So many books. So little time.
A lady walked into a milliner’s shop. “I have this party to attend,” she said. “I’m looking for a hat like no other.”
The milliner picked up a roll of ribbon and wrapped it around her head, shaping and fitting as he went along.
“Ah! beautiful,” the lady sighed. “How much do I owe you?”
The milliner named a sum that had his customer gasping in disbelief. “But it is just a roll of ribbon,” she exclaimed. The milliner unwrapped the ribbon and gave it to her. “The ribbon, madam, is free,” he said with a bow.
Writing is like that. Letters of the alphabet. Just letters, mere pencil strokes on paper. The letters, dear readers, are free; the masterpieces they create are paid for in blood — long nights and sweaty days, the unending search for the informing thought that brings them value.
Do we, then, cut a vein and let it bleed drops of blood onto the paper, as Hemingway is reputed to have said? No. Writing is not the spilling out, but the going within. A good writer, like a great actor, loses himself in the characters he creates, and finds himself with every character, every sentence and word chosen.
To find herself a writer has to first lose herself. To put his ‘I’ before the reader a writer has to find the ‘you’. Writing is best described in paired opposites, in binary terms almost, with the caveat that the opposites are not mutually exclusive but contained in each other. “The longest journey is the journey inwards,” wrote Dag Hammarskjold in his book Markings. So short a distance, so long the journey, and we may never reach the end.
Write anyway. The truths you have within you are yours, and yours alone. Unstated, they are lost forever. The prince and the pauper look at a bird on a distant tree. “Target practice,” thinks the prince. “Food,” hungers the pauper. The professor and the student see a thick notebook lying by the roadside. “Oh, oh, looks like someone’s thesis,” says the professor. “Kindling,” thinks the poor student shivering in the cold. Both voices need to be heard.
Shakespeare, master dramatist, paired the hero/heroine with the Fool, and gave him lines that state truths often invisible to the other characters. King Lear called the Fool “my philosopher”. Feste, in Twelfth Night, points Olivia to her excessive mourning:
Feste: Good madonna, why mournest thou?
Olivia: Good fool, for my brother’s death.
Feste: I think his soul is in hell, madonna.
Olivia: I know his soul is in heaven, fool.
Feste: The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your brother’s soul being in heaven. Take away the fool, gentlemen.
Writing requires courage. Disguise your words as coming from a fool, if you so desire. Take a lesson from Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky:
Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
Be brave. If you hold onto your truths you may be mocked and scorned. You may be disbelieved. That goes with the territory. Tell your truth anyway.