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1. The Writing Life

One must not romanticize the life of a writer, which seldom makes it to the life of an artist. Making it to that life has an ambivalent relation to “making it” in the world. An old saying, sometimes attributed to James Michener, has it that a person can make a fortune at writing, but not a living. Creative writing as a vocation or profession may very well include some artists. Even so, merchants of little better than mental cud dominate the category. Most creative writers are failures, amateurs, or self-illusioned persons. It has little to do with the Canon, an accidental fragment of creative writing, that leaves out numerous marvels for every one it selects. Just as we possess only an accidental fragment of antiquity, such as Greek manuscripts that have survived, we have in what is published, sold, and widely circulated, only an accidental part of well written art. More good writing is accomplished than published, according to common sense.

As for what is written (in total), the American Library Association estimated that Americans of 2005 were annually writing 750,000 manuscripts. We can imagine how much more massive writing has become when taking it globally and in all languages, much less when we add in the magazines, newspapers, journals, e-writings, etc., which doubtless contain far more words than in books themselves.

So much of writing is journalistic, topical, scholarly, political, polemical, etc. Much of it is poorly written, i.e., by persons with little talent for written language. Only a small percentage of it can be called serious creative writing. I refer by the term “serious creative writing” to work that is distinguished by literary appeal through a peculiarity of imagination. Some works of scholarship rise (or fall) to that level. Certainly, I do not refer to what is simply educated in the use of grammar, syntax, and form. Vanzetti’s famous broken-English explanation of himself had the wondrous quality of literary merit. Neither am I talking about significance. Regardless of their literary quality, Einstein’s 1905 papers are more significant than the entire writings of all but a few of the known most gifted creative writers in history. Some practical souls (I am not among them) would rate Euclid’s fifth postulate as more important than Shakespeare. Finally, least of all am I talking about influence. Mein Kampf may be of little literary merit, but it had great significance with respect to influence. As for worldly success, the scum goes to the top as well as the cream. As for the cream itself, the world’s churn usually reduces it to a buttery mass of unknown fine writing. Usually, the writing instinct even of the gifted writers is overwhelmed by the hostile economics of it.

Works that are cherished and long-remembered are only a few splinters of a large house. The internet has now given writers of all kinds easy access to publication in electronic format. While it is looked down upon by hard-copy writers, we need to realize that writing is, now and always, similar to the arduous search by the Curies in a mass of pitchblende for that precious trace of radium. One hears dismissive reference as well to so-called “vanity” publications from which a significant part of the canon has emerged. “Successful” writers tend to forget the son of David in Ecclesiastes. “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” Even if the internet is an even greater mass of pitchblende than hard copies, the trace of radium is there, surely with the same need of filtering as print on paper. We have simply re-invented printing. The technology of the handheld electronic reader will, in time, be even more convenient and much easier than paper books. In time, e-books and e-publications are likely to contain our entire serious literature in progress, some of which will be in hard copies, even as objet d’art to keep around the house. My books from the Portfolio Society are exquisite material productions of that sort.

For all of that, I see that writing can be a spiritual quest. The writing life can sometimes become the life of an artist. For me, between now and the day the ice man cometh, that is the life I would lead to the extent I am capable. I do not romanticize it, and I understand fully that the world puts a low value on it, but that is how I shall live in this twilit radiance. The lateness of it may overpower it, or perhaps even paradoxically make it better.

The world has no need of another artist. The question becomes: does the artist need the world, which is to say, the world’s recognition? If there is such a thing as greatness, it is an inner rather than an outer matter. The world without being is a form of nothingness. Only we, or entities that have, like us, the ability to perceive can give the world beingness. So what is important in this world of ours is inside us. I matter to myself. Your matter to yourself. We matter to ourselves. Nothing else matters at all. Even if we are happening in the mind of God, the inner life is the only fact we know directly.