On Reading & Writing; On Revision
I recently made a factual mistake in something I wrote. Not a major mistake, in the sense of having real-world consequences; not something that cannot be corrected. Look; I have already corrected myself and perhaps only a person or two will ever know––let alone care–– that the mistake was made. Still, it is unnerving to be sure at this point in life and to find oneself so wrong.
Here’s something Susan Sontag wrote that I found consoling:
What I write is other than me. As what I write is smarter than I am. Because I can rewrite it. My books know what I once knew––fitfully, intermittently. And getting the best word on the page does not seem any easier, even after so many years of writing. On the contrary.
Here is the great difference between reading and writing. Reading is a vocation, a skill at which, with practice, you are bound to become more expert. What you accumulate as a writer is mostly uncertainties and anxieties.
All these feelings of inadequacy on the part of the writer––this writer, anyway––are predicated on the conviction that literature matters. “Matters” is surely too pale a word. That there are books which are necessary, that is, books which, while reading them, you know you’ll reread. Maybe more than once. Is there a greater privilege than to have a consciousness expanded by, filled with, pointed to literature?
Book of wisdom, exemplar of mental playfulness, dilator of sympathies, faithful recorder of a real world (not just the commotion inside one head), servant of history, advocate of contrary and defiant emotions––a novel that feels necessary can be, should be, most of these things.
As to whether there will continue to be readers who share this high notion of fiction, well, “There’s no future to that question,” as Duke Ellington replied when asked why he was to be found playing morning programs at the Apollo. Best just to keep rowing along.*
My sympathies to those of you battling the latest blizzard. Please don’t blame the Great Lakes State for this one––it came out of Oklahoma and up through Ohio, missing all but the easternmost portion of Michigan. Here, it is windy and cold (20 degrees F) and sunny blue skies. When I took the dogs out and stood back from the wind, catching the light and heat reflecting off the lapstrake siding, it was almost balmy.
I must clean up my work area, and––with no papers to grade this weekend––should be able to make some progress on a new poem.
*From “Writing as Reading,” by Susan Sontag, Collected in Where the Stress Falls: Essays (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001). The painting is "Kissing the Moon" (1904) by Winslow Homer.