Lately I’ve been wondering why writing is something I do. I don’t consider myself a writer, and yet this whole soul-searching, post-grad travel journey is making it clear that writing is a vital component of my introspective process.
David Foster Wallace’s The Nature of the Fun bestows a little sense upon this puzzle of outwardly writing as a method of inwardly investigating:
…writing fiction becomes a way to go deep inside yourself and illuminate precisely the stuff you don’t want to see or let anyone else see, and this stuff usually turns out (paradoxically) to be precisely the stuff all writers and readers share and respond to, feel. Fiction becomes a weird way to countenance yourself and to tell the truth instead of being a way to escape yourself or present yourself in a way you figure you will be maximally likable.”
– DFW, “The Nature of the Fun”, Both Flesh and Not, p. 198
For meta-curious individuals – of the variety who are predisposed to asking questions of life – using writing as a sort of inward dive makes sense, though I believe this applies to writing in general, not just fiction.
The deconstructive process of an inquiring life often demolishes the floors of reasoning supporting our contrived worldviews, with “writing-as-introspection” offering a sort of inbent, journalistic record of self-discovery. This is a very useful record to have available as you continue bulldozing through the upsetting lack of well-made floors (a poorly constructed floor is typically an adopted dogma that you weren’t aware stunted your autonomous reasoning process). Writing becomes a tool to document what endures amidst the rubble of the examined life; a vehicle carrying us inwards. Silly as it sounds, I write because I don’t want to forget what I think along the way.
Chronicling what remains becomes vitally important, no matter how frantic or disparate the pieces may seem. Every randomly unearthed fractal of meaning, be it from an old book or a new YouTube clip, feels like a grand discovery. When you don’t have a floor to stand on, very few things make enough of that deeply resonant sense to maintain a place in your emerging (read: dissolving) worldview.
One of my favorite writers, Maria Popova, considers during a podcast interview why she writes so freaking much (3 complex and well-crafted articles daily…currently going on 9 years):
I have often said, and I still really believe that, I actually write for myself, whether it’s some sort of — I don’t know — psycho-analyze me, some kind of hedge against immortality, and trying to keep a record of my thought, and trying to not forget, you know, because a large part of why I write, is so I don’t forget what I read and what I think about…”
– Maria Popova, on The One You Feed, 45:30
But I’d like to think that writing and remembering become vital not so much in hedging against immortality as they do in making sense of our mortality. It’s a sliver of distinction, but it may carry a lot of weight.
Those resonant thoughts that hover above the rest exert a strangely gravitational pull upon our mind’s attention, and to forget something that was once capable of gripping you in that way is a really crappy feeling. Especially when complemented by the whole “examining-life-and-realizing-that-most-of-what-I-used-to-believe-was-spurious-at-best-bullshit-at-worst” thing, which inconveniently causes other ideas that once possessed & supported you to lose their hold. You want a balance. If you’re losing foundation, you want to simultaneously acquire new construction materials to replace them.
So of course Popova writes furiously; her website is an engine of introspection. More like a freight train suited with SpaceX rockets. She’s constantly tearing through floors, and without writing & remembering along the way, there’s a fear she’ll lack the resources to rebuild.
That aforementioned sliver of distinction becomes important here, because the rebuilding isn’t in response to the possibility of death, but the certainty of it. I jived with what she said because she seems to use the resource-gathering process as a source of present-enrichment, not a safety-net in case time erodes all record of her existence.
Ultimately, those two might even be the same thing — the semantics of it all are pretty confusing. But I like the distinction: 1) because it sounds neat, and 2) because changing the idea from a hedging process to a making-sense-of process makes the whole ordeal sound less neurotic; more meaningful.
I know that section reeks of angst, but it’s actually just the opposite. The deeper you dive, the more rewarding it becomes to record something that still resonates. Each discovery becomes progressively more grand, and each collected fragment maintains that gravitational hold upon you, offering a more enduring variety of stimulation than life’s transient pleasures. As gravitational forces do not diminish in the way that my derived pleasure from eating a chocolate lava cake might, we’re liberated from the need to sustain the transient highs with an endless supply of lava cakes. Life begins to move from being an 80-something-year run on the hedonic treadmill, frantically chasing the preservation of a fragile fulfillment, to a cumulative and enduring evolution towards something.
But my say on the matter is limited — as oceanic depths go, I’m in shallow waters. That’s why reading more submerged authors is so fascinating; we can glimpse what they’ve seen and what themes they’ve discerned. And when you come across someone who’s crafting patterns with the same fragments you’re recording— the same morsels of sense you’re hoarding — that’s the best excitement there is.
Pico Iyer is a great example of this; a kind of beacon down the line who uses writing as a tool for making sense of his existential environment. In an OnBeing podcast with Krista Tippett, he concedes that though he does not formally meditate (surprising given his relationship with the Dalai Lama), writing provides a similarly elusive stillness of space and time:
I’m a writer…I wake up, I have breakfast, I make a 5-foot commute to my desk, and then I just sit there, for at least 5-hours, trying to sift through my distortions and illusions and projections and find what is real behind the many things I am tempted to say. And I think a writer is in a blessed position because in some ways our job is to sit still and meditate for a living. So, although I don’t have a formal, spiritual meditation practice, I do spend much of my life in the middle of nowhere, stationary.”
His writing practice is one of involution; a distillation process targeting that mutual realness beneath the human mind’s obstacles. An inward dive.
Following Iyer’s method to its extreme, a sort of timeless, selfless expanse dawns upon the voyaging mind that Hannah Arendt describes as the birthplace of great and enduring works:
And it is after all possible, and seems to me likely, that the strange survival of great works, their relative permanence throughout thousands of years, is due to their having been born in the small, inconspicuous path of non-time which their authors’ thought had beaten between an infinite past and an infinite future…thus establishing a present for themselves, a kind of timeless time in which men are able to create timeless works with which to transcend their own finiteness.”
– Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind, p. 211
Great works or not, it’s the process of getting to that inconspicuous place that we’re concerned with here. Both descriptions share the view of writing’s transcendent capacity when driven strongly enough by an engine of thought. Iyer’s meditation is that very process of thought beating a track through illusion, through Arendt’s time-constructs, delivering a wellspring of realness, or timeless time, the goal of the process*.
This strain of writing — undertaken not for outer measures but by inner necessity — is one of those enriching mediums through which we can relate to and benefit from the existential investigations of others. It’s no accident that Annie Dillard’s take on the human endeavor:
Our human endeavor … is to shift phenomena one by one out of the nonsense heap and arrange them in ordered piles about us”
– Annie Dillard, Living by Fiction
is of the exact same organizational structure as her writing. A quick glance at For the Time Being will confirm that her writing wrestles with the most senseless of things, trying to order them into neat piles of human meaning.
All this to say that writing is one of myriad vehicles enabling deeper dives into the realness of things. For others, it may be dancing, carpentry, whatever. These mediums seem to yield an elusive variety of self-knowledge, which may be why these methods are so seductive, why we lose track of time and become singularly engrossed in whatever our particular vehicle is: because on a certain level we crave this anti-entropic self-knowledge. We need it in order to step off the treadmill. But Industrial attitudes are progressively engulfing both the freedom of expression and depth of contemplation required to unearth our individual introspective things, certainly relegating their pursuit; basically speeding up the treadmill, making it increasingly difficult to exit.
As the odds stack against us, finding things that carry us into the stillness beyond space and time become the gateways we long to unfetter. Without them, we remain dreadfully stranded on the surface of ourselves without any diving gear. This makes writing an incredibly convenient mode of meditation; not only does it provide the gear and facilitate the dive, but it leaves a trail that can be returned to and examined later on.
Successive trips through these wormholes forged between our conscious minds’ and their nebulous substratum allow us to examine these growing trails as resources; perhaps the best materials with which we may begin to prudently rebuild our floors.
The Lone, Strange Footnote
* If Iyer’s real (beyond illusions) = Arendt’s inconspicuous path of non-time (beyond time),
and time = illusion, then:
Real = non-time?
Fun association for later.