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Writing That Matters   Leave a comment

When I was a young man, I had wild and terrible literary ambitions. I looked at the sparse output of some famous writers and thought to myself: “I could easily write five, maybe six great books by the time I am twenty-five.” I didn’t, of course, though not from laziness, but from a dawning recognition that I lacked the maturity to write to a standard that I found satisfactory. There is a threshold of quality that, in my own mind, I am still in the process of crossing.

There is, however, another kind of writing that has given me far greater anxiety during my lifetime: writing that is personal, that is intended, at least at the time of composition, for my eyes only. This kind of writing has tormented me, I suppose, for a similar reason as the indefinite postponement of my literary ventures – that is, I felt that my style was not up to the right standard.

It seems a strange judgment to make when one considers that such writing is not intended for anyone else to see. A large part of my anxiety stemmed from my foolish, lingering dream of someday being a great writer, knowing as I did that such status creates a public desire to see even the most extraneous products of one’s pen.

Franz Kafka, for example, wanted his work thrown into the fire upon his death, an order that was happily disobeyed by Max Brod, the executor of his will. But for all the literary merits of The Trial, The Castle, and Kafka’s myriad short stories, one has to shudder at what he would think of his personal letters and diaries being put on display. Even the memos he wrote for his job as an insurance analyst have now been published.

How could I write down my private thoughts when my style could not compare to Kafka’s? How could I write an account of my life after reading Stendhal’s The Life of Henry Brulard? Should the unthinkable happen and I became a famous writer, my jejune prose and half-formed ideas would reveal me as a fraud, a counterfeit, a fool who was undeserving of whatever modicum of success that, for a brief moment, I had achieved.

The other anxiety that tormented me was this: that with each passing day, I was missing an opportunity to record my life. There is, after all, no possibility of going back in order to recapture the singularity of the moment. How I felt, who I was, all the particularities that defined each crucial moment of experience had been irrevocably transcended, a feeling that intensified whenever I went back to look at those brief patches when I had bothered to record my thoughts. All those monumental moments, it seemed, have passed as though they never existed.

That I was young and foolish, there can be no doubt. But what is it, I began to wonder, that drives us to want to write down every florid detail of our lives? Since the average person today tends to lack historical insight, we assume that the standards of our time, especially our obsession with fame and celebrity, are somehow natural and eternal.

But this interest in reputation, in preserving a name for oneself, emerged as a widespread phenomenon during the Renaissance, as Jacob Burckhardt, in his book The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860), makes abundantly clear. Drawing on Burckhardt’s work in Fear of Freedom (1941), Erich Fromm argues that this need to be recognized as an individual is in inverse proportion to the social cohesion of a community. Individuality brings with it a new horizon of freedom, writes Fromm, but it often comes at the cost of feelings of loneliness and isolation.

It was this anxiety that hampered my personal writing for all these years, a nagging feeling that my style must be beautiful enough to merit its existence. My own youthful self-importance, one might say, covered over a deeper fear that my writing might not be important at all. That fear extended beyond my writing, of course, extending its logic to why I could not bring myself to write about my own life. If my writing did not matter, then could not the same be said about my very existence?

It’s not a question that concerns me any longer. I am calmly aware that neither my life nor my writing matter, certainly not in the long run (and probably not in the short run, either). Therein lies one of the great ironies of desire, the paradox that seems to haunt every human ambition, that success generally comes when we no longer worry about the outcome. I continue to write because, as A.S. Byatt writes of her single-minded painter in “A Lamia in the Cévennes,” it makes me happy “in one of the ways human beings have found in which to be happy” (p.88).

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.


Posted February 19, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Article

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