I’ve been dipping in and out of a rather pleasurable book about writing. Most people read books about writing for utilitarian reasons – to find a new technique, to see something that might inform their own work, to seek explanations for particular conventions. And so on. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with these kinds of informative writing books – I write them myself so I’m quite glad people want to read them. And I buy and read other people’s informative writing books so that I can add to what I know, and perhaps challenge some of the ways I think about things.
But I do read books about writing for the sheer pleasure of it. Some I buy for no other reason than I like to be provoked, tantalised, intrigued, or amused by someone’s writing about writing. I’m currently finishing off a book about writing by Mark Edmundson. It’s called Why write? A master class on writing and why it matters. He’s an English Professor at the University of Virginia.
Now I want to tell you that I bought this book, it wasn’t sent to me to review. Cold hard credit card currency was shelled out. In fact, no publishers ever send me books about writing, which is interesting as they could potentially reach a lot more people here than those book reviews in pay walled journals – but there you go. Not bitter. Their lack of interest leaves me poorer, but pure in intent. It means I am not obligated to say anything and I only write about the books that I think are interesting. But I digress. Let me get back to Edmundson.
Edmundson proposes twenty-nine reasons to write. Each has a short chapter which in which he explains and elaborates the reason, making connections with other writers and their writing as he goes. He also offers personal anecdotes and a bit of down-home wisdom expressed in a highly accessible and distinctive manner.
His writing style I hear you ask? Can the man who writes about writing actually write? The Edmundson voice? A sample taken from early on in the book…
.. the writer needs a way to go from what I call (borrowing from Keats) habitual self to some other state.
There’s nothing wrong with habitual self. It’s a state we need to inhabit most of the time, unless we’re saints or warriors or artists who never stop creating. (Picasso seems to have come as close as any mortal ever has, and even he needed to pause for some food and more than occasional fornication.) Habitual self drives the car and gets bodies, including its own, to various places at agreed on times, it gathers the groceries and chops them and marinates them (although of course cooking is truly an art, and maybe habitual self does not always cook the dish.) It pays bills, and takes care of kids and parents and schmoozes at the post office. It takes the obligations related to death and taxes with some degree of seriousness.
But habitual self cannot write to save its life. Habitual self is good for a grocery list, a laundry list, a note to the mechanic, or a note of thanks for the spotted birthday tie or the fruit-scented candle. But habitual self cannot write. It is worldly, pragmatic, geared towards the fulfilment of desires, and fundamentally boring – at least to others. The base, habitual self is the Darwinian side of us that wants to survive and thrive and procreate. When habitual self wants to read, it reads Grisham: when it wants to write, it sounds like a machine. It sounds the way your computer would sound it if it had a voice of its own.
I think sitting down to write is about getting loose from habitual self. If you’re going to tap into what is the most creative inside you, you’ve got to find a way to outwit the pressures of the ordinary. Think of habitual self as a barrier that blocks you from getting where you most want to go as a writer. It’s not that massive wall that most of us have to smash through to get ourselves going the first time and make ourselves able to say we’ve begun as writers. It’s a smaller, less imposing but still potent version of that wall, and it rises up to some degree every day.
There are two ways to deal with that wall I think. You can go over it and you can go under it.
Edmundson argues that going over the wall usually requires lots of caffeine (or an alternative stimulant) and a sweaty, exhausting macho effort. He argues instead for going under the wall. This necessitates a process of slowing down, engaging in rituals in order to reach a more dream-like, associative state of mind. Listening to music, meditating, going for a run… all of these kinds of strategies help writers get underneath the habitual self, Edmundson says.
So that’s the how-to about writing. But why does Edmundson suggest writers go to all this bother? Well, here’s some of his twenty-nine reasons.
To catch a dream. To have written. To get the girl/get the guy. To make some money. To get even. To strengthen the mind. To grow. To fail. To change the world. To get reviewed. To learn to be alone. To stay sane. To see what happens next. To find beauty and truth. To stop revising. To get better as you get older. To have the last word.
Now, while some of the writing might be a little, well, North American for some readers, I did find Edmundson’s list of reasons to write particularly challenging. I wondered what kind of equivalent list might be on offer for academic writing.
Why do academics write these days, other than to get reviewed and audited? What makes us sit at the desk for hours at a time? Are we now completely driven by a kind of habitual academic self, accustomed to publish each year in order to avoid censure? Or do we still retain some of those over and under the wall reasons – to find beauty and truth? to get even? to change the world?
Why do you write? Do you have twenty nine reasons or just one or two?