Why write? (or read? or ride my bike?)

I’ve found enough essays I’ve enjoyed in The Best American Essays 2006 to keep me going, although I’ve had lots of grave doubts about the overall quality of the book. My ambivalence has continued with my latest essay “Why Write?” by Alan Shapiro. I found myself irritated with Shapiro’s silly sense of humor through the beginning of the essay, until I got to one extraordinary page that redeemed the whole thing for me.

Maybe something is wrong with my sense of humor, but I found these opening sentences intensely irritating:

Some years ago, I went to a child psychologist. (If Henny Youngman had written this opening sentence, he would have added: “The kid didn’t do a thing for me.” But I digress.)

Anyway, the essay begins with the story of how Shapiro gets diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder as an adult, having been tested when one of his children was diagnosed, after which the doctor tells him that his writing can be seen as a “compensatory behavior” for his disability. In response, Shapiro says something genuinely funny:

“Let me get this straight,” I said. “I write books in order to make up for my inability to remember the names of the people I meet at a party, or because I come home from the grocery store with a red pepper instead of a tomato?”

He goes on from there to consider the various reasons he’s sought a career in writing, since, after all, the money’s no good and fame is so fleeting. After some irritatingly silly joking, Shapiro gets to a serious answer to his question about why he writes, by way of Elizabeth Bishop, and along the way he addresses the question of why we read (it’s a long passage, but a great one):

Bishop writes that what we want from great art is the same thing necessary for its creation, and that is a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration. We write, Bishop implies, for the same reason we read or look at paintings or listen to music: for the total immersion of the experience, the narrowing and intensification of focus to the right here, right now, the deep joy of bringing the entire soul to bear upon a single act of concentration. It is self-forgetful even if you are writing about the self, because you yourself have disappeared into the pleasure of making; your identity — the incessant, transient, noisy New York Stock Exchange of desires and commitments, ambitions, hopes, hates, appetites, and interests — has been obliterated by the rapture of complete attentiveness. In that extended moment, opposites cohere: the mind feels and the heart thinks, and receptivity’s a form of fierce activity. Quotidian distinctions between mind and body, self and other, space and time, dissolve.

Now as far as writing goes, this passage doesn’t ring true to me, as I can’t really remember ever feeling that absorbed in my writing; or, if I have felt that way, it’s not something that has “stuck,” something I need to return to again and again. This is probably why I tend not to think of myself as “a writer,” although I do a decent amount of it. Shapiro speculates that writers may have a reputation for suffering from melancholy, not because good writing requires sadness and depression, but because after feeling the absorption and attentiveness of writing, Bishop’s “perfectly useless concentration,” their non-writing lives seem lacking and they feel haunted until they can return to that trance-like state.

This passage does ring true to me when I think about reading, however; and I like how Bishop describes both writing and reading as activities that can create this happy absorption. Bishop portrays reading or viewing a work of art as a creative act in itself and her formulation excludes nobody; everybody can interact with art and be self-forgetful for a while.

What really made me happy about this part of the essay, however, were the next lines:

Athletes know all about this nearly hallucinatory state. They call it being in the zone. They feel simultaneously out of body and at one with the body.

Yes, I know exactly what he’s talking about. Sometimes when I’m riding or hiking I feel like a truly whole human being, no separation between my mind and my body. I’m not thinking about what I’m doing; I’m just doing it. I’m just a being walking or riding a bike, wholly focused on the present moment.

And then, to add to all this goodness, Shapiro writes a passage that dovetails beautifully with Litlove’s recent post on the symbolic and the semiotic, the symbolic being straightforward language and the semiotic being the musical, poetic quality of language. Shapiro talks about how infants experience a form of the concentration he has been describing, expressing it through their babbling babytalk. Of his children as infants he says,

He or she would be talking, but the meaning of the words were indistinguishable from the sensation of the sound, and the sound was part and parcel of the mouth that made the sound, of the hands and fingers that the mouth was sucking as it sang.

In other words, the symbolic and the semiotic are one and the same.  And from there, he moves to how we as adults continually seek out this lost relationship to language, the lost connection of the symbolic and the semiotic:

No matter how sophisticated our poems may be, or how deadly serious they are about eradicating or exposing the terrible injustices around us, I still think that we are trying — by means of words, of consciousness — to reawaken that pre-verbal joy, to repossess, reinhabit what someone else has called the seriousness of a child at play. Bishop says this concentration’s useless because it is its own reward, the mysterious joy of it. It is singing for the sake of singing.

Isn’t it beautiful how this all comes together? Writing and reading, and walking and riding for that matter, are ways of finding unity and wholeness — of the body and the mind, of the adult self with the child self. The close of Litlove’s post brings it together wonderfully:

Great writers know how to tap into and express the semiotic in their works, and so what they say speaks to us at a profound level. I like to think of this layer of other meaning, beyond and within communication, as the defining characteristic of the literary. And our ability, from birth, to hear and express it, to tap into it and to play with it, is what makes us all fundamentally literary creatures, in a basic instinctual way.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

10 responses to “Why write? (or read? or ride my bike?)

  1. The humor in the essay does seem like it would be annoying, but he rescues it all so nicely it sounds like. The intense concentration he and Bishop describe really is pure pleasure. I get it when reading, sometimes when writing, but most definitely with physical activity. Sometimes it even comes over me when I’m weeding the garden.


  2. I didn’t think the humor was very funny, but I like the points the author makes. I think everyone likes to be absorbed in something that might seem irrelevant to others. We all need something that takes up all our concentration, that makes us forget everything else. To me (and to most other litbloggers, I suspect), that’s why we read; for others, it might be building in a ship in a bottle, playing a musical instrument, or something like that. My friend often wonders how I can read so much, but he also understands it some degree; he’s said that seeing me read is like seeing someone get high. And with really absorbing books (like Harry Potter, for me), when I finally put it down, I literally get a buzz and I can’t wait to get my next fix. And I’ll never forget what another friend had said to me after I finally set down “House of Leaves”: “You look as though you just got laid.” I didn’t have an orgasm, mind you, but for me, the effect of a really absorbing book is comparable to the effect an orgasm has on the brain.


  3. I’d say that long quote would make up for any other irritations in the essay. Actually when I read it I thought he/she *was* talking about reading. I completely understand that feeling of being completely absorbed!! That is what I love about reading. I imagine that your cycling must also be intense in that way, too. You are doing well with this book of essays. I admit I might have given up before now–but I am glad you are sharing the good bits with us!


  4. I wonder if there is a difference between those who write fiction and those who write nonfiction. I can see “the zone” much better with fiction. Many things that I truly enjoy are for the process, that release from time, which seems to be suspended, almost nonexistent. Very interesting post!


  5. What a coincidence – this essay does indeed fit in exactly with the semiotic/symbolic divide and you make the links between them exquisitely. A beautifully accomplished post!


  6. Baby D.

    As I was reading Bishop’s description of “a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration”, I was reminded of my experiences doing mountain bike races or playing soccer and rugby. And there it was, called out in the next paragraph, the zone. So that’s why I derive more pleasure when I push myself to play harder in recreational games, and how in races I could go down steep trails I would hesitate on in regular rides. And why I listen to audiobooks on my commute to work.


  7. Del

    I also think that “the zone” we can enter while reading is similar to the “zone” experienced by atheleles. I used to run, and can remember that experience. I have a similar experience when practicing music once my proficiency with a piece is fluent enough, which takes a lot of preparation time – so entering “the zone” by reading is faster. Performing artists are always trying to find ways of entering this “zone” at will, so as to be able to give better public performances. Too bad one can’t simply read a favorite book while simultaneously playing an instrument!


  8. LK

    I am printing all of this out so I can fully absorb it myself. Thank you for this wonderful post.

    Shooting from the hip here, I would characterize the “absorption” or “zone” of writing as “engagement.” We have to few opportunities to be truly engaged: that is, all of our consciousness and being focused into the task at hand. I am thankful I have writing to bring me to that state of grace, if only on occasion. Personally and without any anthropological training, I’d say being able to engage in a purposeful task is a human need.


  9. Stefanie, I suspect the absorption he’s talking about can come with a lot of different activities, and that people find many ways to enjoy it. I can see how gardening would sometimes get you in that zone.

    Brandon, reading as drugs, reading as sex — keep talking like that and everybody will be reading! I don’t know why they aren’t already, actually ….

    Danielle, the more I think about the essay, the more I’m willing to forgive his irritating sense of humor — it was a really memorable piece. Indeed, that absorption is one of the best things about reading, isn’t it?

    Jenclair, interesting question about fiction and nonfiction — that may very well be so, and why I don’t find writing so absorbing, and I’m purely a nonfiction writer.

    Thank you Litlove; I couldn’t believe I’d come across two wonderful pieces of writing that had so much to say to each other.

    Baby D., I’ve never tried mountain bike racing (and probably never will), but I can see what you mean about a race making you more willing to take risks. When I’m racing on the road, I ride at speeds I wouldn’t normally; I get so absorbed in what I’m doing, it doesn’t feel at all dangerous.

    Del, That’s an interesting aspect of performance, that you can achieve that absorbed state, but that it takes a lot of work. I imagine it’s as addicting as Shapiro says writing is.

    LK, Thanks! Engagement is exactly it, I agree — and we can be engaged in so many different things. I like how you put it, “all of our consciousness and being focused into the task at hand.” It’s a form of meditation, whatever we’re doing.


  10. ok so where can i find the Shapiro Essay. is it online?


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