On Writing, Sylvia, & Tobias Wolff

26 of February

I do not know how it came- nor exactly when- the instant I realized I want to be a writer. It was more of the overripe apple that finally fell into my lap after lazily shading myself in its shadow for so long. All my life I’ve been told by  people to just be a writer already, but a, I never thought myself skilled enough; and b, I tend to do the opposite of what people tell me to do. Now I feel I’m finally ready to be a writer, not to just aloofly “take a whack at it”.

So here it is, the conclusions I’ve come to about the art… three good reasons to be a writer:

1. You can do as you please. Writing is expression, and even if you are writing for a magazine or newspaper with a specific storyline to follow, the words you choose to use are your own. Although writing is quite often an arduous lifestyle- think “starving artist”- it is a life unbound by the limits of society, one filled with shades of vibrant color, and the ability to be free mentally and physically. Writers are blessed with the opportunity to sculpt their schedules, set precedents, and speak their mind. You may argue that money is a major confining factor for many writers, successful and aspiring, and I am not discounting that fact. In “doing as they please” I mean to state that writers, as a personality, are genuine, never superficial, and constantly hunting the muddied trails of reinvention. Doing as they please comes naturally, floating from the tides of the masses is as necessary for them as is breathing, and when you are truly passionate about something to label yourself as a writer, monetary loss or gain is trivial.

2. Travel. To write well is to write truthfully, which is something very different from telling the truth in writing. For each word to strike with the precise exactitude of the tolling grandfather clock is what writers strive to do, and how can you write with candor without first knowing the truth yourself? Seeing the world is learning the truh. I value worldly people above anything because although they may not be able to articulate like a writer would their experiences, every word is straight up how-it-is. They have touched the world, and the world has touched them back. If a writer desires to chronicle the grueling hours of some hermit, then so be it, but I prefer to vouch for the necessity of travel in a writer. To meet the people who will filter into characters, mishaps into climaxes, and to tie up ends with a finality- a clarity- in writing that this is how life really goes, and for it to be beautiful to read.

3. Escape to a world of passion and out-of-the-box thinking. People who are writers have the words in their soul, and a whole underground network of people who think like you, accept the difference you are, and challenge you to be better; this alive, pulsating group will always be there to catch you when you stumble. Where the world sees a shock, the artists see the future; where society frowns upon brazen originality, the artists whoop, holler, and applaud. I couldn’t think of a more incredible place to be: one foot straddles the world while the other takes comfort in the global family of writers.

Now I suppose I can’t help but reiterate that truth-telling business of writing. I have two favorite writers: Sylvia Plath and Tobias Wolff (sorry, Aristotle) and the reason I love them is simply because they are experts at hitting the right note with every phrase, every off-hand shrug that you know is leaving out more information than it is telling; the ultimate device of sincerity. I could go on about Sylvia the same way I could go on about Frida Kahlo or Banksy, always with a cry of delight, discovery (although I’ve read the words until they are distilled in me), and mutterings of “nice, Silv,” as I feed myself each line of her writing, because Sylvia Plath is a goddess in her own right.

A morbid fear: that protests too much. To the doctor. I am going to a psychiatrist this week, just to meet him, to know he’s there. And, ironically, I feel I need him. I need a father. I need a mother. I need some older, wiser being to cry to. I talk to God, but the sky is empty, and Orion walks by and doesn’t speak. I feel like Lazarus: that story has such a fascination. Being dead, I rose up again, and even resort to the mere sensation value of being suicidal, of getting so close, of coming out of the grave with the scars and the marring mark on my cheek which (is it my imagination) grows more prominent: paling like a death spot in the red, wind-blown skin, browning darkly in photographs, against my grave winter pallor. And I identify too closely with my reading, my writing. I am Nina in Strange Interlude; I do want to have a husband, lover, father, and son all at once. ANd I depend too desperately on getting my poems, my little glib poems, so neat, so small, accepted by the New Yorker. To revenge myself on the blond one, as if the mere paper dikes of print can keep out the creative flood which annihilates all envy, all mere niggling fearful jealousy. Be generous. 

Or

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.

Or

I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving fully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.

And that’s just her prose.

Meanwhile, Tobias writes on subjects that are seemingly less-intense than Sylvia’s fat doses of teeter-totter insanity, but still carry underlying themes that it’s ok/nothing is ok/life is strangely content with itself for an out-of-character minute. This passage from Wolff’s Old School put a pit in my stomach and butter in my brain:

On and on they went. I didn’t feel slighted by their inattention, not at all. It left me free to contemplate the story I’d just been told; and anyway, I liked listening in, feeling the same illicit pleasure I’d known as a boy when the masters forgot my presence and unsheathed their tongues. It was a kind of music they made, and it carried me back to those Sunday teas in the headmaster’s parlor, red leaves or snow or whirling maple seeds falling past the tall windows. The great Persian rug is covered with cookie crumbs. The air smells of the Greek master’s cigar. In the far corner someone plays “Beautiful Dreamer” on a tinkly upright, fragments of the melody floating just above our voices. We boys stand in circles and trade witty remarks, all the while straining to catch what the masters are saying that makes them laugh so easily, so unguardedly. The boy closest to them smiles into his punch glass. He can hear them; he has slipped into their camp and can hear the secret music of these sure and finished men, our masters. – Tobias Wolff, Old School

The great Persian rug is covered with cookie crumbs. There is something so captivating about this line, so separate from the text, yet so flowing in a graceful manner that makes me read it as if it was poetry. The great Persian rug is covered with cookie crumbs. Is nothing so vivid as this image? So plush, so refined, so dauntingly conservative; yet liberal, and well-read (although I’m sure a Persian rug never picked up a book in its life.) I can catch a whiff of the incense burning steadily on a decorative table in the far left corner, and the surprising warmth of the gut-churning aroma of the cigar. It hangs loosely on the Greek master’s lip as he listens exclusively to a story the English master is relating. The boys hold disinterested, pseudo conversations on the side with each other, only for the benefit of the masters being watched and, it is quite possible, to save themselves of apparent awkwardness as they huddled together, blatantly ignoring the fact that no words passed between them, for their chatter was trivial in comparison. No, the future alums were too distinguished, chivalrous, to outwardly eavesdrop on their teachers, despite the fact that the instinct was primal and deep-set and needy. Wolff evoked every image of the climax of the dysfunctional family; a moment when the mish is all mashed up perfectly, like how the last puzzle piece is pressed into place by thumb and forefinger, bringing scattered bits into harmony until the finished product is crumpled and slid back into box. I find this moment Wolff so wholly captured to be more alive than almost any other words I have ever read.

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