Saturday, April 10, 2004

Writing on the Brain

There are few more accomplished essayists now writing in the English language than Joseph Epstein, the former editor of The American Scholar and for years a writing teacher at Northwestern University. Part of that I would attribute to his impossibly learned nature, and another to his singularly lucid style. But as he notes in this brilliant little piece on the sources of the writing instinct, simply keeping at the craft through years, even decades of focused apprenticeship, provides much of the answer. In this piece, he considers the notions of writing and other artistic expression as being a response to depression or a form of therapy for inner brokeness, and mostly dismisses both. Instead, he wonderfully riffs on what first made him want to write at the age of 20, more than a half century ago. "As a young would-be writer, I harbored no elevated notions of bringing truth or beauty into the world. Instead I wanted ardently to bring me into the world, to call me to its attention." I think that will ring true for most serious writers who are honest about the early sources of their inspiration, which had little to do with what prissy English teachers (mostly non-writers) would grandly refer to as "the muse." Mostly, the will to write is generally an assertion of pure ego, an insistence that one has something to say that others ought to hear, even if it's only one other person sitting alone in a room reading one's words. Even if it's merely a tender love note sent to your trembling sweetheart. Call it a foolish, proud, even silly idea, as it often is. Hell, call it therapy for the soul if you prefer. Just don't stop doing it, if that's what you were meant to, called to, do.


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