The Existential Keyboard

I hear the trill of a thrush in the woods across the river. The dogs hear it too and look up from nosing the ground. We’re out here before dawn every weekend morning, the dogs and I, and this is the first thrush we’ve heard this year. By next weekend the thrushes will be in full voice. Spring comes on. The waters of Lynn Canal quiet down, and soon the woods will be roaring with song.

Six months ago I started writing these essays because after 20 years of writing and editing and teaching I find that I have some things to say about the craft of writing. And writing these essays has helped clarify some stuff in my own head.

As spring approaches I think it’s a good time to try and put it all into perspective—put it all in perspective or maybe just confuse things utterly with a few wildly speculative thoughts about writing.

Writing is a social skill, something we learn from others and pass on. And it’s a good deed (when it is indeed good), something we do for the benefit of others. And readers who have followed this column since September will know that, for me, writing is philosophy.

It is an existential act by which we commit ourselves wholly to being in the world. It frees us momentarily from the illusions of ego, and in those moments we are set free to play in some existential zone between our readers and what we’re trying to say and why we’re saying it. And in that zone we move only by what choices we can and have to make. We become the act of writing.

(This all sounds like some kind of new age bologna, I know, but it’s just a description of what happens with mastery of any skill, really; when you’re doing it, there’s a real sense that you become the process. When writing, we lose ourselves, our egos, in the act of communicating with our readers, as our attention focuses entirely on those three fundamental concerns: who we’re talking to, what we’re trying to say, and why.)

The prospect of writing can sometimes paralyze us — the dreaded Writer’s Block. In that paralysis we see some of life’s absurdity, the way we get trapped in and by our own freedom. It’s one of those boggling paradoxes that Samuel Beckett depicts so bluntly in “Waiting for Godot”:


Vladimir: Well? Shall we go?

Estragon: Yes, let’s go.

[They do not move.]


(Beckett, an Irishman, wrote the play originally in French, and in that final stage direction (“ils ne bougent pas”) the verb “bouger” — to move — seems even more expressive in the English word that derives from it: They do not budge.)

In writing as in life, that paralysis — a product of our freedom to choose to do whatever we want — is resolved by what we need to do for others.

When we’re earnestly trying to communicate as well as we can (and who would choose to communicate worse?), we find an escape from the freedom to choose, from the freedom to write any way we want, in our responsibility to our readers.

That’s what gets left out of Beckett’s vision in “Waiting for Godot”; the only thing that could make Didi and Gogo budge is a responsibility to others. That responsibility would liberate them from their freedom to choose not to move.

(And Samuel Beckett knew this better than most of us. Living in Paris during the Occupation, he risked his life working for the Resistance, and although he dismissed his efforts as “Boy Scout stuff,” the French Government awarded him two medals of honor for his courage: the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille de la Reconnaissance Française.  As he told one critic years later, “You simply couldn’t stand by with your arms folded.”)

Throughout this column I’ve insisted that writing well isn’t a matter of following all the dos and don’ts and the shoulds and shouldn’ts. It’s not an awareness of the rules and guidelines that makes us good writers, but an awareness of all the options at our disposal.

Good writing means knowing all the options we have for answering those three fundamental questions: Who am I talking to? What am I trying to say? And why?

And if you still want some rules and guidelines, here’s one for you:  Forget who you are. Get yourself out of the way. Become your reader.

It doesn’t matter what you’re writing. It could be an analytical report for work or a poem for your husband; a letter to your step-daughter, a memo at the office, or an editorial for the newspaper. It could be another one of your secret pornographic novels. It doesn’t matter.

Writing is philosophy. Each new occasion for writing gives us another chance to learn how to live.



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