Oh, Writer?

By David Snyder

E.B. White

I’m at a point in life in which most people I come into contact with irregularly are acutely interested in my life’s hopes. The standard line of questioning inquires as to the school where I study, the type of studying I undertake in said school, and how I hope to use said studying to keep my belly full and my things off the curb. The answers to all of these questions, fair enough questions, are awkward, to one degree or another. For such an egoist, I have an unusually tricky time talking with any sort of ease about my ideals and prospects in person. I suspect that such awkwardness arises from the eyebrow-raising response to the question of how I hope to earn my keep: by writing.

These inquiries, while often subject to repetition and dullness, are important, I’ve come to learn, for they are a timely reminder of what I hope to be all about. They save me from falling into the natural trap of meandering about the motions, cruising down the Lazy River of life. Despite my inclination to just walk away from such conversations, they’re educational, indeed. Most importantly of all, they constantly refresh just what it is my idea of good writing is, and what sort of writing I strive to be able to produce — cold a word as that is.

Few people, especially the types I find myself in the company of, hold the arts or humanities in any sort of contempt. No, though they don’t find my hopes contemptible, but a touch unrealistic: the stuff of a silly college student — one so unaccustomed to the ways of the world. And to further compound my precarious situation, in their eyes, my goal is not to write a great novel or even to fill a book of poetry, but to untangle the mess of thoughts kicking around the old bean, one entanglement at a time. This, of course, results in using the great gift Montaigne has given us: the essay. To most folk, and I do hope I’m not unfairly generalizing, essays ring of miserable misspent hours in hot classrooms, scribbling about some ancient event of history. This runs completely contrary to my idea of the essay as the highest form of writing, which, I know isn’t a popular opinion, though I think it to be a perfectly defensible one. Whereas the standard English major’s Mount Rushmore is populated by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Poe, Twain, Shakespeare, Austen, or any other magisterial English novelist, mine is full of the wry smiles of E.B. White, James Thurber, Montaigne, Foster Wallace, and Sedaris. My gang is a touch less glamorous, assuredly more jovial, and equally as talented with the pen. But this line of reasoning is of little use in a two-minute conversation with a near-stranger.

There’s an overabundance, and an essential one, of writing tips and counsel from the lexicon of brilliant writers that have lined the shelves in both my own time and that of millennia ago. The advice of the successful writers is indeed as educational as any sophomore English class, at least in my own experience. Once one has all the basics down — and there are a great many of them! — it’s all about putting the scratches onto the page. I’ve come to hold a few essential tidbits in near-sacred regard, and they serve as my creative Bible.

“Don’t read him as children do, for amusement, nor as the ambitious do, to be instructed. No, read him in order to live.” — Gustave Flaubert, speaking about the essays of Montaigne.

“The process of writing can be magical — there are times when you step out of an upper-floor window and you just walk across thin air, and it’s absolute and utter happiness. Mostly, it’s a process of putting one word after another.” — Neil Gaiman

“Tell your story. Don’t try and tell the stories that other people can tell. Because [as a] starting writer, you always start out with other people’s voices — you’ve been reading other people for years… But, as quickly as you can, start telling the stories that only you can tell — because there will always be better writers than you, there will always be smarter writers than you … but you are the only you.” — Neil Gaiman

“Nothing any good isn’t hard.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald

“This must be the mission of every man of goodwill: to insist, unflaggingly, at risk of becoming a repetitive bore, but to insist on the achievement of a world in which the mind will have triumphed over violence.” — Leonard Bernstein

“A writer should concern himself with whatever absorbs his fancy, stirs his heart, and unlimbers his typewriter. I feel no obligation to deal with politics. I do feel a responsibility to society because of going into print: a writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.” — E.B. White

“Only a person who is congenially self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays” — E.B. White

Those represent, in short, my entire education in writing. I have tremendous gratitude for those patient teachers and professors who’ve taught me the incorrect uses of semicolons, when and when not to toss in a comma, and who’ve pushed my boundaries by forcing me to write on what I’d rather not be bothered to write about. But those quotes listed above are the stuff of my every waking thought. You see, I’m obsessed with writing. I’m not a fantastic reader. I grow angry when asked to analyze symbols in novels. I read quickly and without great contemplation. I’m not really a student of literature. But I am obsessed with how words evoke emotion, how the stringing along of arbitrary words in just the right manner can enflame the soul or send a nation to war. That is the stuff of true romanticism, to my mind. I’m obsessed with the idea of capturing the spirit of a moment, a moment as fleeting as the way water reflects onto a ceiling or as grand as the freedom of speech triumphing over the tyranny of suppression As White once put it, I’m obsessed with being a custodian of society, of tidying up the confused thoughts of confused men, making them an elegant whole. “Only a person who is congenially self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays.” I write because it keeps me from succumbing to the unyielding foe that is cynicism, the enemy of hope, the stifler of the pen, the dark side of man. I’ve cozied up with cynicism and the stench left behind is foul. When I write, I’m actively flipping the bird to the easy way, the comfortable way. That may earn me little cash, and my name may never find a home in The New Yorker, but neither of those reasons is substantial enough to force me into a life if drudgery and despair. I’d rather be a penniless idealist than a rich shrew.

That’s why I write, and why I write essays. That’s tricky to cram into a pleasant line for those who’d rather I was a business major, but sod to all that. Snyder’s the name; writer’s the gig. The wallet is empty and the hopes are high.

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