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I Was A Teenage Sandwich, Or How To Be a Great Writer

August 28, 2013


Know Thyself. No thanks, Socrates. You can go on in your smug, fraternity party robe and dumb beard, leading the youth along that cynical path. You pre-Nietzschean Santa Claus of glib wisdom born from insights into the contrary of things—as if What-You-Don’t-Know Avenue is the only rout to unproblematic knowledge! For academics, politicians, and many pharmaceutical scientists, this road may be a reliable highway. But for writers (or anyone else involved in imaginative or emotional forms of knowing), it’s a nettled foot trail. It’s jagged and hardly blazed. A better adage would be “Lose Thyself”—and everything else while you’re at it—and then go looking for you (and everything else that’s lost) in fiction.

Other helpful variants of a motto for writers would be: Forget Thyself, Suspend Thyself, Question Thyself, Misunderstand Thyself, and, of course, Put Thyself on a Shelf, in a Vial, with a Legible Descriptor Encapsulating Thyself Thoroughly in a Floridly Beautiful Script and then Blow Up Shelf. Find Self Anew in the Post-Explosion Stuff that Drifts Down (which is neither flotsam nor jetsam, so let’s call it driftsam).

Yet another painfully misunderstood piece of destructive common sense associated with this dictum is Be Yourself. Hmph! All the better that you weren’t, in my opinion. To be a better writer you’re better served striving to be a grilled cheese sandwich.

Instead of Socrates, that ancient hemlockaholic Gadfly, we should follow Keats. Yes, KEATS! Wanna fight about it? (I’m looking at you George Gordon Noel, Sixth Baron of Byron, who called Keats’ gorgeous sonnets “piss-a-bed poetry”). It’s Keats who gave us the concept of negative capability—the writer’s secret super power. It’s the ability to evacuate the self in order to make room for other subjective visitors, other entities whose experiences we might lay claim to and sing.

Following my own advice, let me now sing as lustily as the unrepentant mocking bird I aspire to be, and quote a line I wrote back in the late 1840s while crying in a tent by a river in Master Emerson’s backyard. In the book I would later call Walden, I said: “However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are.” I like that there is an assumed and refreshingly unexpected split between you and your life in this admonition.

Literature, good writing, meaningful fiction – all are ultimately hostile to persons. It is the person in place that the very best art seeks to enshrine. The person in context is not just more believable but also so much more potentially available to me and to you. This person tied to a life is an entity we can visit, inhabit, someone to un-know ourselves with so that we might get to know life, which ought to be glorious to us at all times — even when we’re rained upon by driftsam!

Wisdom does not lie in selves. If that were so, how easy writing would be, and everyday middle schoolers who mistake their algorithmically accounted for jeans purchases as expressions of SELF would be cranking out great American novels 140 characters at a time.

  1. This is perfection! Very interesting I love it.

  2. Funny I just are a grilled cheese sandwich. Now to strive to be one.

  3. Darn typos I just ate it.

  4. Know Thyself is the mantra of neoliberalism, the message it forces kids to learn in school: be a well rounded individual ready to participate in consumption. Be a standardised, stable component in the system. Looking within becomes a closed narcissistic loop resistant to new experience, closed against the difference and otherness of the objective world. This attitude stifles creativity, belief and change. So, I happily second your praise of loosing oneself!

    One of my favourite passages on this attitude to writing is one written – almost in passing – by Michel Foucault in the Archaeology of Knowledge:

    “What, do you imagine that I would take so much trouble and so much pleasure in writing, do you think that I would keep so persistently to my task, if I were not preparing – with a rather shaky hand – a labyrinth into which I can venture, in which I can move my discourse, opening up underground passages, forcing it to go far from itself, finding overhangs that reduce and deform its itinerary, in which I can lose myself and appear at last to eyes that I will never meet again.”

    • That is one of my all-time favorite passages by Foucault. What serendipity! Either that or you’ve been intellectually stalking the sticky notes of my personal library. Either way, what serendipity!–(and many thanks for your wonderful comment).

  5. rosenlilies permalink

    Yes we must enter the world and see it for ourselves, that’s where we need to be ourselves. but as writer we need to think for the better too.What you think.

    • I’m inclined to believe something a bit more unconventional. That as writers the doing stuff as ourselves sloganeering is not much help. We should encounter the world without us at the center. That’s my point.

  6. “We should encounter the world without us at the center.” One of the most brilliant thoughts ever conceived and articulated so clearly that I have read. It caught my attention and I immediately saw a [whole] new universe! Talk about generating excitement… TY

    • I blush to receive the compliment and am glad to pass along the theory –at its etymological origin, theory literally means a way of seeing, by the way.

  7. Know the others in thy head? Hehe. Mr. Michael Alexander, this is a pleasant post, and eyeopening, to say the least. Off to stalk in the footsteps of Keats, then.

  8. nateokonkwo permalink

    Reblogged this on OnlineMarketing.

  9. Haha. This is great. Be yourself, indeed! Hmph. Which version? Because I write fiction, which basically means I’m schizophrenic.

  10. gustyadek permalink

    Reblogged this on gustyadek.

  11. Getting to know everything but ourselves so that we are not the center of the universe but the washer men who keep the stars shining?

  12. Alena permalink

    I had to read this once I saw the title XD Insightful and funny at the same time

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