Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Pen in the Stone

I have felt increasingly burdened lately with the ability to write relatively well. This may not seem like a burden to some, but it is. I can write, but I am by no means a writer. While I openly acknowledge my prowess as a composer of a coherent sentence, I am ashamed to admit that I do not come close to possessing the discipline it takes to write for a living, or to be a writer. At least, I don’t possess those skills yet.

During my time as a Masters student, I spent a great deal of time becoming in awe of real writers, both academic and non. Academically speaking, I became enamored with the writing of Dr. Bud Goodall, professor of Communication Studies at Arizona State University. Dr. Goodall is a superbly gifted writer and thinker. Although he spent the better part of his early academic career as a researcher in the subfield of organizational communication studies, he took an “interpretive turn” later on. Since this transition, he has published numerous books and journal articles on what it means to be an interpretive ethnographer. Dr. Goodall’s work taught me that not only must the writer maintain a presence in his or her work (even if he or she attempts to disguise the work as objective), but that that presence places a wonderful “spin” on research. While the discussion of objectivity vs. subjectivity in academic research is a rather large and complicated one, I will state here that I am moving closer and closer to being a complete proponent of the latter when it comes to conducting research. This may be why I have always been drawn to autobiographical works. I most certainly understand the proposed purpose of objectivity in academic research, but there is an inherent (and necessarily posed) question of whether such a concept can even exist. Nevertheless, for the purposes of this entry, I feel content in stating plainly that I am a proponent of acknowledging the author in the presence of his or her work. Dr. Goodall’s ethnographic accounts of his life as an academic and as an observer of the world inspired me to document cultural phenomena as they stand in relation to other artifacts and stimuli, most importantly, myself. Experiencing the world as a detailed observer and documenter is something that I am working on every day.

In truth, Bud Goodall’s work may represent the totality of academic writing that had an impact on my life. While it may make some of my former professors cringe, most of my assigned academic reading was dismissed to make way for more pleasurable literary accompaniments. (Pleasurable, only in the sense that I had a special inkling to read them over academic texts). Although this may be a rather awkward spot to place it, I would like to note that I did not appreciate the concept of reading for pleasure until at very least my second year of graduate school. I labeled myself a “film buff,” most likely because viewing motion pictures was an easier exercise for me than reading a book. I am ashamed to say it here and now, but I spent a very long period of my life too lazy to read a book. Shamefully, I made it through high school, community college, and undergraduate studies quite easily, with the assistance of Spark Notes and the ability to skim passages. The fact that I was able to “bullshit” insight also served a noble purpose in getting me to my first degree. Still, there was a ton of guilt. Returning to the subject at hand, I became enamored with a number of authors and literary works during my graduate studies. It was at this time that I finally became fed up with the unsupported claims of religious institutions. This led me to absorb the works of esteemed writers and scholars like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens, in particular, has become a role model for me both as a writer and thinker. Moreover, Hitchens floored me with his outstanding eloquence as a speaker and public figure. I recall during one interview I saw him featured in that he was once told by a colleague or friend that he speaks in the way most people wished they could write. This appeared to strike him as an impeccable compliment, and is the kind of thing I can only dream of hearing from someone during my own lifetime. Since I have realized my passion for literature, I have also tried to consume seminal literary works that I should have appreciated when they were assigned to me during my younger days. I enjoyed Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment when I skimmed it in high school, and can only imagine how the masterful work would strike me today. John Steinbeck’s East of Eden has been cemented recently as one of my very favorite works, but I still must face the fear that I would not have appreciated it if I had actually read it when it was assigned to me in high school.

My recently acquired love of reading has partially contributed to my lack of productivity as a writer. When I sit down to write, I usually can only go about five minutes before I conclude that my time would be better spent reading one of the almost countless literary masterpieces that are in existence. I don’t know how long I have on this earth, but I know now that I want to absorb as much knowledge and insight that past writers have left for me. I would feel guilty if I felt any other way. I have noticed that a great many splendid writers have remarked that one must be a great reader before he or she can be a great writer. I completely agree with this. However, I also feel that there is a risk that comes along with being a great reader. That is, you may never want to stop reading… to the point where you will find that the transition to composer is futile when attempting to conceive of worldly insights that may rival the esteemed “scribblers” of past and present. This is the trap I currently find myself in.

I am beginning to realize that there is no quick fix for my lack of writing discipline. I am beginning to understand that I must progress slowly from penned coherency to worthwhile prose. Lord only knows I’ve tried my fair share of “tricks” to expedite this process. When I was having trouble sitting down at my desk and writing for long periods of time, I tried sitting in a reclining chair, with my computer resting on my lap. When the reclining chair didn’t prove any more useful than the desk, I tried relaxing on the couch in a half-lying down position. This strategy only led me to become drowsy – the opposite of productive. Later, I thought that conceiving of copy on my laptop was the problem. Perhaps a blank, white, pixilated canvas was not what I needed to write a masterwork. So, I began writing longhand on a yellow legal pad and transposing that copy onto a word processor. This worked for a blog post or two, but then I noticed that my hand would begin cramping up after short stints of fervent writing (this was most certainly the time that I regretted not growing up in a time when cursive writing was revered and practiced). Lately, I have turned to the bottle for assistance. When my body is completely sober, my mind has trouble focusing. It is hard for me to focus on any singular task for an extended period of time, so the prospect of writing something long and halfway decent is a far-fetched whim. Through experimentation, I realized that I can remain relatively insightful when inebriated. So, I figured why not try using liquor to enhance focus and perhaps stumble on some insight? I’m currently three quarters of the way through a bottle of inexpensive but surprisingly good quality red wine from Rioja, one of Spain’s most heralded wine regions. My fermented indulgence seems to be working (I have been writing for quite a long time now), but I am starting to feel a rather uncomfortable pain in my side. This could prove troublesome very quickly.

Last, but certainly not least, I now officially have to deal with the burden of being related to an astonishingly fabulous writer. Those of you who keep up on my sporadic blog posts will know that my great grandfather was himself a gifted writer. I wrote a post for this blog months ago that attempted (however in vein) to pay tribute to his brilliance. If you find this post, you will most surely notice that the quotation I feature from his book at the end of the post puts my writing to shame, in an absurdly intimidating fashion. He wrote brilliantly, and the frustration I feel over his relative anonymity as an author is rivaled only by the frustration I feel when I realize I must do him justice. My grandmother once told me that she has his trusty typewriter stored away somewhere. If I remember correctly, she even told me that I could one day have it. If I were to receive it, I would most likely have to store it away in a secluded place of my own, for fear that keeping it out in the open would remind me of my shame on a daily basis.

Writing isn’t difficult. Writing something that matters, however, is extremely difficult. Perhaps the sad truth is that no writer thinks that what he or she writes is any good. If this is the case, then I smirk when I think about brilliant writers like Steinbeck or Hitchens, somehow reflecting on their own works as subpar. At this point in my life, all I can really do is revere them for all that they are. With any luck, they sat in front of stationary or a word processor during their early twenties in the same fashion I sit in front of my computer screen today… youthful, ambitious, and petrified.

1 comment:

  1. Once again Brent, your brilliant mind is shining through - I believe you are an Old Soul, perhaps remembering and reviving a past greatness.
    (I know very few people who have even heard of Hitchens, let alone appreciate him. I found his relationship with his brother most interesting as it related to their mother's death.)
    Keep writing, and like any other exercise, you will fall into a routine that works best for you (probably before you actually realize it.) And, before you decide you are writing well by drinking a bottle of the work the next day and THEN make your decision. ;) Paige