Sunday, January 23, 2005

This part of the exchange

between Robert Birnbaum and Russell Banks at identity theory especially caught my attention.

Birnbaum: Why do people want to be writers today?

Banks: There are people who want to be writers because they think writers are celebrated people in society. And they want the percs that go with all that. And there are people who want to be writers because they love to write. And they care. A much smaller number [laughs] than the other. But they are the ones that really do become writers. Because they love the process and they'll participate in that process, without rewards for a decade or more before they begin to publish because they love the process. Through writing, through that process, they realize that they become more intelligent, and more honest and more imaginative than they can be in any other part of their life.

Birnbaum: Are we talking about the notion of living an authentic life? That seems to be what is offered when you take up writing. Our natural language is something we all--

Banks: --have access to. That's what I mean about they love writing, love the process because it makes one smarter. It does. If you dedicate your attention to discipline in your life you become smarter while you are writing than while you are hanging out with your pals or in any other line of work. And you do become more honest because you are forced to; and it takes you places that you can't go otherwise. So it's like any other kind of rigorous discipline sequence with a tradition behind it--whether it's Zen Buddhism or psychotherapy or whatever. You do it long enough, it orders your life and does give you a kind of authenticity that you can't obtain otherwise. Especially in this society where there is less and less opportunity for that. It's so commodified a world we live in that you end up a huckster, no matter what you do.

Birnbaum: It's not even a matter of discussion except in some rare instances, maybe as an undergraduate somebody may stumble across a small pocket of people thinking about how you live an authentic life. It's not a common topic as far as I can tell, is it?

Banks: No, it’s not.

This is something I often think about, but was especially thinking about recently while reading Leslie Farber. It's a bit high-minded for me in its phrasing (there are some things you can say when you're an eminent sixty-some-year-old man that you just can't say if you're me, and that's just the way it is), but I couldn't agree more. Writing a book is an awful lot of trouble, really. Surely the main reason to do it is because you learn things when you write a book that you can't learn any other way? I feel that too many academics forget this--you read certain books and you think that their authors really didn't open themselves up to anything in particular (and lots of writers, academic and otherwise, write the same book again and again in different guises). I don't know--I love novels, novels of all kinds, including novels where nobody learns anything in particular, whether you're talking about the writer or the reader--but I don't know that I'd actually be interested in writing them instead of just reading them in large quantities if it wasn't that you can learn something distinctively different writing a novel than writing, say, a critical essay or an academic monograph. The modes are powerfully complementary, and I don't see why more people don't use both as a way of advancing the greater cause of what Banks is talking about here.

Well, that's my serious thought for the day... A "rigorous discipline sequence with a tradition behind it"... that's just excellent... Must get the novel, BTW. I have a major obsession with chimpanzees and the women who work with primates and minor obsessions with Liberia and ex-radicals from the 60s (witness Susan Choi's excellent American Woman). Seriously, when I was eight years old I had a complete fixation on In the Shadow of Man and thought I was going to grow up and become a second Jane Goodall. And though I totally get all the critiques, I still say that's an extraordinary book and an amazing person...

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