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Writing about Writing

Paul O. Ingram

The freedom of a writer is not freedom of expression in the sense of blurting whatever we might let rip. Writing, like music or painting or sculpture, is life at its most free, provided we are lucky enough to be able to try it, because we can select our materials, invent our tasks, and pace ourselves with a disciplined freedom that gradually evolves as a byproduct of days of triviality. This is so because there is neither a proportional relationship, nor an inverse one, between a writer’s evaluation of a work-in-progress and its actual quality. The feeling that a writer’s work is magnificent, and the feeling that it is abominable, are like mosquitoes to be repelled, ignored, or killed, but never indulged.
This is why I have come to believe there is no shortage of good days for a writer. It’s good lives that are hard to come by. A life full of good days lived in the senses is never enough for a writer. A life of sensations is a life of greed that requires more and more and more. But a life of the spirit—I hope I don’t sound like an old hippie here—requires less and less and less. Time becomes simple and its passage sweet. I don’t know many people who would call a day spent in reading a “good day." But as Annie Dillard has it, “a life spent reading—that’s a good life.”[1] It’s the same with writing. So when I am working on a book—or an essay—I write as I sit with it, as with a dying friend. During visiting hours, I enter my study with dread and sympathy for its many disorders and hold its hand as I hope it will get better. But this relationship with what I am writing can change in the twinkling of an eye. And if I skip a visit or two, a work-in-progress will turn on me like a Chinese Hungry Ghost.
It is also not my experience that non-writers hate or fear writers, or that non-writers adore writers. Instead, non-writers place writers so far beyond the pale of the ordinary that non-writers do not regard writers at all. All people pretty much love the same things. But writers looking for subjects inquire not after what he or she loves best, but after what is loved above all. For what do we know that is higher than that power (however we name it) which, from time to time, seizes our lives and reveals us startlingly to ourselves, set down on this planet bewildered? And yet I still and always want to be working. As writers, we should arise in the morning half dressed in long lines and shake gourds at each other to wake up. Instead, we watch television and miss the show going on around us, because at its best, the sensation of writing is like unmerited grace. It’s handed to us, but only if we look for it the way Luther did until he was struck dumb during a thunderstorm. We search, we break our hearts our backs, our brains—and only then is a life of writing handed to us.
This is why the most horrific temptation facing all writers, or at least the most creative writers, is to keep for ourselves what we have learned, an act that is as shameful as it is destructive. Anything human beings do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost, like opening a safe and finding ashes. The sheer materiality of a writer’s life cannot be exaggerated. If you like metaphysics, throw pots. For my own part, how appalled I was to discover that, in order to write anything worth writing, I needed a storehouse, because the irrational haunts the metaphysical. Opposites meet in the sky above appearances, or in a dark alley behind appearances, while danger and power wrestle as seriously as Jacob wrestled with God at the River Jabbok. Yet for writers, nothing on this planet is more gladdening than knowing we must roll up our sleeves and push back the boundaries of the humanly possible once more.

[1} Annie Dillard, The Writing Life (New York: Harper and Row), 33.

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