As well as being a writer I also work as an editor – and every now and then something extraordinary drops into any editor’s lap. Colm O’Shea was such a writer and the book he offered me as his editor was something truly remarkable – so much so that I made it my business to try and open any possible door for it in order to see it published and shared with the world. The book, “Claiming de Wayke”, came out earlier this year – and I deeply, deeply commend it to you. But just in case you don’t believe me when I say that this guy CAN WRITE… I invited him to submit a guest post for this site and my blog, and he came up with this essay.
All I can say is, it’s a gift, and to anyone who interacts with it here – Merry Christmas. I give you a WRITER. There are many out there who string words together – but true writers are not all that common, the kind that use words like scalpels to lay open deep-seated secrets and like flowers whose scent wakes memories you didn’t even remember you had but oh how brilliant and wonderful and powerful they are once you grasp them. Colm O’Shea is an extraordinary writer. It is a privilege to share his words here.
Without further ado, read on:
Why do writers write? On the surface it’s a reasonable question, even a banal one, but it’s asked persistently enough to enjoy its own little sub-genre of responses from notable authors. These responses collectively reveal that the why of writing is far from simple. Non-writers, and maybe people who dabble in the art, might expect a gushing explanation—Oh, writing is LIFE, dah-ling. I simply couldn’t imagine a world without my laptop/typewriter/quill and vellum to let the fruits of my mind spill forth. But answers from seasoned writers are more likely to contain bitter notes of ambivalence, even distaste. For instance, here is George Orwell’s take in his essay “Why I Write”:
I think from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued. I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a… private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life.
Orwell, being Orwell, doesn’t get cheerier from this point. He concludes:
All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane.
For Orwell, always as much a journalist and critic as a novelist, the ideal of “good prose” is to become transparent to one’s self—to see the world (with its cruelties and injustices) more clearly. Even if he can’t fully efface his personality—Orwell is Orwell in every sentence he crafts—that is his goal. Spare prose is his vehicle to clarity.
Like Orwell, I too have dabbled in prose and poetry since I was a child. Unlike Orwell, I have never wielded the power of the imperial police baton, never lived homeless on the streets of London and Paris, never seen war up close. No trauma haunts me. Perhaps for these reasons and others, I don’t see writing a book as being like a “painful illness,” although having written both a novel and an academic monograph, I concede it’s tougher than most non-writers probably realize. But as my time as a writer (and teacher of writing) now stretches into decades, I am realizing—more clearly than ever—that literary writing (i.e. poetry, fiction, essays) is a mystery.
One attempt to limn this mystery is a strange essay by Joy Williams called Uncanny The Singing That Comes From Certain Husks. Attempting to describe it here presents me with a dilemma. I tell my essay students that quote selection may well be the most important aspect of scholarly work. For emphasis, I theorize aloud that if the student’s entire essay were erased, leaving only the selected quotes they were working from, I would be able to tell whether their draft was a first- or second-rate work, because the richness of the quote selection would reveal how judicious their critical eye was. (I don’t know if this is true, but it’s a nice bucket of cold water to chuck on the students who think that being a “personality” on the page will save them from the effort of close reading and interpretation.) But as I read “Uncanny the Singing” I find myself in the position of the most bewildered freshman. Where does one begin to quote Williams? Every paragraph bristles with a foreboding static charge. It’s like witnessing a storm growing over the sea, sweeping closer and closer to my tiny vessel. So I’ll start simply.
Williams shares Orwell’s gloomy view of writers and the writing project:
It’s become fashionable these days to say that the writer writes because he is not whole: he has a wound, he writes to heal it. But who cares if the writer is not whole? Of course the writer is not whole, or even particularly well. There’s something unwholesome and self-destructive about the entire writing process. Writers are like eremites or anchorites… who seem puzzled as to why they went up the pole or into the cave in the first place. Why am I so isolate in this strange place? Why is my sweat being sold as elixir? And how have I become so enmeshed with words… phantoms?
Her dismal assessment of the practice becomes so severe that we sense a tongue firmly in cheek:
Writers when they’re writing live in a spooky, clamorous silence, a state somewhat like the advanced stages of prayer but without prayer’s calming benefits. A writer turns his back on the day and the night and its large and little beauties, and tries, like some half-witted demiurge, to fashion other days and nights with words. It’s absurd. Oh, it’s silly, dangerous work indeed.
But if she allows herself some rhetorical flourishes, I don’t see Williams playing the jokey curmudgeon here, the grouch complaining about their sore back and drinking problem. By the time she published the essay in 1991 she was approaching 50, old enough to know that mortality is real and our life on Earth is precious, fleeting. If we’re going to forgo time with friends and family to go into a room and dance with our phantoms, there had better be something real—a real living presence—that we are serving. For Williams, a novelist, that living presence is something she calls “story.”
The significant story possesses more awareness than the writer writing it. The significant story is always greater than the writer writing it. This is the absurdity, the disorienting truth, the question that is not even a question, this is the koan of writing.
The use of the term “koan” here is, as I read it, crucial. Westerners are familiar with the Zen Buddhist term, but may mistakenly reduce the concept to something like a riddle. In Zen, however, koans are not riddles to be solved. Rather, they’re bombs. They shatter the cute notions you have about yourself: what you are, and why you do what you do. They blow up your dwelling, leave you homeless and naked. You wanted the world, the koan chuckles, dusting the smoke off its shoulders. Well here it is, buddy! Clever people solve riddles. Idiots play with koans.
A writer must be smart but not too smart. He must be dumb enough to break himself to harness. He must be reckless and patient and daring and dull—for what is duller than writing, trying to write? And he must never care—caring spoils everything. It compromises the work.
This gives me pause. She’s right, of course. Caring spoils everything. Any pick-up artist will confirm this. But again, there is a potentially torturous paradox in this task the writer has taken on. One simultaneously needs to become a craftsman (completely attentive, alert to inelegance and bloat) and yet remain detached. We cannot beg the work, or our imagined audience, to love us or respect us, or give us any consolation for our failures in life. In serving Story, we finally—finally!—stop serving ourselves. Perhaps this is a kind of freedom, but for Williams it’s a desperate freedom—that of the fugitive:
The writer doesn’t want to disclose or instruct or advocate, he wants to transmute and disturb. He cherishes the mystery, he cares for it like a fugitive in his cabin, his cave. He doesn’t want to talk it into giving itself up. He would never turn it in to the authorities, the mass mind. The writer is somewhat of a fugitive himself, actually. He wants to escape… the obligations of his time, and, by writing, transcend them. The writer does not like to follow orders, not even the orders of his own organizing intellect. The moment a writer knows how to achieve a certain effect, the method must be abandoned. Effects repeated become false, mannered. The writer’s style is his doppelgänger, an apparition that the writer must never trust to do his work for him.
Never trust: In “Uncanny the Singing,” paranoia is a dominant note of the writing life.
The writer doesn’t trust his enemies, of course, who are wrong about his writing, but he doesn’t trust his friends, either, who he hopes are right. The writer trusts nothing he writes—it should be too reckless and alive for that, it should be beautiful and menacing and slightly out of his control. It should want to live itself somehow. The writer dies—he can die before he dies, it happens all the time, he dies as a writer—but the work wants to live.
The paranoiac vision sees language itself as a parasite. I visualize a cordyceps fungus commandeering the feeble mind of an ant, and marching it to a high perch on a stem. From there it bursts from the ant-slave’s head, fruiting the most beautiful, elaborate and grotesque fungal forms (a novel?) to rain spores on the forest floor below (i.e., publication?):
Language accepts the writer as its host, it feeds off the writer, it makes him a husk. There is something uncanny about good writing—uncanny the singing that comes from certain husks. The writer is never nourished by his own work, it is never satisfying to him. The work is a stranger, it shuns him a little, for the writer is really something of a fool, so engaged in his disengagement, so self-conscious, so eager to serve something greater, which is the writing. Or which could be the writing if only the writer is good enough.
Whoo! Are we having fun yet? Maybe I’m flirting with masochistic epistemology here (the notion that if it hurts it must be true), but as I read this section I find myself warming to this fool trying to serve something greater than themselves. Williams’s writer is a creature at odds with itself. Consider how these two claims about the writer don’t fit together:
The writer is an exhibitionist, and yet he is private. He wants you to admire his fasting, his art. He wants your attention, he doesn’t want you to know he exists.
This creature must be a tissue of contradictions, because she adds:
The writer doesn’t write for the reader. He doesn’t write for himself, either. He writes to serve … something. Somethingness. The somethingness that is sheltered by the wings of nothingness—those exquisite, enveloping, protecting wings.
This writer craves attention, but is private. And doesn’t really crave attention, because there is a higher calling. There is a somethingness that wants (needs?) to be coaxed from those “protecting” (but also suffocating) motherly wings of Nothingness. For Williams, the lowly writer wishes to serve Creation. I use the biblical term advisedly, because we are now in the realm of a literary theology:
Why does the writer write? The writer writes to serve… not himself and not others, but that great cold elemental grace which knows us.
It is at this point that I remember my childhood, and how I used to believe in a God who made the world just to prove that He must be good because He made something good, something beautiful that He could admire and love. Around that time, I wrote for pure pleasure, just to be surprised by the fact that I had made something good. An audience was a distant notion.
Yet as I grew, I became aware of my nudity and covered up, as we all cover up. There is an audience, a public, and one must dress appropriately. Stylishly. A young person seeks their place in the world; young writers write to impress. Williams never mentions the age of the writer in question, nor does she mention the age in which the work is being produced. An author in middle age (or older) has different needs from a very young writer. I think that where young writers are learning to dress, older writers may be trying to strip down. What is under all this style?
The novel I recently published, Claiming De Wayke, is a young-person novel. Its protagonist is in his early 20s, and I wrote it in my early 30s—about ten years ago. Back then, if you asked me what I thought would happen if I got published, I couldn’t say. It’s not a rational goal, really. For me, anyway, publication meant that the gods have smiled on you, and confirmed that you’re not crazy: There’s some measure of talent there. Your work has “value.” It’s like getting permission to keep making things without that stigma of being an amateur, a dilettante, an enthusiast, who sadly lacks what it takes to make something truly good.
But that was a different age. Since then I’ve had friends who died, and other friends and family who brushed with death. I have four children now, all brimming with vitality and infinite vulnerability. How do these developments change the why of my writing?
As I’m starting to see it, an older writer has both more and less faith than one newer to the craft. The newer writer simultaneously believes anything is possible, and dreads that it’s not possible for them. But as I move into the category, perhaps, of more mature practitioner, my conception of what I’m chasing is both more capacious and more contained, defined by the scope of my human relationships and responsibilities. If Williams sees the novel as a somethingness coaxed out of nothingness, I see a loved one as the reverse of a novel: a vibrant somethingness always on the brink of being drawn back into nothingness. As a writer, I still need to connect to an audience, but that big abstract audience imagined in my youth is gone; there’s no cosmic wave of applause coming. No, but there are readers. Busy people, tired people, anxious people. Each one of them occasionally pausing to wonder why they do what they do, and wondering if this book will help them figure out a piece of the puzzle. I used to want things from my audience—validation, love, whatever. Now I get how busy and tired and nervous and bored they are. They’re in no position to give out cosmic validation. And so now I want to give to them instead: something interesting. I want my text and the reader to play, fugitives together.
If I run the risk of sounding trite or generalized here—I want to ease the reader’s difficulty—I should add that I am interested especially in speaking to the unique brand of suffering readers might feel in these times, to the particular bewilderment of our age. Any given era goes through a cycle of faith and skepticism, and ours is no different. What does it mean to write now, in the early 21st century? Is this a time of radical new ideas and hope? Or is it a jaded age of skepticism and even cynicism? I can’t tell. It seems to be all things at once. I’m sure every era thinks itself on the brink of apocalypse, but given the acceleration of technological change it doesn’t seem outlandish to perceive our time as standing on the brink of some terrifying new epoch, one ready to swallow the notion of individual humans, with their idiosyncratic talents and needs. What place can a novel (that wayward, eccentric human thing) have in days such as these?
I suspect that any attempt to write a novel in the age of artificial intelligence, and virtual reality, and immersive longform video games, and streaming platforms, and other infinite modes of technological distraction, is an attempt to find out what remains of the art form. Does it have any surprises tucked up its crumpled sleeve? Can the novel help the human mind understand its own experience in a growing wilderness of inhuman systems trying to outperform each other algorithmically?
God, I hope so.
I don’t want this weird form to die. Even though the novel is relatively new (hence the name), it feels ancient. But then dinosaurs were ancient, and ruled the earth for so long, then suddenly were gone, or transmogrified into tiny flying forms. What precedes the novel, and will surely outlast it, is Williams’ god: Story itself. She describes Don DeLillo as
a great shark moving hidden in our midst, beneath the din and wreck of the moment,
at apocalyptic ease in the very elements of our psyche and times that are most troublesome to us, that we most fear. Why do I write? Because I wanna be a great
shark too. Another shark. A different shark, in a different part of the ocean. The ocean is vast.
Story roamed long before the novel, just as sharks preceded the dinosaurs. Looking at the long evolutionary scale of the world, it can seem like nothing but apocalypse. What forms are immune from—even thrive in—such chaos?
A shark is a miracle of evolution. Everything serves a unified purpose. There is no waste of effort. No remorse. A shark is a being of pure, primal purpose.
Just as I am no Orwell, and no Williams, I am no shark. I’m not even sure I would want to be. But I’m peering over the gunnel of my tiny vessel, and yes indeed. The ocean is vast. There are patterns everywhere, but no rules. There is energy, but no promises or guarantees. Like Job with his god who speaks to him from out of the storm, there is no covenant. Knowing this, what should I do next?
What might happen if I slipped over the edge of my familiar vessel? If I entered the ocean, and dived beneath the surface. What wonders and terrors await? Is this really why I write? To seek Leviathan, to practice being swallowed whole, and learn to love it, before it happens for real.
About the author:
Colm O’Shea teaches writing at Tisch School of the Arts, New York
University. His poetry has been anthologized in Voice Recognition: 21 Poets
for the 21st Century (Bloodaxe), and Initiate: An Oxford Anthology of New
Writing (Blackwell). His book on sacred/morbid geometry in Finnegans
Wake, *James Joyce’s Mandala*, is from Routledge. He’s currently working on his second
novel, *A Beginner’s Guide to Shamanism*. Visit him at his website colmoshea.com