Ta-Nehisi Coates on Writing as an Act of Self-Interrogation

 

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Ta-Nehisi Coates. Via: (Wikimedia Commons)

 

The motivation of why people write is always appealing to me. Some people write for the pleasure of it. Others write because they need to preserve their experience in a form of structured and understandable sentences. There are also people who write in order to discover their thoughts or one wise man believes that writing everyday has helped him to notice things that people can’t even notice.

For Ta-Nehisi Coates, a prolific essayist and national correspondent for the Atlantic, he credits his grandmother who taught him to write, not as a way to assemble words into clear and comprehensible sentences and paragraphs, but as an act of self-interrogation. He shares what his grandmother taught him about writing in his book of essays titled “Between the World and Me.”

Dedicating the book for his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes:

“Your grandmother taught me to read when I was only four. She also taught me to write, by which I mean not simply organizing a set of sentences into a series of paragraphs, but organizing them as a means of investigation. When I was in trouble at school (which was quite often) she would make me write about it. The writing had to answer a series of questions:  Why did I feel the need to talk at the same time as my teachers? Why did I not believe that my teacher was entitled to respect? How would I want someone to behave while I was talking? What would I do the next time I felt the urge to talk to my friends during a lesson? I have given you these same assignments. I gave them to you not because I thought they would curb your behavior–they certainly did not curb mine–but because these were the earliest acts of interrogation, of drawing myself into consciousness. Your grandmother was not teaching me how to behave in class. She was teaching me how to ruthlessly interrogate the subject that elicited the most sympathy and rationalizing–myself.”

Understanding the Flame of Anger: Three Contemporary Philosophers on Anger

 

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Intersection. Photograph by Several Seconds. Via: (FLICKR)

 

Growing up, I knew two different forms of anger: my mom’s anger and my dad’s anger. My mom’s anger is vocal. Her anger was very reactive. Sometimes she would use a physical aggression to extend her rage. On the other hand, my dad, expressed his anger very quietly. His face would look very upset but he knew how to prevent himself from being engulfed by his anger wholly.

Even when anger was a common experience of my childhood, and often it fuels my acts and thoughts, I believe that it is more than just the obscenities of our language to communicate our feelings. I know it’s more than that because people just don’t flare up in fury abruptly. There has to be something that drives them to strike out, to punch, and to curse.

Here are some problems that we have in our society about anger: once we see anger displayed in public, we step away from it. We dismiss and judge it because it’s too terrifying to go near it, and we believe there is nothing good that comes out of it. It’s hard to pause and reflect on what anger wants or what anger truly means when we are too often caught up in its “flame.”

Therefore, to help us to understand what anger wants and means, here I gathered three of my favorite contemporary philosophers:

Martha Nussbaum

Martha Nussbaum. Via: (FLICKR)

 

Martha Nussbaum, a professor of Law and ethics at The University of Chicago, in her essay Beyond Anger, argued that anger contains a sort of strike back tendency. This is an idea that she drew from Aristotle. Nussbaum writes:

“Aristotle says that anger is a response to a significant damage to something or someone one cares about, and a damage that the angry person believes to have been wrongfully inflicted. He adds that although anger is painful, it also contains within itself a hope for payback. So: significant damage, pertaining to one’s own values/circles or cares, and wrongfulness. All this seems both true and uncontroversial. More controversial, perhaps, is his idea (in which, however, all Western philosophers who write about anger concur) that the angry person wants some type of payback, and that, this is a conceptual part of what anger is. In other words, if you don’t want some type of payback, your emotion is something else (grief, perhaps), but not really anger.”

This wish for payback is deeply human but it doesn’t always make sense according to Nussbaum. The example that she brings in her essay is if we saw someone who has been raped, we focus our attention on the wrongdoer, hoping he gets a “deserving” payback from what he’s done. We want the wrongdoer to be instantly punished and jailed. Though punishing the wrongdoer is a necessary step to do, especially if there’s a law for it, Nussbaum believes that there are other necessary solutions that we need to talk about such as how we can prevent future rapes or how we can restore the victim’s life. This concept of  payback or “blood for blood” will not solve the root problem, and is a short-sighted way of looking at problems. At the end of the essay, she says, “the arguments proposed by anger will be clearly seen to be pathetic and weak, while the voice of generosity and forward looking reason will be strong as well as beautiful.”

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Alain de Botton. Photograph by Charlotte de Botton. Via: (alaindebotton.com)

 

If Nussbaum understands the desire for “pay-back” in anger, another philosopher that we need to look at is Alain de Botton. In his short but powerful essay titled On Anger, he realizes that the root cause of anger is optimism. We get angry when we are excessively optimistic with our plans and then suddenly they are not working. This is when anger starts to leak out and control our behaviors.

de Botton writes succinctly:

“Anger begins with the many imperfections of existence: the internet connection has failed, the plane is delayed again, someone is driving too slowly. It is fair enough to take a negative view of these things. But in order for them to make us angry–rather than merely sad–there is something else at work: we break, kick, slam, and accelerate because we are, at some level, horribly optimistic. Though the angry may seem negatively predisposed to life, they are in their hearts recklessly hopeful. Recklessly because how badly we react to frustration is critically determined by what we think of as normal. We may be irritated that it is raining, but our pessimistic accommodation to the likelihood of showers means we are unlikely ever to respond to one by screaming. Our annoyance is tempered by what we understand we can expect from the climate, by our melancholy experience of what it is normal to hope for from the skies. We are not overwhelmed by anger whenever we don’t get something we want; we do so only when we first believed ourselves fundamentally entitled to secure it–and then oddly did not. Our greatest furies spring from events which violate our sense of the ground-rules of existence.”

What de Botton says is reminding me of Daniel Kahneman’s assertion of the danger of overconfidence. He says, “Overconfidence is associated with a failure of imagination.” When what we believe to be true turns out to be false, sometimes anger becomes the expression of our dissatisfaction.

In his essay, de Botton looks beyond the root of anger. He finds that if we can look at the angry thoughtfully, we can learn something from them. He writes:

“Behind their outburst, the angry are trying to teach the world things: how to run an airline, how to drive, how to make decent dinner-time conversation… However, they are exceptionally bad teachers because too much is at stake for them. They lack the basic psychological resource of good teachers: a relative indifference to the success or failure of their lessons.”
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David Whyte. Photograph by Christopher Michel. Via: (FLICKR)

 

In addition to Martha Nussbaum and Alain De Botton, another thoughtful philosopher that we need to discuss is David Whyte. In his book titled Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment, and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words, with his poetic and philosophical eyes, Whyte is able to see the most tender part of anger that we don’t always see. He believes that anger is coming from a place of deep compassion. People who are angry, if we can reframe our point of view, they are profoundly compassionate and working to protect the things they care about. This sense of compassion is sometimes too intense and they cannot contain it within themselves. Then anger becomes a way for them to reduce its intensity.

Whyte writes beautifully:

“ANGER is the deepest form of compassion, for another, for the world, for the self, for a life, for the body, for a family and for all our ideals, all vulnerable and all, possibly about to be hurt. Stripped of physical imprisonment and violent reaction, anger is the purest form of care, the internal living flame of anger always illuminates what we belong to, what we wish to protect and what we are willing to hazard ourselves for. What we usually call anger is only what is left of its essence when we are overwhelmed by its accompanying vulnerability, when it reaches the lost surface of our mind or our body’s incapacity to hold it, or when it touches the limits of our understanding. What we name as anger is actually only the incoherent physical incapacity to sustain this deep form of care in our outer daily life; the unwillingness to be large enough and generous enough to hold what we love helplessly in our bodies or our mind with the clarity and breadth of our whole being.”

It’s important to refuse to internalize anger as what it displays in our lives. The language and the physical aggression of anger give us nothing but its extreme cruelty and its chaos. When we resist its superficiality and chose to find its meaning beyond what is visible, we can start to understand that anger is more complex and more fluid than what we always see. To see anger beyond what is visible is the beginning of wisdom.

Anne Lamott on the Gift of Writing and Why Perfectionism Kills Writing

 

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Anne Lamott and Fr. Tom Weston. Via: (Flickr)

 

Writing is hard for every last one of us–straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.” This was Cheryl Strayed’s uplifting response to a letter of despair she received from an aspiring writer named Elisa Bassist.

To write is to dig deep beneath our surface and excavate everything that needs to be said. This process is not always pleasant. Some days, if we are lucky, our words and metaphors can string together, creating equal parts of truth and beauty. But some days, as Vonnegut said, “When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.”

Is writing really like what Vonnegut described? Even if it’s true, there are things that can help us to ease the uncomfortable experience of writing. Anne Lamott‘s book titled Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (Public Library) (Amazon) is one of those comforters for any perplexed writers.

Lamott does two grand things in this book: offering non-cliche friendly wisdom on writing that can also be applied in life and sprinkling hilarious anecdotes in every page that will make her readers giggle uncontrollably. The combination of wisdom and humor makes this book hard to put down.

Lamott started reading and writing at an early age. Having born to parents who had an unquenchable appetite for reading, Lamott grew up around books, stories, and fantasies. Her father was also a writer who, as she described, “wrote books and articles about the places and the people he had seen and known.” Lamott dropped out of college at the age of nineteen to pursue her calling as a writer. Her path was circuitous. Right after she was out of college, she took up some odd jobs to keep herself afloat. She was a Kelly girl, a clerk-typist, a tennis coach, and a house cleaner. All the while, she would stubbornly write everyday until she eventually got her book published when she was twenty six.

She thought seeing her book on print was everything that she had wanted. But in spite of her early publication, she eventually realized that publication was not as glamorous as she had imagined. The real gift of writing, she realized, is what we write–the act of writing itself. Publication arrives as an extra gift.

She writes:

“I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do–the actual act of writing–turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.”
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Image by Caro. Via: (Flickr)

 

In her book, Lamott argues that publication is also an illusion or a fantasy.  Whenever Lamott teaches a class on writing, she always receives endless questions about publication from her students. Some of her students, she observes, write not because they believe they have distinct stories that need to be told. They write because they want to get published. This latter motive is something that Lamott wants to reconstruct:

“Almost every single thing you hope publication will do for you is a fantasy, a hologram–it’s the eagle on your credit card that only seems to soar. What’s real is that if you do your scales every day, if you slowly try harder and harder pieces, if you listen to great musicians play music you love, you’ll get better. At times when you’re working, you’ll sit there feeling hung over and bored, and you may or may not be able to pull yourself up out of it that day. But it is fantasy to think that successful writers do not have these bored, defeated hours, these hours of deep insecurity when one feels as small and jumpy as a water bug. They do. But they also often feel a great sense of amazement that they get to write, and they know that this is what they want to do for the rest of their lives. And so if one of your heart’s deepest longings is to write, there are ways to get your work done, and a number of reasons why it is important to do so.”
And what are those reasons again? my student ask.
Because for some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quite or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.”
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Image by Ian Espinosa. Via: (Unsplash)

 

One of my favorite chapters of the book talks about perfectionism. As humans, we all know very well what perfectionism is. It is our disguised “weakness” that we like to brag at job interviews. Perfectionism looks very glamorous when we see it, but at its core, it is our fear: fear of making mistakes, fear of being judged insignificant, fear of being stuck. It is fear that drives us to be a perfectionist.

Lamott has something wise to say about this topic:

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at the their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”

Bridging perfectionism to writing, Lamott says:

“Besides, perfectionism will ruin your writing, blocking inventiveness and playfulness and life force (these are words we are allowed to use in California). Perfectionism means that you try desperately not to leave so much mess to clean up. But clutter and mess show us that life is being lived. Clutter is wonderfully fertile ground–you can still discover new treasures under all those piles, clean things up, edit things out, fix things, get a grip. Tidiness suggests that something is as good as it’s going to get. Tidiness makes me think of held breath, of suspended animation, while writing needs to breathe and move.”

No matter how hard we try, sometimes when we write, the voice of perfectionism will soar above our writing voice–the true voice that makes our stories alive. For Lamott, writing is always about clearing space, physically and mentally, to let ideas bloom. The hardest thing is when our state of mind is cluttered with an unnecessary voice that doesn’t contribute to the shape of our story. 

Lamott coins a funky term for this unnecessary voice. She calls it “radio station KFKD (K-Fucked)”. Writers need to be alert as soon as it starts playing its songs such as songs of self-loathing, perfectionism, and self-doubt. Lamott believes that once the volume of “radio” starts to get louder, we need to be less reactive and more reflective on its impulse. This is what she advises us:

“You have to get things quiet in your head so you can hear your characters and let them guide your story.
[…]
Still, breathing calmly can help you get into a position where the workings of your characters’ hearts and the things people say on the streets of your story can be heard above the sound of KFKD. When you are in that position, you will know.”

She continues talking about KFKD, and strangely finds a revelation that helps her to understand more about it in a little book on prayer she steals from her church. It’s not a book on writing, but it adds a new understanding of writing.

She writes:

“The meeting ended, and on my way out, a little book on prayer caught me eye. I picked it up and stuck it in my purse, figuring I could look at it over dinner and then return it the next Sunday.
[…]
I started to read and within a page came upon this beautiful passage: ‘The Gulf Stream will flow through a straw provided the straw is aligned to the Gulf Stream, and not at cross purposes with it.’
[…]
So now I always tell my students about the Gulf Stream: that what it means for us, for writers, is that we need to align ourselves with the river of the story, the river of the unconscious, of memory and sensibility, of our characters’ lives, which can then pour through us, the straw. When KFKD is playing, we are at cross purposes with the river. So we need to sit there, and breathe, calm ourselves down, push back our sleeves, and begin again.”
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Image by Alexa Mazzarello. Via: (Unsplash)

 

More than twenty years after its publication, Bird by Bird remains one of the most important books on the craft of writing. The amount of writing advice in the world is plenty. What separates the good ones and the greats ones is rarely articulable, but to me, the great advice on writing is the one that can be applied directly to life. Writing is part of the reality of living. It is part of how we further our understanding of the world we inhabit. To talk about writing is to talk about life itself. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott doesn’t only talk about the art of writing but also the art of living.