I read this entry in Emerson’s journal when I was 21.
Journal, March 29, 1832
I will not live out of me.
I will not see with others’ eyes.
My good is good, my evil ill.
I would be free— I cannot be
While I take things as others please to rate them.
I dare attempt to lay out my own road.
That which myself delights in shall be Good
That which I do not want— indifferent
That which I hate is Bad. That’s flat.
Henceforth, please God, forever I forego
The yoke of men’s opinions. I will be
Lighthearted as a bird & live with God.
I decided to live like that. Not praising what I don’t like. Not pretending to like it. Not making small talk that bores me. Not smiling at what I don’t consider funny. Being myself
And it proved harder than I imagined, especially—oddly–when it came to writing.
Thomas Merton observes in his essay “Integrity,”
“Many poets are not poets for the same reason that many religious men are not saints: they never succeed in being themselves. They never become the man or the artist who is called for by all the circumstances of their lives.
They waste their years in vain efforts to be some other poet, some other saint.
They wear out their minds and bodies in a hopeless endeavour to write somebody else’s poems or possess someone else’s spirituality.”
There can be an intense egoism in following everybody else. People are in a hurry to magnify themselves by imitating what is popular—and too lazy to think of anything better.
Hurry ruins saints as well as artists. They want quick success and they are in such haste to get it that they cannot take time to be true to themselves.
Masks, pretence and imitation: temptations in writing and blogging—areas in which, ironically, one should be most oneself.
“Every original writer must create the taste by which he is to be relished,” Wordsworth observed. Labouring in obscurity, a writer or blogger finds a voice, fashions a unique poetic style. Or perfects an expression of outrage at things rotten in the state of Christendom. And becomes hugely popular.
And then there are myriad imitators. But the flourishes, the pretzel sentences, the circuitous locutions–sound distorted in the echo chamber, obscuring rather than clarifying meaning.
However, “Me Too” books and blogs written in the updraft of a successful writer achieve a more rapid success! Of course, they do
In Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Mephistopheles offers Faust all the world at the cost of his soul. Faust thought he had a great deal– until he had to pay the price!
The Mephistophelean bargain which faces writers is compromising our one wild and precious life for success. However, by not writing about what really interests us, in a style we consider beautiful, we, ironically, sacrifice the very joys that attracted us to writing.
And if we write what “the market wants” and get it wrong–ah, the misery!
I was tempted as a younger writer. A memoir of my Indian Catholic childhood was the book I really wanted to write, but the two chapters I had written about volunteering with Mother Teresa won a Minnesota State Arts Board award; a Jerome Foundation award, and fellowships to Writers’ Conferences, and my professor thought I could find an editor and agent, which I did, but I tried to write the book the editor wanted; an elderly distinguished man who’d discovered several famous writers, writing not what interested me but what I thought would interest him, and in the style I thought he would like.
I spun out what I wanted to be two 30-40 page chapters into a whole book–my short cut to success!! Well, the book, written in blood through my pregnancy and two years of my toddler’s life, was rejected. Of course, it was! It was written for a career, not to express my soul’s imperatives.
I lay down on the carpet and wanted to die. Crushed!
I gave up writing for a season, became an entrepreneur, founded a small company I still own.
I eventually returned to writing, of course, sadder, wiser–and, in jerks, to drafting the book I really wanted to write.
But I have learnt from my mistakes, and now hope I will be too smart to expend my one wild and precious life writing on things that do not really interest me.
And if success, consequently, eludes me? Well, the internet and democratization of writing has changed things. Success is now on a continuum, and I am content to take my place on it, be it “high or low or soon or slow” and write for the joy of creating, as birds sing for the joy of singing.
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The first version of this was hosted by Esther Emery on her brilliant blog.