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Just One Thing

Jed Perl on the virtues of not trying to publish writings by a person when they weren’t intended to be published:

Writing, before it is anything else, is a way of clarifying one’s thoughts. This is obviously true of forms such as the diary, which are inherently solitary. But even those of us who write for publication can conclude, once we have clarified certain thoughts, that these thoughts are not especially valuable, or are not entirely convincing, or perhaps are simply not thoughts we want to share with others, at least not now. For many of us who love the act of writing—even when we are writing against a deadline with an editor waiting for the copy—there is something monastic about the process, a confrontation with one’s thoughts that has a value apart from the proximity or even perhaps the desirability of any other reader. I believe that most writing worth reading is the product, at least to some degree, of this extraordinarily intimate confrontation between the disorderly impressions in the writer’s mind and the more or less orderly procession of words that the writer manages to produce on the page. When I think about the writers I loved to read when I was in high school and college, I know what mattered most to me was the one-on-one relationship I felt I was developing with the writer’s thoughts. It was fantastic to feel I was alone with a writer, engaged in a splendid intellectual or imaginative conversation. (The wonder of reading Henry James’s late prose was in seeing his magnificent, disorderly thoughts achieve their infinitely complex order.)

I am not saying that writers need to be or ought to be isolated, either from other writers or from the reading public at large. But writers must to some degree believe that they are alone with their own words. And writers who are alone with their words will quite naturally, from time to time, conclude that some of those words should remain private. This needs to be emphasized right now, when so few people in the publishing industry understand why anything that has been written, and especially written by a well-known author, should not be published, and not published with the widest possible readership in mind.

I wouldn’t say that my  blog has  earth-shattering confessions (it certainly doesn’t contain my most interesting writing specimens).  But I take comfort in knowing that most of what I write and post will be overlooked by the world.   Sometimes though, old or unpublished stuff can still be worth reading.  We need to differentiate between private incidental writing (which is  just half-thought out) and private writing which is semi-finished but which you never had  time to put in finished form and writing which the author chooses to  abandon.

I have    fiction which I wrote in my twenties. None of it is boring; some of it is incredible.  Most were put in an almost final state in the nineties (and submitted to various literary competitions and literary magazines without success). I still haven’t gotten around to digitalizing any of it. I have a story called “Human Experiment” which I wrote in 1989-90. One of the best and funniest things I’ve written. It is certainly in finished form (aside from maybe a phrase or two).  I certainly intend to digitalize it and make it available (I even have plans to write a 21st century sequel).  I am a much better writer now than  in 1990, but Human Experiment is still one of my best stories. And yet, it has been read by only 10-20 people (most of whom were editors eager to push it back into a SASE).

Some  writings from that period were interesting and close to finished, but later struck me as not particularly noteworthy. I  left these pieces alone through polite indifference. 

Some things I wrote during that period were outstanding but unfinished. I wrote a novella in the 1990s called Mind Reader. At the time I considered it one of my best (and  most innovative) stories. But I haven’t gotten around to revising it. (There are various personal reasons for putting it off which I won’t get into).

A writer quickly learns that  there never is enough time to flesh out 99% of  his  ideas. This is particularly true if you lack steady  financial support. Commercial success allows  more time to flesh out  ideas, and that is a definite advantage, but it doesn’t prevent a weekend writer from writing brilliant things.   With me, everything I write involves sacrifice (in time, money and effort).  I make this sacrifice willingly and happily;  but if I’m going to make sacrifices to do something, it better be worth it. For me at least, writing a potboiler or a Stephen King horror novel wouldn’t seem to merit personal sacrifice.  

I live a relatively solitary life, so I have the luxury of being able to pursue things single-mindedly. At the same time, I spend little time  on my ancient stuff.  All my old pieces are sitting in a box in my bedroom. I would love to spend a year resurrecting old stuff. But faced with the choice between resurrecting old stuff and giving birth to new stuff,  I have usually opted for   new creations.

This blog introduces additional questions. I currently have 175 blogposts in draft form. Granted,  some  were false starts, but about  50 or so posts are still interesting enough that I should develop them.  But just because I publish something on a blog doesn’t mean it’s finished. Often it’s not (and I apologize to readers who have to deal with writing of mine which is less than my best).  For my longer blog posts,  I will go back days, weeks or even months later to tighten things up. (Even so, I tend to regard writing on a blog to be an inferior kind of writing).

I have various text files of story ideas and sketches and a few half-written stories. Most are junk, although occasionally I will be able to use a key phrase or idea from one of them.   I used to write long letters and emails to friends which I used to flesh out my thoughts and feelings. That’s a habit I no longer indulge in – although another pernicious habit – making long comments on another person’s blog post – is hard to break. 

I can understand how a person’s  unintentional and  private ramblings can turn out to be interesting. (Mine are usually NOT).  But that is missing the point. Persuading people to read things you wrote is hard enough; persuading them to read your less polished or serious stuff is harder still.  20 years from now,  I expect the same will be true. Occasionally, society forms a cult around a writer (and  will value  every single random utterances by this person no matter how mundane). For most writers alive today, the real challenge  is persuading people to read just one thing you have written. Just one thing. 

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