I try not to write about writing. The finitude of my understanding seems clear, and describing what I think only creates flights of fancy circling in ever smaller rings, which can come to no good end. Writing requires mystery, I know that. A writer needs faith that more remains to discover and master.
Yet, any writer with experience develops a regular prose patter no longer deliberate or conscious. I used to fantasize about passing through Picasso-ian periods or about suddenly producing the writing equivalent of Sgt Pepper’s. Now those leaps feel as likely as waking tomorrow with a new voice, one that stretches over multiple octaves. I’m resigned. Whatever singing I do will be with this instrument. I’ll make the best of it.
Every week I expect to have nothing to say, but some new concern presents itself, and I gather what wits I have to figure it out. Perhaps I’m rationalizing, but if you mean to reach new thoughts and feelings, maybe a limited voice helps. Having just these tools in your belt, you must be resourceful, working around your work-arounds to enlarge your understanding. I can’t really judge my success because any assessment comes from one perspective—mine—but the effort seems real, difficult and best so.
I came upon one of my father’s journals recently—I’d forgotten the journal existed—and it was strange to see his handwriting again, even stranger to hear him speaking through that messy script in a familiar way. He admits from the start that he isn’t a writer but says his own father left him little record of what he experienced and he intends some remedy. A few entries deal with memories, but many are simple observations about why a beloved dogwood died or his frustration working on particular committees. It’s venting, mostly. Were I his teacher, I might find plenty to criticize—why must he leave a subject just as its broader implications appear? What is satisfying about this journal, however, isn’t the subject matter, but the workings of his mind, the quirky humor, the feeling he’s being sincerely himself in it all. The prose is his voice.
In the same box, I found some written sketches I’d given my father on Christmas 1983. They are so pretentious I can hardly bear to read more than a sentence. I talk about making “A knotted weave of words and wearing them like a beggar’s shawl.” I write an Indian myth—as if I knew anything about one. My “First Page of an S-F Novel” is a parade of ignorant cliché and overblown description. Having read his journal, I wonder what he made of his self-absorbed son. I can only hope he was knowing, indulgent, tolerant.
The strangest element of writing might be its separation into what it is and what it does. Like the workings of a lens, foreground and background never quite mesh. Focus on expression, and content fades. Focus on content, and content is only what’s artlessly plain, apparent. I’ve learned enough to prefer my father’s answer—better to use your own eyes, to place yourself in view of the scene—but the author of those “Sketches” is still in me, grooming prose like a 18th century fop.
I often say the greatest gift any writer could receive is seeing his or her work as others do. I wonder if I could handle it. Unconsciousness might be better. Even if you betray yourself, even if you speak in an absolutely offensive way and present yourself a fool, at least you will be you, there and real. Only voice—the limitation that makes us—matters.