Phi Beta Cons

A Do-It-Yourself Kit for Enlightenment

Socrates left us a DIY kit for enlightenment: Ask a question. Listen. Reflect on the answer. Repeat.

University of Virginia professor Mark Edmundson took Socrates to heart. Edmundson asked, “Why read?” and we got a book full of answers. “Why teach?” he asked, and the answers filled a second book. Now to complete the trilogy, “Why Write?” his latest book asks. Why indeed. Isn’t everything optics now and tweets?

Having asked, Edmundson gathers a drawing room full of friends to hear their answers, friends named Woolf, Blake, Eliot, Wilde, Emerson, Yeats, Shelley, Keats, and Dylan (Bob) to name a few. As you can imagine, this book is no Young Writers’ EZ Handbook of the 50 Best-Selling Plots, although there is no shortage of practical advice. Fundamentally, in his chapter on “Writing to Strengthen the Mind,” he suggests that “In order to write, you have to think” after having earlier declared that “I don’t know how, without writing or intense conversation, we could ever learn how to think.”

Besides writing and thinking and conversing, he finds that “Graduate school in the humanities cultivates many abilities. But one of the chief ones is the capacity to sit down and shut up and listen while someone with more experience tells you how you can improve.” As always, Edmundson generously seasons his observations with the evidence of personal experience, such as the time he was told of his weaknesses as a scholar and writer. “It was a hearty dish, served without sugar, and it’s stood me well for a long time.”

Other chapters explore other motives, such as writing “To Have Written,” “To Get the Girl/To Get the Guy,” for “Money,” “To Learn Something,” “To Stay Sane,” “To Get Even,” and so on. Each motive is tested and illustrated by the group of friends in the drawing room. Of “To Get Even,” Edmundson says, “I know of a writer who made a great success of a first novel based on her family. The little girl in the corner had apparently been storing up a record of all the familial insults like an angry accountant.” George Orwell, too, according to Edmundson, had a “vindictive streak” and “admitted that one of his motives [for `Why I Write’] was to get back at the schoolteachers and bosses who had thought too little of him, or thrust him aside.”

Edmundson is accepting of his friends’ various reasons for writing, but in his intimate, conversational, gently inquisitive tone, he suggests that:

one might say that writing’s ultimate goal should be to do something for others as well as for oneself. Writing is about enlarging the mind, the expansion of consciousness, the addition, as the critic R. P. Blackmur liked to say, to the stock of available reality. We’re told that writing is about finding the truth and infusing it with some beauty, too. But what does that mean?

Another question.

The 29 chapters of Why Write? sparkle along like a brook in springtime. Question, answer, reflect, question. The last section, “The Writer’s Wisdom,” rushes by like the close of Moby Dick, every page holding a nugget of golden wisdom. “Some people keep track of their lives with their photographs and their home movies –and that’s fine. But that’s a record of the outer life, not the inner.” No, he says, “there’s more to life than the way it looks. There is also how it feels. There’s also what you did and how you changed.”

In the end, Edmundson’s book is as much about “why I wrote” as it is about Why Write? It’s deeply personal and broadly philosophical, filled with the distilled reflections of a lifetime asking sharp questions, listening to thoughtful answers, and then asking more questions.

(All quotations taken from an advance reading copy; Why Write? will be released August 31).  

Professor David Clemens teaches composition, literature, and critical thinking at Monterey Peninsula College. In 2000, his victorious struggle against a college loyalty oath to multiculturalism was covered ...

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