I’ve found enough essays I’ve enjoyed in The Best American Essays 2006 to keep me going, although I’ve had lots of grave doubts about the overall quality of the book. My ambivalence has continued with my latest essay “Why Write?” by Alan Shapiro. I found myself irritated with Shapiro’s silly sense of humor through the beginning of the essay, until I got to one extraordinary page that redeemed the whole thing for me.
Maybe something is wrong with my sense of humor, but I found these opening sentences intensely irritating:
Some years ago, I went to a child psychologist. (If Henny Youngman had written this opening sentence, he would have added: “The kid didn’t do a thing for me.” But I digress.)
Anyway, the essay begins with the story of how Shapiro gets diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder as an adult, having been tested when one of his children was diagnosed, after which the doctor tells him that his writing can be seen as a “compensatory behavior” for his disability. In response, Shapiro says something genuinely funny:
“Let me get this straight,” I said. “I write books in order to make up for my inability to remember the names of the people I meet at a party, or because I come home from the grocery store with a red pepper instead of a tomato?”
He goes on from there to consider the various reasons he’s sought a career in writing, since, after all, the money’s no good and fame is so fleeting. After some irritatingly silly joking, Shapiro gets to a serious answer to his question about why he writes, by way of Elizabeth Bishop, and along the way he addresses the question of why we read (it’s a long passage, but a great one):
Bishop writes that what we want from great art is the same thing necessary for its creation, and that is a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration. We write, Bishop implies, for the same reason we read or look at paintings or listen to music: for the total immersion of the experience, the narrowing and intensification of focus to the right here, right now, the deep joy of bringing the entire soul to bear upon a single act of concentration. It is self-forgetful even if you are writing about the self, because you yourself have disappeared into the pleasure of making; your identity — the incessant, transient, noisy New York Stock Exchange of desires and commitments, ambitions, hopes, hates, appetites, and interests — has been obliterated by the rapture of complete attentiveness. In that extended moment, opposites cohere: the mind feels and the heart thinks, and receptivity’s a form of fierce activity. Quotidian distinctions between mind and body, self and other, space and time, dissolve.
Now as far as writing goes, this passage doesn’t ring true to me, as I can’t really remember ever feeling that absorbed in my writing; or, if I have felt that way, it’s not something that has “stuck,” something I need to return to again and again. This is probably why I tend not to think of myself as “a writer,” although I do a decent amount of it. Shapiro speculates that writers may have a reputation for suffering from melancholy, not because good writing requires sadness and depression, but because after feeling the absorption and attentiveness of writing, Bishop’s “perfectly useless concentration,” their non-writing lives seem lacking and they feel haunted until they can return to that trance-like state.
This passage does ring true to me when I think about reading, however; and I like how Bishop describes both writing and reading as activities that can create this happy absorption. Bishop portrays reading or viewing a work of art as a creative act in itself and her formulation excludes nobody; everybody can interact with art and be self-forgetful for a while.
What really made me happy about this part of the essay, however, were the next lines:
Athletes know all about this nearly hallucinatory state. They call it being in the zone. They feel simultaneously out of body and at one with the body.
Yes, I know exactly what he’s talking about. Sometimes when I’m riding or hiking I feel like a truly whole human being, no separation between my mind and my body. I’m not thinking about what I’m doing; I’m just doing it. I’m just a being walking or riding a bike, wholly focused on the present moment.
And then, to add to all this goodness, Shapiro writes a passage that dovetails beautifully with Litlove’s recent post on the symbolic and the semiotic, the symbolic being straightforward language and the semiotic being the musical, poetic quality of language. Shapiro talks about how infants experience a form of the concentration he has been describing, expressing it through their babbling babytalk. Of his children as infants he says,
He or she would be talking, but the meaning of the words were indistinguishable from the sensation of the sound, and the sound was part and parcel of the mouth that made the sound, of the hands and fingers that the mouth was sucking as it sang.
In other words, the symbolic and the semiotic are one and the same. And from there, he moves to how we as adults continually seek out this lost relationship to language, the lost connection of the symbolic and the semiotic:
No matter how sophisticated our poems may be, or how deadly serious they are about eradicating or exposing the terrible injustices around us, I still think that we are trying — by means of words, of consciousness — to reawaken that pre-verbal joy, to repossess, reinhabit what someone else has called the seriousness of a child at play. Bishop says this concentration’s useless because it is its own reward, the mysterious joy of it. It is singing for the sake of singing.
Isn’t it beautiful how this all comes together? Writing and reading, and walking and riding for that matter, are ways of finding unity and wholeness — of the body and the mind, of the adult self with the child self. The close of Litlove’s post brings it together wonderfully:
Great writers know how to tap into and express the semiotic in their works, and so what they say speaks to us at a profound level. I like to think of this layer of other meaning, beyond and within communication, as the defining characteristic of the literary. And our ability, from birth, to hear and express it, to tap into it and to play with it, is what makes us all fundamentally literary creatures, in a basic instinctual way.