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“Democracy is the form of society devised and maintained by those who know that they don’t know everything”

Albert Camus

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An Existential Moment

“An intellectual is someone whose mind watches itself.”
Albert Camus

You often see someone who seems to be in a daze, staring into space. The someone may be yourself. It’s a cliché of abstraction, a formulaic Hollywood pose that is supposed to indicate: “My mind is elsewhere, I am detached from the here and now, I am in another place.”

This is usually nonsense. The apparent dreamer (yourself?) MAY be lost in thought. But it’s more likely that s/he is having an existential experience, very much in the here and now.

The other day I was waiting for a train, and idly watching a young Asian woman whose gaze was intently fixed on the station platform. She forced me to look at the platform too, which was a perfectly ordinary slab of filthy concrete covered in squashed chewing gum, and to remember all the other platforms, sidewalks, stairs, floors and parking lots I have gazed at in my lifetime.

Any object is a distorting mirror. It beams your own uneasy memories right back to you. A dirty station platform, like Proust’s infamous Madeleine, recalls all the dirty station platforms you have ever seen. And that in turn recalls all the thoughts you have ever had while gazing at a dirty station platform.

I remember the platform where I waited for the commuter train that took me to London every day in the early 1960s, and thinking: Is this all there is? Will I be standing on this wretched platform every morning forever? I remember the platforms at the Gare du Nord in Paris that were at the beginning and the end of some romantic and unromantic journeys, and a windswept platform in Amsterdam where I waited for a military transport train, and other platforms in Milan and Rome that stuck in my mind for some reason. I remember very vividly standing on the platform at Pennsylvania Station in New York, when I started commuting again in the 1980s, and thinking: Is this all there is? Will I be standing on this wretched platform every evening forever?

There’s a whole lifetime history of moments on those platforms, which were all different yet all the same – all in a way continuous as if I can walk mentally from one to another to another, right to the spot where I saw the young Asian woman yesterday. They are, in some sense, a single long platform, united by the fact that I have stared at them.

The world is indeed flat, and all connected. My local station platform is no less alien and no less disgusting than one I stood on in Calcutta. The same anonymous feet walk on all and both, going nowhere.

If you don’t have these kinds of thoughts, be thankful. I blame them on early exposure to the literary existentialists, especially Camus, Sartre, Barbusse, and Hesse. They forced me to look at the surfaces below the everyday surface, and to find extraordinary meanings in ordinary things. I think it was in The Outsider by Albert Camus (1946) that the narrator Meursault fixes his eyes on a pair of dirty braces (suspenders) worn by a café proprietor, and finds nothing in them but sheer horror. I wanted to quote the passage, but my copy of the book has vanished – somebody please correct me if I have mistaken the source.

The bottom line is that every object becomes a puzzle and a potential threat – and a potential subject. I’ve written essays about sticks picked up in the woods, dead fireworks, jars of rusty nails, writing implements, and many other everyday things. They all seem (to me) much more meaningful than they appear.

Nobody ever writes to me about these essays, or comments on them Perhaps they are too commonplace, or too peculiar. But no doubt I will keep on writing them, and blaming them on Albert Camus.

Cassandra

My parents read a London newspaper called the Daily Mirror. This was an embarrassment, because the Mirror was a tabloid and not a quality paper. It was full of bathing beauties, murder stories and sports reports, and featured huge, shouting headlines. As a snobbish teenager I refused to read it, except for one columnist who went under the nom de plume “Cassandra.” His real name was William Neil Connor.

Cassandra was an attack columnist. He said all the things that should not be said, and told all the truths that nobody wanted to hear. But he was always on the side of truth and justice, and I took him as a kind of role model. Later in life when I started writing newspaper columns myself the ghost of Cassandra was always in the back of my mind.

Somewhere along the way, but much too late, I looked up the name Cassandra. My sketchy classical education had failed to teach me that she was a Trojan princess who was punished by the god Apollo for refusing his advances. He put an unusual curse on the poor woman. She was doomed to become a prophetess whose prophecies would always be true, but would never be believed.

So it seems that I myself had been doomed without knowing it. My early fascination with that column in the Daily Mirror must have warped my brain, and I have spent half a century churning out prophecies that are always true, but never believed. I can’t quite decide whether this is funny, or tragic.

A Curse of the Autodidact

Writers need to know things, and the best writers know a lot. Historical novels obviously depend on massive research, but any novel, short story or essay is much richer if it is well-seasoned with facts and ideas.

This was a barrier I ran into when I first started writing. Having skipped the college degree and jumped straight into Journalism at the age of sixteen I very quickly reached my level of incompetence. It was clear to me that the writers I admired were much better educated than I was, and that I could never aspire to do what they did without pounding a great many more facts into my head.

So I became that most annoying of creatures, an autodidact. On weekends I scoured the public libraries and the secondhand bookstores in Charing Cross Road in London. Two tedious years in the army provided me with a lot more reading time and, by my early twenties, I was quite certain that I knew everything worth knowing.

This illusion was briskly shattered by the clever boys and girls of the London literary scene. I had acquired some knowledge, but it was just a grab bag of disconnected facts and ideas. Nothing coherent came out of it.

It is no shame to surrender against overwhelming odds, so that’s what I did. After a belated immersion in the world of university and graduate school I emerged somewhat chastened but also at least half educated. This has been enormously useful, and I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

The trouble is that it is hard to stop. Those old autodidact habits haven’t gone away. I find myself going to lectures and to seminars at the One Day University, my study is cluttered with serious books and college courses on tape, and I haunt the local library like an inquisitive ghost. It’s a kind of neurosis. Most of this stuff I don’t need to know (this week the subject is Nietzsche) and none of it is remotely useful. I’ve never taken a course in carpentry, or electrical repair, or plumbing, although all these would be skills I could use.

There are a lot of others like me. I keep on meeting them in seminars and lecture rooms. We are decades past the stage of being educated, and probably past the stage of remembering anything we imagine we learn. But that is the curse of the autodidact.

Personal Archaeology

A few writers catch the habit late in life but most of us started young, tempted by the low initial investment and the illusion of status. This means that, by the time we enter the Valhalla of senior citizenhood, we have a lot old writings behind us. Attitudes to these vary: some of us shred, delete or otherwise dispose of all our unpublished and/or immature creations, while others keep every golden word. I am one of the pack rats.

Most of my old manuscripts are rubbish, except in so far as they jog my memory and constitute a kind of disorganized memoir. But occasionally I get the idea that something from the past could be revived, rewritten, and given a second chance.

Right now I’m working on a series of essays under the general title Lost Causes, and it occurred to me that I had written about some of these subjects before. Back in the 1990s I finished about half of a planned book called Pre Millennial Syndrome about the anxieties surrounding the Year 2000 (PMS, get it? Very cute). No publisher thought it was cute, and the finished chapters dropped into some dusty files in the basement.

Now I think can use some of those chapters in my essay collection. They will have to be much revised, but a lot of work went into them twenty years ago and I hate to see it all wasted. The only catch was that the chapters were not on my computer. They were on old 5¼ inch floppy disks that had deteriorated a long time ago, and don’t fit any modern computer. But I did have the printouts.

How to avoid the tedium of a vast amount of retyping, or the cost of hiring someone to do it? It was time to learn the mysteries of OCR or Optical Character Reading. After consulting some technical wizards I installed a program called “Readeris” which (not without some calls to Bombay) allowed me to scan the old pages into a word processing program, and so recover them for easy editing and rewriting (and deletion, if that proves to be the sensible thing).

Now my eyes turn towards the dubious treasure trove of ancient manuscripts in the basement. Using this new technology I could bring any of them back to life. Perhaps I could post my historic science fiction stories on the Internet – a blast from the past of the future, so to speak?

But no, it’s like revisiting old love affairs: the untouched, unedited memories are more than enough.

Talk

“Writing is a solitary occupation. Family, friends, and society are the natural enemies of the writer. He must be alone, uninterrupted, and slightly savage if he is to sustain and complete an undertaking.” Jessamyn West

“The person who tries to live alone will not succeed as a human being. His heart withers if it does not answer another heart. His mind shrinks away if he hears only the echoes of his own thoughts and finds no other inspiration.” Pearl S. Buck

Reading and writing are solitary pleasures. Other people must be pushed into the background so that we can enjoy our communion with words. But sometimes I wonder if this solitude is a defect, something fundamentally inhuman and anti-human. Reading, after all, is not a significant part of most people’s lives. For the nine out of ten Americans who scarcely read at all it is something positively alien. If you think I exaggerate, ask any high school or college teacher.

What brought this thought to the surface was a period of unusual sociability, during which I have met and talked to a lot of people. Tried to talk would be more exact. Writing comes easily enough to me, but talking is increasingly hard work. I seem to be losing my verbal (i.e. conversational) skills. Could this be the result of the writer’s inevitable solitude, eight hours or more a day of complete silence in an empty room in an empty house? It’s a disturbing thought.

When I started paying attention I realized that people all around me are talking all the time. My neighbor stood in her yard the other day and talked in a penetrating voice on her cell phone for a total of sixty-seven minutes, scarcely drawing a breath (I timed her with a stopwatch). I could never talk for sixty-seven minutes without a script because I don’t have that many things to say. Yet other people do it routinely. The front desk workers in our local library talk steadily from morning till night, as do most people in groups. I’m overwhelmed and silenced by their flow of words.

This brings us back to the difference between writing and talking. The decline and literacy has been more than overbalanced by a huge increase in verbosity. Cell phones may have something to do with unleashing this tsunami of talk, but something bigger may be happening.

Printing is not yet six hundred years old. Mass literacy is less than two hundred years old. For most of human history stories were told and heard, not read, and the tradition still survives in many parts of the world where literacy rates are low. The storyteller is an important and respected figure in the community. I’m reminded of the character Katsimbalis in Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi whose fount of stories clearly made a deep impression on the author. Good storytelling is powerful.

By contrast, books and magazines as a form of popular entertainment are historically very new, and intellectually quite difficult. Learning to read is hard, reading is a concentrated, interpretative, solitary activity. The reader has to think. Translating those marks on paper into words, then into sentences and meanings, is hard mental labor. That’s why so many young people hate it.

In the twentieth century alternatives to reading appeared: radio, movies, television, videogames, and so on. Suddenly the hard work of reading could be bypassed, and we could drop back into the delightfully relaxed world of the old oral culture. “Tell me a story,” we said to our parents, and they did (or at least mine did). It was and is a primordial pleasure. Talk is easy, listening is easy. That’s why recorded books are so popular.

So an argument can be made that, because of the new post-print technologies, we are moving back (or forward) into a new/old age of oral communications. There will still be plenty of isolated, silent writers serving their isolated, silent readers. But most people will be just talking, and talking, and talking.

The Image

Writers must sometimes venture into activities for which we have few or no qualifications. Public speaking and salesmanship are two good examples. Recently I have been trying and failing to think intelligently about cover design. A visit to any bookstore will confirm that some book designers have tremendous flair, and others should never be allowed near a graphics program. It seems that I one of the latter type. My visual ideas are rubbish, and my grasp of typography and graphic design is about on a par with my grasp of quantum theory.

Book design is overrated, in my opinion. Books are about words. Nobody buys a book for its cover, unless we include trashy paperbacks sold in airport bookstores. The French once had the right idea about jacket design. Most serious books in France used to be (and a few still are) wrapped in the absolutely plain, graphics-free paper covers that I remember from my student days: title, author, publisher, and nothing else. They looked serious, and they were serious. If you wanted to know what was inside you had to read the book.

Our publishers have never gone for this simple and cheap solution. Book covers are advertisements, and must be created with the same care as the text – or perhaps more. Professional book designers are employed to do this, although most of us have strong ideas about our own books which the designers are paid to ignore.

My particular design problem was perhaps one of the most difficult and potentially embarrassing. We needed to agree on the cover design for a memoir that is due to be published next year. The very last thing I want on that cover is a picture of myself, because I am not and never was a thing of beauty. Almost anything else would do: an abstract design, a photographic image relating to the memoir, or a cartoon. I have used all these in the past, and they were fine.

Inevitably I lost the battle. The book will appear with a large cover photo of you-know-who. How this will affect the sales is something I don’t want to think about.

The Final Cut

About two hundred and fifty pages of manuscript just appeared on my computer and they look strangely familiar. In fact their existence is entirely my own fault. They are the final draft of a memoir I wrote last summer, and that now come back to me to me with the copy editor’s final comments – nineteen closely typed pages of them. This is the last chance, the final revision. Once the copy editor has corrected my grammar and punctuation (I love commas, who doesn’t?) this will be the version that appears in print. Every author at this stage suffers from Fear of Finality. The questions come crowding in:

What have I left out?

What should have I left out?

Who have I left out?

Who should I have left out?

Is this memoir true or is it, like most memoirs, pure fantasy?

Is it too late to cancel the whole thing?

Years ago, in a book called Writer at Work, I included a chapter about how to write a memoir. It was based on zero experience, because I had never tried to write one myself. But I had found it a popular course to teach at writers’ conferences, and at the rules seemed pretty straightforward. Now I have completed a memoir myself, and found a publisher, I’m not so sure.

P.S. A week later I’m still working through the corrections on this manuscript, so there’s no time to waste on web pages!

Too Many Books?

We were staying in a village close to the English town of Rye, which is famous for its sellers of used and antique books. Half a dozen such establishments are scattered along the picturesque high street. One rainy day I decided to hit every used bookstore in town.

I started at the east end, the forbidding Land Gate, constructed in 1369 as part of the town’s defenses against the wicked French invaders. The defenses failed. Nowadays the French come pouring through the Channel Tunnel, and the streets of Rye are full of French tourists. Napoleon would have been delighted. Right beside this ancient monument was the Land Gate Book Shop, its door firmly closed but its window displaying an eclectic selection of Audubon prints, nineteenth century romantic poetry, and modern thrillers.

Just up the hill was ‘The Book Worm,’ where I could have picked up a rare first edition of Trilby by Daphne du Maurier, or a leather bound set of the complete works of Edward Bulwer Lytton – a great but almost forgotten Victorian writer – at a knock-down price. I was almost seduced by a long out-of-print biography of the French composer César Franck. But self-control is built into an expedition like this. The modern economy-class air traveler can’t afford to accumulate books. They’re just too heavy.

Books are solid things. They don’t grow old. It’s the subject matter that ages. Today’s ephemeral celebrity biography or instant Iraq war analysis will be outdated and forgotten before Labor Day. Used book stores preserve the good stuff – books that really tell us something about human nature, life and love – universal books. In these stores the literary connoisseur can discover half-forgotten authors, biographers and poets – whose works are no less good to read for being in faded bindings without colored pictures – and they cost next to nothing.

There are so many tens of thousands, even millions of important and wonderful old books that I should have read, but I haven’t read yet, and that I never will read. And it’s not only books by forgotten writers that make me feel guilty; it’s the sight of shelves and shelves of books by very famous authors whose works are almost never read outside university literature departments, and sometimes not even there. Who has read all the works of Dickens for example, or Twain, or Poe? Who has read The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas, or Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson – two of the best adventure tales ever written? They sit on the shelves, waiting for readers who never come.

My tour took me into the dusty recesses of half a dozen old bookstores, including one called ‘Chapter and Verse’ that had a Latin motto engraved on its glass door: Cave Librum Unum Habentem – which I render in my schoolboy Latin as “Beware of a house with only one book.” I leafed through a well-worn 1802 edition of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in three volumes, but decided that it’s message was too contemporary for my taste. The first volume alone contains enough material on the collapse of democracy, Caesarism and the illusions of empire to keep us thinking for quite a while. After a couple of hundred pages we might realize that we’ve been there, done that – and we don’t want to do it again.

It’s daunting to learn from the trade magazine Publishers Weekly that 140,000 new titles were published last year alone. So even if we ever catch up with the good books of the past, we will never in a dozen lifetimes catch up with the good books of the present.

It was the great Dr. Samuel Johnson who remarked that “Of the making of many books there is no end,” and I was struck by the thought – a horribly subversive and even wicked thought for a writer – that there are indeed enough books already. We could spend the next hundred years reading our way through the used bookshops of the world, or even just the bookshops of Rye, and never exhaust this literary treasure house. To save the drowning readers of the world I’m almost tempted to suggest a ten year moratorium on all new books; or most new books; or at least other people’s new books.

Solitary, Silent Pleasures

Writing is a solitary occupation. Family, friends, and society are the natural enemies of the writer. He must be alone, uninterrupted, and slightly savage if he is to sustain and complete an undertaking. Jessamyn West

The person who tries to live alone will not succeed as a human being. His heart withers if it does not answer another heart. His mind shrinks away if he hears only the echoes of his own thoughts and finds no other inspiration. Pearl S. Buck

Reading and writing are solitary pleasures. Other people must be pushed into the background so that we can enjoy our communion with words. But sometimes I wonder if this solitude is a defect, something fundamentally inhuman and anti-human. Reading, after all, is not a significant part of most people’s lives. For the nine out of ten Americans who scarcely read at all it is something positively alien. If you think I exaggerate, ask any high school or college teacher.

What brought this thought to the surface was a period of unusual sociability. During the last three months I’ve been involved in conferences, a cruise, and several other events where I’ve met and talked to a lot of people. Tried to talk would be more exact. Writing comes easily enough to me, but talking is increasingly hard work. I seem to be losing my verbal (i.e. conversational) skills. Could this be the result of the writer’s inevitable solitude, eight hours or more a day of complete silence in an empty room in an empty house? It’s a disturbing thought.

When I started paying attention I realized that people all around me are talking all the time. My neighbor stood in her yard the other day and talked in a penetrating voice on her cell phone for a total of sixty-seven minutes, scarcely drawing a breath (I timed her with a stopwatch). I could never talk for sixty-seven minutes without a script because I don’t have that many things to say. Yet other people do it routinely. The front desk workers in our local library talk steadily from morning till night, as do most people in groups. I’m overwhelmed and silenced by their flow of words.

This brings us back to the difference between writing and talking. The decline and literacy has been more than overbalanced by a huge increase in verbosity. Cell phones may have something to do with unleashing this tsunami of talk, but something bigger may be happening.

Printing is not yet six hundred years old. Mass literacy is less than two hundred years old. For most of human history stories were told and heard, not read, and the tradition still survives in many parts of the world where literacy rates are low. The storyteller is an important and respected figure in the community. I’m reminded of the character Katsimbalis in Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi whose fount of stories clearly made a deep impression on the author. Good storytelling is powerful.

By contrast, books and magazines as a form of popular entertainment are historically very new, and intellectually quite difficult. Learning to read is hard, reading is a concentrated, interpretative, solitary activity. The reader has to think. Translating those marks on paper into words, then into sentences and meanings, is hard mental labor. That’s why so many young people hate it.

In the twentieth century alternatives to reading appeared: radio, movies, television, videogames, and so on. Suddenly the hard work of reading could be bypassed, and we could drop back into the delightfully relaxed world of the old oral culture. “Tell me a story,” we said to our parents, and they did (or at least mine did). It was and is a primordial pleasure. Talk is easy, listening is easy. That’s why recorded books are so popular.

So an argument can be made that, because of the new post-print technologies, we are moving back (or forward) into a new/old age of oral communications. There will still be plenty of isolated, silent writers serving their isolated, silent readers. But most people will be just talking, and talking, and talking.

Who Can Teach Writing?

“He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.”

Bernard Shaw

At some point after coming to America I began to teach writing, first in local library courses and then in larger conferences, including the Iowa Summer Writing Festival where I taught for ten successive years.

It was an interesting exercise. Everyone who has tried to teach creative writing, or creative anything, has suffered from doubts. The big three are:

Can it be done?
Can I do it?
Should I do it?

In a collection of whimsical blogs called Writer at Work I wrote, among other things, about the painful problem of honesty.

“How critical should a teacher or workshop leader be? Norman Mailer has described the brutal criticism he endured in writing courses at Harvard fifty years ago. But times and expectations have changed, and teachers are supposed to be unwaveringly supportive. This is pleasant for the student but worse than useless when he or she actually needs to hear comprehensive (and perhaps devastating) criticism. An honest teacher should be willing to point out obvious incompetence. But nobody wants to do this, especially in a setting where students are there by choice, at their own expense, and for many different motives.

“This dilemma, more than any other, creates emotional pressures for teachers of writing. At the Iowa Summer Writing Workshops one year, a stressed out teacher suggested that they should employ therapists as teachers instead of writers, because so much of the workshopping process felt more like therapy than education. A lot of ambiguous feelings and anxieties walk into the classroom, and instructors don’t always know how to handle them.

These are the things that teachers of writing discuss in their hotel rooms in the dark watches of the night, usually with the aid of a bottle of vodka. But I’ve seldom found anyone else who has actually written about the dilemma of teaching something called “creative writing.” Most of us need the job and the money. We don’t want to rock this fragile boat.
.
However, author and teacher Lynn Freed did rock it, and possibly sank it, in an article published in the July 2005 issue of Harper’s Magazine. The title of her article speaks for itself: “Doing Time: “My Years in the Creative Writing Gulag.” If you’ve ever been a creative writing teacher, or had the urge to be one, you will find that Lynn Freed has been inside your head. She feels your pain. Let me quote just one sentence that echoes my own thought above, about honesty.

“To have to pretend to take seriously the job of improving an unworthy piece of writing because one is being paid by the writer is perhaps the most dangerous compromise of all.”

Hanif Kureishi, an author and professor of creative writing declared, rather bravely, in 2014, that “Creative writing courses are a waste of time,” and that it was impossible to teach creativity to un-creative people.

Yet there’s another side to this argument. Teaching can be so much fun if you don’t take yourself too seriously, and really good teachers of creative writing can inspire even the most mediocre students. In the end, though, I was infected by the same pessimism, and gave up trying to teach writing. When I publish a big bestseller myself I may think again. But then I won’t be in such urgent need of the money.