Epistemic Epistemology

I’ve been thinking about thinking, if you’ll pardon my meta.  More to the point, I’ve been thinking about what happens to thinking when it becomes writing.  Thoughts may or may not be safe if they’re left in your head, but once they’re on paper other people start to get concerned.  A diary, of which the weblog is a public variety, is often private.  You may write to remember.  You may write to stab at mortality.  You may do it just for fun.  No matter why you do it, if enough people read it, your writing will be misunderstood.  Ironically, even in a nation with freedom of speech, and the press, the writing rights of individuals aren’t guaranteed.  Take this blog, for example.  Over the decade I’ve kept it, a few jobs—two actual and one potential—have instructed me in what I could or could not write.  Like Niagara Falls, you’re getting only a portion of what flows in my river of thoughts.

Thoughts can change the world.  Considering the news lately that might not be such a bad thing.  In any case, the vast majority of writing remains private.  Even with Amazon and others making self-publishing simple, it’s not easy to get ideas out there.  Getting the attention of a major publisher has odds that are vanishingly small.  And the internet’s a big place, getting bigger by the day.  In cyberspace nobody can hear you scream, I guess.  Even on a smaller scale, my own computer complains that I write too much.  “Not enough space for updates,” it says in its dialogue box dialect, “too many documents.”  Never mind that I purchased it for writing, and a bit of surfing.  It wants more of the latter.  Other’s words, in other words, commodified.

My writing life began young, but not as young as that of many fictional writers like Jo March or Francie Nolan.  Our apartments and eventually small house had no space for one of the kids to hole up and write.  When I did start, in my early teens, I breached the dam without anticipating the results.  I’d been reading a lot, and writing seemed the right way to join the conversation.  I started composing novels before high school, but my first published book (and for many years my only one) was my dissertation.  I always believed that writing could be done on the side for any job, but that’s not the case.  Well, it is if you keep it in your diary, I suppose.  If you open the tap, however, you’d better make sure you have a mighty big glass in hand.

Trees and Cities

Some years ago I decided I’d read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.  I had no idea what it was about, but I’d heard cultural references to it over the years.  So I decided to read it.  Then I saw how thick it was.  I confess I shouldn’t do this, but when I sign up for reading challenges, I want to make sure I can finish them.  Books tipping the scales at over 400 pages make me nervous.  Although I work with books, I’m a slow reader, and I panicked when I saw the size of Betty Smith’s ouvre.  All of which is to say that I’ve finally done it.  I’m glad I did, although, as someone who grew up in quite humble circumstances, with an alcoholic father, some of the story hit pretty close to home.

What really stood out, however, was how women and girls were treated in the early part of the last century.  They couldn’t vote.  Full-time work was often difficult for them to find, and when they did it didn’t pay well.  Francie Nolan, however, overcomes this because she’s smart, driven, and literate.  Her reading ultimately rescues her family after her father dies prematurely.  I’m certain there are other messages in this novel.  Other lessons to be learned.  Reading is nevertheless a great takeaway from any book.  As a symbol of its time, Francie learns to read from the Bible and Shakespeare.  These days that combination can get you into trouble.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of the book, for someone who writes instinctively, is that Francie gives up her writing in a deal with God.  When her mother goes into labor and Francie fears she’ll die, she makes a bargain that, strangely, she doesn’t seem to regret too much at the end of the story.  Some of us find writing as natural as breathing or eating.  I can forget to do both when I’m thoroughly into the zone.  I can’t image having that taken from me.  Smith notes that as she reflects on her unholy deal with the Holy One, that she now better understands God.  Indeed, in a kind of Kierkegaardian moment about halfway through she declares she no longer believes in God at all.  Her teacher doesn’t understand her writing.  Ah, but that’s a familiar dilemma to those of us who dare to attempt this craft.  For its size, the book was a fairly smooth read.  It took several weeks, but I learned about myself as a writer, and that makes it worth it.