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