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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 awesome.

    “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.”


  2. Brieuse Bernhard Piers-Gûdmönd permalink

    Now that’s a blog. It’s why blogification should have been invented in the first place. Have only one point of criticism: it makes my own blog look like a pile of crap. Well done! and thanks.

  3. sisteranan permalink

    Finally, writing that engages without compromise. Ancient hemlockaholic Gadfly? There’s something to stitch into your underwear… who says the english language is dead? I enjoyed myself sir… thank you, i’ll be back.

  4. Brilliant. I might as well give up my own bumbling mumbles on the topic because you’ve essentially said any and all I might want to say, far more eloquently than I could ever wrangle out of myself. On that note, I’ve also rarely been this grateful for being rendered obsolete. Dankeshoen.

  5. Good times. I like reading other writers who cut loose.

  6. Thanks so much for stopping by my blog just now! I love your post titles. There are times I come up with good titles…and other times that they’re dull and no wonder no one stops by. Either way, I keep on writing…

  7. survivorscribe permalink

    I definitely needed to read this right now, right this minute. I couldn’t help but chuckle a bit at the variants. The blow yourself up reminded me of my husband telling me, when we were restructuring our business, we have to blow up the Enterprise. He kept saying that. He’s a Trekkie. He’d say, they blew up the Enterprise in order to create a new and better Enterprise.

  8. Great post! It is so true for me that in order to create anything my self has to be taken out of the equation so it won’t get in the way. Thanks so much for the insight, just what I needed today!

  9. Yeah, some of those phrases are pretty silly. I mean, if I lost myself and tried to find myself again through fiction, I’d probably have wings growing out of my back and laying waste to America with an army of Daleks or demons or something.
    Congratulations on getting Freshly Pressed, by the way.

  10. The older I get the more I know I do not know and then they give out more information so I run further behind. Stop the world I would like to get off.

  11. I read “blow up thyself” instead of “blow up shelf.” Also rather metaphorically poignant for the oh-so-tormented writer. Thanks for sharing.

  12. rejectreality101 permalink

    Great post!

  13. “Well, although I do not suppose that either of us know anything really beautiful & good, I am better off than he is – for he knows nothing & thinks that he knows; I neither know nor think that I know.”
    Right back at ya… Socrates x

  14. I loved this post!

  15. This was great. Some of my most favorite writing I’ve come across on a blog. 🙂

  16. there is something about a warm greasy gooey grilled cheese sandwich that says delicious can be unpretentious and embracing that concept is key to devouring life and not having life devour you. Best with a side of fries and real Coke not that diet crap.

  17. “Wisdom does not lie in selves.” Great, profound line – I am going to check out other posts! Congrats for being Freshly pressed.

  18. in my experience, the best writing gets right to the point unapologetically and this hits it right on! wordpress never ceases to amaze me with the number of tremendous writers that are out there and how much i have to learn. congrats on freshly pressed! 🙂 i may just have to go get a grilled cheese sandwich now.

  19. wow I never made one like that lol

  20. brilliant writing!!!

  21. Really enjoyed reading this post. In what little fiction writing I’ve done, I have found that “self” can get in the way.

  22. Tanya permalink

    This is truly amazing! I couldn’t agree more with your last paragraph. I’m currently in the middle of writing a (not-so-short) short story, and it’s goddamn hard to not doubt every single sentence you write. Anyway, this was a good read.

  23. Jessica permalink

    Great writing and so honest too!

  24. Looks like a damn good sandwich

  25. Loved it!! I am probably as brazen as you are and completely believe in exploration, be it of the self or the world. Your post just helped strengthen that crazy self in me. 🙂 have a good day!!!

  26. I love this. I enjoy writing with a mix of what I know and what I wish I knew, but “lose thyself” hits the nail on the head. I think the best writing comes from allowing ourselves to step back and view into the darkest pits of our minds through the eyes of a stranger.

  27. I agree with your sentiments. When you get into the zone there is nothing but the story. The self comes back into it again for me with the re-writing and constant tinkering! Thanks for your great post!

  28. One criticism – Socrates ain’t no ‘pre-Nietzschian’ – the pair of them regular engaged in Twitter spats.

    Socrates didn’t respect Nietzsche’s moustache. Nietzsche, for his part, found Socrates’ full beard look derivative.

  29. Kyrielle Adelshine permalink

    Hmm…very, very interesting. I am a philosophy lover and I’ve been told that shines through in my writing. But then in my writing, I also examine my self as a human being in place, or in context as you say. Makes me wonder if, based on this post, you’d loathe or love it. Thanks for sharing ;0)

  30. Very nicely put! I wish I could write with such passion as you do. Thank you for this 🙂

  31. Absolutely. Unless we’re writing nonfiction — and even then in some cases — it’s almost detrimental to “be yourself.” Gotta dig deeper than that.

  32. thaaaaaaaaaaaaaaanx

  33. Great post! Thank you for sharing this!

  34. You’ve inspired me. Definitely having grilled cheese for lunch…

  35. You are brilliant! You have the wording capabilities of the great Dr. Seuss and Shakespeare combined, and just as much imagination. Please tell me how you let your writing get into such a beautiful state of organized chaos as to keep someone such as myself so engaged!

    I saw a quote once that I thought was hilarious, and I think it might be appropriate here:
    “Always be yourself, unless you can be a unicorn, then always be a unicorn.”
    I feel this means that if you can find something more than yourself to be, you should strive to be such, especially in writing.
    My favourite part of writing has always been that losing of self and finding it again in my characters, then losing it again in them to explore new pieces that I had as yet undiscovered.
    Of course, being a grilled cheese sandwich does sound rather appealing when one is hungry.

    For me, the process of writing requires me to take myself and grind it into tiny specks, then send it adrift down a river and seek out the subsequent pieces of gold dust within a dimly lit cave and try to build something entirely new from what I discover.

  36. great post!!

  37. Good read! Love the insight in how writers feel about writing.

  38. I hate nettles, but sometimes it’s where we have to go for a great scene! Delightful. Thank you!

  39. Nice! I like your forward style. It makes for an interesting read!

  40. Amazing post! Thanks for reminding me to evacuate myself next time I sit down to write fiction, I do so often get in the way.

  41. achickwhowrites permalink

    Reblogged this on achickwhowrites.

  42. Miss PTSD permalink

    Hey – I happen to be quite fond of grilled cheese sandwiches!

    This is excellent food for thought 🙂

  43. shelve life 🙂

  44. I love it when a piece of writing doesn’t seem contrived at all! great work xx –

  45. This is awesome.

  46. This is one spectacular piece of writing. Thanks for following my blog…I am hoping your creative genius rubs off on me!!

  47. beaudboux permalink

    Cheese on the shelf 😀 Inspiring piece!

  48. The grilled cheese brought me here. I stayed for the post. Lovely 😀

  49. Humorous, insightful and wonderfully written. Blogs like this make wading through the mediocrity worth the effort.

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