Writers Talk About Writing
How We Know Writers Through Their Writing
Michael Lydon, a well-known writer on popular music since the 1960s, has for many years also been writing about writing. Lydon's essays, written with a colloquial clarity, shed fresh light on familiar and not so familiar aspects of the writing art. Here Lydon explores how the best writers speak to us through their singular literary styles.
One day about noon going towards my boat, I was exceedingly surprised with the print of a man's naked foot on the shore, which was very plain to be seen in the sand. I stood like one thunderstruck...
— Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe
Like that single footprint, all writing is proof positive: a human was here. As we track a writer's inky step across the snowy page, we want to know, "Who goes there?"
Who is a who? What makes you you and me me? Who knows? I sense the human self as the active being within all of us who decides what we'll do in the next moment of life. What we do reveals who we are:
Human character evermore publishes itself. The most fugitive deed and word, the mere air of doing a thing, the intimated purpose, expresses character. If you act you show character; if you sit still, if you sleep, you show it.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Spiritual Laws"
No two selves are exactly alike. Inside each of us swirl vast galaxies of everything we feel, remember, imagine and experience. A gulf as well as a bond exists between us and neighboring galaxies: "I am like others; no one else is me."
To reach other selves, we signal with our voices, faces, hands, and bodies; other selves likewise signal us. Most signals are fleeting, cut to the need of each succeeding moment, yet they can be uncannily precise in conveying what a person is like: "The way you wear your hat!" Writers often describe the teeming exchange of human signals. Here Dostoyevsky:
Ferdyshchenko could not keep still; Rogozhin looked on bewildered and kept looking at the prince and Pitsyn with terrible uneasiness. Darya Alexeyevna seemed unable to bear the suspense much longer. Even Lebedev was unable to restrain himself, came out of his corner, and, craning his neck perilously, began peering over Pitsyn's shoulder at the letter, with the air of a man who was afraid of getting a sound thrashing then and there for doing so.
— Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Idiot
The immediate thought that inspires a signal looms large in its content; age, sex, cultural heritage, emotional mood, circumstance, and time of day, year and era all contribute elements, many of which the signaler and receiver, fish in their own water, barely notice.
An artist is a self signaling and hoping to be understood. To gain control over their signaling, artists study, practice and experiment endlessly, aiming at such mastery over movement that every gesture gets its message across. What composer Roger Sessions wrote of music is true of all the arts:
In embodying movement, in the most subtle and most delicate manner possible, music communicates the attitudes inherent in and implied by that movement.
— Roger Sessions, The Musical Experience
When we understand artistic gestures, Sessions continues, we get a "clear sense of a quality of feeling behind them." That "clear sense of a quality of feeling" is the knowledge of another self.
Like their neighbors, artists have only gesture and the moment to report their findings. To leap that limit, artists gesture so as to mark material, hoping that the "quality of feeling" animating the gesture will live on in the mark when the moment is gone. They do not hope in vain; Walt Whitman is with us every time we read his long loose lines:
I am with you, you men and women of a generation or ever so many generations hence;
I project myself—also I return—I am with you, and know how it is.
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt;
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd...
— Walt Whitman, "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry"
We reanimate the artist by coming to a growing conclusion about who would mark so, just as Sherlock Holmes concluded that Watson was a doctor by reading clues in his appearance:
... if a gentleman walks into my room smelling of iodoform, with a black mark of nitrate of silver upon his right forefinger, and a bulge on the side of his top hat to show where he had secreted his stethoscope, I must be dull indeed, if I do not pronounce him to be an active member of the medical profession."
— A. Conan Doyle, "A Scandal in Bohemia"
Artists pack their marks with information about their selves. The form and detail, style and content that they choose reveal much. Capable artists need only a little black and white to present themselves vividly. Here is Shakespeare:
To be or not to be, that is the question.
Who is Shakespeare? Any conclusion must grow by leaps and bounds to keep abreast of his quick self! Carlyle finds in Shakespeare's writing "calmness of depth; placid joyous strength," yet the Bard too can howl hurricanes of words:
Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fire...
— King Lear
Shakespeare's mark reveals that he loves his native England, its language and its soil, its plants and animals, its people, place, and history. We can read in his mark that he is fine craftsman who knows the theater, stage and pit, as well as any man before or since. He loves a good joke and can tell one too. He loves men and women and knows us to our marrows. Shakespeare reveals so much in his extraordinary mark that centuries of unwearied scholarship have but begun to mine his meanings. Remember, however, all his words flow from a single self, a human like you and me, a benevolent genius who glows like a golden smile in the stage lights every time his work is played.
Shakespeare is a writer great enough to stand for all writers: as we may know Shakespeare through his mark, so may we know all writers through theirs. When a writer, like Shakespeare, looks life in the face and writes what he sees, the self that sees and writes lives in the writing. This is the voice that beguiles us to read. We are being called by another galaxy. Through the grille of words on the page is a person as real, enormous, silly, bright and cloudy as ourselves, and he or she is talking to us.
In sum, we can see the writer through the paper mask. The writer is not us because we did not and could not mark just so; he is like us because we can read and understand his mark. Can we know a writer perfectly? No, but neither can we know perfectly our next-door neighbor. Is a writer friend or foe? To know that, read and decide for yourself!
For me, good writers are good friends. They entertain me through fair and foul weather, share thoughts and feelings with me, and tell tales that enchant me. Good writers cheer and challenge me, and the joys and sorrows they relate convince me they know my own. I value their writing as I treasure the homely and revealing ways of those I truly love.