Writing as a Vocation

Writing as a Vocation (a personalist accounting II)

            I never imagined I would become a writer. Even after my twentieth book was published, I thought of myself as an educator, a professor, and a pedagogue, but not a writer. I was simply a thinker who happened to enjoy writing. After I had finished with my administrative role and found that the vast majority of time had been taken up with its duties, divers and sundry as they were, the sheer amount of freed-up time lent itself to that very imagination. A well-known Canadian novelist was my first victim. His delicate indelicacy, ‘its quite a bit better than I thought it was going to be’, encouraged me to take at least the idea of writing more seriously. Almost forty books later, I have thought of myself as both a thinker and a writer now for some years. But what does it actually mean to be a writer? What does it mean to write?

            Writing as a means of communication:

            Writing is the greatest legacy of the first agrarian period. Other aspects of culture and civilization bequeathed to us from that antique epoch include mass warfare, caste slavery, and steep social hierarchies, as well as abstracted religious systems and gender inequality, all quite dubious historical gifts. Even monumental architecture might be seen as something of an unnecessary luxury. But the ability to record one’s thoughts, or simply describe the facts at hand, has made humanity a much more conscious, as well as self-conscious, species than it ever would have become without it. The first two ‘genres’ of written text exemplify the contrast between the senses and the imagination. The former is expressed as records of warehouse holdings, in the earliest of cuneiform, the latter, in the great mythic narratives, such as Gilgamesh, which orally is far older than even its first recorded rendition. Myth and fact divided the mind of antiquity and they are with us still, though both in somewhat muted form. The mythic has been personalized in a sense beyond belief, which in fact must be shared as part of culture to be truly authentic to itself. Fact has become a signpost for the absence of imagination, which is both ironic and ultimately impoverished. Throughout their conjoined career, myth and fact, fantasy and reality, continue to attract us in spite of their now stilted quality.

            They are able to do so because they continue to communicate things which are of the essence to our kind. On the one hand, writing allows one person to share their vision with another, no matter how outlandish are its contents or premises. With it written down, any reader can judge for themselves whether or not to take it with a pinch of salt or a drop of strychnine. We are able to read of distant places, exotic sources, crazed witness and unexpected encounter. We no longer need to presume it is some version of ‘Livingstone’ whom we meet in the heart of darkness or elsewhere, nor do we presume upon ourselves that we are always and utterly sane if only we manage to shun the irreal or the irruptive. On the other hand, the entire cosmic order is made more accessible to each of us through writing. These need not be the facts of a Gradgrind or for that matter, a Tyler, and the fact that one is, fortunately, a fictional educator and the other, perhaps regrettably, was not, impinges not a jot upon the reader’s sensibilities. Our question immediately becomes, ‘is this fact of merit, does it possess any value other than its descriptive presence?’. The judgment we carry into fiction is not entirely distinct from that which we carry unto fact.

            And it is writing that gives us this more sophisticated grace. We can discriminate between reality and fantasy after all, if only more of us would do so in our own time. Writing is both the stringent gatekeeper of any who would sully fact with fiction, but as well, and sometimes in direct contrast to this function, writing is also the means by which fact merges into fiction, and something of the fictional, in its ludic veridicity, appeals to us as if it were the thing itself. Writing represences the world as it is, and it makes present to us other possible worlds. In doing so, we find ourselves in the possession of a naked sword, visionary and keen, which, in a singular cut, can tear away the veils we tend to place over both our social normativity and our global inequity the both. At every level, from the most personal to the utterly dispassionate, writing reveals our truths to ourselves. Been molested? Write about it; let everyone know. Free others to communicate and come together to halt injustice. Fallen in love? Tell us all about it, for we too have such yearnings. Allow us to dream together in a waking state, overly conscious of our singularity, overtly impassioned by our desire for community. An undiscovered world awaits all readers of both astronomy and history, fantasy and science fiction. In a sense, writing does not discriminate such fields so distinctly as does discourse, and this is one of the chief differences between writing in that Derridean sense and the ‘tracing’ of nature through language in that Saussurean.

            Either way, writing as a means of communication remains its primary role in culture, whether or not the intention of the author recurs in their works, and without respect to the reader’s own intentions, whether it is to be simply entertained, informed, or enlightened. To each her own epiphany, one might respond to the text in hand, and from each their own experience. For writing has one further sidereal quality; that it becomes part of the reader’s world and his experiences thereof and therein, forgetting its ‘original’ source-point and reaching over any differences in biography and even history that once lay between writer and reader. In this, writing cannot in itself ever be parochial. For we living beings, this status provides for us an egress from our own rather sheltered perspectives and oft-shuttered imaginations.

            Writing as a personal experience:

            Non-fiction writing is an exercise in waking from what Schutz has framed as the ‘wide-awake consciousness’. This may at first seem redundant: how does one awake from the already waking life? Social reality provides for us a seldom penetrable insulation of norms, rituals, symbolic forms, and abstract beliefs within which no thought is necessary. As long as I run on my cultural and historical rails I need not blink at the world. But upon writing about this oft otherwise mute witness, I am compelled to reflect upon my sense of that same world, and what had been predictable and routine becomes much more experiential and even beckons an incipient adventure. Writing about the world as it is, insofar as each one of us can grasp it, is to awake from the day-to-day of the waking life. It is to simply become conscious, rather than to ‘raise consciousness’, for consciousness is always already with us and we are consciousness embodied. This awakening is also not a specific moral direct, such as ‘becoming woke’ or even ‘waking up’. It is a phenomenological disposition that pauses when it encounters the ‘of course’ statements associated with any automatic, or even automated, defense of society in the majority view. This is the hallmark of non-fiction: that it at once describes how things actually are and asks the reader to reflect upon, and question after, such truths. Non-fiction explicates to us that things are not quite as they seem to be, without suggesting how such things might be or might have been in the same way that fiction does.

            By contrast, fiction is thus less limited by the world. It may present different worlds, more or less plausible, and thence judged in terms of how recognizable to the unthought norms of the day they may be. If non-fiction writing awakens us to the subtext of life and living-on, writing fiction is to experience a waking dream. When we read the fiction of others, we note that our own perceptions are enlarged, but not in reference to the world per se, but rather to our own respective psyches. That the collective unconscious of humanity may also prove to be within our reach, at least once in a while, is testament to the function of the mythic as it plays within a reality itself bereft of myth. The latitude of interpretation associated with reading fiction is also wider than that of non-fiction, as readers may feel more free to bring their own experience into the text. Similarly, writing fiction sources itself in the author’s own experience, and those experiences which have been related to him by others he has known, sometimes intimately, sometimes vicariously. A commonplace projective trope thus begins with such rhetorical questions, ‘what if I had known her better?’, or, ‘what if we had never met?” and the like. In fiction, we are able to step outside of the facts at hand and imagine something else, indeed, almost anything else. This is why the creative character of fiction cannot be entirely divorced from the ‘discoverable’ sensibility associated with facts. If it is, then the world would lose its historical essence and humanity would be forever stunted in its species-maturity.

            My own experience with writing has fully participated in both major realms. For myself, scholarly non-fiction is shot through with the dialectic, as is appropriate for a hermeneutic phenomenologist. My more general non-fiction works are attempts to communicate difficult analyses to literate lay-people no matter their own backgrounds. It is the latter which is much more challenging for the writer to accomplish with any aplomb, and my originally mediocre assays have, over the years, given way to more modest, and thus more effective, offerings. At the same time, I take some satisfaction in making nominal contributions to aesthetics, ethics, education, and psychology, all emanating from my philosophical base. It would be past vain to enumerate such titles, but two examples, from both ends of the writerly spectrum, so far stand out: Aesthetic Subjectivity: glimpsing the shared soul (2011), is my major statement about art and its attendant discourses. The title is mine, the subtitle, the publisher’s, denoting a sudden and apt insight on their part. This book received a number of interdisciplinary reviews and was an unqualified success. But scholarly books are, by definition, elusive, and this work is now sadly out of print. In contrast, The Penumbra of Personhood: ‘anti-humanism’ reconsidered (2020),was a nightmare to write and no doubt the worse to read. I vowed to never write another large-scale scholarly work and to this day I have not, though I am planning one for 2024 in spite of this cherished interregnum. ‘Penumbra’ nearly finished me as a non-fiction writer, and was a reminder of how the vocation of writing can take over one’s life, sacrificing it in the service of the almighty text.

            As a belated writer of fiction, I have experienced similar distensions of ability and result. I am, first of all, sometimes taken aback by my waking dreams and how certain aspects of my unconscious life have found their way on to the page for all to peruse. Do I really have a penchant for grotesque violence? Have I never moved beyond adolescence in my desires? Though many would agree, life lived as an adult can be frustrating and sometimes even the coach of despair, but even so, at the end of any reads, I would hope no one would wish a life like any of my characters have been given and thus have had to live out. And just as art and life remain distinct, where there is no art one can yet suggest there is also a distinctive absence of life. So my fiction has within it a semblance of both at once. Since for the most part I write agenda fiction, by definition it cannot be art, no matter what kind of literary sophistication it may be said to have, and I make no claims to this regard. I write verse, not poetry, and I write books, not novels. I have never considered myself to be, or to yet become, either a poet or a novelist, but I have penned seventeen novels nonetheless, along with a novella, two short story collections, and an arc of folktales. This last, Raven Today, has been called my most ‘beautiful’ work by readers apparently in the know, and perhaps amusingly, is the only work of fiction I have produced which contains no bad language.        

            As with the non-fiction, I may be forgiven in citing just two books here. About the Others was my first adult mainstream title, and this failed art novel was meant as a tribute to my favorite author, H.G. Wells, who himself had quite a number of them. It has some autobiographical elements, and as such is the only work of fiction I have written that relies on what is this commonplace source material. But if my first mainline attempt was much-flawed, if still a tolerable page-turner, my second was, in my own view, perfect. That The Understudies remains unpublished reminds the author that his view of perfection may not at all be understood by others. This too is the common lot for writers of all sorts, and one must inhale that displeasing atmosphere as best one can, expelling it in new directions and perhaps relieving oneself of this or that delusion in the process. Writing fiction is about the literary sleight of hand, so to move from a pleasant illusion to a sometimes unsavory disillusion reworks the story from the outside in. And of course there is a world of difference between writing and publishing, especially in the fiction industry where, because of at least the potential for profit – unlike, and especially, scholarly works – editors and presses become agitated if ‘fit’ for catalogue is at all transgressed.

            Writing fiction is not a thankless vocation. Its task is to step into worlds hitherto unknown and uncharted, but its gift is that you are the one who becomes the first to know, the first to map, and these new worlds come to love you as much as you have given them the reciprocal gift of life.

            Writing as a Discursive Activity:

            All writers contribute to discourse, the conversation of the history of consciousness. If ‘dialogue is what we are’, as Gadamer has declared, discourse is that dialogue written down, a record of thought itself, and not merely thoughts, which any person may have, and in the most fleeting of fashions. Discourses come in many forms, and one need not be dismayed if philosophy is not on one’s writerly menu. Few read it, for one, and fewer understand it. And though it is not economics, the ‘dismal science’, philosophical discourse is often discouraging, as it leaves nothing sacred and unmasks even the sweetest of sentiment for what it may be or contain within. It is, in a word, not for the faint of heart, and if one has any hint of the Pollyanna, it will leave that fake Sophia naked and utterly at risk for her estranged sister’s truth.

            Given this, it is no holiday to write either. Perhaps it is this slough-filled pilgrimage which is the truer source of the action in my fictional works! I do find myself alternating between non-fiction and fiction, sometimes writing both at once, as I am currently doing. But discourse is immune to authorial sentiment. And if the author is himself dead, as Barthes famously reminded us, perhaps the writer lives yet. I have stated that we today dwell in the period of the afterlife of God, so it is not a stretch to imagine as well an afterlife of the author as a kind of remanential writer. This figure is itself discursive, and is made up, if you will, of all those who continue to author works in spite of that particular literary function being surpassed or superceded. That there is no autograph which can contain the text, that there can be no signature which vouchsafes it, is, even so, not to say that the reader can do more than rewrite the read in the light of her own experience and sensibilities. Penetrating non-fiction, as well as reflective fiction, in fact disallows complacency of any kind on the part of the reader, and tells us instead that discourse is alive and well, fully matriculated from its birth, divine or no, and fully accepting, and acting upon, its birthright.

            Hence writing is to experience the presence of discourse in one’s life. It is creative, in its guise as fictional, constructive as factual, but either way, it remains a wholly discursive act. That I became a writer tells me in turn that the vocation of writing adopted me as its own child, as it has done for countless others and, one would hope, will continue to do as long as there exists a human consciousness worthy of its precious record.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 58 books in ethics, education, aesthetics, health and social theory, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

The Ethics of Self-Censorship

The Ethics of Self-Censorship (the person and the work)

            I am more than fortunate to be a citizen of a nation which continues to value, at least legally, a general freedom of voice and speech. Politics are one thing of course, and they come and go, but as long as the essence of free and open discourse remains a key to our understanding of democracy, one can weather the squalls along the way. Certainly, there is a current sense that such freedoms are being eroded by extremities of that self-same speech and writing that most of us cherish and look to for both inspiration and perspective. The best response to such attacks is to speak and write in return, humbling the censor with eloquent truths, or at the very least, ideals. The greatest virtue of freedom of thought and expression is that it reminds the parochial mind that there is an entire world of diverse differences of which all must take account. In expressing these differences, we realize the Gestalt of the human species at large, including becoming more understanding of its species-essence.

            Yet self-censorship is, perhaps oddly, near the heart of this human dialogue. In day-to-day life, each of us, if we care about the social whole and about individual others, curtails our most frank sensibilities, generally regarding relatively trivial things. The old saw about the ‘white lie’, the patent non-response to such questions as ‘does this dress make me look fat?’ and such-like, are likely obvious to almost everyone. Such minor dishonesties, we agree, make the social wheel go round, and no one needs to know what we actually think about every little thing that could pass in front of us by the end of each day. This form of self-censorship is part of the package by and through which we maintain our sociality, even to the point of supporting our community or yet our culture. We cast a look of reproof at those who don’t play along with this mildly duplicitous game – children are not necessarily expected to be reliable players, but they learn, over time, how to master it, just as did we ourselves – as it stands to reason that they are not keeping up their end of the socially agreed upon bargain. In this, our sanction is in keeping with a number of other kinds of ‘betrayals’, if you will, that fuel various conflicts which buttress media copy in our time.

            More intense versions of sociality, as in crises where we imagine relationships or work life is at stake, require of us either distinct diplomacy or a yet transcendental tact. Here, where we are perhaps far more tempted to speak exactly as our conscience, or our ego, directs us, we rather reign in at least some of this personal truth given obligations or future rewards. ‘Do I preserve my marriage?’ is never of course a momentary kind of question, but we also know just how far to one side or the other a thoughtless comment here and there can travel. Intimate relations gone awry, the proverbial lovers’ tiff, the back and forth of friendship, even the contractually manufactured trust given to those who are hired to do this or that task in lieu of our own incompetent selves, also require self-censorship. To ‘not bite’ on potential baited editorials sometimes freely had from contractors presents to us a choice. In struggling intimacies, that same choice writ much more expensively, occurs and may indeed recur. Each of us is charged with well-known scripts that are themselves contrivances in principle, but in practice may become the pith of romance, even love.

            But none of this is usually in the discussion regarding freedom of expression, though it should be present at least as a backdrop. It tells us that we are, for the larger part, quite skilled at being our own censors, and thus would appear to render any institutional or yet State action superfluous. We can, in a word, police ourselves. Those who can’t, out themselves all too readily and are thus subject to a variety of sanctions, that is, if the rest of us stand firm in our avowal of keeping things moving along. Yes, the direction of this movement, who is steering, and what goals lay ahead or afar, all this can be debated, but the basic sense that our sociality should not be destroyed of a piece must also be ever-present, even foremost, in our minds. To that regard, the cut and thrust of conflicting interpretations and ideas can thence take place without placing stakes upon that dialogical table that would break us, bankrupting the individual and the collective the both. It does seem of late, however, that the bulwarks which shore up this delicate balance between freedom and sociality are being challenged more than usual, or at least, more than in recent mortal memory. Is this truly the case, or are we experiencing the push and pull of larger, historical changes to society and thus are made witness to more extreme voices reacting to such changes?

            First of all, the traditional difference between author and work may be cited. Nietzsche, perhaps coyly, perhaps irresponsibly but yet also honestly, reminded us that ‘I am one thing, my books are another’. Barring bare-faced autobiography, it is certainly correct to state that the person and the work are two different things. Even in composing memoir material, we are as persons who live, reflecting upon a life already lived, one that we are not quite living in the present, and thus there is an important difference to be observed. I waited a full twenty years plus before writing of my experiences in the deepest south, the Mississippi Delta, simply because those three years were an intensely focused, almost ethnographic journey, so overfull with richness and impoverishment that ‘processing’ all of it took a great deal of time, even though for portions of the interim was spent doing so tacitly, perhaps even sub-consciously. When the account was complete, I saw a quite different person populating the pages. Indeed, my wife found my previous self to be unrecognizable, as she did not know me at the time. I seldom flip back into my own books, but the rare moment I do, I am always struck by the voice of these earlier works, which sound so unlike my own today. To a degree, a different person wrote these books, someone with the same name as myself, but someone living another life, with differing experiences foremost in their mind, and distinct imagery inhabiting the landscape afore their mind’s eye.

            Even so, in none of these now fifty-seven works, will you find self-censorship. But you will find a series of different selves, or selfhoods. On the one side, this is one of the great privileges of writing, especially if one writes fiction. An unpopular tone may be placed in a character’s voice, blasphemy or even hate speech could spout from a villain, narcissism from the naïve hero, or a magnanimity foreign to the author’s person might save the day. There are no limits to literary ventriloquism. Philp Roth was a writer who played and ployed with this unlimited Mardi Gras of hall-of-mirrors theater. Readers may have felt they knew what the author was thinking, or at least intending, but post-Barthes this is naïve at best. Authorial intent is essentially irrelevant to readerly interpretation, and so it should be. Who cares what the author thinks about his works? In publication, the author becomes merely another reader. Yes, she may clarify in interview, for example, but this is still her reading. Books, and other kinds of media more recently, take on a life of their own and their potential meanings reside beyond any one person’s control or expectation.

            Yes, but what of this openness, this freedom, laying beyond institutional or discursive control? This is a more difficult question, one that cares nothing for authorial intent in the first place. In the history of hermeneutics, it was Schleiermacher who generalized exegetical interpretation, circumscribed as it had been to the reading of sacred texts alone, to all books. Dilthey went one better, challenging of us to interpret the world, both social reality and also the world of forms. The world is not a text, per se, let alone one autographed by a divine hand, as it was imagined to be during the Medieval period, but the process of interpretation is much the same. A book is a slice of reality, allegorical perhaps, or biographical. The world is the source of human experience in general, Dilthey reminded us, and thus it is its own repository of potential freedoms and limits alike. Fiction removes many of these limits, accentuating the worldly freedoms human beings find fascinating. Non-fiction allows us to get a handle on both freedom and limit in a realistic manner. Knowing the world means also to know how each of us might read accounts thereof. What are we looking for in a ‘good read’? What kind of voice, or positioning of such a voice, appeals to us, and how does that shed light on how we ourselves narrate the world? But from an institutional point of view, an organization bent on reproducing itself and its attendant powers, or yet developing them, perhaps at our expense, such diverse readings may become a threat.

            There may well be a sense, amongst those whose tendency is to conserve things as they are or as they imagined them to be, that fiction and non-fiction, even fantasy and reality, have become so blurred as to be indistinguishable. It is amusing to read about Moll Flander’s misadventures, another thing to actually be related to someone like her in the real world. And yet the one strongly implies the other. The ‘hook’ of most fiction is that it reminds us of our own lives, perhaps wincingly in some cases, perhaps with a sage nod of the head in others. Even so, this is where self-censorship reappears; we do not deny the unpolished aspects of ourselves and others, but we manage them, work around them, in daily life. Fiction has no need of this, nor even non-fiction, with its anthropological apologies in tow. If some of us begin to see in others the unbounded timbre of literary character or yet caricature in social reality, we may take some umbrage. This is, I think, part of the story surrounding the resistance to the LGBTQ2+ presence on the social stage. It is outrageous to wield epithets such as ‘misfit’ or ‘mutant’ against our fellow human beings, but less so to question why and how some of us have decided to apparently make art into life. The most pressing query must be: am I, in my altered state, still willing to abide by the basic rules of sociality by which all indeed must abide?

            Here, ‘I’ is used not so much as a place-holder or yet filler, but rather to make more intimate a general question we tend to only direct away from ourselves. In doing so, we place ourselves at risk of becoming too complacent with traditions or what is deemed customary, when these, in every healthy society, should be regularly questioned much in the same manner as we question government spending or policy initiatives. We need not become as the philosopher, to whom nothing is sacred and for whom the question no one asks is the immediately and automatically the most important. No, he’s just doing his job, one by which the body politic and body culture can recognize as a somewhat hyperbolic role model. I am not being slyly disingenuous here. My fiction is mostly agenda narrative, so it cannot, and should not, ever be considered even to be an attempt at art. But just so, how agenda driven are those who have seemingly so radically departed from this or that social norm, and how missionary are they? We may well question this given our own sordid histories replete with both activist agenda and immodest mission. If those who do not seem to practice daily self-censorship are to be seen as living literature, they may yet open our perspective to other possibilities of being human. But if they are merely flaneurs, flaunting a fashionable formula in opposition to basic, if perhaps tired, social relations, we might do well to question them in the same way we discuss a book meant to rattle our shared velvet cage. In doing so, surely we will uncover something interesting about our own allegiances to that framework, even if we also discover that ‘living art’ is a vain attempt to excise oneself from the shared responsibility of keeping sociality the very space from which human freedom is born.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 56 books in ethics, education, social theory, health and aesthetics, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.