Of Fish and Ponds: Advice for Aspiring Writers

One of the constants of the writer’s life is the underlying question, almost never explicitly asked, but in a sense always implicitly answered in his work: “What is a writer?” The answers to this question are as varied as the motives of those who write — which, contrary to our age’s ubiquitous relativism, is not to say that everyone who writes is a writer “in his own way,” but rather the reverse, namely that almost no one who writes is a writer, properly speaking.

The situation is roughly analogous to the question, “What is a friend?” Everyone has people in his life whom he calls his friends; it follows that everyone is, by his own lights, also a friend himself. In most instances, however, the relationships we casually dub “friendships” would properly be identified as something else, if we were being careful and strict in our definitions. Aristotle, always careful and strict in this way, begins the greatest of all discussions of the subject by distinguishing among three types of friendship — those of utility, amusement, and virtue — as a means of politely encompassing all the relationships men typically regard as their friendships. Through subsequent examination, however, he gradually eliminates those companionships based on utility and pleasure from his understanding of friendship proper (the famous “one soul in two bodies” relationship), thereby implying that almost none of the people who identify themselves as friends are in fact friends at all, in the most precise sense of the word. Most “friends” are merely people who behave toward one another in a manner that, seen without reference to motives or spiritual conditions, might bear a certain superficial resemblance to genuine friendship, the latter relationship involving a brace of necessary conditions rarely satisfied in practical reality.

Likewise in the case of writing, there are millions to whom we might apply the word “writer” in the broadest (i.e., least precise) sense, but among these perhaps only a relative handful would satisfy a more rigorous definition of the term. Such a definition would begin with distinctions among the three concepts “thought,” “language,” and “writing,” especially with regard to temporal and, if you will, metaphysical priority. The definition of writing proper would be approached by way of a consideration of both the nature and psychological sources of language vis-à-vis thinking, such as the fact that thinking in the purest sense is by definition pre-linguistic, which is to say that language is a byproduct or derivative of the process of analyzing one’s thoughts — in the literal sense of breaking them down into distinguishable parts — for purposes of logical reassembly. It would continue with some observations and distinctions among the types and motives of such reassembly, inevitably noting that the communication of pre-linguistic ideas to other men, which we typically designate as the essential function of language, is necessarily posterior in genesis to the process of self-understanding. That is, before we use words and grammatical structure to communicate our thoughts to others, we must first go through the logical steps of reassembling the broken down unity of pre-linguistic thought for ourselves.

One who followed this dialectic closely would likely arrive at the conclusion that all writing is a form of translation, from which it would then be necessary to distinguish different levels of purity in such translation based on whose pre-linguistic thought is being translated. That is to say, if the thought being translated by the writer is not the writer’s own, then that writer is more a mere transcriber than a translator, since someone else has apparently already translated into a previous written form those thoughts which he, the ostensible writer, is expressing, and it is from this prior translation that he in turn acquired them, in order to “re-translate” them into his own linguistic and (perhaps) emotional vocabulary.

Such a second-level writer, then — the mere transcriber of ideas previously intuited, analyzed, and then translated into language by someone else — would have to be excluded from the definition of “writer” in the strict sense, much as “friends of amusement,” though superficially resembling those of character, are excluded by Aristotle from the category of true friendship.

Provisionally, then, as we await our Aristotle who will set all this firmly into place for us, we may say, as a working definition, that a writer in the proper sense is a translator of pre-linguistic thought or understanding, and specifically of his own thought or understanding. From this, of course, it follows that this definition itself can only be fully grasped by one who also deeply comprehends the meaning of the words “his own thought or understanding,” and in particular the adjectival phrase “his own.”

Having laid this much out, it becomes immediately apparent that so much of our voluminous contemporary discussion of “the writer” or “the writing life” depends on using those terms almost entirely without reference to anything essential to writing, properly understood. This reveals itself most clearly when one listens to “established” writers talking about themselves and their craft, or confronts the kinds of platitudes and attitudes being force-fed to young people with dreams of being a writer. Two examples of such popular wisdom, both of which were conveyed to me during a recent conversation with a student who wishes to write, will suffice to demonstrate my point.

“A writer must live in the city.” This was the specific contention of a successful Korean writer, as reported by my student. The sentiment, however, is quite common among writers of all sorts.

This is the perspective of one who believes the writing life is about “connections,” being in the middle of things, occupying busy oceans rather than quiet ponds. As if a writer were flotsam, the heights he may reach determined by the size of the waves he rides. It is, in other words, the perspective of one who has no interest in the writing life, per se, but is only concerned with having a writing career, which is a completely different thing, analogous to the difference between living the philosophic life and seeking employment as a professional academic.

A serious writer, which is to say a writer in the proper sense, despises the commanding ocean current at least as much as he fears being “a big fish in a small pond.” For a writer is, as we have seen, a translator of his own thoughts; and thinking is, both by strictest definition and by practical necessity, the activity of a fish out of water, a lone soul flopping on dry land — one dangerously, happily on the verge of social death. The true writer is never inclined to drift upon the buoyant crest of social participation. He is therefore essentially unconcerned with the size of the pond in which he swims, because his goal is never to be a fish in any pond. If anything, we may say his goal is rather to become the pond, in the sense of being a dry basin which others will fill as they please — or will not; it matters little to the writer qua writer. He is too busy reassembling his thought out of the parts into which he has analyzed himself to worry much about this.

As for those would-be or self-described writers who are obsessed with being at the heart of the action — that is, who need to be directed or sustained by others — their hidden premise is revealed in a second question, most typical of young creative writing students, or of any modern graphomaniac (to borrow Milan Kundera’s apt term), such as today’s social media dwellers, namely, “Why would you bother to write if you had no readers?”

I may answer this question in three ways.

First, I recently watched an old Firing Line episode in which William F. Buckley interviewed Jorge Luis Borges. Buckley asked a question related to Borges’ attitude toward fame, to which Borges replied that if he were Robinson Crusoe, he would continue to write just the same, since in the first and final analysis, he writes to please himself. Is this attitude not of the essence of independent adulthood? Is to think otherwise not therefore merely a product of immaturity, regardless of how self-importantly one frames one’s declaration of dependence.

Secondly, I observe that having a readership — or rather being aware of having a readership — almost invariably changes a writer, all the more so to the extent that he has his readers before his mind as he writes. The worst compromises will always be the ones you do not think you are making. That is to say, those who consciously choose to accommodate themselves to a readership are merely businessmen, not writers in the primary sense; such people fall outside the whole discussion of writers and their thought processes, just as peddlers who sell magic elixirs fall outside a proper discussion of medical practice. On the other hand, the gradual, barely perceptible shift in emphasis and conclusions, or, equally significant, the shift in what one is willing to omit or overlook, bred of a weakness for needing readers and therefore overvaluing reader approval, may leave the writer feeling quite confident he has not compromised a thing. (At least he will feel so in his daylight hours. In the weary silence of night, I suspect even the most self-deluded writer will have anxious moments when he senses in his marrow the full reality of what he has done for his “readership,” and what it has cost him.)

Third, the need to feel that one is surrounded by potential readers as a condition for pursuing writing at all, or to feel that one is thriving in the midst of one’s readers as a condition for continuing to write, returns us to our image of the pond. Such a writer cannot conceive of himself without the defining context of the immediate moment, the waterlogged stillness of the present, the drowning identity of the Now. Eternity, by contrast, is the arid expanse in which those with sufficient courage experience the liberating, choking desperation of the individual prepared to struggle for survival without the protective embrace of the watery crowd, the acceptance of one’s “school.”

I am struck by the sheer small-mindedness exhibited by one who craves readers as his natural habitat while at the same time identifying those readers exclusively, or at least primarily, with people he can see and touch today, i.e., minds extending no further than the boundaries of the writer’s own earthly existence. Such narrowness of vision indicates a most ignoble view of personal fame, as though even one’s vainglory amounted to nothing grander than a menial cry for material comfort and emotional security. Where is the longing for immortality that Diotima, according to Socrates, says is embodied, although misguidedly, in man’s quest for fame? In the souls of those who can see no reason to write if they can see no one reading, the longing for immortality has apparently been replaced, in aptly modern style, with a piddling lust for social acceptance and “likes” — or, at least as pathetically, a lust for cash.

Nietzsche wrote several of the greatest books of the nineteenth century, the best of them self-published due to lack of interest, most of them garnering no more than a handful of readers and virtually no serious critical appraisal. Emily Dickinson lived in reclusive obscurity, was known as a poet only in the minds of five or six people, and yet wrote over eighteen hundred poems, almost all of them completely hidden from human eyes until they were discovered, neatly organized in handmade booklets, after her death. Kafka felt that almost nothing he wrote in his lifetime was complete, let alone good enough for an audience of strangers; he instructed Max Brod to destroy almost everything, such that it would be unknown and in fact nonexistent today, were it not for the posthumous efforts — the disloyalty — of Kafka’s friends.

Have I selected peculiarly grand examples to prove my point? Yes, of course, but the point is not weakened by this selectivity. On the contrary, it is precisely by looking out at the distant, snowy peaks of human endeavor that we learn what we are, or rather what we could be.

A writer is a person who writes. To write, beyond the secondary, purely mechanistic sense of storing useful information for future reference, is to translate pre-linguistic ideas into language, and this necessarily means one’s own ideas, for to translate another’s ideas is merely to transcribe. From this it follows that no one is a writer in the primary sense (a translator of himself) who is not first a thinker in the fullest human sense. In other words, the writer is he who understands that he is not, essentially, a writer at all, but rather that his writing life is a mere emanation or byproduct of his thinking life.

Writing is spiritual unity analyzed and then reassembled into a sensible approximation of wholeness by human hands, the eternal made temporal, the mind brought down to Earth, the divine made flesh. St. John writes, “In the beginning, there was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In John’s Greek, the “Word” is logos. Logos is an ambiguous term in ancient Greek, used for its fullest effect by the classical philosophers, most famously Heraclitus and the Stoics. It carries the senses of reason and rational order, and also of language or word. Hence it is both poetically and linguistically correct for St. John to say that the Word was with God and yet at the same time that the Word was God. The logos is the pre-linguistic truth, but that truth expressed in communicable human terms. This captures the writer’s mission and identity perfectly, as one might expect, since St. John’s opening sentences were written to define the relationship between the original, eternal Writer and his greatest work. And of course that first Writer was necessarily working beyond all existing ponds, and without an eye on any readers. Far from his writing being born of any audience attention or acceptance, we might say, on the contrary, that His audience was born of his writing. In the terms of my earlier imagery, He was the pond.

All concern with the strictly social, either as a condition for writing or as its motivation, reveals a man who either never had the writer’s nature in the first place, or who has lost the thread linking his hand’s movements to the highest reaches of his soul.

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