A whole heap of writing, and a minor tirade

4 07 2008

They say a picture’s worth a thousand words… I think this picture IS a thousand words.  Maybe a couple hundred thousand.

In unpacking today, I opened the box and under bed bin in which I keep all my old writing notebooks.  The tall stack on the left is fifteen inches of stories, poems, snatches of dialog, plot outlines, and essays.  A few of the notebooks have blank pages left, but most of them are closely written on the front and back of the page!  The shorter stack is my “publications” stack- all the literary magazines and newspapers my work has appeared in.  The tall stack, of course, does not include everything that only exists on my computer.  Good grief!

This amusing little exercise has provoked several thoughts today.  First of all, this is the source of my amused snort every time someone comes up to me and announces that they have “written a book.”  Usually the book is about sixteen pages long and comprises their entire literary career apart from scribbling their name at the bottom of Christmas cards.  The other one I hear a lot is the person who confidently announces that, although they have never written, they feel they “have a story to tell,” or worse yet, “have a book inside them” that they’re going to write some day.  Do they really think it is that simple to learn to write?

My mother commented once on how incredible it was that the woman who wrote the Harry Potter books could write her novels while her children were in school and while sitting at a cafe because it had heat and her house didn’t.  My response was that it wasn’t amazing that she could write them in the cafe, it was amazing that she could write them at all!  How does anyone ever learn how to produce a real book?  Well enough a really good book.  Each one is a miracle all by itself.  (And I would also be more impressed if she had written it while sitting in the house WITH her children, rather than sitting in a nice cozy cafe with no one interrupting her and a cup of coffee at her elbow and plenty of time to think….)

Which leads to the second thought.  I have had people come up to me and cheerily say, “You have such a gift for writing!”  And I KNOW, from the syrupy tone of voice they use, that they think that God bonked me on the head with his magic wand and said, “Child, thou shalt write!” shortly before my birth.  I think this stack addresses that concept.  You should read some of the horrible stuff in the early journals!  I mean, it’s ghastly.  Especially some of the early short stories.  Arrgh!

The poetry years in college are pretty bad, too.  Raunchy and disillusioned, graphic and bitter.  But I hope that it improves as you work your way up through the stack.  It must, because I can barely stand to read some of the old stuff, and lately I have occasionally surprised myself into thinking that some of my recent work is pretty good.  Given another thirty years, I might even like to read my own writing.  Who can tell?
Did you know that the man who wrote “The Red Badge of Courage,” definitive novel of suffering in the Civil War, was a teenager?  And wrote it as his first novel?  That S.E. Hinton and Anne McCaffrey both wrote their first novels in high school?  I am way behind already and showing no signs of catching up.

Anyone who has this many notebooks filled with unfinished short stories has something wrong with them.  It’s not literary genius- it’s some sort of odd disease or compulsion that resents the presence of blank college-lined paper.  Sort of like graphiti that won’t shut up.  At least 3/4 of an inch of that stack is computer print-outs of what I produced when I had “given up on writing entirely.”  Uh-huh.  It’s a compulsion, I tell you!

And it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with whether or not other people read it.  Pretty much all of this will never see the light of day.  Why did I bother?  How could I help it?  What does it mean to be a writer, anyway?  And am I one?  What am I, really?

A free-lance journalist once gave her opinion that a real writer is someone who turns out at least 100 pages a year.  By this I would qualify.

I think I have always seen books as a long, slow motion conversation.  Like posting a thread that other people read and comment on.  Only the conversations can go on for centuries with authors influencing or challenging or infuriating each other.  At some point in my childhood the voices of the people writing the books became more real to me than the voices of the people around me.  And, like all children, I wanted to respond.  I wanted to be heard.  In books, you can be in conversation with the great minds of the centuries- to hear what they really thought.  To hear what they believed, what they wanted to believe, what they lied to themselves about, and what they recognized as truth.  Books are like arks, full of whatever the author thought was valuable enough to cast out on the sea.  I think each author hopes that someone will recognize their truth as something worthwhile, take it in, think about it, and cast it out again.  Books are a world full of messages thrown out like bottles on the ocean currents in the hope that someone who can understand will find them and hear… what?  The agony of a soul.  The ecstasy of love.  The hope of eternity.  The bitterness of despair.

A lot of people disdain the “great books,” the classics.  They say they are too difficult to understand, to deep, too boring.  But I see them as torches out of the past- messages so vital that people have passed them from hand to hand, from library to library for years and years because there is something in them so profound, so shocking, so ground-breaking, than generation after generation has decided that they need to be preserved.  Most books slide quietly into the dead book graveyard, but these few don’t.  These few we erect as a monument.  These few we try to cram into our children.  These few are knitted into our knowledge of who we are as a people, what we can be, and what we might (God forbid) become.

But in some cases, in the process of being classicised the book has been taken out of context so badly that we almost loose track of why it was valuable at all.  Aldous Huxley’s “A Brave New World” is the classic dystopia book.  But how many people have ever heard that it was actually a refutation of an earlier book?  Let me quote:

“The modern paradigm of the genius factory was laid out by J.B.S. Haldane in a wierd little tract entitled “Daedalus…” Haldane predicted that 1923’s primitive eugenics would develop into sophisticated “ectogenesis”: eventually, children would be bred in test tubes using sperm and eggs selected only from the best men and women of the age… Aldous Huxley wrote “Brave New World” as a rebuke to Daedalus.  In Huxley’s dystopia, factory breeding didn’t liberate mankind; it chilled emotion and calcified class divisions.”  (from The Genius Factory by David Plotz, pp.28-29)

Without knowing the context, children all over the US read “Brave New World” and see it as a weird, old-fashioned book.  They learn enough to pass a test and forget it.  They never hear about “Walden Two,” or Skinnerism’s attempts to take parents out of parenting.  They are never taught to connect it to communism’s attempt to “liberate” the youth into a culture of mind control.  C. J. Cherryh’s “Cyteen” is classed as entertainment Sci-Fi and is not taught in school, and few people see much connection between literature and the headlines about embryo cloning, surrogate parenthood, and reproductive donations.  Some of these issues are too deep to be discussed in a quarter page editorial, six inches of print, or a two-minute news brief.  Which is why we still HAVE books.

I only wonder if, in fifty years, anyone is still going to know how to read them.

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2 responses

7 07 2008
jarhead294

Casting Pearls before Swine!!!

I’d still like to attend a class on “History & Moral Philosphy” from Hienlien’s Star Ship Troopers. There are so many levels of insight in that book!! Yeah, it’s science fiction, but any veteran would instantly relate. What do we get from the current generation but Casper Van Diem and Doogie Houser – UGH. Maybe a few of the Dumb & Dumber crowd will be inspired to pick up the book and learn something.

10 07 2008
Beth

Very thought-provoking stuff. I think that there are enough of us out there who love real books, and are teaching our children to love real books, that at least a remnant will remain who still read. It may be that we won’t be popular with the culture at large, but we aren’t now already.

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