Most of the advice to writers is about sales. Much commotion about whether to go with e-publishing or paper. Or maybe technical advice about grammar or plot or characters. Or advice about how to begin, and hints about how to organize your desk. All of it is irrelevant and distracting. None of it is at the heart of REAL writing, which to my way of thinking includes poetry, video, songs — maybe all of the arts. Lately there has been talk about those who “can’t help but write,” as though that were another one of those states of being “chosen,” as though it were inborn, though plenty of people are illiterate all their lives, chosen or not. Which not does prevent them from skillfully telling stories many ways. We are taught in our schools that to “be a writer” is to learn certain categories and techniques, and then along comes someone who doesn’t but has a powerful message, effectively conveyed. Or a new media is devised that makes print obsolete.
To what level must a writer go to get upstream of writing style, media, even literacy? All the rules and assumptions about “writing” change with society, change with the kinds of media, change with the economy and so on. Success is so entwined with complexity — much of it entirely out of the control of the writer — that it is impossible to predict quality by looking at the publisher or the sales numbers. What is the most basic possible thing to know about writing? What do REAL writers REALLY do?
The word I’m going to use here is French. (Who am I to break with tradition?). It is “donnée” which my French dictionary says is “data” (forget that) or the concept at the heart of a fiction, like a novel. What I’m after is the concept-kernel, the irreducible issue that is addressed and explored. In the greatest writers — I will propose — the insolubility of that little key quandary is what drives the writing and makes it significant. It is the donnée that both powers the writing and governs its quality by demanding eloquence, whether in word or image.
Of course we now know that brains work in ways that have evolved from aeons ago, genes built on genes so that when we write we use things left from reptiles, then from mammals, and then from proto-humans. Our brains have a chemical basis that varies from one moment to the next. They have an architecture that is shaped from birth, setting up the categories and processes that control our thinking forever afterwards, no matter how much psychoanalysis we have. Partly a matter of environment and partly a matter of how our culture may interpret that environment in the interests of survival, we see everything in those terms, that innate grammar, that learned alphabet.
The inspired (obsessed) artist finds something insoluble, unsolvable, a koan (Buddhist is as good as French) , and circles it the rest of life. Many of these deep puzzles are from very early life, issues of intimacy, desire, boundaries, identity. Sometimes they become the core of something more formal and shared: nationality, education, marriage. The deeper and more intense they are, the more they are able to upset others who have come to different conclusions, so that opposition and censorship quickly suppress any expression “in print.” But if one is clever about metaphor or goes to a slightly more metaphorical art form, like dance, the same conclusions can be acted out without interference so long as certain arbitrary rules (which generally miss the point) are obeyed, like avoiding nudity. The strange truth is that some iconoclastic “koans” are often in conventional terms, in plain sight, seen but not recognized. Children with HIV?
It takes courage to put oneself “out there” in an art form because that is exposure to attack, but then gradually sometimes the attack becomes a conversion. Mapplethorpe’s photography outwitted prudes by showing the flesh of flowers, then going to the flesh of men, until enough people saw the beauty of it to oppose and push away the anxious people worrying about the corrupting influence of nakedness.
Lesbians wishing to write about their relationships have created a genre called “Kirk/Spock” because they disguise two women in the “personas” of the Star Trek characters. Star Trek’s premise is the strangeness of the behavior of other cultures and a taboo on criticizing it. I am thinking that sincere “porn” or erotica is on the way out because the forbiddenness of it, the uproar aspect, the subversiveness, is part of the kernel being expressed. At a nudist club, no one cares that you are naked. Sex is so commercialized that it means much less than it could.
But there are even more dangerous ideas, sometimes religious and sometimes about being a human being. There is no refuge from the goofy ideas of religion by becoming a humanist, because the goofiness just follows into that domain. If we could recognize the goofiness, maybe there would be fewer wars but wars are part of our goofiness, too. For instance, this weird way we are fighting wars now — not in self-defense but in self-defined “justice” that is a way of covering up for covert goals of corporations rather than nations — is killing and maiming a generation of young men as well as driving the most qualified and competent officers out of the military. Some of them are writing, pitting their love of the strategy, potency and teamwork of battles against the absurdity of trying to force a faraway people in an entirely different sort of place to be like us.
We need a book about teaching that tells the truth, right down at the central confrontation between a formed person and an unformed person, each educating the other. More like discipleship. Intimate. Maybe erotic in the sense that ideas can be deeply exciting, in the sense that we penetrate one another. Sexual language when dealing with generational difference is still one of the major taboos. The politically correct shackles need to be struck off. There is a lot of work to do.
Warm spring sun is shining today which makes me want to clean house. I’ve saved so much in case it turned out to be important. Now maybe carefully defining my donnée will clarify what to discard. What IS my donnée? I will only tell a few of you. The rest of you must read what I write and figure it out from there. I have no choice about writing it.