I had been having an online conversation with a guy about a very well-established writer. And prior to this I had sworn to myself to never say a critical word about another writer. It’s just not good grace. It’s just not good politics. I know it is not in anybody’s good interest to utter a bad word about a fellow writer, or another human being for that matter, that aims downward. It can only come back to bite me, too. I know all that. But I must take aim. I must enter the henhouse. And I must play the fox. Now, I’m a half-way educated man, and I can say in French Pascal’s very precious, “When you read too fast or too softly you hear nothing.” And for me, as a writer, the same holds true. Every syllable I’ve ever written, I’ve heard in my own ear. And that’s the way I do it; there’s no other secret. I may be all geared up in bright green shoes and little lightweight shorts to go for a four mile run, and I’ll hear, bouncing out the door, a whole line in my head. And the point is that I’ll go for my run, down the washed-out gravel of my driveway and up the hill, and down the road, and back. I never worry about that line. I hold it there lightly in my head, never hard, never fearing that I’ll lose it, never in a hurry. And while I’m out there, I’ll hear a few more perhaps. Maybe a second. Maybe a third. Other phrases I hear I know they may get lost and that’s no matter at all. You go to the store for milk, chips, and four ears of corn; the rest can be forgotten. And if it comes back to you, it does. It’s no great matter. It’s what really makes me a reader.
A real writer is actually a reader. Everything is heard, just as if you are actually reading it. That’s all. And my job is to get what I’m reading down, to be able to keep it there a little while for another person perhaps to read, too. That’s all. But so many people who make novels, and there are so many of them, they don’t seem to me to hear a word at all. In fact, there’s nothing in their writing to be heard there. They are not even the shells of cicadas that ever buzzed, nor the brown crusty ones of locusts that burred away the summer’s night. There’s just no sound to them at all. They’re just truly writing, and they are just truly writers, when that means that the words themselves put down on paper or on a computer screen are themselves the bearers of ‘meaning’ connected to some lobe of understanding in the human brain. Something like that, although it’s hard for me to articulate.
If you pick up a copy of the The Pale King by the sadly late David Foster Wallace, you will hear immediately what I mean. In it are the ghosts of Jack Kerouac, Thomas Wolfe (the Look Homeward, Angel one), Gatsby’s Fitzgerald, Salinger’s Catcher, and all those true writers who really are engaged in reading the world because they are listening to what they hear. The rest, I have no time for them, for their gross, and self-satisfied, and maladroit, and pompous, and smug-multitudinous and often fancy (to show all this to be true) superimpositions of unheard worlds that never were, never are, and never will be, however well-schooled and intelligent these prove themselves they are to us as they come across my drowsy eyes in their arduous making and vast laborious undertaking.