Writing: what I’ve learned

In the beginning, writing was a fun school assignment. It was a way to compete with my friends. It helped to wean me off my toys, offering an age-appropriate medium for the expression of my imaginative impulses.  

Then, when I was sixteen, going on seventeen, while hiking across a glacier in the Rockies, I experienced something I couldn’t quite make sense of. In response to the experience, I tried to make sense of it by writing a poem. It was, I think, my first true poem. I also now suspect that I turned to the page only because I had no one else to talk with about the experience. 

If writers, like super heroes, have secret origins, my experience on the glacier and my effort to make sense of it with words is my secret origin. Like every super hero’s secret origin, it has shaped everything else that has come after. I never finished that first true poem; I don’t think I’ve ever stopped trying to write it either. 

Twenty-nine years after that first unfinished and forever-revised poem, I now know this about writing: Luke got it backwards. Flesh becomes word, and not the other way around. The marks on a page don’t affect us. We affect them. The influence we suppose we feel in words originates in us. We make marks work. We make marks words. The power of words is us imaginatively transubstantiated.

The power of writing, then, is always the power of a community. Like a currency, writing is only as influential as the people who call it their own. If you want to craft writing that wins friends, influences neighbours, or earns money and acclaim, the marks on the page are probably the least important consideration.

Don’t write each day; instead, ingratiate yourself each day to the right people. It’s gatekeepers all the way down.

I also now suspect that words have limited efficacy when it comes to making sense of the kind of experience I had on the glacier. The experience originates, I think, in a part of our brains that experience, know, and understand without using the marks, sounds and physicalizations we learn as children to express as language. If this suspicion is correct, it is probably impossible to express in words the experience I had on the glacier. My adolescent turn to words, poetry and writing, to make sense of my encounter with the infinitesimal nature of human experience, was probably futile from the outset. 

Fortunately, writing has helped me to understand myself, others, and the world around me, even if it can’t magically motivate people to action or express the inexpressible. Despite its mundane limitations, writing can be very satisfying, especially when I catch in words some feeling, intuition or idea that had previously seemed ineffably out of reach. Rationally, I know writing — my writing — is little more than an elaborate game of solitaire; irrationally, I also know that it feels important. I’ve always been one of those kids who takes play very seriously.

In another twenty-nine years, I will be seventy-four, going on seventy-five. With so much life left to learn from, I wonder who I might yet become. Will the person I am today be as much of a stranger to me then as that sixteen year-old is a stranger to me now? It seems likely. It also seems likely that the different texts I have created or will create will be insufficient to forge a persistent identify over time. My past selves, my present selves, and my future selves, like any other reader, make of texts whatever they bring to them at the time of the encounter. There is no indelible message that can be preserved in the bottle of my words, even for my future selves. Waves in the ocean of experience leave no trace. 

If all of this is true, why write at all? It’s a fair a question, and one that I often ask myself. If there are so many other enjoyable activities that are much more likely to win friends, influence neighbours, and earn money and acclaim, why bother writing, why persist in a habit which serves no greater purpose than its own perpetuation. At the age of forty-five, going on forty-six, this is my answer: writing deeply is like breathing deeply; you understand its value, whenever you take the time to do it.

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