The coming of the New Year is time not for resolutions but stock-taking and gratitude. Life, as usual, has treated me better than I deserve. Almost a year ago I started working as a school substitute with special-education students, making each day an opportunity for self-forgetting. There’s good health, family and friends, of course, and an endless supply of reading and writing. D.J. Enright puts it like this in Interplay: A Kind of Commonplace Book (1995):
“The careful connecting of phrases, the discipline (too martial a word) of syntax, and hence of thought, however modest, the arrival of a degree of order (order can be more than it sound) in a world increasingly random and gratuitous, more abundant in assertion than in sense…[ellipsis in the original] Thus a rudimentary account of the continuing function of literature, or rather – for who can be sure what weight of responsibility it can still bear, what earnest expectation it can meet? – the mitigating intimations it holds out.”
For non- and indifferent writers, Enright’s observation will make little sense. Writing, like virtue, is its own reward, though some of us on occasion get paid for it. Enright’s first sentence describes the deep pleasure of writing as well as anything I remember reading. All that he leaves out is the sense of adventure, of diving head-first into page or screen, without a map, crash helmet or insurance – a legitimately extreme sport. Perhaps writing is a flaw or malady, a defect of character or constitution that rewards its host and, on occasion, others. Here is Enright’s next paragraph, in which he describes what I assumed was my peculiar little mental fillip, no one else’s:
“One pleasure in reading almost anything: focusing on a word or sentence and asking oneself how one would have put it. Gratifying if one’s rephrasing seems an improvement. Pleasing if, seeing why it is how it is, one concludes that the writer got it right, righter than one would have oneself.”
Either way, you can’t lose. There’s a fussy, neurotic aspect to being a writer-reader. Every worthwhile writer is an editor of his own and others’ words – that is, a critic.