Shards of a Broken Sublime

22 Mar

I have been a writer, in some sense of the word, for over a decade now. On paper, this development was no great surprise. I’m the son of an academic and a librarian, and one side of my family has a strong literary strain to it. I read voraciously as a kid, and had snobby tastes even then. I invented worlds throughout my childhood, some of which endure in recesses of my brain like long-lost friends or fondly remembered vacations. Sometimes I wrote these worlds down, and sometimes they lived only in my mind, but never did I imagine myself a writer as an adult. I was just a somewhat creative kid who grew up in a literary milieu.

That all changed during my freshman year at Georgetown. One night, in the dark of a New South dorm room long after my roommate had passed out, I began to pound out a few lines of a novel. For the next year and a half, I continued to chip away at it every day. While I finished that draft and made some halfhearted efforts to edit it, I immediately undertook additional writing projects as well. My fictional universes grew. I invented people, towns, races, even full-blown theologies, all of which fed on themselves and grew outward even as I went about my daily life as a student. I quietly churned out hundreds of thousands of words that I shared with no one.

My writing birth came at a time when I had no shortage of material. I was astute enough to recognize that, decades later, I might look back on my eighteenth year as the most dramatic of my own life. (I had an older fictional character share this possibility with a teenage protagonist.) From my own journey out of high school to the East Coast to family upheaval to broader a political drama in which I was a bit player, I careened across a full range of emotion, and I had to write about it, both to process what it all meant and to capture it all for my memory. My twentieth year, which included four months in Mexico, brought forth a similar sense of urgency. The intensity of life demanded an outlet, and I’m not sure I would have found it if I hadn’t gone through or done some of the things I did in those handful of years where ambition became reality.

In retrospect, I am in awe of how naturally all of that came. While I still finish most of my nights writing or rereading some of my past writing, my output is a fraction of what it was in those prolific early years. For a long time, I had no concept of writer’s block, no sense of what it was like to ever sit down to write and fail to produce. It was absolutely uninhibited, which may have been the source of its ease. While there were vague pretensions of publication floating around in my mind, I was writing strictly for myself. Not a soul knew about my little project, and there were no expectations.

Maybe some unconscious awareness that I’d lose that freedom was the reason I told no one of my writing life for years. When I finally did start my halting explanations of my efforts, that ease came crashing down, and I began suffering from the aggravating blocks that still plague me to this day. I’d gone from a person who wrote in secret to someone who aspired to the title of writer, and I had to perform. There was no turning back, though: it had become too much a part of my life to hide, and if my writing had half the insight within it that I thought it had, it deserved more than one reader. My writing life aged out of carefree childhood and found its teenage angst.

Recently, as I transferred files from an old laptop to a new one, I took some time to revisit some of those old musings. They had their moments of insight and their moments that don’t deserve to ever be read by anyone else, but above all I was struck by the intensity of the emotion of that teenage author. At that point I was still entranced by the possibility of everything that Georgetown represented to me, still had a sense of unquestioned destiny and a certainty that I would write history. In time I came to doubt this sense, but it never truly left me. That captivation with the power of words and with my youthful dreams has, with distance, returned with renewed strength, albeit through a world-weary recognition of how ephemeral it can all be.

As I looked for an easier outlet for my writing than unmanageably large works of fiction, I started to blog. Or, more accurately, I became an essayist, and had the good fortune to come of age as an essayist when it became the easiest it’s ever been to do so, thanks to a platform that allows for easy dissemination. I wrote my earliest essays from the perspectives of my various fictional characters, an attempt to respond to developments in the 2010 elections from a number of different angles. In time, the stronger of those writing voices emerged as my own, and I decided I had enough material to share on a semi-regular basis. On to a WordPress platform it all went, and has stayed ever since.

As I’ve shared before, blogging comes with its challenges, but is a welcome outlet. Essays allow for much more precise reflection on specific topics, which did a lot of good for the writing development of someone whose fiction tends toward the all-encompassing. (I write novels that look to explore a full swath of society! That plumb the depths of the human psyche! And meta-allegories! And coming-of-age stories! And…you get the idea.) Essays were a valuable bridge between the academic writing I’d honed in school and the fiction I’d honed in isolation. They taught me to be far more precise and concise, two qualities that I have since sought to infuse into both my fiction and my research-related writing in my work life (and really just into life in general). All those styles come with distinct voices, but the fundamentals beneath them never change.

Once I gave up the idea of making a living as a writer, certain things grew easier again. While I still sought to perform for an audience, it was a slightly less existential push, though existential it remained. I also just got older, and developed some maturity as I moved from a passionate sharer of all emotions toward a craftsman trying to perfect his art. Such a claim comes with a certain pretension, clearly, but so, too, does any attempt at authorship. The privilege of writing is accessible to all with a certain level of comfort with the ideas they seek to share; the privilege of being read comes to those who have found some way to consistently craft something memorable.

My writing life was made possible by good fortune and support from parents willing to put up with literary experimentation, and I’ve put in my ten thousand hours since. I wish I could say it gets easier over time, but it doesn’t. Standards rise, the critical eye grows ever more discerning, and when it becomes an expectation, failure to write is a burden. I suspect many writers must first learn how to over-write and over-share, and only with time come to learn how to cut out the excess and hone in on the core message with a deliberate precision.

Good writing, I think, benefits from a natural reticence. There’s a reason we writers have chosen the written word to express our thoughts instead of saying it all aloud to anyone around us. I don’t like to over-share, and while I think stream-of-consciousness has its virtues, the good stuff isn’t something I’d idly write on a lazy Tuesday night. At our best, we find ways to cut through the clutter and form coherent story arcs, and impose order on a world that otherwise can so often lack it. One of my first posts on this blog quoted Mario Vargas Llosa’s Nobel Prize lecture, and I can’t think of any truer words on the function of good written storytelling.

My writing life, after some time out in the working world, is now at a crossroads. I’m perfectly content to write for myself, and will probably continue to do so on some level for as long as I am able. It’s a method of processing, a method of exploration, a cathartic release. But if I am going to write for an audience beyond my hockey work (where I’ve got my little cult following) or the occasional reaction to a life event (which gets reliably read by people who know me), it needs to evoke a reaction.

Writers may respond differently to the array of responses their work inspires, but for me, nothing is more aggravating than silence. Straight praise, while welcome, also often feels incomplete. My writing has never been a claim to perfection but instead a struggle toward it, a struggle that demands engagement and criticism, and without it, writers are left guessing, or worse, looking at view counts and turning their output into a crass popularity contest. Did we make you think? What about our writing draws you in, or puts you to sleep? On which topics are we at our best or worst? Where to next? If we didn’t want people to engage with us, we would have left our writings in those vast unpublished archives of our minds.

This rambling setup is all a way of saying that I’m going to invest some time over the next few months to see if my writing life can progress beyond the state it’s inhabited for several years now. I don’t know quite what this means yet beyond a certain level of time commitment. I have no shortage of material that is probably a good editor away from publication, from things I could adapt from past essays to a novel draft I finished before grad school to the episodic story collection that I put out on this blog. I need to explore the worlds of writing submissions and publishing, which is foreign to me, and apparently requires one to be comfortable with rejection, which has never been one of my strong suits. I also need to do all of this while keeping up my day job and a couple of other pursuits that will still be central to my life.

No matter where this little experiment goes, though, I will go on writing. The title of this post comes from the New Yorker review of one of my favorite films, Y tu mamá también: the protagonists, writes Anthony Lane, “may spill over with sauce and silliness, but that is the privilege of the young; and it is the job of the adult artist to dig back into that time, and to unearth, from the ridiculous, the shards of a broken sublime.”

Aside from capturing the theme of so much of my writing, that sentiment sums up my writing itself. If I have a task, perhaps even a calling, well, that’s it. Unreason and entropy threaten to drag down lives into despair or apathy, but we have the power to take those downward spirals and turn them to insight, to humor, and to those glimmers of revelation that allow us to reclaim that sublime. It’s time for me to try to share that, such as I can.

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