Thursday, July 28, 2016


We writers (that's right, I called myself a writer!) are full of it. 

Writers, like academics, claim to be an evolved lot. Presumably well-read, seemingly intellectual, assuredly above all that sort of petty stuff like primal emotions. Who, me, envious? 

Of course.
My envy can manifest in a number of ways. Sometimes it is admiration/jealousy of a young fellow co-religionist's piece featured in the New York Times; sometimes it is the shock that a sloppily formed book was inexplicably published; sometimes it is the devaluation of one's ability in the presence of perfect, polished, pristine prose.   

"Green-Eyed Verbs" by Sarah Manguso addresses the last form of envy. While Keats was determined to be the best, he—
. . . also wrote, to another of his publishers, “If Poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.” As leaves to a tree. A tree does not leaf out of envy of other trees. It leafs out all by itself, within a system of life and light, matter and time. Writing out of envy will not produce a tree in bloom. It will produce an expression of envy, and envy’s voice is ugly, small, cheap and false.
"Rabbi Elazar HaKappar said: Jealousy, lust and the [pursuit of] honor remove a person from the world." It removes us from this world because it prevents us from enjoying this world, and from utilizing our own talents. 
I can tell that I’m making the wrong type of effort when I start to lament my work isn’t turning out the way I’d wanted it to. . .
Manguso explains that when writers think that, they are trying to copy another's brilliant work. That's not how writing works. 
Writers must labor from a vague feeling, usually some large, old emotion, and in so laboring, come to understand the qualities of that feeling, and the source of it, and the reason they still feel it. That effort is practiced in a place typically insulated from even the idea of publication, and it depends upon a combination of exerting and relaxing one’s will over the writing.
The purpose of being a serious writer is not to express oneself, and it is not to make something beautiful, though one might do those things anyway. Those things are beside the point. The purpose of being a serious writer is to keep people from despair. If you keep that in mind always, the wish to make something beautiful or smart looks slight and vain in comparison. If people read your work and, as a result, choose life, then you are doing your job.
Oh, wow. 

She insists that reading is vital, for without reading one cannot truly write (Stephen King says so. I'm sure he's not the only one to believe the same).
My least favorite received idea about writing is that one must find one’s voice, as if it’s there inside you, fully formed and ready to turn on like a player piano. A voice is what emerges from an informed intelligence as it reaches toward accurate perception.
Without exposure, one is not speaking from a place of knowledge (daas). Binah, intuition, is dope, but it needs the partnership of chochma, wisdom, to become knowledge. Wisdom comes from experience and the gathering of information.

All writers will envy other writers, other writing. No one who reads is immune. To write despite it I must implicate myself, to confess to myself, silently or on the page, that I am envious. The result of this admission is humility. And a humble person, faced with the superior product of another, does not try to match it or best it out of spite. A humble person, and only a humble person, is capable of praise, of allowing space in the world for the great work of others, and of working alongside it, trying to match it as an act of honor. 

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