I have not met many writers, in the flesh. Which isn’t surprising, I don’t think. I am not one of those who writes who likes to be around others who write. I avoid like the plague all writing workshops, poetry readings, bohemian gatherings, and the like. Writing, like all the arts, is a solitary profession. Any place where writers are gathered together is a place not of art, but of community. The term ‘artist community’ or ‘artist commune’ is paradoxical. The only community of artists is the unspoken one of solitary people at their craft. There are no greater companions I know of than the words in the books strewn about the 300 square foot room in which I live.
The writer, for better or worse, “puts the best of himself, not the whole, into the work; the author as seen in the pages of his own book is largely a fictional creation.” So writes Edward Abbey in the introduction to his book Abbey’s Road: Take The Other. Some would say the writer hides behind his words, but that is not quite true. He reveals himself through his words, but when not writing he tends to hide. Or, he needs to be reclusive in order to be reflective, has a need to be invisible in interactions so that he can reveal himself through what he writes. Abbey says it well, continuing,
The ‘Edward Abbey’ of my own books, for example, bears only the dimmest resemblance to the shy, timid, reclusive, rather dapper little gentleman who, always correctly attired for his labors in coat and tie and starched detachable cuffs, sits down each night for precisely four hours to type out the further adventures of that arrogant blustering macho fraud who counterfeits his name. You can bet on it: No writer is ever willing—even if able—to portray himself as seen by others or as he really is. Writers are shameless liars. In fact, we pride ourselves on the subtlety and grandeur of our lies.
Who is the writer, really? The words he writes seem so different from the way he acts. HIs words may be full of life, but when you meet the author of the words he could be reserved, not all there, as if he is hiding for you, from himself, from life. You may feel in his presence a lack of presence, an absence, a wish not to be seen, to remain invisible. Abbey links the phrases, “as seen by others” and “as he really is.” But these phrases do not necessarily correspond with each other. Others do not often see us as we really are, and this is especially true for the writer, who others likely see as something of a ghost, for the impression he leaves on others is so nebulous or non-existent. At times the writer sees himself in this way, and at these moments his writing may act as a way to counteract this ghostliness, to write himself out of himself and into life, in these moments when life and the self are opposed.
But the writer must remember who he is and who he is not. He should remember not to take much account of how he is seen. Just because he is seen as a ghost does not mean he is a ghost or should see himself as one. The writer lives on a different plane, a plane that could well be closer to the ghostly. In any case, the writer seeks to express the timeless, the eternal, what has truth now, what has always had truth and always will. To do that, he cannot live completely in time; or, if he lives only in time, he does not live a complete life. It is important for any writer that the majority of his time actually be ‘his’ time, that he does not spend it seeing others and being seen. What happens on the plane of social interaction, especially superficial and thus draining interaction, has a tendency to feel unreal even when it is happening, and fade quickly thereafter. It fades from memory but leaves a definite, and definitely unwanted, mark on the soul. What happens alone, whether it brings pain or joy, does not fade, and never carries with it the same strong sense of unreality.
Are writers ‘shameless liars’? Abbey claims that writers lie about who they are now by putting their ‘best creation’ in their words. And there is some truth in that statement, as there is some truth in that lie. But is it a lie? The writer is not willing to portray himself as others see him for he knows that is not really who he is. But who he is—he does not know. It is not true that no writer is willing to portray himself as he really is. That is exactly how he would portray himself, if he could. Any other portrayal of himself is a betrayal of himself. He lies because he must. He wants above all not to portray himself in any unreal way, but rather to become himself, and express the self he is becoming, the self he really is, rather than the self he wants to be or wants to be seen. Until he knows who he is, though, every word is a lie he hopes will lead him to the truth.
But the writer, who expresses everything with such seeming clarity in words, can easily get twisted up in those words. The words start to add to what keeps him living under a lie rather than provide him with a way out of lying itself. Already confused about who he really is, he can become more so the more he writes. What begins as a lie because he does not know the truth becomes a known lie. He must keep the lie going, as he is afraid that he is going nowhere, or that he has already gone too far. Instead of writing to become himself, he writes to express a glorified self, one that takes away some of the pain of his isolation, which is where his solitude, now corrupted, has led him. The glorified self, he hopes, will take away the pain of his isolation by putting him above others; in actuality, by putting himself above others, the glorified self brings about his isolation, and alienates him from who he really is. Karen Horney, in Neurosis and Human Growth: The Struggle to Self-Realization, describes this process as self-idealization.
Self-idealization always entails a general self-glorification, and thereby gives the individual a much-needed feeling of significance and superiority over others. But it is by no means a blind self-aggrandizement. Each person builds up his personal idealized image from the materials of his own special experiences, his earlier fantasies, his particular needs, and also his given faculties.
The self-idealization of the writer, his glorified self, is much-needed to the extent that he feels himself unneeded, without value, unable to contribute anything of worth to the world. The extrinsic value of his work matters little when it comes face to face with his internal evaluator and critic, perhaps his glorified self, who finds all his writing lacking in some or all ways. His glorified self will be unique to him, as Horney makes clear, though it will share aspects with other writers.
As a writer with a solitary vocation, and now with the glorified self, the one he looks up to who looks down on him, he might express a need to be left alone, a wish for a room of his own, the time and space necessary in order to create. All of which are real and actual needs. But he no longer wishes or needs to create works of art that express himself as he is; the need now is to create himself, to become the work of art, the glorified self, who is a great artist, a genius. Becoming the artist has become more important than producing the art. Others should look up to his glorified self as much as he looks up to it. Give it their glory. Yet when he is praised for the work he does actually do, he will not accept the praise. Either the work wasn’t good enough, or it wasn’t really ‘he’ who did the work. What sometimes looks like humility—not accepting praise for some work that he did—is actually the pride of the glorified self for whom nothing done is ever good enough. Why should he accept praise for something he could have done better? Everything could always be done better, and will be done better. Must be done better.
The writer may also glorify his aloneness, and his ability to bear it. “The strongest men are the most alone.” He sees himself as stronger than the rest by the fact that he is able to bear greater aloneness, more intense suffering. But he bears only what he has brought upon himself. And it must be borne, for his solitary endeavor has become more of a prison than a freely chosen vocation. His aloneness must be borne so it can bring him glory, fame, and applause. He must spend time alone without glory now so he can be together with glory later. He will write until he achieves all that the self he glorifies deserves. The unreal self hopes for the unreal. The more he is driven by the idealized self to reach these dreamlike goals, the more he forgets what it means to be driven, how little freedom he possesses as he grows more possessed. To be driven is to have no choice. Someone else has hands on the wheel, and they’re heading the wrong way.
Regaining the capacity to drive now becomes important. Although being ‘driven’ is seen as a positive trait in a society where becoming the glorified self, and being seen, are the highest of goals, in actuality being driven drives you only to the ground. But it does not ground you, since you are driven to fly like Icarus. You get the opposite of what you seek, though to all extensive, external purposes it may look like you are flying. It is not you at all, but your glorified self, the self that exists only in your imagination, that flies away from who you actually are. The more you are driven, the more you become not-you. You out-grow yourself, as the distance between who you are and the self you imagine being grows too vast to imagine closing. Writing is no longer a way back to yourself; it is a way to chase after what drives you forward, but you are always too far behind. Instead of finding the way back, you lose the way completely. You are blindfolded with your hands tied in the back of the mack truck which, if you are not careful, will drive you to the very edge of the abyss, and over.
Part 2 of ‘On Writers’, and whatever else this essay has deteriorated into, will come at some unspecified time in the future. Await it in expectation. Or not.
One thought on “On Writers”
I recently went to an exhibit at the Phillips Collection in DC: Gauguin to Picasso. One artist in particular whom I think you would like is Alexej Georgewitsch von Jawlensky (13 March 1864 – 15 March 1941), originally from Russia, an expressionist painter. He writes about the impossible task of the artist searching for a way to express the divine, which is inexpressible.
I also loved reading about the relationships forged among the artists who were doing new things, and often painting literally side by side in the French countryside. The art was a result of these amazingly creative people as well as those who supported their work by providing resources, places to paint and places to exhibit their work. I particularly loved the paintings of a doctor’s house in the French countryside who provided a place to sleep and eat and paint to many of the great impressionists.
I am not convinced that “artist community” is an oxymoron. It may depend more on the artist or poet him or herself, rather than as an objective artistic principle. I would be interested in what other bloggers or those who read your blog think about the subject of the viability or authenticity of an artist community.