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Preface & Reader Response



To know one's mind, one must express it.

 


'THIS LITTLE LIGHT OF MINE'



PUT UP OR SHUT UP!

(Determine Your Self That Others May Know – or Shun – You.)

by Jerry Murley

Hounds howl the bare-bone hillsides,
Comic chorus run by rote.
Heat hunts the unknown wild ends;
Notions hatch when beasts are caught.


I. THE HUNT BEGINS

Over the Christmas holidays I had a casual late evening conversation with an old friend who happens to be an academic. Following glasses of Chianti and an Italian after-dinner drink, I brought up the thrill of writing and suggested that writing was an act that everyone should practice. I lamented that letters are no longer routinely written and posited that during the act of writing the writer learns something about himself. My friend would have nothing of this and countered that letters and literature were intended to communicate something to someone else. I did not feel compelled to dispute that point because I agreed with it, but my contention that writing was also a journey of discovery for the writer was quickly dismissed as if it were the logic of a narcissistic hack. With professorial condescension as cold, thick and heavy as a London fog, the warm weave of this exploratory conversation unraveled. But I have picked up that lingering thought, one I had not so strongly sensed nor eagerly articulated before. Turning it over and over in my head, I still hold to my assertion.

II. ON THE SCENT

Often in my work or in conversations with my wife, where I have some standing as possessing a grain of authority, my confidence and impulses, and the statements of my interlocutor, lead me to say things, to emit ideas, that I had never articulated before – even to myself. They are not part of the record of my life that I carry with me day by day and year to year, the record that makes me who I am. Sometimes I instantly recognize that I had never thought of these ideas until the very minute that I expressed them to attentive ears. Mutual interest in a topic is of course a significant factor, as is the presence of a listening partner. Clear but ready minds and warm connections generate in dialogue, or monologue as the case might be, something new and revealing. But for the act of expression, the idea might not come forth.

To know one's mind, one must express it. The formed thought does not always precede expression: expression is the formalization of the thought – its birth and initial step to maturity. One's character, experience, life conditions, emotions – all generate a vague constellation of notions. But it is only in attempting dialogue, internal or external, that thoughts that will be intelligible to others begin to fully form. With utterance they are launched upon the world and recorded – if only in short-term memory. Innovation often starts at the nexus of these circumstances and is inseparable from them. Thus the act of writing is also a journey of discovery for the writer.

Even in my most solipsistic expressions about daily life (witness this moment), I am speaking to ones I know or who might know me some day. I talk not to myself but to a well-wisher. The objective outside world is essential going in and coming out. When I focus intently on a topic and explore my precise personal viewpoint – a course usually spurred by a thought prompted by a single sight, an overheard phrase or a pressing situation – I start seeing and hearing opposing and supporting arguments and examples all around me: at home, with family or friends, on the radio [1], in print, in the office, on the street. This organic and serendipitous commingling is the principal path of my discovery in writing. It is the invisible, subatomic line where inside and outside not only touch but merge.

Writing is not mainly the action of putting pencil to paper or prodding a keyboard, it is also the minutes and the hours of revelation and spontaneous dialogue while quietly driving a vehicle, drifting from sleep during early waking hours, leisurely walking, or imbibing the elation of an evening's read nourished by a glass of red wine. Putting it down and brushing it up are important, very important; elaborating on a theme; meeting a potential listener more than halfway – all are essential steps in the evolution of discovering oneself while incidentally recording a mental experience or objective event for someone else. That someone else may in fact be more fictional than the elements peopling the communication being hazarded. But the core of the expression is in the flash of recognition and the energy it stimulates. The making ready is the making whole, but not the whole of committing to letters. The high living is that moment of conception and the wonder of grasping something new for the very first time – or finding it again after it has long lain lost.

The academic is generally correct to think of writing as a high profession pursued for marketable purposes, but quite wrong to assert that there are no other, perhaps equivalent, intents and gratifications. Writing is but one of the numerous activities that crystallize and reveal the creator in the creation, leading the actor to discovery of a truer, more coherent and harmonious or disjointed self and world. Painting, drawing, sculpting, building, cooking, parenting – all leave a record available to others while revealing the character of a period, and the mind and agile hands that shaped them in ways perhaps not completely grasped by the maker himself. The diarist and everyday letter writer are such beings, taking part in such acts, finding such revelations and satisfactions that the market does not offer, does not know, and would not buy if it did.

The virtuoso musician will play the same composition decade after decade, but the music, to the musician's ears, changes with every playing. And the subtle alterations in performance come as a discovery to him. I have captured images of my wife's face dozens and dozens of times, but with each photograph, drawing, or painting, the experience for me is entirely different – as are the resulting products. If the process of writing was not primarily an act of discovery, as opposed to a mechanical act of transference or a challenge of salesmanship, the act of writing would be worthless, except to those who see it thus for marketable and consumable ends only.

Think of those early men who started painting pictures of life on the walls of caves or arranging gigantic stones in patterns in isolated fields in pre-ancient times. The human who first drew of life was expressing his mind in ways that we can connect to today. I imagine that when that person first saw in his dabbling the image of real life, he experienced exhilaration at the miraculous event which had taken a nebulous picture of life in memory and made it live for all time.

I think of writing as I do of painting and making things in general: it is the process not the public product that is essential and magical. If the product can be rendered worthy, all the better. The process of writing continually feeds discovery. Discovery comes before, during and after the intent to share with an audience – even one as yet undetermined. Personal discovery and expansion rather than plain utility is the reason for writing. It may be a motive in disguise for many, but it becomes, nonetheless, a driving force that shapes application, especially in those who practice the art for other than commercial purposes.

Nevertheless, the writing of the best professionals is of the utmost value to the journey of discovery – as important as a good hot meal and an adequate selection of supplies before a mountain climb. Attempting to write, and writing regularly, makes one appreciate better writing. The study of forms, practice, and reading are the usual paths to improving one's writing. The joy and revelation of a good, long story in The New Yorker magazine lies in meandering through the back alleys and background context of a timely topic and the minutiae about the chief players' lives. As a story slowly unfolds, in a manner deceptively similar to a simple diary account, readers learn the eccentricities of strange but potentially significant activities and the people involved in them. These stories are consistently and surprisingly parochial yet global; embedded universals are rendered as if both everyday normal and tantalizingly foreign all at once.

III. TRACING FAMILIAR TRAILS

When I read a decades-old sentence that I casually committed to paper, I discover something about the continuity and changes in my life and mind and the context enveloping them during times of stability and transition. The process reveals something about the past, the present and the constant – and it accents wrong-headedness then or now. I can be astonished, bewildered or appalled at the sentence, the style, the words selected, but there is some thread, a rope of rescue, that pulls me through multiple dimensions and makes me more whole. Though these sentences of the past seem ludicrous and even slightly embarrassing at times today, they are never a source of shame or regret at having written, kept and reread them. Whether old, reworked or new thoughts are kept closeted away or shared with the world – and whether that world is large or merely a small group of well-wishers or simply a figment of imagination – matters little.

As we limp nearer to dotage, our memories fail us bit by bit. With age words take on new meaning. The record of our thoughts and insights, our phrasing, phasing and passions, the context of our evolving lives, are fleeting, ever elusive to our tongues. The mere fact that some are recorded, either by us or others, on paper or some other material, is a consolation and lifeline. The artifacts of our lives recall ourselves to us and can serve as food for further recollection and new ideas composed of old ideas in a differently informed and situated present. Our minds are literally revealed to us again and again through our recordings and efforts to record.

Not long ago, I knew a man who over his lifetime recorded a list of names and dates of every book that he read and every wild bird that he saw. In his declining years, he drew distinct comfort from referring to those lists, which he ever kept close by. It was obvious to observers who knew him that periodic reviews of those lists stimulated his memory, provided him with delight, and freed his lips to reminisce aloud to those willing to listen. Much the same happens with the many who keep and peruse photograph and phonograph albums. These personal collections are useful to the collector and to those nearest to him: they provide the reminders, the mile markers, to which fibers can attach, helping tie and reconstruct a life and keep it together.

Too often, the artifacts of memory are vague and detached, adrift in a haze – an amalgam of loose relationships, fuzzy images, recalled situations, and undeveloped concepts associated with a contemporary incident or sensation. Expression sharpens the focus, encapsulating fragments into an idea that more firmly links the subjective with exterior surroundings. With time ideas regenerate themselves by virtue of being recorded, recollected, reworked and shared. Old ideas are grafted onto current states of mind, altered experience, and fresh situations to breed novel ideas that may be truer to life and better explain or expand perspective than did the originals.

IV. JOINING THE FIELD AND LEAVING TRACKS

When I returned to college in 1986 to study history, after a fifteen-year absence, I took the Renaissance course that had sent me packing for Europe and the work of a craftsman years earlier. I found that historians were invigorated by evidence from the bountiful receipts and accounts of a business man in Florence of that period. Mere business records that had survived those centuries were a treasure trove. A year or so later, I found a similar intense interest in American Colonial history, gravitating around painstaking archaeological evidence gleaned from refuse heaps that revealed the patterns of everyday life of common people. A few years later, oral history – the record of interviews with participants in recent events such as the Great Depression and World War II – was all the rage in historiography. From these examples, I inevitably concluded that the person and group whose coherent records survived were the chosen few who would be visible to posterity and help represent the ways and tenor of an era to those of the future. But for them, modern man would be chained to limited and debilitating stories of great men, powerful institutions, high art, and bloody, senseless wars.

Who should represent us to posterity, assuming that we think of our descendants and care how they regard us or the company that we keep? If we include ourselves in the worthies or marginally worthy, what signs of life do we want to leave to clearly represent our ways? Do we want to be judged by our income tax and credit card statements, our phone bills, our credit ratings, or our castoffs heaped in landfills?

What of emails and text messages that daily gush forth and are easily lost to fast fingers, distracted brains, and discarded technology? Saved by musty habits, paper letters serve us well but slowly vanish. Though hard drives and cloud repositories backup the records of our mobile lives, these backups, too, are as vulnerable as tissue. Internet facilities host our anonymous dialogue, but they do not ensure connection or survival. The persistence of personal thoughts, products and ways may not seem urgent today. But our youngest contemporaries lose as much as the old, and at a quickened pace. They may suffer most from the cumulative evaporation of personal records over time. With so much off-the-shelf diversion, personal history plummets in importance. Yet beyond a shadow of a doubt, there are such things, issued daily from unknown minds out there in the ether, that would be of utmost significance to children of the future – if those things could be preserved and found again. These vestiges of our life and time will matter, the more so the more they are lost or never were.

Of the billions of galaxies, if one holds signs of life, all are of incalculable value. We are insignificant from a cosmic perspective alone. Our cars, our homes and our property, our too-many possessions, are unyielding obsessions. Our television and movies are largely dribble. Still, these are the things that populate our lives and bind us. Must they, and our daily work and play, be disabled, deterred, or disappeared because of the mere existence of infinite distance and unfathomable time, mightier forms and beings? While by comparison they are small, they are ours. And because they help us engage in the world in creative ways, they are of immeasurable value to the lives that participate in them and that will use them as models another day. Expression is a piece of the divine. To devalue or impede expression, or to carelessly throw it away, is to deny the divine and to degrade the human. Each of us would be utterly astounded if we were able to see clearly the coherent mind of the smallest among us. But never in all our days can we become the mind of another nor grasp the full richness of another. We can only glimpse a measure of that richness in the remnants of expression left to us.

V. EVADING THICKETS AND GAME WARDENS

Writing – the generation of ideas and the setting them out in forms that, in being read, reproduce something of the experience of the writer of value to the reader – is not just about objects packed, pickled, canned, and warehoused on library shelves, left to the custody, and at the privileged service, of academics and professionals. Expressions are alive and as independent of containment as the air we breathe. They are our common birthright and expressible in various ways that can be stronger and fresher the wider the participation and the more the retelling.

Efforts toward common letters, though perhaps deserving of less attention, do not merit being hounded by a parched posse of enraged critics bent on imposing, on all who stray onto the field, the mirage of starched standards conjured by professional writers. Suppression of expression is especially galling when common invention and insights, though plainly put, approach, equal or exceed the echoes upon echoes bouncing through the canyons of contemporary letters. From the perspective of collective progress, it is counterproductive for common letters to perpetually encounter miserly thin commitment to the act of sharing ideas among those few schooled to know better. In today's world, what we need are fresh ideas rather than the meager crumbs of convention. The only valid, and perhaps overriding, counterpoint with weight in this argument is time – and the need to escape the confines of cholesterol: how much time does modern man have to devote to the sedentary acts of reading, investigating, thinking and discussing? Of course that is a point difficult to overcome if we are hidebound by muzzling rules of engagement enforced by the constables of letters. If every cook were compelled to cook with the flourish of Julia Child or get out of the kitchen, there would be far fewer wholesome home-cooked meals. As the market alternative to local delicacies, big books careen toward sprawling obesity, chock full of factory-bred offerings and superfluous calories. Common letters, by comparison, are slight and uniquely prepared – the lean cuisine that nourishes without need of double-wide kitchens, fancy fixings, and the hangover diets required after long hours of butts glued to easy chairs.

Modern-day guilds claim many reasons for discouraging do-it-yourselfers; obviously not all these reasons are high minded or selfless. Whether as a house-kept pedigree or a pack of snoots, policing professionals maim for sport, having no appetite to devour prey for sustenance. The stiff constraints that professionals attempt to impose on the practice of writing, even if well intentioned, have unfortunate consequences if pressed too far: they too easily curb the joy of writing and inhibit a broadened participation in letters. (I am not, and never have been, one to abstain from playing golf, tennis or front-yard football merely because of the existence of professional leagues: I would rather do it than watch.) The danger of deference in this area, especially as regards excess reading, is that one finds it difficult to distinguish between one's own voice and ideas and those of prominent authors, including a string of geniuses stretching back centuries. In addition, there is such an abundance of excellent writing that one is quickly cowed to one's corner: one's little light is non-existent under the glow of Klieg lights. As a result, one may have to reconcile oneself to being unknown, ignored or avoided – unread. However, as I have just amply asserted at length and attempted to prove with plentiful examples, being read is but icing on the cake: basically irrelevant to the revelations and joy one accrues by investigating, thinking and creating a record of originality during the process of writing.

Professionalism is not bad in itself; it is definitely an order of aspiration desirable in one's livelihood. But it is harmful when it fights roundedness and drums it down. As any high-school counselor might say it: You cannot prosper – or attain glory – based solely on your SATs and degrees. You have to strive to be whole – and you need something of value to show for it.

VI. END OF THE RUN

When I had my friendly encounter with the academic over the Christmas holidays, I had an idea that had originated in a strong, enjoyable feeling while writing of my past life or some one or other thing from it, from reading the record of events and reflections made decades ago. However, over dinner and drinks that night, I had not yet formulated a complete idea of the importance of recollecting for the record: the writer's discovery during writing, the lasting utility of personal records, and the obstacles each individual must dodge in order to shine just a tiny bit among far brighter lights. I had not developed a theory and stony attitude, which academics hold in reserve, arming them to dispose of unacademic ideas all the more readily. Further proof of the truth I proffered, however, came yet again as I learned from this dialogue (which I thank you for enduring). The notion lingers that one does not always pre-think for moments of challenge or for moments of relaxed, free-flowing conversation: much of the thinking comes in open dialogue. Yet if, particularly in the face of smart sneers and one-line put-downs, one cannot stand pat and put up a quick formal defense, need one shut up? Emphatically not: I hold firm for calmly trusting intuitions of the moment – clear evidence born of facts, personal experience and hard-earned understanding – and endeavoring to express convictions our own way until the beasts are caught or we expire in the chase.

* * *


FOOTNOTE:

1. As I prepared to release this essay back into the wild, I happened upon a new feature on National Public Radio's weekday evening news program All Things Considered (27 January 2012). Once a month the program will ask a poet to visit the news facilities for a day and write a poem about the news headlines. In this first installment, the poet, Tracy K. Smith, said that she sometimes composes a poem in order to "understand" a news story better. She did not say that she writes a poem in order to impart her wisdom to an audience. It starts with a purely investigative intent that leads to discovery.

 

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