Why I Write: On the Discovery of Wingless Parrots Incapable of Speech
24 August 2019 at 3:32 pm CDT
On the discovery of wingless parrots incapable of speech
"Have a lived life instead of a career. Put yourself in the safekeeping of good taste. Lived freedom will compensate you for a few losses. … If you don’t like the style of others, cultivate your own. Get to know the tricks of reproduction, be a self-publisher even in conversation, and then the joy of working can fill your days."
What are the limits of what writing can do for us?
In part I write to answer this question. To experience those boundaries. There is a long journey ahead before reaching that level. Before having enough courage and stamina to stay at the limit of what writing can do for long enough to glimpse the sublime. Maybe even to glimpse what cannot be as we currently understand things and ourselves.
What can we use writing for?
In part I also write to answer this question. This one feels pragmatic. When I explore what can be done with writing, I wonder, Why isn’t everyone writing? All the time? Everyone should be. For example, How can a person honestly weigh a belief without placing competing arguments on a scale?
Personally, writing has proven the single most important activity for analyzing the past (regrets, successes, simple nostalgia), for realizing the past doesn’t define me, creating worlds (to explore ethical, philosophical, and political questions), for constraining haphazard thoughts (to calm those mental surges that lead to over-excitement), to give myself a chance to be alone with my thoughts, to establish worthwhile goals.
Like audio and video, the written word can be stored. A plaque reads: There once was a cabinet here to file ideas. Behold! Here is a box we describe as the cloud, but it does the same thing, it stores files.
Usefully, in either form, these files can be accessed forever or chanced upon by travelers and adventurers. (For example, I recently happened upon an email I'd written to my history teacher back in Houston summarizing my experience in Beijing as he had asked for updates on Communist China.)
My favorite kind of writing is the going in search of.
Have you ever glimpsed something, but only for a moment? To give life to these glimpses, to recreate them, I write.
To rediscover these glimpses, imagine that I gather a search party and send them out onto a landscape resembling the entrance to an abandoned landfill.
There, the party finds three categories of things.
Invariably it stumbles onto metal containers with old but readable pages inside manila folders. It seems someone has thrown these out. Might they contain…secrets? The party reluctantly passes them up. Not merely because the bins are heavy. Mainly because those files were someone else’s glimpses; not their patron’s.
A serviceable bulldozer is found which effortlessly carves away layers of trash. The party unearths interesting artifacts for which it wasn’t necessarily looking. For example, wingless parrots refusing to repeat what is spoken to them. This is the second category. The party doesn’t have time to return to the patron to ask if wingless birds are worthwhile, to ask whether this or that should be brought back as evidence of the glimpses. Some artifacts are kept. Some discarded. They agree not to tell the patron how they distinguished the keepers because they don’t rightly know.
The third category is salvage. Remnants of a glimpse. Salvage may be hidden deep in the landfill, or sitting idly, in plain view. This salvage is hardest to find, but necessary to bring back once found, no matter how difficult to detach from the all-devouring landfill.
Strangely, not all members of the party return to the patron. Has he not paid them enough? Is this evidence of how dangerous the search was? Or maybe, is this a suggestion of a fourth category of things? (The individuals have seen glimpses themselves and followed them.) It is possible to see something which changes you, such that the part of you that was looking cannot return to the way it was.
The returning members share the salvage with the patron. He frowns, because it isn’t easy to tell what suggests a glimpse. He hardly remembers what he glimpsed anyway. In some cases, it was merely a feeling. A blip of an experience. He will have to spend precious time with the salvage to learn more.
The members of the party want to know if they succeeded. They want finitude. Even though the patron wants to believe they have succeeded, he cannot let them rest. The patron shares the bad news: they are to be sent out again to find evidence of glimpses.
I write to find glimpses.
Glimpses of what?
Why should I tell you? ;) How can I tell you? (So far, I’ve only seen glimpses.)
Besides, where else but through writing may I combine my numerous intellectual interests? Let’s leave aside whether these are deep interests; the wind may swipe them tomorrow. However, when I begin writing on a topic, it tends to invite me further into itself.
Where else can my imagination play with these interests in combination, establishing villages and building castles and cathedrals, only to knock down these strongholds and sacred places through the rebellion of those same villages? (Only for the villagers, the new rulers, to lay new architectural foundations.)
Where else can I watch waves of ideas crash on unknown shores, transform into rivulets, and snake themselves into hidden lagoons? (To be found later, much later.)
How else might I tame these wild flashes, make sense of these visitations, and constrain these adventures of the mind?
This might be a quest to shape sufficient images.
Why not film or paint? Why not clay?
These are valid mediums but with which I have not the kind of intelligence nor skill to shape.
What I do have is an interest in how language may work with ideas. How language connects images to form that elusive concept: a story. Of the various modes of story, I’m most interested in the fictional.
Shall I simply ignore the gift of this fascination? The idea of language has me. The idea of story has me. The idea of learning more about them has me.
Here is another advantage of writing: it may go where logic and the scientific method may not. Consider that experiments test the exploratory and often crazy ideas first imagined by the scientist.
These are a few questions I’ve lately wanted to explore:
● Are dreams of technological utopias coming to an end in this century just as hopes for social utopias were dashed in the last?
● How should an individual’s life be measured? For the quality of the life they lived from their own perspective? For their contributions to family, community, society? And what if they held flawed views? Did morally abhorrent things? What if they held flawed views, did morally abhorrent things, and also contributed greatly to society?
● Will we be ready when one of the super volcanoes awakens?
● Is Christianity the first religious system to point out that scapegoats, historically used to minimize violence between factions, are actually innocent victims? What is the significance of this?
● What might happen if we discovered where we are in the construct?
● How long will it be before the next nuclear weapon is used?
● Which ideas have me? Must I rearrange my relationship with them to be a free thinker?
Each of these seven questions could be discussed outside of fiction, however writing fictionally grants me immediate engagement through search parties and other methods. Even if the party is later tossed out of the landfill’s premises, it is at least initially accepted through the gates.
When I wrote my first two books, I created a world and walked around in it. During the day. As I drifted into sleep. Any time. All the time. Many of the most interesting things happened when I glimpsed an interaction between characters. Later I had to find words to depict it.
Just because I didn’t have the skill to adequately describe what I saw doesn’t mean the process was futile, that there wasn’t a story there capable of transmitting the glimpse. The simplest reason for my failure could be that I lacked skill in writing and am yet to understand story elements.
When acquaintances say, “I have an idea for a book!”, they are not much different from me if we measure the outcome. They haven’t tried to write a book and failed to write a good book. I’ve tried to write a book and failed to write a good book.
Fortunately, I’m not discouraged to the point that I’ve given up.
Can I write a cohesive story with which one reader, interested in the same question/s I am, might spend an afternoon?
Afternoons spent with stories have influenced me greatly. And continue to. Books have shown me the inside of a person from another time and place. Inhabiting this inner life is remarkable and not only in its contrast to the surfaces of people I meet in the streets and cafes. From this lens, the writing of a book carries the potential to relay a journalistic or socio-historic atmosphere along with a spiritual element of human connection across centuries.
Here’s another question which interests me:
How does one become a person capable of and responsible for malevolence?
Perhaps we all start only too capable. If so, I should like to understand how to avoid deciding to act with malevolence when most tempted. If I grow to understand as much, I might also attempt to share this knowledge through a story.
The reverse has been done effectively:
The conclusion of Ordinary Men is persuasive. It forces me to ask, Where might I already be complicit in unspeakable crimes? Does my citizenship make me complicit in thousands of lives destroyed by American drones? Or can I be content with the anarchist’s squint?
Where is my character weak? Or unconcentrated, fragmented, underdeveloped, susceptible to breach or temptation? Where have I not built up my capacities, the courage to confront falsehoods, the strength to stand up for whatever is right? Hitchens said in Letters to a Young Contrarian, “the Dreyfus moment never comes”, and asked how one can expect to be a force for good in the pivotal battles if one has not practiced in the small moments. If one has not been a self-publisher in written word as well as in conversation.
Yesterday while shopping at Target, I listened and watched a customer raise his voice at two attendants. According to him, they had wasted five minutes of his time. The young female attendant was calm and remained so after. However, the young male was flustered, expressing frustration with his treatment and remarking on his living in a homeless community to boot. I mentioned to the male attendant that the customer’s emotions weren’t his responsibility. He seemed to hear me. There was a glimpse: watching myself do the right thing, if not to stop the blow to soften it.
What if I’d done the right thing when the 16-year-old neo-KKK member turned to me and asked if I liked black people? Might I have changed his mind, or his potential recruit’s, if I’d said what I believed? What if I’d asked my friend’s friends why they were laughing at a video of the twin towers in flames? These are lost moments. Habit-forming mistakes that eventually lead ordinary boys and men to murder and burn their fellow man in cold blood. In case my argument isn’t plain, I see no reason I could not have informed on my neighbor, sending them to the gulag, or participated in the horrors of the death camps.
We need to expect from one another this: He did his best, and I know he will do his best in the future.
Have I done my best in giving effort, kindness, tough love, respect, rebellion? Have I encouraged others to take care of themselves and done the disciplined patient work to succeed in my own commitments? Have I taken responsibility and told the truth when it was most needed? What about giving my best to thinking?
I want to believe that I can think for myself.
And yet, when I’m at my calmest, clearest, I see thoughts when they occur, and I can trace back the thread to its origin in another. Files from someone else’s file cabinet. In those moments I feel like a parrot to have even had another’s thought. In those moments I wish to clip my wings and take back the parrot-thought. To also refuse speaking again until I can be sure newer thoughts breaching my newly fortified barriers are indeed my own. Perhaps then—but there are no guarantees—the wingless bird is ready to be collected and may yet speak for itself about a glimpse it has seen.
I want to make the abstract real. To inspire adventures. Letting others see what I’ve glimpsed.
Even if I fail, I will have struggled mightily.
Part of my approach too is a harmony between soul-nourishing and practical work. As writing is a creative endeavor that is exceedingly difficult to do well, it stands that in near-term economies where creative fields remain relatively untouched by software’s competitive advantage (excelling in repetitive work), an appropriately chameleon-like writer can not only contribute economic value but reliably exchange that value for currency.
There’s a floating place I made by spinning sand. If I don’t give chase, Nor give it a hand,
Does it still want to fly? Has it gravity left to grow? Out there in the sky, Or fathoms below,
To see it again, is a truer than true wish. But what shall I send, Bird, beast, or (flying) fish?
What is the caliber of the quest? The depth of the vision? My mere glimpses suggest, I’m yet to make a decision.
The Shade of the Shadows races against time to decipher a secret locked in stone before it is lost forever under strain of intractable change.
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