By Chandler Ryd
When I was fourteen, the thought one day struck me that what I wanted most in life was to be a great writer. Since then, it’s been an ambition that I’ve never quite shaken. To be more specific, I’ve wanted to be the sort of writer that others read and revere by saying, “Yes, he really was a great writer.” I’ve wanted to be a part of that special class of wordsmiths that undergraduate English majors will read a hundred years from now, when their professors nod studiously and say while smoking a pipe, “Yes, he really was a great writer.”And the undergraduate English majors will also nod studiously, then return home to put my books and a pipe on their Christmas lists. To put it differently, I’ve wanted to be an immortal writer, famous and moderately anthologized.
In truth, I am only a silly writer precisely because of my wild ambitions. These ambitions came into my head when I was fourteen for three reasons. First, all of the books that we read in school curriculums are by those immortal writers who, shortly after their death, seem to find lasting recognition. Second, we students revere those figures, and the young writers among us, like myself, often get the false notion in our heads that if we write great books, we will be remembered as great writers. Third, we realize that in all likelihood our words will not be remembered, and in fact we will be forgotten sooner sooner than we think; if a stranger reads a poem of mine today, it’s likely he won’t remember it in a month. It’s even more likely he won’t remember me. And further still, even great writers are not guaranteed a place in humanity’s collective memory. So much outside of our control determines whether or not we are remembered, be it power, money, or luck. If Shakespeare’s friends had not published his first folio, we would likely not read him today. Realizing that we and our art will be forgotten often leads us into envy for the providentially-chosen great writers who have the fame to keep them in the imaginations of precocious undergraduates everywhere. We envy the fame of those long-dead literary celebrities and begin to write for the sake of that glory. This is what happened to me.
I must admit that I began writing this essay in an attempt to convince myself that I am still a good writer. I have felt like my writing is in a rut, like a runner habituated into the same route, seeing the same scenery, and meanwhile becoming frustrated with the act of running itself when it is only his method that is sapping his joy. On my worst days, I spend hours writing and rewriting a single paragraph, wringing my words in hopes of reaching the vague standard of excellence I have lain before myself. Through this tire-spinning, clutch-smoking writing process, I like to think that I am sanctifying the language, making it worthy of being read. And that phrase, being read, is indeed the problem. Thinking too much about readers and what they will think of me is stifling. If what I write is to be published, it ought to be good, I tell myself, and it ought to be especially good because I have won a few awards from the English faculty for my writing. This effect is magnified when I am the one publishing my own words in this magazine, and magnified further when I am writing an essay about my own struggles as a writer, a topic that always seems to me self-indulgent. As you can see, I’ve already written myself in circles.
I know I am not alone in this pursuit of artistic fame. I imagine it is why poets scheme up lines about the immortality of art: “Not marble nor the gilded monuments / Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme,” Shakespeare writes in his “Sonnet 55.” Just as every person must confront his own mortality, so too must every artist realize that his art will likely die with him, unless he is either lucky or happens to be William Shakespeare.
This realization was especially important for Christian Wiman, the poet who visited our campus last fall. When Wiman was my age, he thought of nothing but writing a poem that would “live forever.” And those were his exact words as a young poet—“live forever”—as he writes in his upcoming book, He Held Radical Light. I can only imagine how someone hearing the young and ambitious Wiman say those words might have reacted—if only I could remember the faces of those to whom I have said something similar. To state such a lofty ambition as that, Wiman must have had lines like the one from “Sonnet 55” floating through his consciousness. Indeed he did: when he visited Hillsdale, he told a crowd of ambitious twenty-one year old writers that he used to read with a predatory eye; he was a mountain lion, eyeing from a distance every deft turn of phrase he read, looking for something he could catch and use for himself.
When he was my age, Wiman would press on late into the night, shirking his schoolwork to write poetry that nobody would remember. For years, I did the same thing, and in retrospect it’s actually quite funny that I did. In high school, instead of finishing the homework that was due that afternoon, I would write poetry or a chapter of a burgeoning novel during my morning study hall. The words would come from a vague emotional ache that I thought other people ought to feel along with me, as if it were their own. In those days, my writing was bad, but I didn’t know it was bad because I absolutely brooded over it.
I loved the Romantics. In my American Lit. class, our teacher assigned to us a report on the work of an author who she thought was a kindred spirit of ours; for me, she chose Ralph Waldo Emerson. Like Emerson, who found the daily life of an industrial society corrupting, I thought the day-to-day matters of my life, like homework and sleeping, were so much less valuable than the unmediated experience of my vague ache. What I would truly remember—what I wanted the world to remember—was my writing, and through my writing, the world, or at least the English majors, would remember me.
When I first arrived at Hillsdale, I continued my habits, skimming the Federalist Papers and The Canterbury Tales in order to carve out substantial blocks of time to devote to writing. By then I was working on my second novel; the first, which I had completed not a year before, I had buried somewhere in my laptop’s hard-drive. I spewed sentences with abandon, keeping a log of how many words I had put to page for my novel each week—usually around three thousand. During the long weekend of Fall Break, I wrote nearly ten thousand. I told myself that this novel was going to be published and that it would bring me acclaim, and if the acclaim didn’t come now, then it would either come with the next novel or it would miraculously appear a few years after my death when my books would be read in classrooms, as if God had willed that all the young and ambitious writers would find their way into the Western canon. I never finished that second novel.
The irony of it all is that now, I rarely show those poems and novels to anyone. Even in private, I hardly ever open those forsaken spiral-bound notebooks and Word documents, and when I do, it’s usually because I’m morbidly curious to briefly recall the vague ache that I felt so compelled to share, and have since forgotten. I’m embarrassed when anyone stumbles across those early writings. When had I finished my first novel, a violent psychological thriller, I printed six manuscripts, held together in black binders, and distributed them among family and friends, proud of my achievement. Only a few people managed to finish the book, and the black binders mostly gathered dust, forgotten by everyone including myself, until a few months ago when my great-grandmother leaned over to me at a Christmas gathering and said, “I read your book.” After a moment of bewilderment, I remembered those horrible black binders and felt a galactic chill, as if my soul had chewed tin-foil. She looked me in the eye and said, nonchalantly as if reporting the weather, “I hated it.”
It was one of the most uncomfortable moments in my recent memory. I said almost nothing, trying to find words and only staring off somewhere to the left. My mom walked over and asked what we were talking about. My great-grandmother redirected the conversation. She called me the next morning to comfort me, telling me that she loves me, thinks I’m a wonderful young man and a good writer, and it’s just the book that she doesn’t like. By then, I had recovered some of my eloquence. “I don’t like it either,” I told her.
I had toiled at that manuscript for years, hoping my work would have lasting significance, but now it’s only a relic of that vague ache I had in high school. I want to hide those black binders. In fact, I should probably track the rest of them down so that my novel can be peaceably forgotten.
This is not to say that I regret writing the novel. Writing so consistently for so many years taught me how and how not to write, lessons which still pay off to this day. And at the time, when I could forget about posterity, I truly loved writing it.
In his book, Wiman said that his ambition to write a poem that would “live forever” grew to become “a transparent attempt to replace the soul with the self.” The solution, then, is to return to the soul and forget the self.
It was therefore refreshing to hear about the issue of artistic ambition and fame from Ron Hansen, our visiting writer this spring, a man who told jokes with an effervescent smile. I asked him why he writes, explaining the sort of question I have dealt with and Wiman has dealt with: if not to be remembered, then why do we brood over our words?
Hansen’s answer was straight to the point: “For the love of writing,” he replied. Later, during his reading, he said that while writing he never lets himself think about the reader. If he finds the act of writing delightful and meaningful, he trusts that the book will find its way into the hands of readers who will cherish the story and the language in the same way that he does while writing, and perhaps even more so.
Occasionally, Hansen will slow down the flurry of his composition to concentrate all his energy into forging prose that nearly resembles the idea of perfection he has in his head. In those moments, he knows he has gotten it right. I, too, have felt those moments. After crafting such a sentence, then comes the writer’s righteous exhilaration, the feeling that he has told something true and honest and beautiful. These sentences composed out of reverence for the world and a love of the craft are the truly memorable ones. Once during a public reading, out of the blue, a stranger asked Hansen to read one of those near-perfect sentences. Hansen said the request made his soul feel like those scenes in Charlie Brown when Snoopy leaps for joy and twirls his feet in the air. The moments of self-forgetfulness happen to be the ones that bring us writers the most joy. What does it matter if I’m remembered so long as I’ve written a few sentences that have brought me joy and where I’ve gotten it right?
I have slowly learned this truth about writing over the past few years, ever since I began to realize the idolatry of my own ambition after nearly failing a Somerville midterm because I had spent all of my time toiling away on that unfinished second novel. Sometimes, like the incident with the black binders, I still need to be reminded.
It was a snowy spring afternoon not too long ago when God once again reminded me why I write. I was on a run through the neighborhood streets of Hillsdale, tracing my habitual route, and I had surprised myself by deciding to recite poetry. The lines that came to mind were from Christian Wiman’s “From a Window,” a poem about joy that he wrote while undergoing radiation therapy.
The weather, like my decision to recite Wiman, had surprised me; on my run the day before, it had been so mild and breezy that I had worn shorts that didn’t make it half-way down my thighs, but in the sudden chill I had to return to pants. The falling snow had surprised even nature itself, crystallizing on everything organic—the grass, the leaves, and all the premature flower buds—but it was a welcome surprise, rendering southern Michigan graceful and fresh.
What was so important about the poetry and the cold air and the snow was that they shocked me into seeing the world’s beauty again. Sometimes change does that; by altering something familiar, even just slightly, the scenery of a standard afternoon run can seem like the most beautiful in the world.
And so I ran, the implacable rhythm of the poem seeming to urge me to run faster in order to keep up with the intensity of Wiman’s meter. Because of my ragged breathing, the lines came out in spurts, but the words still felt potent, especially the last couplet: “that life is not the life of men. / And that is where the joy came in.”
The poem is about the way a single beautiful image can stir the soul to joy, and that is what happened to me as I turned a corner onto the Baw Beese trail. The leaves, decomposing over the past four months, jutted up from the white snow in spurts of orange and brown. The frosted, leafless trees framed the asphalt path as it rose and fell and curved into obscurity in the distance. The sky, so expansive and grey and uniform, cast the tops of the trees into abstract silhouettes that shifted in mesmerizing parallax as I ran beneath them. It was so beautiful that all of Wiman’s words stopped. I slowed to a standstill, silent.
On that snowy spring afternoon, God reminded me that I write because He has made the world beautiful. The world is not beautiful because I recite poetry while I run; it is beautiful because the poetry is not adequate to describe its wonders, so I must be silent.
I stood there for a few minutes, looking around and trying to remember the details. Then I returned home, stretched, and began to write this essay. In writing the first draft, I did not alter anything until I had completed the draft, trying to forget my ambitions and lose my self-consciousness. And that, thankfully, is where the joy came in.
Chandler Ryd is a junior studying English.