

Simple enough: those who really and truly read, identify themselves not with the characters in a story, but with the writer – or, rather, the writer’s imaginative and imaginary world, the writer’s heart and mind and soul. Then there is that intriguing metaphor used by Stendhal about which a certain literary critic wrote an interesting essay. The metaphor goes like this: “The novel is the fiddle bow; the violin that gives forth the sounds is the soul of the reader.” (p. 155) What the essay doesn’t spell out is an implication implicitly present in the very metaphor itself. I can phrase it as a question: if the novel is a violin that’s the soul of the reader, what if a reader is not a Stradivarius, but an out-of-tune country fiddle?

This point is spelled out – in a way – by Nabokov, too. All readers are not alike. The admirable ones write when they read. They are writing what they are reading. Not literally, of course. This is the kind of reader every writer dreams about. This is the kind of reader that brings the text back to life every time it is read. Unfortunately, a bad reader will read a “bad” text – when it’s read badly, it becomes a bad text. What every reader should strive for, though, is the temporary suspension of his/her personality – so as to take on that which is suggested by the text, and its writer. This kind of reading is an act of love. An act of love that haunts the reader him- or herself with all the joys that love has to offer.

When we write, our fingers do the “talking.” When we read, our hearts and minds and souls talk back, and do the “walking.” When we don’t just “talk the talk, but walk the walk” (as a recent cliché has it), we are both reading and writing (or vice versa – for the writers, too, must also read what they are writing). When we read well, we stray into a world not ours yet ours just the same. We both create and re-create that world, and ourselves with and in it. Those who do not know the true joys of reading (or of writing) are missing something essential in life. A kind of high that no drugs can possibly give us. But that’s another story. Implicit in this one, but perhaps I’ll need to write about that some other time.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. S/Z: An Essay. Translated by Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974).

Gilman, Stephen. “The Novelist and His Readers: Meditations on a Stendhalian Metaphor,” in Interpretaion: Theory and Practice, edited by Chalres S. Singtleton (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1969).

Merezhkovsky, Dmitri. Winter Rainbow. This is my own translation from the Hungarian version published in Budapest by Dante Publishers some time between the two world wars.

Millay, Edna St. Vincent. Collected Poems (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1956).

Nabokov, Vladimir. Lectures on Russian Literature, edited with an introcution by Fredson Bowers (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1981).

*This article is written by Steven C. Schee. Visit his homepage http://www.stevencscheer.com

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