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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Gift...

I will start with the biggest statement I can make. The greatest gift a writer can give to language is himself. His sincerity and his best effort. And the greatest gift language will give him back is all of us, at our best. Think of language as a great pond receiving rain from above, and we are the rain drops, each of us. In another way, the millions of words that make up our language are like a data stream of the collective unconscious, alphabetized and stuck in a dictionary. All the words we have come up with, saved over time, or changed come as close to putting a tangible place for the human soul as we can imagine it. Hate. Fear. Love. They're all rolled up in language like concrete mixed with dirt, mixed with flowers.

In writing, unlike in speaking, we have time to get it right. We cannot easily stand on a corner and tell our story. We miss thoughts, say the same ones too many times, sound strange, gushy, angry; we get weird, glance around, fuss with our hair. Message lost. Instead, we live in the best age to write. Computers are magical. We can nix sentences and move paragraphs around as if by a magic wand. I get pumped up by the chance to improve my words, because I know that with each pass of my eyes over my sentences, I’m getting closer to arcing my message across some great mystical transom and into the readers' heart. There can be no better spelled-out intimacy than writing to a reader and having your message keenly known inside. It's heart on heart.

Fiction in particular gives us a chance to right wrongs. Wouldn't it be great to tell a story about a horseshoe-shaped magnet flying low over our earth, drawing out through the chimneys of every house from Minneapolis to Madagascar the guns and knives poisoning our society? Would it be wonderful to invent a President with a scholar's mind and doctor's soul? Or a teacher who decides to give everyone A's because he has scientific proof that the shape of the letter A is hypnotic and will entrance any student receiving it to perform like an A student?

Bookstores and libraries are our treasure houses of language, yes, but they're also the writer's funhouse of mirrors: No image cast by another's book quite gets you right. Some come close, but close like an amusement park's mirror, maybe making you fat and wiggly, skinny and long, or hourglass-shaped and ghoulish. True books are like fingerprints. No two alike. So there's always room waiting for yours, mine, everybody’s.

7 comments:

blogger1 said...

"A resounding manifesto!"
-Simon Lewis, editor of Illuminations

rbixby said...

Guns and knives aren't the poison. It's half-buried hatred and anger in the self-justified minds of people who believe that their justifications are as good as anyone else's that distill into the poison that threatens to kill the world.

blogger1 said...

"I admire your energy and passion for writing." -John M. Daniel, author of Vanity Fire and The Poet's Funeral

blogger1 said...

"I'm afraid that I have never developed a romantic sense of writing and words that you seem to hold. I suspect that was because my occupation focused pretty exclusively on the factual side of things.

As an editorialist, I felt passionately the duty to try as best I could to pierce the veils of delusion that seem to surround so much of our communal life in public affairs. Of course the danger in that is smugness and excessive righteousness. I confess to both.

I was exceptionally fortunate to enjoy 25 years of financial security as a writer. They allowed me to raise a family in a pretty decent American city and see the kids well started on independent adult lives. It was a good life.

I do not kid myself that anything I did had lasting impact; it didn't. Whatever impact we had was momentary; we specialized in creating tomorrow's fish wrappers. It was fun. That is enough."

--Jim Boyd, former deputy editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune

blogger1 said...

"I simply loved how you have expressed your feelings about this often elusive act of creation. Often times, I have been asked by authors about what I am looking for, and I stumble around and finally tell them that I am looking for a way with words. By that I guess I mean that I want to be surprised, thrilled, moved, amplified in some way by how a writer uses words. But you say all this so well, much better than I could, and I thank you for it.”

--Judith Shepard, editor and co-publisher of The Permanent Press

blogger1 said...

“I don’t usually like writing about writing–or reading about writing. It’s a dangerous way for writers to go.

What writers don’t tell people is how it makes them feel, especially when it’s going well. It makes them happy. It takes them into another dimension–we call it being in the zone. You stare out of the window, make another cup of coffee, leap up when you hear the post flip through the letter box; for quite some time you do anything but write. Eventually a word appears, a line. It’s like falling asleep–you can’t pinpoint the moment when you fall–but suddenly an hour has gone by and you’re awake again, blinking in the light and trying to get back to reality. Then, when you’re done with writing for the day, what you’ve been working on follows you around for hours, keeping you company. And you feel happy.”

--Moira Forsyth, director of Sandstone Press

Scott said...

John,

Those are some great insights about language and the function of literature!

You're full of surprises. I knew that you could write superbly, but I didn't realize how deeply you had thought about the process and the purpose of writing.

The ancient philosopher Socrates thought that artists worked through a sort of blind inspiration, and that they really didn't understand what they were doing. You have proven him wrong. He was also wrong about drinking the hemlock, but I guess we can't fault him for that too much: we got a great and inspiring story out of it. :-)