What’s It For?
I. Stone Soup: The Consolations of Faith and Philosophy
If you are like me, you keep a journal. In it, I stockpile the inspiring words of others. I reflect upon them and add my own observations of the world, always wishing my ideas were of equal stature (or at least equal length) to the words I copy and wishing that they might be so profound that, someday, someone will preserve them and comment on them with similar passionate attention. My journal offers a record, however partial, of what stokes my inner fire.
Here are some recent entries:
- Pay careful attention to your own work, for then you will get the satisfaction of a job well done, and you won’t need to compare yourself to anyone else. (Galatians 6:4)
- Faith is precisely the contradiction between the infinite passion of the individual’s inwardness and the objective uncertainty. (Soren Kierkegaard, Postscripts)
- In the constant sociability of our age people shudder at solitude to such a degree that they know no other use to put it to but as a punishment for criminals. (Soren Kierkegaard, Sickness unto Death)
- Your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person—and write to that one. (John Steinbeck)
- And if no one reads me, have I wasted my time, entertaining myself for so many idle hours with such useful and agreeable thoughts? In modeling this figure upon myself, I have had to fashion and compose myself so often to bring myself out, that the model itself has to come extent grown firm and taken shape. Painting my inward self with colors clearer than my original ones. I have no more made my book than my book has made me—a book consubstantial with its author… (Michel de Montaigne, The Essays)
II: Recurrent Themes
I often ask myself how large an audience I need in order to justify my vocation as a writer? Like most, I dream of being widely-read. Steinbeck, in contrast, claims we ought write for a readership of one. He no doubt means that we shouldn’t write for an abstractions—for “future generations,” for “critical acclaim”—but rather to engage and inspire individuals. Perhaps, he is borrowing from Seneca’s anecdote of a writer who, when asked why he took so many pains in an art which could come to the knowledge of so few people, replied: “Few are enough for me, one is enough for me, none at all is enough for me.”
It is also true that, due to the proliferation of literary platforms, we most likely do write for that smallest of audiences, the never-ending publishing of each of us diluting the readership of all of us. How many journals can we read? How many posts? When something appears on our screens and we quickly scroll through it, can we even be said to have read it, so brief and nugatory is our engagement? Thus, this essay, too, is written—in advance—to evanesce. Perhaps even our most impassioned writing is like that act of charity lauded in the bible: “Give your gifts in private, and your Father, who sees everything, will reward you” (Matthew 6:3)
So, then, do we really write only for ourselves? And if so, how does that differ from journaling? What lifts our work above the examination of the personal by and for the individual alone? Do we employ our infinite passion purely, as Montaigne suggested, in our constitution and reconstitution of ourselves? If so, why expend so much effort trying to get others’ eyes on it? Well, if as Montaigne says, we are “consubstantial” with our work, it makes sense that we would go to any length to place it/ourselves in the world.
Or is the act of writing more similar to worship, the relationship we have with our muse echoing our relationship with the Divine—fundamentally one-on-one—no matter the tradition we belong to? As Kierkegaard swears, there is no objective proof of God’s existence, there is only the subjective wager, the individual’s engagement with the infinite, as personal and inexplicable to an outsider as one’s love-relationship is. Perhaps, then, we write in the same way—in response to a call only we can hear, in a way that we feel compelled to, in a way that brooks no interference from movements or groups. Which is why, for some, editorial suggestions are unwelcome—our errors are our own, for us to sniff out and do battle with. Another’s solution falsifies our voice and offers a cheap short-cut to growth.
III: The Grumps
This idea of a solitary quest, of rendering our total effort to a heartfelt but private battle, sounds wonderful in theory. In our best moments, we love our lonely nobility. In our worst, we become depressed and irritable. We whine, like Peter: “We’ve given up everything to follow you. What will we get?” (Matthew 19:27) Most likely nothing, my friend: at best, a funereal obscurity or at worst, torture and martyrdom.
The internet and social media make it easy to see where we stand in the eyes of the world: What position does our book occupy on Amazon? How many likes do our posts get? How many comments? When we read another’s collection, we check where their work first appeared. Have we been accepted there? We pore, discouraged, over bios that swell with envy-inducing prizes and publications. In our worst moments, we cultivate resentment, elaborating explanations for why we, equally deserving, have been passed over. Is it our (lack of) connections? Is it our (lack of) group-affiliations? Is it our ability to pay to play (for contests and manuscript fees)? Is it whether our work appeals to the current generation of editors and readers? Is it, fundamentally and terrifyingly, a lack of talent?
IV: What Is It For?
Which takes us back to the quote from Galatians: “Pay attention to your own work!”
Anything else makes you vulnerable to irritation and distraction. Like Kafka’s supplicant, we stand before the only door meant for us. Perhaps, we will never pass through it, but our engagement with its doorkeeper, our showing up day after day to seek entry, our wracking our brains about what’s on the other side, are ours alone. They make us who we are.
We engage with our craft like someone a room with an infinite number of hidden doors. Each day, we grope for the spring that will release another—a quote from our reading, a melody, an image, our body’s pain or pleasure, a biographical detail, an injustice, a poetic form.
We seek. We experiment. We examine the result. This—despite publication—is private work. “In the pulpit,” Kierkegaard writes, “it is doubtless the parson who preaches, yet the true preacher is the confidant of thine inmost thoughts…the preacher within thee…preaches solely and alone about thee, to thee, in thee.” Kierkegaard’s vocabulary is religious, but his application is broadly vocational.
About the writer:
Devon Balwit‘s most recent collection is titled A Brief Way to Identify a Body (Ursus Americanus Press). Her individual poems can be found or are upcoming in Jet Fuel, The Cincinnati Review, Tampa Review, Rattle, Apt (long-form issue), Grist, and Oxidant Engine among others. Devon Balwit is the O:JA&L “Featured Writer” for June 2019.
Image: Courtesy of Devon Balwit