I really like writing
Kelly Lynch // April 5, 2013
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about writing. I’m easing into a profession where I’ll write to pay my bills. Things I put into a word document will eventually fund my not-so-secret comic book obsession and my maniac love of sushi. Oh, and my rent I guess.
I was listening to CBC radio a while ago on my old 1970s I-found-you-in-a-musty-secondhand-shop radio and Stuart McLean came on to talk about an upcoming visit to Halifax. They were, of course, discussing storytelling. I’ve listened to Vinyl Café several times and have enjoyed it, though it has that ‘middle class white person’ vibe to it. McLean’s stories make you feel like there’s still wholesomeness in the world – nuclear families, little crises that end with a moral, and everybody’s favourite: babies. All that good stuff that makes up a financially viable social unit (thanks, Wikipedia).
But seriously, like many of McLean’s listeners, I’ll put aside time to listen to the guy with the Jimmy Stewart voice tell a wholesome story because of how he tells it. The cool thing about Stuart McLean is that not only does he write a funny vignette – he tells it with the delicate piquancy of a well-trained thespian. In a Jimmy Stewart voice.
This got me thinking about my Degree Number One days (it was the best of times, it was the blurst of times) and all those arguments in Shakespeare class about the plays being meant for the page or the stage. Which one is it?! Ten million scholars have argued about it forever. Have you seen the Oxford English Dictionary? It’s terrifying. Is it better to read stories or to say stories? Do we lose something in the writing down of words?
You’re probably sitting there shaking your head knowingly at this point. Oh Kelly, you are a fool! You’ll mutter under your breath. Obviously it’s both! And then you’ll spin around in your high-backed chair, cackling and running a gloved hand over the fluffy white cat on your lap.
Sure, it’s both, because it depends on the piece of writing. Some things are written to be read aloud or acted out. Some are written for quiet contemplation – to be internalized. With some literature or drama, it’s valuable and beneficial to do both. You get something different from Shakespeare when you see it on stage as opposed to when you read it. I had a professor who insisted that seeing Shakespeare was the only way to really understand Shakespeare. I wholeheartedly disagree. I think combining the two experiences gives you the big picture. Heck, throw a little literary criticism in there and you’re a well-rounded scholar.
And I would like to add that author intent, in the end, doesn’t always win. Sometimes it does. Authors can try really hard to write as clearly as possible so readers garner their intent. Shakespeare was probably all, “Guys, I am writing a play. Can you please not argue about the literary meaning behind my works in the OED for centuries?” But people will always bring their own bias and their own experiences to a piece of writing. You can’t stop them. Don’t even try, man.
Now I’m going to very inadequately recite for you a paraphrase of a paraphrase. My friend Mitch once told me that Nietzsche said when we write things down, we lose the heart of them (possible reference: definitely not Thus Spoke Zarathustra). I’ve always thought that maybe there’s something to that. Writing, one could argue, is not spontaneous. With writing we can sit back and modify our thoughts. Do we end up saying what we truly mean to say, or do we ‘lose the heart of it’? Annie Dillard says in The Writing Life, “You are wrong if you think that you can in any way take the vision and tame it to the page. The page is jealous and tyrannical; the page is made of time and matter; the page always wins. The vision is not so much destroyed, exactly, as it is, by the time you have finished, forgotten. It has been replaced by this changeling, this bastard, this opaque lightless chunky ruinous work.”
So, when we write stuff down – it kills the vision a little. I think I agree. But then, reality rarely measures up to ideas. Maybe I’m being a jerk, but I often equate ‘ideas’ with ‘ideals.’ They’re the same thing to me. Ideas can’t exist in the physical world. They’re just what drives reality. Ideas and ideals are a sort of perfection. They’re floaty abstract things that guide our actions. Nothing in the world is perfect, nor will it ever be, and if we think we can grasp perfection, we turn into a bunch of fascists. Protip: don’t be a fascist.
Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis; Chicken with Plums; all around awesomeness) said the following, and I think about it a lot: “This idea of perfection—I think really, it’s the beginning of the fascism, this idea of perfection. […] If you have this idea that you have to be perfect, you cannot be but frustrated, because we are imperfect, and because you and I we die for the same reason as a worm, with all the conscience that we have. So already here, the imperfection is in the condition of our life. Looking for perfection is just a lost cause, and if you look for something that you will never achieve, what will you get? Frustration. So I am very happy of my imperfection.”
What this comes down to for me is that writing will always be more raw than the ideas behind it. But that’s okay. Rawness is beautiful and human. And it’s okay that when someone reads it, they might change it. They might expand on it. They might get it wrong. They might think, “I wish Stuart McLean were reading this with his Jimmy Stewart voice. Frig.”
Even if a piece is polished as all get-out, it’s probably changed drastically from the idea the writer began with. There are probably a billion sentences that author wrote that they despise but settled for because – really – language can only take our intentions so far. And sometimes less-than-awesome sentences work well enough to get us to the sentence three paragraphs down that’s bang-on. When we write, we should strive for resonance, for connection with whoever’s reading or watching what we’ve created. Not perfection. There’s nothing interesting about perfection. In fact, perfection doesn’t even exist. So let’s just kill that word and that idea right now, because it’s useless.
“Oh happy dagger, this is thy sheath. There rust, and let me die.”
Down with perfection, and up with connection. Up with collaboration. Heck, up with the OED. So many voices have taken old ideas and made them new again. Let’s keep doing that.
Originally published on Kelly Lynch’s blog on February 18, 2013