To do otherwise would be like painting half a room or, more graphically, opening the chest and leaving the valve unfixed. Inhale and exhale, systolic and diastolic, life-sustaining compliments.
“I read in order to find out what I need to know: To illuminate the riddle.”
We start in darkness. Slowly, the day, as we say, dawns on us. We need to know who and where we are. Half the story or a little more is waking up to the riddle. The rest is from books, the testimony of others who came before us. Books, even novels and especially essays and poems, are maps, field guides, how-to manuals.
“I think [deciding to be a writer is] a condition, a given; content comes later. You’re born into the condition of being an amphora; whether it’s wine or water that fills it afterward belongs to afterward. Lately I think of this given condition as a kind of curse, because there is no way out of it. What a relief it would be to have the freedom of other people!”
Said with helplessness and pride. The will to write precedes the ability to do so, and certainly the gift. The will to write is like an antigen. In some it spurs production of antibodies, and some of the antibodies are worth preserving.
“I no longer believe in Literature, capital L, with the same fervor I used to. I’ve learned to respect living, perhaps.”
A disease of the young, Literature-worship. Late onset is rare but not unknown. Life and literature now mingle at the molecular level. As with conjoined twins, separation can prove fatal.
“One must avoid ambition in order to write. Otherwise something else is the goal: some kind of power beyond the power of language. And the power of language, it seems to me, is the only kind of power a writer is entitled to.”
A baffling amalgam of chutzpah and humility, but she’s right. I know writers with no interest in language. They’re like carpenters who prefer to join boards without hammers and nails. In our little kingdom, words are passports, proof of citizenship.
“Cadence. Cadence is the fingerprint, isn’t it?”
She’s right, of course. Only one writer could leave a fingerprint like this: “A tract can be a trap. Certain magazine articles have the scent of so much per word. What is indisputable is that all of these are more or less in the position of a lepidopterist with his net: they mean to catch and skewer. They are focused on prey -- us. The genuine essay, in contrast, never thinks of us; the genuine essay may be the most self-centered (the politer word would be subjective) arena for human thought ever devised.” At once concise and expansive. Never to be mistaken for another.
“A writer is someone born with a gift. An athlete can run. A painter can paint. A writer has a facility with words. A good writer can also think. Isn’t that enough to define a writer by? The rest is idiosyncrasy—what I meant earlier when I spoke of the cadence of any single sentence. And what is idiosyncrasy except minute individual difference?”
Corollary: A gift can be rejected. That’s what makes it a gift. It can be abused, neglected, perverted. A gift is only half the story, or less.
“Write about what you don’t know. The point is that the self is limiting. The self—subjectivity—is narrow and bound to be repetitive. We are, after all, a species. When you write about what you don’t know, this means you begin to think about the world at large. You begin to think beyond the home-thoughts. You enter dream and imagination.”
There’s joy in reversing conventional wisdom. There’s joy in making things up. And there’s joy in possessing the self-confidence to do these things.
“There I was, at twenty-five, reading eighteen hours a day, novels, philosophy, criticism, poetry, Jewish history, Gibbon . . . I read and read and it made me into some kind of monster. I’m still that monster.”
The quoted passages are taken from Cynthia Ozick’s 1987 interview with The Paris Review. Ozick, our premier essayist and a superb writer of fiction, was born on this date, April 17, in 1928.