Week Four

By what route is the soul or history or society or the subconscious transformed into a series of black lines on a white page?

Italo Calvino

Calculating in the head.–Is it like calculation on paper?–I don’t know whether to call it ‘like’. Is a bit of white paper with black lines on it like a human body?

Ludwing Wittgenstein

Religion, teachers, women, drugs, the road, fame, money… nothing gets me high and offers relief from the suffering like blackening pages, writing.

Leonard Cohen

This week I struggled to write about the actual experience of writing, the activity of marking up a page with words. It is very clear to me now that this experience must be at the heart of a book called How to Write Papers. I think most people have distorted image of what writers do or, since students and scholars are of course themselves writers, a distorted image of what they’re supposed to be doing when they write. In fact, I think the distortions come from a kind of moral confusion, occasioned by an idealized image of how “real” writers compose their texts, how they translate their thoughts into sentences and paragraphs. Many people feel like they’re cheating. No matter how terribly they suffer, they feel like it is too easy, like they’re either plagiarizing or fabricating, pulling a fast one or making something up.

I think the reason for this is the almost infinite difference between words and the things they refer to. “Cat” and “dog” are nothing like cats and dogs. A sentence is nothing like the fact it states. (There are exceptions, of course. “Word” and “sentence” are something like words and sentences. This sentence is very much like the fact it is about.) Everything, more or less, is easier said than done. It is easier to write a story than it is to execute an actual sequence of motion and fact. And it is easier to tell a story than it is to write it. Whenever we read a good, clear passage of prose, however, we feel like it is a transcription of the clear, pure thoughts of the writer. We think it is a representation of the writer’s “stream of consciousness”. But this is exactly the illusion that constitutes good writing. The writing itself — the prose — seems, as George Orwell put it, “like a window pane” on the mind of the writer.

Rest assured, however, that the writer’s mind is nothing like what we see on the page. Except in the moment that you are now sharing with him. The moment when he rereads his thoughts, recognizes them as his own, and decides to publish them to his blog.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *