Writer’s, Society, & the Human Condition

A writer without interest or sympathy for the foibles of his fellow man is not conceivable as a writer. ~Joseph Conrad

ww1Reading and writing are collaborations. When you read someone you truly love, their writing reaches your innermost self. You’re soulmates. ~Gina Berriault

I often imagine God laughing and slapping His knee as He watches our antics. The Human Condition — our foibles and predilections — those things that make us unique among all other creatures of the earth. We are a comical group of creatures, taken as a whole, and I believe there is more joy than sadness to most lives. So, God being outside the boundaries of time, able to see the years of our existence without limitation, must find us a comedic riot.

I believe He finds writer’s an especially interesting and hilarious group because we so often forget we are human. We berate ourselves and expect the impossible: constant perfection, endless mental energy, and resolute daily writing performance. We forget that writing is a part of us, our social lives, and the world around us. We fall prey to an ill-conceived Ayn Rand vision that I call the Writer-as-Superman-Delusion.

I’ve been pondering this delusional tendency among writer’s since reading the book, The Tea Ceremony: The Uncollected Writings of Gina Berriault, several months ago. In, Don’t I Know You, an interview between Berriault and Bonnie Lyons and Bill Oliver, Berriault is asked a question that touches on the ebb and flow in a writer’s creative output. In this instance, it is the interviewer presupposing the Writer-as-Superman-Delusion:

In your career there’s a big gap between The Son and The Infinite Passion of Expectation. Why?

That’s a question that should never be asked. It opens a wound. What can a writer say about the gaps and silence? The question can’t be answered because the answer involves the circumstances of a lifetime and the condition of the psyche at one time or another. How can a writer possibly answer it without the shame of pleading for understanding of one’s confusions and limitations and fears? You call it a gap, but that’s the time between publications. There is no measurable gap. I roomnever ceased writing….

This is a hauntingly sad and beautiful response to me. Berriault is raw and open in this passage. The wound red and bleeding. We feel the wince. That split-second of dismay as she tries to explain the inexplicable.

Perhaps she was thinking the gaps and silences are where life happens, where the struggle manifests from thought into expression. Or, she may have wondered whether to answer honestly and openly, as she did, or provide a more socially-acceptable response. After all, the mentally disturbed-obsessed writer locked in a room creating his masterpiece is a very popular stereotype!

The more accurate truth about writer’s is that most are normal human beings. A fact wonderfully explored by Daniel Wallace in the post Writing Cycles, Writing Funks on The Incompetent Writer blog. Wallace delves into the normalcy of a writer’s life. His post explores the “artistic well” of creative energy and the “flows of energy and strength” that a writer experiences. I love the truth exposed when he repeats a discussion with author Michelene Wandor, in which she tells him:

…writing is supposed to be a social activity. It’s supposed to have a social function, too–a wider purpose. …writing is supposed to be like everything else, with a rhythm and flow. It’s supposed to interact with life as well as, at times, require a retreat from it.

She makes a vivid and insightful point: writing is life, and not, life is writing. There are no magic Oracles ww2speaking words into the writer’s ear. There is only existence in time and place. The daily life experience of people interacting with other people. Writing occurs within the social context not outside of it.

Could Hemingway be our Hemingway without his experiences and participation in the Spanish Civil War and WWII? Does one imagine Dostoevsky separate from the people, the landscape, and the experiences of Russia? Can one picture Voltaire apart from France? Could Richard Wright give birth to Native Son anyplace other than American soil?

While it is true that writers spend vast amounts of time alone working on their art, it is just as true that these same artists spend time in the world among others enjoying, observing, and participating in life as a whole.

The Writer-as-Superman-Delusion is an illusive dreamscape from which we must wake. Writer’s are simply human beings living and speaking. We mirror our place in world history, we capture the culture of the moment to help understand it in the now and to preserve it for future generations. They will know us through the words we leave behind. And, as Berriault says, in us the future may find a soulmate in the past.yes3

 

 

 

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The Things We Don’t Know

Violence and Hope by Jim Coe

Violence and Hope by Jim Coe

“I think she is telling us what the great writers of the past have always wanted us to understand: that ignorance and terror are never far from possession of our hearts, and so at any time it may be over all of us, ‘like a ton of water,’ the things we don’t know.”  ~The Achievement of Gina Berriault, Richard Yates from The Tea Ceremony.

We live in a time of dead prophets. The voices speaking for Divinity, foretelling the future, advocating a better way, promoting positive change – these voices fall silent, no whispers remaining. It is a world stage filled with mediocre talent, all bit players without the charisma or talent of star players. America is mired in gridlock, players bitterly embattled, stifled by the all encompassing need for power.  The pendulum of time ticking away the days while the prophets remain silent. We are immersed in the things we don’t know, drowning in a river of partisanship, gulping the water of carnival theatrics.

I miss the prophets and the heroes, the actors who understood the significance of their performance, who recognized the crowds right to a good, fun-loving show. I miss people like JFK, who knew to keep his foibles under wrap, while extolling the valuable American virtues and respecting the realm of the otherworldly:

When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the area of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. ~ John Fitzgerald Kennedy

Poetry as the antidote to power, as a cleansing agent that brings clarity and truth of vision.  This perceptive recognition of the power and necessity of Other as a primary part of man’s existence and healthy development is a hallmark of the hero/leader personality. This is a thought process, a recognition lost to the people in political power. What congressman or senator has read poetry lately rather than analyzing soundbites? Has one voice found the sincerity and honesty necessary to compose a poem – could any one of our leaders write a speech or prophecy – that rang true and touched the emotions of an American readership?  How long will we be immobilized by men who lack vision, clarity, duty, and the ability to compromise?

An atmosphere of ignorance and terror hangs in the air like dense fog over the inlet swamps. Violence and rebellion simmer, the angry cry for justice and fairness grows louder across the different states and cultural boundaries. Ethnicity and income levels even out, become less important, as the strain of an inactive, reprobate government pulls at the fabric of our country. “We the people” is coming to mean something entirely different than ever before. The things we don’t know – the future we may face, the ignorance and terror that threatens to overwhelm us, the lack of action by our elected officials – the outcome we don’t know creates a fearful panic. What will it take? How can the problems be fixed? Is there an answer to the divisiveness overtaking our country? I am waiting for the Poets to tell me. I am listening.