Monday, September 12, 2016

`What's Going on When We Read and Write'

“It is not wise to look too hard at what’s going on when we read and write, for in both we are dithering around on the boundary between the demonstrable world and the inviolably private world of our minds.”

It surprises me, but I think more and become more self-examining while reading than writing. Reading is intimate. Our minds mingle with others. Reading, by definition, is collaborative. No one reads alone. We read many pages and think: “I remember nothing I have just read.” Or: “I want to read that again.” Or: “I must copy that in the notebook.” All suggest an ongoing engagement with the author, a conversation of equal parts censure and congratulation.

Writing is more instinctive, less self-conscious; more like turning on the faucet than tossing the salad. The first sentence has already appeared. We transcribe it, and it leads to another. It’s as though we clear the mind of distraction in order to read the words that already exist, inscribed with the aid of every worthy writer we have ever read. Then comes revision. “Dithering” is dangerous. The words are a gift. 

The sentence quoted above is from Guy Davenport’s postscript to Twelve Stories (Counterpoint, 1997). Davenport also says each of his story collections “was meant to be the last,” and the final story in Da Vinci’s Bicycle (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979), “A Field of Snow on a Slope of the Rosenberg,” “ends with a farewell to writing.” Here is the third-to-last paragraph of that story, narrated by Robert Walser in his Swiss asylum:

“And their books, these people who keep writing, who reads them? It is now a business like any other. I try not to bore them with an old man’s talk when they come, the few who want to ask me about writing, about the time before both the wars, about Berlin. I do not tell them how much of all that misery was caused by writers, by men who said they were writers. I do not tell them that I quit writing because I had nothing at all, any more, to say.”

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