Saturday, February 04, 2006
I can’t do impressions. Nor can I speak in an Australian, Indian, Spanish or any other foreign accent. Where some seem to have a natural talent for changing the inflection in their speech, I find it near impossible. Perhaps a great deal of practice may render an impression or accent passable. I do not believe that I have the natural ability to render, to imitate or to acquiesce. The same goes for drawing, painting, music and a host of other “arts.” I am seemingly incapable of adopting a set “style.” I can’t do it “just like this,” or that.
I read a wide variety of non-fiction. On occasion I’ll read fiction – sometimes under the pretense of non-fiction, but fiction all the same. I prefer, however, reality. I am a reality reader. It is not surprising, therefore, that I write about reality – exclusively. Whether it is opinion, journalism, experience, observation or (forgive me) memoir, it is always and at once about one thing: The truth.
I have been writing on and off for most of my life, usually only when necessary, never really just for the sake of writing. I never much cared for creative writing because the assumption (perhaps only mine) was that it should be fiction. I never heard of creative non-fiction and although I accept the genre today, it still feels a little like an oxymoron. I write from experience; I write what feels right; I write the way I talk and the way I think – when I’m writing.
I don’t have a “style” of writing. Well, if I do, it’s uniquely my own. Perhaps more to the point, I can no more adopt a different style than I can draw a picture of a seascape or speak in a foreign accent. My mind doesn’t work that way, I don’t know why. Philip Larkin, as related by V. A. Naipaul in her essay “On Being a Writer” thought that form and content were indivisible. Naipaul adds:
Literature is not like music; it isn’t for the young; there are no prodigies in writing. The knowledge or experience a writer seeks to transmit is social or sentimental; it takes time, it can take much of a man’s life, to process that experience, to understand what he has been through; and it takes great care and tact, then, for the nature of the experience not to be lost. Not to be diluted by wrong forms. The other man’s forms served the other man’s thoughts.
I couldn’t have said it better myself. I also couldn’t have said it the same way even if I wanted to. It says what I think, but not how I think it – or how I would write it. I was not able to express myself via the written or, for that matter, the spoken word as clearly 20 years ago. I did not have a social context in which to frame my thoughts, my words. I did not have the experience, the good, the bad or the ugly. Not surprisingly, I had little desire to write.
I write everything in the same “style.” From research papers to essays to technical manuals or personal letters and email, it’s the same flow. Every college research paper I have ever written came back with remarks such as “interesting style” or “very entertaining” and sometimes “refreshing” – and usually an “A.” One might venture that it is somewhat risky writing such works as near narratives – that I am somehow courageous or bold or… stupid taking such chances. The truth is that I have no choice – it’s how I write, it’s authentic and it’s me.
George Orwell surmises in his 1953 essay “Why I Write” that there are four great motives for writing that exist in differing degrees in every writer and will vary from time to time in any one writer. He lists first sheer egoism and explains “Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen – in short, with the whole top crust of humanity.” I don’t know that I want to be grouped with all these professions, but I get what he means.
Although I will begrudgingly concede that ego is an excellent motivator, it is, for me, a secondary force; a background urge that pushes me towards the only perfectionism I have ever known. It is not like me to be persnickety about anything – good enough usually is. But it’s not like that when it comes to my writing. I’m obsessive about getting it just right. It’s not just about correct grammar and spelling, but pulling all the words together into one cohesive unit where every word, every phrase and every comma is indispensable. I don’t always succeed, especially in my own eyes. Recognition that feeds the ego, especially in these moments of self-doubt, keeps me motivated.
Orwell continues; the other three motives are: Esthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and political purpose. The first, true for me in terms of flow and continuity, is the craft of the wordsmith. The second only drives me in terms of my own history and the last is, for now, my calling. Ultimately, although perhaps not as much currently, egoism directed me to the road I now travel. If it were not for certain individuals taking an interest in what I had to say, professionals with no axe to grind and no reason to be “nice,” my ego would have sent me packing.
Joan Dideon says in her essay (the title of which she freely admits she stole from George Orwell), “Why I Write:”
All I knew then was what I wasn’t, and it took some years to discover what I was.
Which was a writer.
By which I mean not a “good” writer or a “bad” writer but simply a writer, a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper. … Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.
Again, although I would not have said it this way, this is also my truth. We have walked the same path. It seemed as if everything I was, I wasn’t. It left me disconnected, discontented and disillusioned. Is this all there is?? There was a tempest spinning out of control in my head and the way to quell it was to write. At first writing alone was not enough. Although it did provide a measure of relief, the big payoff came from recognition.
At the moment, this very moment with these very words, my primary reason for writing is clarification. It seems to me that if I write enough, I’ll get it. I’ll get life. Having said that, the motivation that is my ego has not gone away. First, it won’t let me rest until this is proofed, tweaked and polished. Then… I post it for the world to see. Can I change the world, give it greater and deeper understanding to all who read my prose? That would be nice, but I’d settle if you just liked it!