The Writer as Artist: On Transience and the Joy of Words

Throughout my academic career, I have viewed writing as a means by which I can paraphrase, convey, and analyze other people’s ideas. I never attempted poetry or creative prose, or anything outside of academic essays for that matter, because the thought that those styles of writing were something I could do or something worthwhile had never even crossed my mind. As a writer, I was nothing more than a conduit for the various ideas of others. At the close of last semester, I had the incredible revelation, though incredibly obvious to most people, that I had completely missed the mark and my thoughts about writing were very skewed. Academic essays certainly serve their purpose, but the written word is so much more than a mere tool for mimicking and conveying other people’s ideas. Of course, knowing how to analyze and mimic are important steps in learning to write, but meaningful utilization of language should not stop there. It can’t. The fact that other original works exist to be analyzed proves that writing doesn’t end with academic essays. Mastery over the written word is an artform, and the writer an artist.

In his book Till We Have Faces, C. S. Lewis writes, “To say the very thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that’s the whole art and joy of words.” Both the written and spoken word are forms of art, and when utilized to their fullest potential, they can create a joyful experience for both the writer and reader or the speaker and listener. But as with any artform, reaching that potential requires extreme effort, wisdom, and time. Take, for instance, a musician: first he must study, analyze, and perform pre-existing works. Eventually, the musician begins to compose his own music, following rigid patterns and rules. It is slow-going, and the product is often simple or boring. But after familiarizing himself with that kind of production, he is ready to test the rules and hopefully create something wholly original and unique. The same thing applies to a studio artist. So too with a writer: he must first study others’ writings by analyzing, paraphrasing, echoing, and mimicking ideas and techniques. Then the writer produces small simple works of his own in the hope that one day he will be able to produce something unique and meaningful. But even the first stage of studying and copying other pre-existing works takes years and years of study and patience. The undertaking is long and grueling, but the writer strives after that final stage in the process, and he hopes that it is not all for nothing.

While the written and spoken word are tools of expression, the writer is the one who actually determines what that expression manifests itself as. As Lewis indicates, the speaker or the writer of words has something to say. Through language, the artist pours out a piece of himself onto the page in an attempt at creating something beautiful and meaningful, as an act of reaching someone outside himself. But the skill that such a feat requires takes years of work and effort to cultivate, and often, the writer never reaches that potential. Artists are left to question the possibility of realizing the potential for expression of the written word. Can someone really experience the true joy as Lewis describes it? Or is the artist’s work all for naught? If so, why try? T. S. Eliot speaks in his Four Quartets about this problem of expression:

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—

Twenty years largely wasted…

Trying to use words, and every attempt

Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure

Because one has only learnt to get the better of words

For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which

One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture

Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate

With shabby equipment always deteriorating

In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,

Undisciplined squads of emotion…  

…But perhaps neither gain nor loss.

For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

(“East Coker” Part V)

The writer here strives in vain to express himself, slowly beginning to realize the futility of the act. He tries his best to experience the joy of words, but in the moment, he cannot find the words necessary to give voice to his feelings or thoughts concerning the present. The moment is there and then it is gone, and by the time the writer can gather his thoughts and his language, that which he so strongly felt he needed to convey suddenly feels distant and unimportant. The things which he has words to vocalize in an artful manner no longer need to be said, while those which he feels need to be communicated are lost to time as the artist struggles against inarticulation. He seeks in vain, and all of his diligent efforts are like ocean foam slipping away into nothingness. The artist is left to ponder the meaninglessness of his craft once again—all that striving, and for what? a moment that comes and goes in the blink of an eye? 

    This is the difficulty with all art, the frustrating yet constant cycle of practice, of disappointment, of presenting one’s work to the world to be criticized. In the end the writer knows that his art is fleeting, that most likely all his efforts will never amount to anything, or even if they do, that art cannot last forever. Eliot depicts a grim picture of the reality of art. But what about Lewis and the joy of words? How can the artist find joy amidst the transience of his thoughts and of his craft? The joy of words and of art is not an attempt at harnessing language for self-gratification, nor is it an effort to build something that will last an eternity. Lewis and Eliot are neither harmonious in their ideas on language, nor are they irreconcilable. Though we write, we produce art, and we strive to create something that is unique and will last, in the end, all our efforts seem for naught because they are inevitably transient: both the thoughts and feelings we experience along with the art we produce. Eliot doesn’t seem to think we can reach the joy of words, but he says that our ability or lack thereof is not for us to ponder. We must strive anyway. And I think the true joy and purpose in that is creating something that glimpses, only if just for a moment, the eternal and in doing so, captures bits and pieces of truth within these transitory moments. There will always be a sense of dissatisfaction in this process, but that is only natural when dealing with something that is true and beautiful. Through these tiny, imperfect, fleeting fragments, the artist touches the divine, leaving within both himself and reader alike a longing for similar beauty that will not fade, and thus pointing them to eternity. That ultimate desire for the heavenly is what makes it worthwhile.

April Smith is a junior studying English and music.

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