Reflections on Three Private Activities: Talking, Writing, Reading

A student asks me what I make of the fact that she often talks to herself while walking, either repeating words she has recently said to someone or imagining what she would say in situations yet to come.

My reply:

I talk to myself while walking all the time. Sometimes I suddenly catch myself talking a bit too audibly, or with too much expressiveness, so that I imagine people nearby, or in the cars on the road, might be thinking I am a crazy person. But this never stops me from doing it. And yes, I am sometimes saying things that I would say, or might say, in this or that situation, as if I am answering someone’s question or explaining something to a listener who is not there.

Over the years, a lot of interesting ideas, including, I imagine, some of the best thoughts I have ever entertained, have disappeared into the wind along the river road from the university to my neighborhood, around dawn, and I will never get them back. Maybe they will descend from the air and land in someone else’s soul someday. Who knows? Whence did they descend into mine? Who knows?

To a student who muses about learning creative writing:

You cannot learn creative writing in school. How could you learn it? Creative writing isn’t accounting or knee surgery, which you can learn from a specialist who tells you what to do. You can certainly be taught how to write clearly, in the sense of learning how to organize ideas and structure sentences in effective ways. This is similar to the function of the classical teachers of rhetoric, and a most noble and rational endeavor, since language is our species’ only alternative to violence, and hence civilization largely a measure of how well people use language. But no one can teach you how to be “creative.” Creative writing programs, such as you can find in universities, are nonsense. No great writer has ever come out of a creative writing program, and none ever will. (Many ephemerally popular writers have taken creative writing courses, but that is another matter.) Furthermore, no great writer has ever taught in a creative writing program, and none ever will. (Many ephemerally popular writers have taught creative writing courses, but that is another matter.)

Let’s put it this way: What, if anything, does it mean to be “creative”? It means to make something new, or to make something in a new way. To teach creativity is self-contradictory, as though God, in creating heaven and earth, could have improved His work by consulting a manual on how to create universes. A manual written by whom? How can you teach someone to do something in a new way? Wouldn’t you already have to know how to do it in order to teach it? But in that case, what you would be teaching is not how to be creative at all, but how to do things in the same way other people these days are doing them, which is the opposite of being creative. And is this not, in the end, effectively the dynamic most likely to prevail in any real creative writing program? Creativity cleverly (and self-interestedly) redefined as what your peers approve of, what seems most commercially viable, what has the best chance of winning an audience of one’s contemporaries — all of which criteria are both antithetical and anathema to any viable conception of “creativity,” or, to name things less fashionably but more accurately, any viable conception of artistic production.

To learn how to write “creatively,” meaning artistically, beautifully, you must read the greatest writers, learn to appreciate what they did and how they did it, and then, hopefully, feel so inspired by their example that you slowly learn to find your own thoughts and to express them in your own personal voice, as they did — if you are able to produce such thoughts, or such a voice, which very few people ever are.

The main problem with almost all students of literature today, at any level, which is primarily the result of the problem with almost all teachers of literature today, at any level, is a simple and basic one: They begin with the assumption that we know more than did the authors of the past, whom we therefore read only to find out how people less wise than ourselves looked at problems we have already solved. This attitude makes the old books themselves essentially boring and foreign to us, because the authors seem to have nothing important to teach us, except as evidence of how smart we are. Why read them, then? On the other hand, my approach — the non-progressive, philosophical, non-arrogant approach, is the opposite: Assume that we, like all humans everywhere, are mired in the biases and blind spots of our moment in time, and therefore that we must read old books to find out how the best minds of the past looked at life and human problems from a different point of view from ours, in the hopes that we might discover something about ourselves that we could never understand without our spiritual ancestors’ help. 

If we read with the first (false) approach, then books about other times and places seem irrelevant to us, since, as is implied, “What do they know about our problems, and why should we care about theirs?” 

If we read with the second (rational) approach, then the great books, regardless of when and where they were written, are offering us a window into universal human nature, so we may catch a glimpse of higher truths about ourselves which exist, and would otherwise remain well-hidden, behind the accidental conditions of our immediate, time-restricted experience.

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