There is a great deal made of the loneliness of writers. They are a solitary, pained bunch anguishing under the weight of the ideas they have yet to discover and the stories they have yet to tell. It’s an understandably attractive reflection to contemplate. We are all Byronic heroes struggling to excavate our genius to display to the world.
Unfortunately for us, though perhaps fortunately for the average reader, most don’t get to.
But this image of the Romantic writer; Hemingway with a whiskey in one hand, a pen in the other and depression on his mind, persists. Perhaps because the alternative is far less attractive to introspection.
I write this in the middle of the night, in one of those all too brief respites from exams, tests and college applications. I write because I find it enjoyable. There is an exhilaration to framing a thought in a particularly pleasing way. I apologize for this digression into the first-person but it’s in service of a larger point. I’m writing this alone, and not really for anyone in particular. It is as solitary as I imagine writing can be.
But this is a collaboration.
Not with anyone in particular, but the all the most original thoughts I could compose, the most eloquent phrases are constructed on scaffolding put up by a thousand writers before me. An essay on the eccentricities of writers is hardly original for a young writer. As it happens it’s barely even original on this blog.
Writing is uniquely positioned as an art form because of the power of the individual writer. Filmmakers are reliant on their cast and crew, game designers on their development teams. Visual artists; your painters and so on, are reliant on the audience’s interpretation. The writer is the only artist whose only limitation is their skill and ability to explain.
The skill of writing is not simply creativity, but the combination and composition of a million different ideas, phrases and rhythms.
A good writer in our time is working, quite often very closely, with; Homer, Aristotle, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron, Shelley(s), Dickens, Wilde, Shaw, Hugo, Steinbeck, Russell, Tolkien, Orwell, Lewis, Clarke, Kubrick, Hitchcock, Hitchens, King, Fry and Pratchett to name very few. And in this collaboration the writer is called upon the reanimate these silent authors and attempt to best emulate their best features.
It is so often repeated that it now borders on cliche but to read is to inoculate yourself against poor, repetitive and dull writing. Originality is the craft of knowing what to use later.
Writing is absolute in its primacy for the simple reason that it is, in practical terms, the annotation of thought as combinations of symbols and spaces. This simplicity marks it out as the finest means with which we can know each other and know at all.
Through this lens, writing loses much of its romantic lustre but gains the optimism that should be inherent in a form that manages to democratize thought.
I love the phrase ‘The Republic of Letters’. I was first introduced to it below.
“Universal empire is the prerogative of a writer. His concerns are with all mankind, and though he cannot command their obedience, he can assign them their duty. The Republic of Letters is more ancient than monarchy and of far higher character in the world than the vassal court… he that rebels against reason is a real rebel, but he that in defence of reason, rebels against tyranny has a better title to “Defender of the Faith,” than George the Third.” -Thomas Paine The American Crisis No. 2
I found this tremendously appealing, and it says far more eloquently and concisely much of what I think about writings role. I dislike the romantic notion of writing as a ‘need’ to express yourself because I feel it diminishes the importance of writing. All life has needs. They can range from the primal to the complex. We do not distinguish ourselves as beings if we are simply motivated by a ‘need’ to write. Nor do I appreciate the attempt to describe writing as noble. No medium or tool can be noble, only it’s usage can warrant that description.
Writing is vital not because of some moral sheen that it bestows on the writer but because of a basic philosophical distinction it draws between humanity and our lesser neighbors. A beast needs. It acts for what it wants. We can never separate ourselves from our ‘beastliness’ as it is what makes us live. A beast acts on its needs. As do we. But, we distinguish ourselves as intelligent because we are not limited by our needs. We act on what we think ‘should’ be. And this is where writing plays an immense role. Without writing and its resultant shared human mentality, we could only act on our needs. Without the construction of organised thought that is writing we would be unable to ever believe that anything ‘should’ be. But this is still not noble. We once believed some rather unfortunate things ‘should’ be. It did not make us just or great. But, with writing and the desire that it instills to fashion a world as it ‘should’ be, we aspire to greatness. To nobility. That potential, and our striving for use it, is flawed and frequently even ruinous.
But it is what we are. And what separates us from beasts.