Don’t You Just Hate That? The Writer’s Lament

Approximate Reading Time: 7 minutes


Part of the underground passageway in Montréal from Place d’Armes Mètro station to Square Victoria Mètro station, with stops along the way. These passageways are collectively a network (in French, reseau) called the RÉSO, which pretty much connects the core of the city neighborhoods to one another so that, in winter, when it’s beastly cold in this beautiful city, you need never step foot out of doors if you play your cards right about where you live, work, and play. The above passageway is relatively new, part of the newest restoration project, called the Quartier Internationale, and mainly consisting of the renovation, and repurposing of an odd assortment of nineteenth century stone buildings, and the abandoned skyscrapers formerly housing financial institutions and government offices. Architects are awarded projects on the order of the above image—essentially one section of people tunnel underneath the city streets. In the middle of August, 2006, in the middle of the day we never saw more than two or three other people in the same section with us.

There is nothing like a writer’s memory. I don’t mean necessarily that
I, a writer (for sake of argument; so go ahead, pick a fight), will
remember what Linda, my wife, told me 15 minutes ago concerning her
whereabouts as planned for the rest of the day.

I mean that what is important to a writer, which falls roughly into two
categories, he will never ever forget. These two are, whatever a writer
has written, and whatever seems worth remembering to write about later.

I write a lot. That is to say, I write often and at great length. This bothers some people, the writing at great length that is. Check the comments here on the blog. A coy “Polonius” reminds me that brevity is the soul of wit—omitting any sense that this is the punchline of one of the longest shaggiest jokes in all of Shakespeare (hint: Hamlet is not simply a tragedy, it is also a comedy; he is, after all, among the wittiest of men). Brevity is the soul of the one-liner. Been there. Done that. I was a copy writer for 30 years.

There are only so many words a talented announcer can say persuasively in 60 seconds (the length of one of my particular strengths—and one of the secret joys of writing advertising: the 60-second radio commercial). So screw brevity. And while I’m at it, and as I like to say as often as I can, screw Strunk & White. The two men who have done more damage to the English language since Wittgenstein made all language suspect.

People like it brief because then they don’t have to pay attention. They don’t want to pay attention because, a) that means concentrating, like listening and remembering that Linda is having coffee with Patty, and then she’s meeting Tina and Terry for lunch, and so forth—but these pursuits are ephemeral, bound to be repeated next week, or at least within a fortnight, and not intended for immortality, but for fun, not that there’s anything wrong with that. They also don’t want to pay attention because, b) it’s probably not about them, and what’s the world about anyway, but you? Right?

The problem for writers, who depend so much upon memory—as do not we all, after all; I mean in a philosophical way, as who are we, each of us, but a collection of things we remember about ourselves, usually starting with a name, and then expanding exponentially and singularly in unpredictable, if not random, directions?—is that any appreciation of what they write demands that you pay attention. That you remember what you are reading here! Get it?

Writers being just like you and every other person on the planet believe it’s all about them, with the added proviso that they are always writing, in a twist on Norman Mailer’s (and a bigger egomaniac you are not likely to encounter between covers) brilliant phrase, advertisements for themselves. I don’t want to worry the question of for whom a writer writes. That’s a question best answered by the people you pay money to, to teach you to write: whether it’s Leslie Fiedler, head of the Creative Writing Program at B.U., or it’s one of those business writing coaches that your company hires to improve your memos and email communications, because you never did really learn the proper use of a comma, and you use way too many adjectives—and inevitably they’re just too goddamn long. Fiedler is demonstrably as big a huckster as anyone can imagine: read his paean to himself, and his program, and his progeny—of the creative variety—which appears on the BU Web site [ ]; but I warn you, he do go on… it’s only a little less painful than reading this blog, that is, if you have an attention deficit, which we all do. Whatever their pedigree or reputation, they’ll tell you, every stinking one of them, that you must keep your audience in mind. Put yourself in your reader’s shoes, or put on their glasses, or undershorts… something, anything, to let you see your own words the way others see them. And why? So you’ll use fewer words.

Tell that to Proust. Tell it to Henry James. Two of the most widely sung geniuses of prose of the last hundred years or so. Two of the greatest writers that no one reads. Too hard. Too long. Sentences too long (pages). Paragraphs too long (whole book signatures). Convoluted syntax. Big words.

And forget Joyce altogether.

So (I say) screw the audience. Better to assume you have an audience that loves you and it consists of a majority of one (from the play by the same name). Remember what Woody Allen said about masturbation. What’s wrong exactly with sex with someone you love?

Same thing.

There’s a thread here. I happen to know personally something about those three verbose guys, the three above, save Allen (whose notion of the grand literary climacteric is still the one-liner, or the punchline of a slightly shaggy, slightly borscht-stained jocose narrative), and even some guys who wrote in short bits of words. Short sentences. Short paragraphs. Short chapters. Clean, well-lit places to plant your wandering mind and sit and simply read. And it is good. And isn’t it pretty to think so? Know who I mean?

What I know is, they wrote for an audience of one. Each and every one a unique audience of one.

That’s why their memories get to be so well-honed. At least for their own work. If you can’t admire what you wrote yourself, what’s the point? If you’ve got the energy to re-work it, cut out the crap, the extra words, the confusing (note I did not say convoluted, convoluted is good: nautiluses are convoluted, human relations are convoluted, except maybe murder for hire) syntax made clear, the wrong words replaced with the right, elimination of redundancy except for its own sake, and don’t repeat yourself unless it’s for effect, give up any thought of being a writer.

You must in the end feel good about it. And I don’t mean feel good, like you just got rid of a heavy load, or a huge dump, or shot your wad. I mean feel good because you’ve created a thing you can return to, again and again, without wearing yourself out, or wishing for a cigarette now that pleasure/pain is done, or feel the need to get your hands really really clean, or maybe take a little nap, just 15 minutes OK, wake me up in 15, honey, no more than that.

The more times you can read it and say, Jesus I’m good, you may or may not be on to something, but you are certainly on to great mental health. If you are indeed that good, somebody else will take notice. If enough people take notice, you’ll be famous within a wider locus than the confines of your house. If enough people take notice and you market it right, you might make a few bucks. The heavy money really has nothing to do with writing ability, so let’s not, in the very common phrase, even go there.

Reading your work that many times, especially with the concentration required, of which so few people are capable, leaves more or less every word etched on the tablets called your mind.

Now comes the part I hate.

Naturally, despite what I said, though you write for that singularity of an audience, you wish for a broader, engaged, and vitally interested audience of greater scope.

You turn to your friends. You write a blog, or a poem that you send out by email. You scan old magazine articles you wrote and send them along as PDF attachments, or you send drafts of that magazine or book or essay or whatever destined someday for publication. You re-publish a particularly choice email that was to some named individual, eliminate the personal stuff and make it public.

Then you sit back and wait for the feedback.

It trickles in.

For every snide wise-ass comment someone takes a genuine stab at saying something earnest, indeed sincere, and lovely. Six people out of a hundred bother. What the hell, we’re all busy.

I’m busy writing. You’re busy with whatever the hell it is you do that assuages your sense of decency that it’s sufficiently worthwhile, compelling, or mandatory (BIG category that). In short, you’re doing anything you can use in those long pathetic stretches of the day that open out before you, with sunset, and maybe that mammoth weekly martini you allow yourself, as an excuse to yourself for not bothering to do something you only feel vaguely guilty about, if at all (and especially depending on the proximity in time to the consumption of said martini). And what the responsibility you have is, very simply, to relate to another human being. Admit it. You don’t,  except maybe in a four line telegraphic and certainly cryptic email to tell them why you’re not available for the next five weeks, and we really should get together, and the blog is totally cool dude.

Then. Then, you get a chance to get together for social engagement. And the feedback is not only laudatory, proud, vociferous and voluble. You also hear who they told to read it, and they really loved it.

Then. Then the conversation drifts and eventually come the questions about what France (Montréal, San Francisco, St. John…) was like, and you begin to tell them. And your memory is so good that you interpolate details you recall from the essay of a particular date. Maybe have fun and say it exactly the same way. Wait a few beats and then say, “But of course, you know that, because you’ve been reading the blog…”

And then you listen to the shameful admission. “Not every entry… not all of each entry… a word here and there… It’s all great… I have to get back to it… God, I’m so busy”

I hate that.

2006August30 2:27:15pm

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