I really like the Brain Pickings newsletter that shows up in my inbox every Sunday. I like the way you can’t just skim it but have to settle in for a slow Sunday long-read. I love the fact that it’s never about what’s happening, but always about what people – interesting, intelligent people – think, and how their thoughts connect with the thoughts of other interesting, intelligent people. And usually I like that there is often the underlying assumption that you, the reader, are also an interesting, intelligent person, a creative person. Probably a writer.
I don’t always have time to settle in for that slow Sunday read. I certainly didn’t this week, but I had been working – writing – all day and needed a break from the pressure of deadlines. So I started to read this essay,
James Baldwin on the Artist’s Struggle for Integrity and How It Illuminates the Universal Experience of What It Means to Be Human (See what I mean? Even the titles are wonderfully ponderous.)
At first I enjoyed it. I even tweeted out a particularly toothsome quote. But further in, I started to be uncomfortable. Right about here (almost at the end, just like my five-year-old daughter wailing to leave the theater during the scary final fight with the snow leopard in Kung Fu Panda literally seconds before the scene got funny again) right about here, the weight of the artist’s struggle became too much for me.
Most people live in almost total darkness… people, millions of people whom you will never see, who don’t know you, never will know you, people who may try to kill you in the morning, live in a darkness which —if you have that funny terrible thing which every artist can recognize and no artist can define — you are responsible to those people to lighten, and it does not matter what happens to you. You are being used in the way a crab is useful, the way sand certainly has some function. It is impersonal. This force which you didn’t ask for, and this destiny which you must accept, is also your responsibility.
I am a writer. I take my work seriously and I believe it to be creative work. But “that funny terrible thing”? I don’t think I have it. I don’t think I have light to shine on the almost total darkness in which most of mankind lives. I don’t think that I understand better than anyone else “what it is like for anyone who gets to this planet to survive it. What it is like to die, or to have somebody die; what it is like to be glad.”
I think that I have a degree of facility with words that many people lack. When I get out of my own way, I string words together effectively, sometimes rather prettily. Most of the time, I make it easier for people to grasp information because I have ordered my words well.
I don’t think that I am even better than a great many other word stringers. Maybe in the pool of workers with words, there are a great many who do have that funny terrible thing that Baldwin describes (in fact I’m sure of it and I read their work with an awe that can only be held by one who knows exactly how hard it is to do what they accomplish). It’s simply that I am better at stringing words than I am at most other things. So that is where I continue to put my energy. I may not have the function of a crab, or sand, but my work serves some less weighty purpose. It deserves a room of its own and I will call it art, with or without that funny terrible thing.
But then I read something like Ursula K. Le Guin on Being a Man: a journey where the semicolon meets the soul. I’m not sure about my soul; but I love a good semicolon; I even love a half-assed one. Editors are always turning my semicolons into commas. So I read an essay like that, and I feel like a little light switches on in my almost total darkness, and I desperately want whatever that funny terrible thing is.