Pray indulge a little introspection today.
There have been times in my life when I have felt irresistibly drawn to sitting down, opening a book, taking the lid off my pen, and writing something. Most times, I get as far as finishing my cup of tea, the pen nib long dry, before admitting defeat. What am I going to write about?
I’m aware of stating the obvious when I say that this isn’t unfamiliar territory. I daresay most writers experience writers’ block or the desire to create without an object in mind. They have the form without the essence, the signifier without the signified, the tools of representation without the reality. For the journalist contracted to output a column a week, or the academic with a publishing quota, writer’s block is as terrifying as the executioner’s block was to a medieval soon-to-be martyr.
Even once you have your bunch of characters nicely playing out the story – as seemingly pointless (Waiting for Godot) or as tragically inevitable (Othello) as that might be – the whole creation often ends up as much about its own form as about the long-sought-after plot and characters.
What can I do with words, authors ask. Dante’s 100 canti of medieval Italian create the synthesised medieval physical and spiritual world; Bryony Tallis’ novel (within McEwan’s) is her atonement as no act of contrition can possibly be. An ‘act of contrition’ is in fact a spoken prayer. Words are acts in the real world too (and particularly in the religious realm, interestingly): your spoken promise creates a moral obligation, your written promise a legal one; saying ‘I do’ in the right context changes your legal, relational and spiritual status, and so on.
In my teens, my main written output was a rather tragic diary and hundreds of pages of various stories. In my early twenties, my main written output has been university essays and now grumpy email exchanges with colleagues. But every so often the will takes me and I open the diary again (a physical book!), ballpoint at the ready.
What do I write? Chronicles of fun, social critique, cultural observations from travels, and sometimes … my thoughts and reflections. Nowadays, I think out my reflections as I write: squeezing the chaotic thought into a structured sentence crystallises the problem and allows me to reason through it. (As an aside, I’ve just read a book that suggested Western structured languages (think Latinate cases and declensions) enable us to express highly rationalised systems of thought, whereas less structured languages (think Chinese and its lack of tense) lead to more poetic, less systematic philosophies). I’d only have to write about something that perplexed me and it would be solved. In the past, I knew that the times I chose not to write about something were the times I wanted not to be faced with an emerging but as yet unnamed issue. Formulating words, writing a text, makes ourselves understandable to ourselves.
Then there are times when there is no problem, but still a desire to say something, and writing anything at all brings the same satisfaction as it does when it solves a problem. Sometimes when I take up the pen, no problem at hand, the first line on the page resolves into a question: what I want to get to the bottom of, and all I really want to write about, is why I’m writing at all.
The brain is programmed to look for patterns in the data fed to it – it’s what allows us to quickly identify familiar faces, for example. The pattern-matching cogs have been churning over this question and have tied together a number of ideas towards an answer:
- Work: some daily tasks are repetitive and it can be tedious to spend your 9-5 in an office. Even if I enjoy my job, I think I’d rather be a Renaissance man living in a Venetian palazzo practising the arts. The need to complete said tasks prevents one from breaking away from them
- Family life: ‘don’t answer back’ was a common refrain during my childhood
- School: the classroom environment is still predicated on a ‘children should be seen and not heard’ mentality
Given the above factors, my theory now is that the master problem is a problem of self-expression, and that writing solves it because writing gives expression. Perhaps I already half-knew this: one of the aforementioned ‘stories’ I wrote in my teens concerned, by way of subplot, its female protagonist’s eventual emancipation from a controlling boyfriend (the main plot was about magic and stuff). At the time, I didn’t think the entrapment-to-agency plot was about me, but maybe it was.
Of course, it’s easy to look back on a sequence of events and draw a conclusion from it (as above), with no way beyond our natural trust in ourselves to verify whether we are judging correctly. Thinking Fast and Slow points out the systematic faults in the pattern-matching brain, showing that its conclusions, especially our snap judgements, aren’t always true. However, while some snap judgements should certainly be rethought, I don’t think we need or should be skeptical of everything. Rather than considering pattern-matching a flaw in the brain’s makeup, maybe we should embrace it: it’s pattern-matching that creates cause and effect, ‘X happened because of Y’, and this is the logic of every story (or every traditional story, until you get to Waiting for Godot), perhaps also of every account of history: pattern-matching creates narrative.
It’s also clear that this kind of pattern-matching creates meaning, crystallizing the content of our sometimes chaotic brain into something comprehensible, as I said above. We desperately want the world to make sense (it’s partly why we go to church and invest in science), and thanks to the way the brain works, it does. It takes a human mind, possibly, to tie events X and Y (if they can be said to exist discretely, separate from the continuum of being…) into a narrative, and to endow it with significance. When I start tying random events (like the bullet points above) into a narrative of my life, the narrative then self-generates: my realisation that there’s an explanation for those events generates action (such as a resolve to express myself more by posting more on this blog); this action then becomes the new reality and the cycle begins again. So my life has changed because of the ability to create narrative. And, possibly, it takes these same capacities to tie myself yesterday to myself today through a meaningful chain of causation, to create the unified self that we all believe we are.
So I have a problem of expression. I am not sufficiently conveying my existence, myself, to the world. Words, together, form a discourse whose logic appears to match that of my own brain functions, and so writing, on whatever subject, will naturally solve my problem.
Italo Calvino ends his novel Il barone rampante with the death of the protagonist and the disappearance of the forest where he lived, and leaves us with what he calls a last bunch of words, ideas and dreams, with the last line of ink on the page rightly described as ‘senseless’. Yet none of this negates the rest of the novel or destroys the fictional illusion. It doesn’t matter that Calvino erases the content of the story using the very means of its creation (the words); the continued existence of that content doesn’t matter, because stating that ‘I am X’ will always be preceded by ‘I am’: language isn’t there to say things, necessarily, but to say or narrate, and create, ourselves.
So why do I write, and what can I do with words? Create other worlds, convey a message, suggest a message, create this very, my own, world. Or simply show that I am.