Monday, March 2, 2009

Limited Sun

Everything is nuance. The postage-stamp-size weather preview on the front page of the New York Times informs me that today there will be limited sunshine. I look out my window. The sun, hidden by cloud cover, casts a milky glow onto the fresh snow. Any hour now (3 p.m., according to, the clouds will break, the sun will peek through, maybe even start melting the snow. In Greek mythology Helios is responsible for giving us sunlight. In Norse mythology it is Sunna, in Shinto lore she is Amaterasu. Only in a world governed more by the exactitude of science than the metaphorical framework of mythology could sunlight be trumped by language.

If sunshine every really becomes limited, can I stop wearing sunblock? Would I even want to? Or would the grim reality of a sun deficient or constrained in some way afflict me with a variation of SAD (solar affective disorder), or worse, a full-blown depression. Everything is nuance, le mot juste. Partly sunny (which, by implication, means partly cloudy) suggests a trope of a totally different hue. There is a softness to the phrase, a perception of possibility; even a little sun is better than a limited one.

Which brings me to the heart of the matter, a reflection on the nature of language (in general) and writing (in particular). More than one wise person has said, "It's not what you say, it's how you say it." And one particularly brilliant writer (Joan Didion) many years ago wrote an essay that addresses, with Didion-esque insight, the question of "Why I Write. " The essay appeared in The Writer on Her Work, edited by Janet Sternburg. Didion admits to stealing the title from George Orwell: "One reason I stole it was that I like the sound of the words: Why I Write. There you have three short unambiguous words that share a sound, and the sound they share is this:
In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It's an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its aggressiveness all you want with veils of subordinate clauses and qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions – with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating – but there's no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer's sensibility on the reader's most private space."

Even if there is some overstatement in equating writer with bully, the "three short unambiguous words" that set the essay in motion strike a deep, resonant note. And Didion's bully, being a 'secret' one, insinuates herself into my consciousness, even years after first reading the essay. Why, after all, do I write? In a world apparently filled now with more writers than readers, where do I find my place in this growing band of bullies? I could answer very simply, three words of my own: I just do. And if that isn't enough, I can remind myself how I love the puzzle of piecing words together, the cadences of sentences and paragraphs, the images demanding that I take note.

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