Here we waste away, poor scholars,
Beaten by cold and hunger,
Out of work, our only pleasure poetry,
Scratch, scratch, we wear out our minds.
Who would read the work of people like us?
Don’t waste your breath wondering.
If we wrote our words on dog biscuits
even stray dogs wouldn’t bother biting.
Hanshan (Cold Mountain), ca.600-800AD
All writers face almost certain failure. If you go to any gathering of writers there’s always a joke about wallpapering a room with rejection letters. If you ever get a chance to speak to someone on the inside, without fail they mention the publishers’ ‘slush pile’ – a pile of submissions from people they’ve never heard of that they seldom, if ever, look at and if they do it’s strictly the first page only. These days it’s hard even to get a rejection. Almost every publisher or agent’s website says, “no unsolicited manuscripts”. If you don’t find an open door, assuming it’s not a scam, the complete silence that follows your submission is proof you are sitting in the middle of that slush pile purgatory and there is nothing you can do to force your first page in front of anybody’s eyes. To get a rejection is a small victory – at least now you are on the same path as all those other successful writers who wallpapered their rooms.
There’s many ways to answer any question. We can look at things from a psychological point of view, or social, economic or political or countless other angles. There was a time when this was the way to write – to take a subject and consider it from all angles rather than remain closeted within a specialisation. Burton did it with Melancholy. Melville worked with whales. It was Montaigne’s method but the word essay no longer means what it once did.
Writing is a kind of insanity. Maybe one day writing will be pathologized, a symptom of something to be medicated out of existence. You spend months to years pouring all your effort into it. You think about it as you go down the street. It distracts you from work, from people, from everything you are supposed to be doing. It’s your own quiet revolution against what is required of you to make your way in the world, against work, duty, the need to eat and sleep. It’s a reclaiming of yourself, your time, effort and concern, as your own territory. Then when you are satisfied, when the writing is good enough to take its place in the world as something worth somebody reading, then you must reconcile yourself to the reality that nobody will ever read it. So what do you do? Start another book. Write and be damned. Why would you do that?
I spoke in the second person just now. It’s not only because I address you personally, nor only in the generalised sense but also because I’m talking to myself. I was once able to see a psychiatrist for free (who can afford them at two hundred bucks a turn?) so the only personal psychological insight I can bring to this question is that, in a revelatory moment she said that I was my own imaginary friend. My own imaginary friend? Did I make myself up? Like an ouroboros that, instead of swallowing its own tail into nothingness, constantly vomits itself into existence? She explained that everyone needs society, and when denied it we find a proxy. For those who believe, it is God. For me, without God, without society, it is myself. It’s true – here I am chatting with myself again, this time in a blog.
Isolation, loneliness, is something we all share. We would not be ourselves, an “I”, if we weren’t definitively distinct from and different to everyone else. Perhaps there is something that makes it more obvious for some than others – perhaps a stutter means you can’t converse well, perhaps you were raised always moving, perhaps you had a hard time at school, perhaps society seems superficial or its rules don’t permit people like you to speak, or perhaps like little Hauser, you were lost in the wilderness or locked in a dungeon. Maybe what you have to say won’t fit in 140 letters or less. Calvino puts it prosaically in Mr Palomar,
Mr. Palomar suffers greatly because of his difficulty in establishing relations with his fellow man. He envies people who have the gift of always finding the right thing to say, the right greeting for everyone; people who are at ease with anyone they happen to encounter and put others at their ease; who move easily among people and immediately understand when they must defend themselves and keep their distance or when they can win trust and affection; who give their best in their relations with others and make others want to give their best; who know at once how to evaluate a person with regard to themselves on an absolute scale.
Surely everyone has at some point in their life been Mr Palomar. For some it is daily. Yet even those who appear to be the most adept socially sometimes confess that it is only be because they are alone, or fear to be alone, that they put so much effort into social success. As philosopher Lieh Tzu says, “The strong man is weak.” Why would he spend so much time lifting weights if he didn’t think himself to be weak? So too the sociable person is as lonely as the lonely.
There is some reason you cannot speak, yet something must be said. Whoever we are and however wholesome our life, at some point we each find ourselves alone in the crowd, thinking, “Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink.” Donne was right to say, “No man is an island.” but I subscribe to Wilde’s view that “A Truth in art is that whose contradictory is also true.” Everyone is an island, but like all islanders we set sail. Self indulgence, though inevitable, is always uncomfortable so let’s move on to society.
Some read or write for sociability. The book, poem or chapter of the first Tuesday becomes a social fetish, in which case books may as well be cars, quilting, gardening, cards, carols, theatre, cooking, coffee, skating or any other thing that brings people into a community over the discussion of relative merits, gear and skills. That is a fine thing in itself but nothing peculiar to writing.
There is a simple answer to the simple question, “Why write?” It’s something like, “So others may read.” or “Because someone might read.” A reclusive diarist records their secret thoughts for their future self, or in the hope that, after death releases them from any risk of mortal shame, a kindred spirit might share their sentiments. Norinaga theorises that the origin of poetry is that emotional responses to our surroundings move us to make a sound to share that response with another. The only way to invoke that emotional response in another is through shared experiences – by reciting an experience that causes those emotions I can cause those emotions in another, and somehow, according to Norinaga, that makes us feel better. Crucially for Norinaga the shared experience of a shared culture is crucial for the meaning of poetry to function. ‘Orange leaf’ in Japan means something different in Cairns. Yet this dependency on mutual cultural experience, a shared background, is not absolutely exclusive. In reading the reminisces and musings of 17th Century failing bureaucrat, Shen Fu, I recognised someone not so different from myself, sitting here in the Western world, across a vast distance in time, space and culture. Despite our differences, I have more in common with Shen Fu than with my neighbour. In reading and writing we enter the timeless society of the dead. What good company – read Catallus, read Sappho. Such audacity to think you could write a single word in this company.
Vanity and vanitas. A memento mori lurks behind all writing. Writing lasts. It lasts past the thought or spoken word. It lasts when we walk away and aren’t there any more. It lasts after death. What writer doesn’t have some open or secret aspiration, however much it may have diminished over time, or however humble they are, to be read, to be successful, to be recognised around the world, long after we are dead? Even writing for others, even done for all the right reasons in all the right ways, involves the vanity of presuming that you are the one good enough to do it, to write well enough that attention will be attracted to this noble cause. For those who write for social reasons, this fear that the motivation is no more their own vanity is only another obstacle that must be overcome in the struggle to to say what must be said, to give voice to those who have been silenced, to alert us to the consequences of the path we are on, to call for justice. Even those who keep a secret diary suspect someone might be interested in their life in the coming generations. Writing is for reading.
In Soseki’s Kusamakura the artist becomes an artist when there is no need to paint, because he sees everything constantly as a potential painting, as a painter does, as colour, shape line, composition, and since all material things are transient, there is no longer a need to paint, to create an object in the world which will only disappear anyway, there is only the continuous present painting way of being aware of the world. So too for a writer every passing moment, everything good and bad, exciting and boring, becomes research for a potential novel, everything always shaping into some turn of phrase in the back of your mind. In this way you endure a boring job and relish nearly having your throat cut because it’s all a kind of poetry. It’s all research. While nothing is permanent, some times are good while they last. Why not last a little longer? So we pick up the pen again or put finger to the key.
Writing makes thoughts, words, memories material. Writing conjures up our words for others when we are not present. It enables us to communicate beyond ourselves, to people we haven’t even met, even beyond our own lifespan. Once etched it has the sense of permanence, of surviving death. Of the works available to us through the ages there are countless texts written to preserve stories people thought were the most valuable beyond the death of any individual. There are countless cases where we read a specific lamentation or consolation about mortality, a plea across the centuries to be remembered. Horace’s Odes are full of considerations on how to live well by bearing in mind we are going to die. In the Popul Vuh, one of my favourite cases, children outwit the gods of death to revive their father who says that they resurrect him if they remember his words – and this in a book which barely escaped destruction over centuries of book burning. In May culture writing is like a spell that conjures people back from the dead. Gayatri Spivak puts it that when we read we are ‘haunted’ by the writer of a text.
The poem Mary Queen of Scots wrote in Anne of Lorrain’s Book of Hours is also particularly poignant and full of double meanings, some of which she may not have even realised would be there:
Si ce lieu est pour ecrire ordonné
Ce quil vous plest auoir en souenance
Je vous requiers que lieu mi soit donné
Il que nul temps ne noste lordonance
If this place for writing is set aside,
I require that space be given to me
And that time does not erase the privilege.
Mary Queen of Scots
According to the archive commentary ‘this place’ referred to her comfortable and safe place at the French court. This was important because her mere existence as a potential contender for the English throne meant her life was always at risk and never completely in her own control. There are other ways to read these words. The spacious margin the poem is written in is also the ‘space’ set aside and she asks that her words not be erased by time. The word ‘ordonné’, though I don’t know French, seems to have a Latin root implying ‘order’. The connotations in the French text then also imply that the space is part of a royal ‘order’ that she would like to remain. It is also a command – this space is ordered into text and margin for writing in, and she has also been ‘ordered’ to write in it. She is saying to her Aunt, since you have ordered me to write here, I require you to keep this space for me, to not allow time to erase what I have to say. This last is the most poignant because Mary was ultimately charged and executed for treason. The evidence for her alleged crimes were letters that she persistently claimed were forged. It’s no stretch to think that, due to her position she was already accustomed to false accusations at the time she wrote in Ann of Lorrain’s Book of Hours. She writes that if she is ordered to write, she orders her words, her truth, not be erased – rejoindering with her royal decree even as her power is stripped. There’s no shortage of literature written because the writer was contemplating mortality. Writing is the ideal form for such contemplation because it continues to refer to us when we are no longer present, it lasts beyond death.
Sometimes others depend on writers to survive their own death. In Luba culture there are memory men, initiates who are able to read the history of Luba and it’s kings from memory boards. In Sanskrit the poet Bhartrhari wrote:
and I disdain you more.
I’m gone, dear King. At court,
more than your presence
is my absence.
Bhartrhari is arguing that the people need poetry as well as power, but we see that more than this, without a poet to sing the stories of kings, all the power a king may amass amounts to nothing. Without Homer there is no Odysseus would have died thousands of years ago.
In the 8th century Bhavabhuti famously worded the petulant complaint of every struggling artist about the Philistines of their own time and their recourse to another age in their aspiration for recognition:
They ignore me.
No doubt they have their own good reasons
so I don’t write for them.
When I write the world is wide and time is endless.
Someone will be born one day
Whose soul is the same as mine.
Yet the reality of not being read, which is the raison d’etre of writing, is something all writers must face. Because writing is lasting we compete with all that has ever been written by anybody, anywhere in the world since writing began. Because of books and the internet more writing is now accessible, and there are now more people than ever to write, so the chances of being noticed in this crowd tend ever more toward zero. Odysseus gave up an island of perpetual pleasure and risked the hardships of the sea so that he would be recognised and his name and deeds remembered in the stories told about him. The likelihood of lasting like Homer and Odysseus, Shakespeare and Hamlet is ludicrous. This futility of writing, and the vanity of wanting to last that is implicit in it, reminds us more generally of our own futility. The futility of writing is an allegory of life, of how we persist in all our concerns in the face of the reality of our inevitable obscurity, first lost in the noise of the teeming multitude of life, then in the oblivion of time.
In Records On Metal And Stone Li Qingzhao expertly relates how she and her husband had collected 2000 copies and rubbings of inscriptions on ancient ‘bells, tripods, steamers, kettles, washbasins, ladles, goblets, and bowls’ and other great texts only to see it destroyed in one catastrophe after another. Through invading armies, thieves and fire, she lost her husband and the collection dwindled from cartloads to a few treasured scrolls under her bed. Ironically, while trying to preserve the inscriptions on the paper, it turns out more vulnerable than the metal and stone it was copied from. She concludes, “When there is possession, there must be lack of possession; when there is a gathering together, there must be a dissolution – that is the constant principle of things. Someone loses a bow; someone else happens to find a bow – what’s worth noticing in that? The reason why I have so minutely recorded this story from beginning to end is to serve as a warning for scholars and collectors in later generations.” Her lasting message is that there is no lasting message.
T’ao Ch’ien, around one thousand and six hundred years ago, in poem 8 of Drinking Wine wrote
If we don’t give up success and failure
we end without promise, only regret
When Arjuna loses all will to act, unable to shirk his responsibility as a warrior yet unable to launch a battle in which he knows thousands, his own brothers and teachers, will be killed, Krishna explains that choosing not to act is itself an act, there can be no avoidance, detachment doesn’t mean abstinence, it means continuing to do what you do, being what you are, all the while being well aware. So what can a writer do but continue to write, regardless of success or failure? So what can a failed writer do but continue to fail at writing?
Not only is it reality but realism – a dramatic irony thrown back into a writer’s face, the story of their life is never to be read. Realism implies that there is an illusion. In realism there must be illusion from which the reader or the character will be disillusioned. The realism of anything is the antithesis of the hopes and aspirations it represents, which all turn out to be fictions. The realism of writing is that nobody will read. It’s aptly depicted in Asterix comics – the bard Cacofonix announces he is about to deliver his latest composition and in the next frame is bound and gagged to a tree while everyone enjoys a good roast and a drunken brawl. If you wished to write a great novel, to be emblematic of the zeitgeist of your time, to show all the art of all the influences in all the best literature from all history and all the world, or even if you just hope ‘a few people who like this sort of thing will find that it’s the sort of thing they like’, it should come as no surprise that nobody reads a word of it, just as it should be no surprise that a young soldier signing up to bravely fight for noble causes in defence of their people and homeland should, tragedy by tragedy, find themself killing people who might have been themself if born on the other side, torturing civilians, ruthlessly exploiting the enemy’s every weakness, watching their friends die for nothing on stupid orders, and finally see through the lies of power when confronted by the sacrifice of so many for so little. The activist starts with lofty ideals and ends in politics. The holy monk is given to vice. Free lovers are jealous. The punk sells out. The cop deals drugs. Promises are broken. Dreams are dashed. Eternal love never lasts forever.
The realism and the reality of writing make a mockery of any illusions anyone might have had that writing was some kind of job, or that they could make money out of it. The ease of copying and distributing text makes any economic control completely arbitrary. The assumptions of totalitarian capitalism, such as things are only valuable according to how much they are bought and sold, become absolutely absurd. There are 7.5 billion people in the world and only one JK Rowling. Those journals that insist on ‘respecting’ or ‘validating’ writers by paying authors $50 for the lifetime of experience, contemplation, and skill development that goes into writing a story worth anybody’s reading, are only offering an insult. While a negligible few might make money from it, that is only incidental. Writing and publishing happen because they are worth doing, not because they are worth money. If you want money, do something that makes money – business, law, medicine, crime. If you are stupid enough to write, then write despite everything. Of course the independent income that some writers have enjoyed is great if you can get it, but if you can’t afford pen and paper, write haiku with blood on onion skins.
Reality is the world’s refusal of our immediate whim. It is the obstruction of our desire, aspiration and hope. What is more real than a brick wall that stops me from going from here to there? That is precisely why we need writing. Sartre makes a simple but elegant point that freedom is non-being – freedom depends on our ability to imagine things being not as they are. That’s why despots don’t like people writing. In writing, as in the imagination, anything is possible. 1 + 1 may equal 5, or if it is the master who says 1 + 1 = 5, you can write a world where it equals 4. Writing to each other, we see things might be different. We see they might be different in ways we agree or disagree with. We see they might be different in ways we hadn’t even thought of. The reality is that nobody is ever going to read this. So why write? The fiction that they might read.