- Writing Genius
Soon after beginning my M.A. thesis, I discovered myself in a rut and expressed frustration to my advisor. What was the purpose, I asked, of producing another study of an author who already possessed a library's worth of criticism? The question is a familiar one to writers of all varieties. What do I have to contribute? My advisor, borrowing a term from the philosopher Jacques Derrida, told me to cultivate my "scene of writing." He implied that writing is the site where our self or identity comes into existence. Writing, in other words, implicates us in a struggle with the voices that circulate in our mind, the strictures of culture, tradition, and history that define us in advance. Like reading, it is a forum that allows us to discover our latent genius and learn, following Emerson, to "recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty."
Mark Edmundson puts the matter succinctly: "writing can bring your mind to birth." His new book, Why Write? A Master Class on the Art of Writing and Why it Matters, offers a defense writing (as well as literature, art, and the humanities) in the Emersonian tradition. What I have described as the forces of history and culture that inhibit the freedom of self-definition, Edmundson calls the "habitual self": our unthinking day-to-day existence. Writing is therefore a process of learning how to "outwit the pressures of the ordinary" and come into contact with something like Emersonian genius. More than just a medium where we immerse ourselves in thought and language to escape custom, where we momentarily elude the social conventions that regulate our behaviors and desires, writing, for Edmundson, is education itself. As he remarks, "I don't think education is complete, truly complete, until you have turned your significant experiences into words and seen what the words might reveal to you. And since experience continues, there is always the possibility for further education, as you turn what's happened to you (and what you've made happen) into more sentences." Writing is less the translation of who we are into words and sentences than the creation of a self already comprised of language: we craft it, illuminate and weave together its hidden connections, recover its lost elements, and produce a representation (i.e. work of art) that is always subject to ongoing revision.
Why Write? is an exploration of the anxieties and joys of writing. It is not a style guide but rather a story told through a series of short meditations. A collection of over twenty brief essays (each around ten pages) which are divided into five sections, Why Write? examines various thematic features of the writer's routine while also presenting a narrative that chronicles the shape of the writing life: from early motivations, the day to day labor of writing, and finally old age. "Getting Started," the opening section, contains two essays where Edmundson draws from his experience to answer his book's titular question. The eight essays in the section entitled "The New Writer" focus on topics such as writing for fame, money, or to get the guy or girl. "Perils and Pleasures" and "Pleasures and Perils," the next two sections, turn to the writer's relationship to reviewers, isolation, alcohol and other stimulants, the ambition of creating a great novel, or even the importance of different writerly mediums (e.g. computers or pencils). The final section, "The Writer's Wisdom," describes what we learn from writing: why the writer is a crucial part of who we are and essential to living a fulfilled life.
Edmundson's essays are saturated with literary history, anecdote, humor, gossip, existential wisdom, and at times practical advice. Their pithy and conversational style makes accessible a wealth of knowledge about writing and literature that Edmundson passes on from his experience in the academy and beyond as well as from the authors he most admires. For example, when discussing writers who write "to get even," as one essay is titled...