How I begin: I sit down. I drink coffee, lots of coffee. I smoke cigarettes, lots of cigarettes. Back when I could still drink, I would drink vodka, lots of vodka — this on top of the coffee, to create a nicely psychotically buzzed yet insanely focused kind of vibe; drugs might be good for achieving this too, but I’ve never really done drugs. I do all of this for a while, and eventually, I start to write.
What I’m doing at first — when I sit down and stare blankly at the screen, with the coffee, and the cigarettes — is called “procrastinating,” and procrastinating, it seems to me, is based on fear.
99% of my time is spent procrastinating as compared to 1% of actual writing: a terrible ratio. We procrastinate because we’re afraid of doing something badly, or because we’re trying to avoid something onerous. Of course I’m trying to defend my own procrastination here, but it seems to me that if you’re not a little afraid when you sit down to write something, then you’re doing something wrong.
I start to write because I’ve got a sentence stuck in my head. The rest of the essay is just an excuse to get to that sentence. Usually it’s either the first sentence or the last sentence… “I sit down” is not a great first sentence, but it was the sentence that got stuck in my head for this essay; it’s not clever, funny, or dramatic, but it at least has the advantage of being very, very simple.
Anyway, that’s how writing works, for me at least. Getting things stuck in my head and then trying to get them out of my head, the way that you try to get an annoying song out of your head.
Someday I will have to write a novel, because I have a wickedly awesome last sentence and last paragraph for a novel. The rest of the writing will be me trying to get to that one paragraph. For a long time, I had this phrase stuck in my head: “There is a world beyond this world; beneath this world, above it.” I wrote many, many essays, including this one, where I thought that I was going to use that phrase, but then didn’t end up using that phrase. As a result, I will still have to write something that uses it.
I don’t write an essay because I think that lots of people will click on it, or because it will give me lots of “hits,” or because it will give me lots of Facebook shares. Most of the bad writing that I see is based on writing in this way. I’m not saying that I’m better, it just never occurs to me to write in this way, and I probably couldn’t do it if I tried.
The novelist John Barth was once a professor at a college in upstate New York. It was the 1960s. The student movement was in full swing at his college: riots, student protests, strikes, hippies fighting with cops, the college being shut down. A reporter asked John Barth what he thought of the protests. He said they were “important but not interesting,” which is how I feel about most things. And then John Barth went back to working on whatever novel he was working on. And looked at from the right point of view — which is of course my point of view — John Barth was right. Student protests are either going to end with the students being successful (5% chance), or the students not being successful (95%), and either way — how interesting is that? Not very interesting, because they’re both predictable.
The goal of writing is to avoid predictable things.
I think the point that Barth was trying to make is that Big Things are often too large and slippery and preordained, and thus not as interesting as the small human things that he tried to write about. Or at least, if that’s not his point, that’s my point.
In-between that last sentence and this one, I have: drunk one non-alcoholic beer, drunk a little coffee, smoked one cigarette (although I wanted to smoke about twenty; somehow, mystifyingly, I can even procrastinate about smoking), found the above video, and wasted about an hour looking for the right picture to go at the top of this essay. Just thought that you would like to know.
A professor once told me never to ask questions like “Why write?” in my writing. He said that it would be like if characters in a movie suddenly stared out at the viewer and said, “Hey, why are we even in this movie, anyway?” In other words, it would be shocking for a second, then annoying. You don’t pay your money to have to deal with questions like that.
Well, here’s a dumb story — which is probably where this essay will go off the rails. The other day, I was writing about an awful song that I heard at the mall. I heard the song and instantly loved it, while my girlfriend instantly hated it. It is a terrible song — but then, I have terrible taste in music. I always hope that my awesome taste in books and in movies balances out my awful taste in music, but that’s probably not the case.
In the song, the singer sings this: “All my life, I’ve been good/ but now, I’m thinking — what the hell.” This is bad writing — though keep in mind that I love the song and will probably listen to it five more times today.
As it happens, I know about the singer. She recently got divorced, and the song is about her enjoying her time as a divorced person and about her f-cking other dudes. This is what the song is about, and we’re meant to delight in the hypothetical liberating “girl power-ness” of her skankiness. Okay, whatever. The problem is that she’s such a terrible writer — such a terrible lyricist — that she can only sing in cliches.
“All my life, I’ve been good.” Has she? Who among is us truly “good”? It’s a question for Aristotle or some other philosopher. But she doesn’t sound like such a great person, from the song. And she sings:
All I want is to mess around
And I don’t really care about
If you love me, if you hate me–
You can’t save me, baby, baby.
I don’t even know what this means, but it’s just a string of cliches. A cavalcade of cliches. She’s singing about how she’s a good person, but the song is about her acting like a bad person, but she’s saying that she doesn’t really care, but she sort of seems to care, and what’s happening is that her cliches are actually blocking her from thinking. Is what she’s doing — f-cking random guys — is that a good thing or a bad thing? It’s a tough question, it’s a question that I couldn’t necessarily answer, but it’s a question that she doesn’t even consider. Because if you can only think in cliches, then you’re just thinking in very well-worn grooves. You know how, if you get your car stuck in the mud or the snow, and you start spinning your wheels to get out, you just dig yourself in deeper and deeper? That’s what thinking in cliches is like.
And that’s why writing is important. Because good writing breaks free from cliches. As you’re writing, you’re learning. You’re forcing yourself to think independently of things that have come before.
So I was writing about that song, and thinking about that singer saying that she was “good,” and also I was thinking about sitting in bars, listening to crappy songs, which I do a lot of, even though I don’t drink anymore, and then I started thinking about the famous poem by W.H. Auden. Specifically the part that goes like this:
Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.
This is, of course, dark, though “dark” is an insufficient and lame summation of what the poem is actually saying. But let’s just call it “dark” as shorthand. And it’s okay that it’s “dark.” Because it’s the job of good writing to take you to dark places, to places where you don’t necessarily want to go. …The job of good writing is to say what hasn’t been said before.
And if we apply the Auden poem to the song by Avril Lavigne — thereby marking the first time that anyone has ever compared those two people — then we see the problem with the song by Avril Lavigne. She’s using cliches, commonplaces, oft-repeated things, to cling to her average day. But by doing this, she’s not seeing where she really is: she’s using hackneyed language to hide from herself; to hide the fact that she’s a divorced woman who’s feeling lonely and unsure about what she’s doing with her life. If you can be honest with your language, then you can be honest in your life, and that’s also why writing is important.
My favorite writer ever declared that he was “at war against cliche.” And so, let us have a war on cliche, which does nothing but block us from real thought. The point of bad writing is to keep you from having to think about anything new. To keep you from having to change, which I totally understand; I hate change as much as the next guy. And hey, I love that Avril Lavigne song as much as the next guy, or girl. But I’m not really thinking when I’m listening to it.
Cliches are conventions, and all the conventions conspire to make this fort assume the furniture of home. Lest we should see where we are. Lost in a haunted wood. Children afraid of the night. Who have never been happy or good. …Or maybe that’s not where we are — maybe we’re in a place that’s not that bad, but we are somewhere, and to learn where we are, we have to be precise. Avoid slippery language. Be exact. Try to figure out exactly where you are and where we are.
Sometimes. this all feels hopeless; sometimes I feel hopeless. Hopeless in the face of overwhelming dumbness and apathy. Why be honest, why try to write well, why try to produce anything in the face of cliche, in the face of all these dumb people? Dumbness rules and always has and always will, and so why work so hard trying to produce something original, when most people don’t even care to begin with?
But it’s not all hopeless and Auden even says so. Though it all may seem hopeless and interminable, an endless struggle that will never be won, there is hope. The poet says so. I’ll just close with the end of the poem, and then we’ll say goodbye, with no clever ending from me. I think it’s better that way. …And so there is hope. Hopefully there is hope. And hopefully that hope lies within the freedom that art creates:
Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages;
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.