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Introduction to The Human Reader: Pain-Free Explorations of Life-Changing Literature

Saturday 9/3/22

In there, for you.

Writers write for you--the good ones, anyway. They write for me, for us, for anyone who has come to that page, that screen, to look over and take in their words. Writers write for readers. They're in service to readers. That's why writers are there. Readers are there to read, and writers are there to give them works that belong to them as much as anyone.

We often encounter a falsified, melodramatic notion that writers write because of an obsession with personal expression, to unburden the soul, and now, in our era, to share their truth, as if truth was something that belonged to anything but reality.

A lot of this is for attention. Victimhood is hot and here's another way to claim victim status: one is imprisoned by one's slippery, evanescent muse. Plus, those writers--that kind of writer--gets to gab with other writers, and a faux community develops, which is less about anything communal and more about the meaninglessness of hitting the like button, an act that I could have seen T.S. Eliot writing into "The Waste Land," were he someone who had dealt with Twitter.

This isn't to suggest that there aren't many excellent reasons to write. We make notes for what we need to get done that weekend. A frayed relationship with a family member causes us to write in a journal in an attempt to understand and process our pain. We write stories or poems as a hobby. Doing so relaxes us and helps us think clearly elsewhere in life. That's pretty important.

These are all worthy reasons of eminent utility, but they're not the same as why the best writers write. The best writers don't think about themselves first. It's not about them. The work comes from them. Deep in them. It also comes from beyond them because in creating that work they go to--and inhabit--places, people, and ideas that aren't already lodged in their thoughts and breasts, though they end up there. They may be discovered there, and the writer thinks, "Who knew?" while also knowing that they could not know anything more fully or truly.

It's humbling, but also like being in on a secret that someone or something--maybe it's the universe--has shared with that writer alone. Whatever that knowledge, truth, beauty is is then honed so that the reader may be able to better see, understand, and feel--feeling is crucial--what the writer has seen, understood, and felt. Even when we can't fully understand and see by understanding and seeing alone, we can completely feel what it means to understand and see. We may not be able to describe this. But we feel it. People say that actions are bigger than words, but those are people who fail to understand that words are actions, depending on who said or wrote them, and they can be the most demonstrative actions of all. In the same manner, feelings may be knowledge. When you know you know. That's not predicated on being able to fashion a fact or put an equation on a chalkboard.

The best writers don't have an ego because the act of writing isn't about them. It's about the act of future reading. It can be short term future. "Here, this is a new story I wrote, see if you like it."

The writer is not going to be there for that other person's reading experience, whether that's twenty million people or one person. They will not be in the reader's head with them. It's not sitting side by side in the bleachers at a ballgame. They can be standing across from that one person and they're still not really there. We read in our own heads, even when we read aloud. Isn't that great? Our heads. No one else's. What an honor and responsibility this is for the writer. What's more intimate? What is more sacrosanct than this privilege? That means the stakes are pretty high. This kind of one on one time is big. The intimacy, the vulnerability. Sounds like the repercussions could be dramatic, right? Like they'd have to be.

Writers don't write to read their own work. A writer does not say, "I spent the weekend relaxing by reading my books, it brings me such joy to read my first two novels at Christmastime." You'd think, "Okay, chill, Vanity Smurf." So the work is not for them. There are people who write for whom the process of writing is for them. But that can be like going to the gym to burn off stress. That's an act, it's not a creation. The best writers are all about that creation. How to get to it. How to realize it. How the creation functions. What needs to be invented on the creation's behalf, or what the creation invents on behalf of the writer, but for potentially anyone, and definitely for the reader. Determining what that creation best involves so that it can have maximum impact in the head of that one reader, or the twenty million readers.

The best writers are situators. Positioners. They help put the reader in a place where the reader can see and feel on their own what is to be seen and felt which they ordinarily don't see and feel, though those new sightings and feelings inform and infuse their understanding of what they've long seen and felt.

Writers don't tell the reader. "Listen up, it's like this." That wouldn't work. Plus, they can't. What the writer has to get across is bigger than anything anyone could list out. The reader will see and feel what the writer has seen and felt. They'll know, to some degree, what the writer has come to know. And that makes us all better. It pulls all of us closer together. We can be wiser. Happier. Healthier. We can grow more. We can help people more. Understand and deal with pain better. Laugh richer. Communicate more effectively. Have more fun. We can be thrilled and we can be deepened. We can be made to feel more alive, because we are becoming more alive. That's what the best writing is for, and that's why it's for you.

It is useful in any endeavor to ask, "What is the point?" whether one is chopping wood or writing or signing up for a class at the community center. If there's not a viable answer to the question, it'd probably be better to be doing something else that would produce a viable answer. The best writing has the most voluminous answers--and the highest number of answers, all of which are accurate--to that question. But it wouldn't if it wasn't in service to readers, even if readers never see it, or not that many readers. What matters is that the answers to that question are there to be had. We could put a blanket over the sun, and just because we don't see the sun doesn't mean that if the blanket fell to the ground the world wouldn't know the power of the sun's light. But if the sun wasn't the sun and the blanket fell, it wouldn't much matter, would it? Or we'd have an acorn in the sky, if that's what the sun was instead, or a hole, and then everything changes because what makes the sun the sun was not in there.

I'm introducing a book about writing that is for you. Anything that is for us that we read has to be self-contained. It can't just point and say, "Hey, check this out over here!" It may also do that, but the writing still has to be a life force of its own that is itself fully present, and impels the reader to be fully present. One can be glib about this. "The writing is the show!" That's actually true. I wrote this book for readers, as a book, not as a series of hoorays and gestures to get you to go read this, that, and this, though I hope you will check out the texts discussed, because they're formidable works of literature, but formidable also as in "cool," as I hope this book itself is. And cool as in soul-stirring.

It's pretty common for people to be scared of literature, and think that's some daunting term. "Literature is for people who went to school for forever! I'm simple." They think it's not meant for them. That you need all of these degrees to understand it, let alone get anything from it. Literature is for this shadow class of intellectuals that are probably out there, but you might not know any of the members. Who is sitting somewhere reading Proust who isn't a student or professor? But it must be somebody, right?

That's how we often think with literature. Literature with a capital L. That somebody isn't our neighbor whose rake we borrowed a few weeks ago and forgot to give back.

We can be intimidated into not reading before we've even started, or stop reading because we encounter a piece by someone with a huge ego--always a sign of an insecure person--who talks down to us, tries to make us feel obtuse and unworthy. Unfortunately, there are people who want us to be scared of reading and to confine ourselves to Twitter and football and, I don't know, Twinkies, and that we're not someone who could love the hell out of Madame Bovary, which is just dumb, because of course you can. The people like this are not great writers. Belittling readers and would-be readers boosts their self-worth. They may have a need to pretend they're above people. That they get things you never could. Even that they're better than you.

When I was a freshman in college, I'd stay in on weekend nights and work on my writing. As a freshman guy, it's not like me and my friends were getting invited to a lot of parties, but it's still what I did. I was devoted. My friends and hall mates thought this was odd, so they were curious and they'd read my work.

You know what? None of them would understand any of it. They'd read a sentence back to me, aloud, dumbfounded. And you know what's worse? I liked that. I thought that meant I was so smart. I was proud. I'd nod and all but think, "You philistine. And to think, we drank a couple purloined cans of Natty Light together on Thursday."

Want to know what I really was? I was an idiot who needed to grow up, and I was going about writing all wrong.

A lot of writers never grow out of their version of what I was doing at the time. They're not writing for you. They're not writing for anyone. There is no point to undertaking anything when the reasons for doing so center on ego or trying to fill a void that will always be a bottomless pocket of the self.

It doesn't prove that you're smart. Rather the opposite. If you want to prove how smart you are, write something that moves people at the core of their being. Situate them so that they may know, or see, or feel--or the grand combo--what is behind the veil: that which may animate much of human life, though rarely do we recognize it. And more besides. Truths of this world beyond this world? Yes. Those truths.

Have you ever had that feeling when you're walking around and you're just struck so hard by something you've never considered? Anything can bring it about. A remark a homeless woman makes. The way you see the light off a pond as you're thinking about what you used to say to someone you one loved whom you don't know anymore. And you think, "That's how life is." In that moment, you get it. All of these factors had to come together. The time had to be right, the part of the year, what you'd had for breakfast, the music you listened to last night, that you ended up in that weird space between a conscious thought and a subconscious one. But you got life in that moment, the "point." One of them. And you don't know when that might happen again, or why you can't have more of those moments, but you also understand. A lot went into that one moment, after all. That's what great writing is. It's that moment that you had. Sustained.

Great writers write on many levels at once. Any reader will find one--or more, or hundreds, thousands, I won't cap it--on which they belong, are comfortable, can prosper, without thinking they're missing what they should be getting. No great writer wants you to feel inadequate. They don't know you, but they also do, and they love you in a way that is real. It's not traditional, it's not how you love your spouse or your child or your best friend, but they do love you. They are giving themselves to you. I don't mean via a confessional or an autobiographical explosion, an unburdening. But they see and know these things, through their writing, that are beyond them, but also exactly who they are, and that beyondness is going into a work that is created for you. That's the point. You are the point.

That's what the pieces that comprise this book are about. Writers who write like that, their writings that are this way, and us, the human readers.

Sometimes I think about a writer of this nature and if they were marooned somewhere, or everyone but them had vanished from the earth. Would they still write? The answer is yes, because everything I'm saying here would be in there. That is the point of writing--that it's in there.

That's the point of being the sun if the blanket were draped over the orb. The light is still in there. It is there to be had. Anything that is that way is itself a form of life. Never underestimate what it means for everything to be in there. And then everything else is about other things. Did that book get into your hands? Did other people exist? Did a boat come to rescue the marooned writer with her stacks of manuscripts? Did someone open the file?

But in there is beyond all. Nothing can limit in there. Why? Because we're all in there, too, whether we see that work, or whether we don't. We can refuse a gift a million times over, but it's still always there to give, to give itself to the person it's for, to be ours. And it always will be. Because it is ours.

We are all human, to our varying degrees. So let us read as humans, the way we were meant to.


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