Thursday, February 11, 2010

A Compulsion to Write . . . about Writing

Monk at Medieval Writing Desk
Notes of Travel in Southern Europe (1877)
(Image from Wikipedia)

As I grow older, and older, I realize that life -- my own anyway -- is too short to learn all the lessons that I'd need to learn if I were to become a good writer, for I keep reading the words laid down by writers far better than I who started much sooner than I have, while I've still not yet really begun to write.

Life is short. Art is long. Life often threatens to turn out too short, so one is compelled to write. In her recent article for The New York Times, "A Well-Written War, Told in the First Person" (February 7, 2010), Elisabeth Bumiller writes well of the good writing by American soldiers who've fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Brian Turner, "who served as a an infantry team leader in Iraq," wrote what became a collection titled Here, Bullet, the "title poem inspired by Mr. Turner's realization during combat patrols that he was bait to lure the enemy":
If a body is what you want,
then here is bone and gristle and flesh,
... because here, Bullet,
here is where the world ends, every time.
This realization, that as a soldier in a combat patrol, your role is to 'bait' the enemy and draw his fire, is something that Mr. Turner felt compelled to work through in words on the page, a place where he could think about that realization and his experience as battle bait, one strategic step above cannon fodder, maybe, since you're there to draw fire? One thinks perhaps at first of the war poets of Europe's Great War -- what we now call World War I -- such as Wilfrid Own writing his "Anthem for Doomed Youth":
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
Except that there are differences. Rather large ones in fact, and not just in poetic form, for Owen wrote with a focus on the futility of war, whereas the writers of America's current wars, though they also "explore the timeless theme of the futility of war," are writing about "wars that they for the most part support."

Today's war writing goes beyond poems of the sort Mr. Turner writes to include an "outpouring of memoirs, fiction, poetry, blogs and even some readable military reports by combatants in Iraq and Afghanistan." I'm led to wonder if my own cousin who has served in Iraq and is currently serving in Afghanistan will also have something to say in print. Time will have to tell about that, for anything that he writes these days is likely to be classified. Meanwhile, go and read Bumiller's engaging article, for the most part about young writers with hard experience who have things to say, things that they feel compelled to say, perhaps because life is threateningly short.

But in itself, a compulsion to write is not unusual. Writing imposes itself on writers and compels them to write. It's a type of hypergraphia . . . a cacoethes scribendi, an itch to write.

Consider what is related by Charles McGrath, writing "Don DeLillo, a Writer by Accident Whose Course Is Deliberate" (New York Times, February 3, 2010), concerning the "late bloomer" Mr. DeLillo, who "didn't publish his first novel until he was 35" and who says of how he became a writer:
"All I know is that one day I said to myself, 'I think I'm a writer.' I started making sentences I didn't know I was capable of."
McGrath calls DeLillo a "Writer by Accident," but his 'decision' to write sounds more compelled that the word "Accident" implies. DeLillo's experience of suddenly becoming a writer, and a good one at that, hasn't yet happened to me, much to my dismay . . . and I'm well past 35. My only comfort is that I also feel compelled to write, as some of you may have noticed, and I do have the example before me of Mr. LeRoy Tucker, who tells us:
"Always wanted to be a writer. Tough deal. I was kicked out of the third grade for not shaving. I try to write. It is a compulsion to me."
Readers will recall that I quoted these lines before, specifically on the 31st of January this year. Mr. Tucker wrote them on the 18th of January last year, but he's still writing at nearly 80 and well aware that he has readers, even new ones, for he tells us recently, (February 9, 2010) in "A little message to my viewers," a bit more about his literary compulsion:
Almost everything I write is set in my fictional town of Climax Arkansas. I move around in time because to me, Climax was always there and I merely tell stories about what might have happened or might someday happen or something like that, stories that I don't understand any more than you do and I can't tell what is coming next either. There is no beginning and I suppose the end will come when I die or become physically unable to continue. Certainly there is no plan and never will be.

In the short run we will follow some families to Arvin California. Arvin because it is a real place and was a real place in 1936 when I went there and lived there for eighteen months along with my young parents. I was five.

I have reason to believe that I have picked up a new block of readers. For that reason I have determined myself to do a better job. I have plenty of material to keep the store open for months and months and I turn out new stuff with some regularity.

And so, if you stay with me we will go "Climax dreaming" with reliable frequency. I appreciate the opportunity to share my dreaming with you. The Farrar Incident is in two parts to be completed next posting. Thanks
I have reason myself to think that Mr. Tucker might be alluding to me and the folks whom I've directed to Folk Liar of the Ozarks in his reference to "a new block of readers," and if this has motivated him to write even more, then I am very glad to have come upon his literary blog, for he tells excellent stories, writes with a dynamic literary style, and captures the dialect of the hillfolk. I hope that Mr. Tucker keeps on dreaming and writing for a long time. Maybe somebody important will notice.

And if readers will stay with me as well, I'll keep reporting upon good writing about good writing as I continue to work on my own, merely functional writing.

That's a compulsion for me.

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At 9:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't worry Dr Jeffery,

I've always dreamed myself a literary critic. And while practicing my critical wont, sometimes you are too often beyond my ken - and so I'm limited - as the amateur often is.

But then...

You've an Uncle Cran.

(Incidentally where is he, is covertly guiding NATO that time-consuming?)


At 10:19 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I still have a long ways to go before I'm a writer, JK.

As for Uncle Cran, he is likely doing his best to keep Nato from disintegrating and is thereby performing a valuable but thankless task in helping to maintain the Atlantic Alliance.

Obviously, though, he's not at liberty to discuss such matters with us.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

JK & Jeffery:

I read the blog daily, but not being either a savant, or blessed with literary talents, I limit my writings.
My offerings are limited to youthful experiences, or the daily happenings on the farm.
I never wrote about the runaway tractor, but that's another story.
Incidentally, I have noticed some errata on nephew's blogs, but they are minor. And being a critic isn't my style. I would use the word "forte," but since I am a computer illiterate, and unable to put the proper accent marks, I will omit it.
And there are a couple of items on JK's comment, but I will resist the urge to point them out.


At 4:56 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well, Uncle Cran, do point out errors in my blog entries so that I can correct them.

As for the runaway tractor, did it ever come home? I seem to recall its photo on a milk carton. The poor thing must be getting to be a big tractor by now.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:12 AM, Anonymous James said...

The compulsion to write is something I share with you. One of the wonderful things about it is even when the compulsion leads to words that go nowhere, the compulsion to revise strikes and then, well, then we really begin to discover things.

The quote from "Here, Bullet" is very engaging. Thanks for sharing it. I'll have to follow that link.

At 6:20 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Good to hear from you again, James.

I suppose that my own compulsion to write stems from my desire to express myself clearly because I'm not so articulate in conversation.

Along the way, I've discovered that writing is also an excellent way to learn things. Hence this blog . . .

The article by Bumiller is interesting, and I know from reading blogs by soldiers that she's right -- a lot of great writing is coming out of these two wars, probably because of the current, continuing media revolution.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:18 PM, Anonymous Jeff said...

I think it's a bit odd to see them calling a 35-year-old debut novelist a "late bloomer." Quite a few hotshot writers who debut in their early 20s don't live up to their early promise; best to say what you have to say at whatever age you're saying it, even if you find different audiences for different ages...

At 8:44 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Maybe it's because the kids who find success early get all the attention, though I would think that good writing requires not the smirk of youth but the wisdom of years.

I like to imagine that I've shed the former even if I've not yet gained the latter.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re: errata.

Fairly recently you repeated two words in a sentence.
Finding something in your writings is such a rarity, I wanted to point it out.
However the Lord warned about noting a mote in another's eye, while ignoring the log in one's own.
So I resisted the urge.


At 4:29 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Uncle Cran, that's one of my common errors, and it's very hard to catch, so any time that you notice that (or any error), notify me so that I can correct the mistake.

I prefer to lose a little face in the interest of quality control.

Jeffery Hodges

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