Writers speak for and to the mute Other & the muted populace. Passé in social media’s era? Not to print culture.


 I start with nothing, except of course, everything I’ve read, seen and felt. It takes me a tortured while to write what I know. It’s a battle to trust what’s right there in front of me. Language feels inadequate to the skepticism that skips about in my head. . . . How do I cut through to the other side where expression is also something I own? The simple answer is, I read. I return to the world and do the thing I love to do: listen. For me, reading is listening. It’s the act of turning to another life or idea.—Claudia Rankine

Claudia Rankine, photo by John Lucas

[Claudia Rankine. Photo by John Lucas.]

There you have it. Writing as discovery, listening, love, and gift-giving over discipline and suffering. Mary Karr’s concise comment likening writing to hardship—fun only for neophytes and hacks—in The Art of Memoir (reviewed), has served as a magnet to attract to me emendations and counter-arguments. Like poet Claudia Rankine’s. In her recent essay for the Washington Post she admits to struggle. But the point of writing for Rankine seems to be its rewards, including sending her to read books.

There’s loving reading. There’s liking making sentences. There’s the discovery and attempted perfection of your truth. Isaac Asimov supposedly said, “Writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers.” Yes, writing is concentrated thought, which makes it hard, though saying it that way that misses the emotional component that Rankine alludes to. I too pull books from the shelves—just to see how a brilliant book is made of many great and ordinary sentences. In moments of doubt, I revisit old friends, like the late Donald M. Murray, who nails writing’s rewards in The Craft of Revision:

Writing is not reported thought. Writing is more important than that. It is thinking itself. . . . And it is fun because I keep finding I know more than I expected, feel more than I expected, remember more, and have a stronger opinion than I expected.


In maybe the best short video on writing ever, Ta-Nehisi Coates discusses “practicing,” getting stressed by going for greatness, being courageous in continuing, and breaking through to become better than he’d dared hope.

The desire or need to make anything, such as a successful car wash, must overcome, at some point, resistance. The activity cannot be fueled by mere egotism. I think the hardness of writing disciplines the ego. The why to do something so hard for an audience becomes paradoxically using the self to transcend the self.

Two fine books about writing, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, emphasize its struggle. In my memory, Lamott focuses on the difficulty of filling blank pages. Dillard focuses on the gap between the stubborn words and the writer’s soaring aims. She addresses the Then why do it aspect obliquely yet thoroughly. For Dillard, writing is about making oneself more than the mere self. It’s about becoming an inspired vessel of truth. That’s why.

So passion, not pathology, best fuels the enterprise. I like the notion of any worthy, consuming work being based on love, rather than discipline. Here’s Dillard’s famous view in her essay “To Fashion a Text,” collected by the late William Zinsser in Inventing the Truth:

Writing a book is like rearing children—willpower has very little to do with it. If you have a little baby crying in the middle of the night, and if you depend only on willpower to get you out of bed to feed the baby, that baby will starve. You do it out of love. Willpower is a weak idea; love is strong. You don’t have to scourge yourself with the cat-o’-nine-tails to go to the baby. You go to the baby out of love for that particular baby. That’s the same way you go to your desk. There’s nothing freakish about it. Caring passionately about something isn’t against nature, and it isn’t against human nature. It’s what we’re here to do.

Literature’s demands and ideals militate against mere egotism. Writers speak for and to the mute Other and the muted populace. If those imperatives seem passé in the age of social media, print culture won’t let them pass. Reading and writing epitomize interpersonal connection and personal transcendence.


Pharrell Williams’s hit “Happy” embodies Joseph Campbell’s truth:

If you can do something that you love to do without fear of criticism, you will move. You will find joy in it. You do not have to move more than an inch to feel the joy.

 These days I watch my granddaughter, crawling everywhere and pulling up on everything, busy as all get-out at ten months. It’s play and work, a constant output of effort to explore and master her world. After so many hours, she rubs her eyes, crashes and cries.

She’s right back at it after a nice nap. As I hold her and look into her brown eyes, I think, Oh, the places you’ll go . . .

David, Kathy, pumpkins

[David Knight with Kathy Knight-Gilbert in the pumpkin patch. Why did I get the sweetest, smartest, cutest grandchild on Earth?]


  • J.V. Wylie says:

    Richard, You have outdone yourself here. Who knew I was going to wake up to this kind of profound stuff and be entertained to boot. 2 vids are fantastic and the post is inspirational. Thank you!

  • A paean to writing is the perfect way to start the autumn, Richard. And that granddaughter, I don’t know about the eye color and whether you share it or not, but through the eyes and upper half of the face, she looks just like you! Maybe it’s that twinkle of mischief, maybe she’s secretly taking notes for her memoir-to-be….

  • “So passion, not pathology, best fuels the enterprise. I like the notion of any worthy, consuming work being based on love, rather than discipline.”

    Such a valid point, Richard. A disciplined work, when finished, often seems to lack something … a perceptive reader can almost sense the lack of emotion that is strangely absent. Textbooks come to mind … and we wonder why students are bored and tuned out.

    Not that mysterious, is it? I always enjoyed classes that supplemented textbooks with “real books” … maybe we need to do more of that, even at the elementary school level.

    Great post, thanks so much!

    • Richard Gilbert says:

      What a great point about textbooks, Daisy: “emotion that is strangely absent.” It really does underscore that we come to writing for the complete human take—which very much always includes feelings. In her memoir Our World, Mary Oliver famously said, “Attention without feeling is only a report.”

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