Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Writing and Rebellion

With any luck, tomorrow I will be posting a new interview in the Writers At Cornell podcast series. It features a couple of my colleagues, and myself, being interviewed by three lecturers in English. You can listen to the whole thing then, but one topic came up which I've been thinking about ever since our conversation.

That is, writing as a form of rebellion. All three of us seemed to regard it as such, although for all of us the sentiment appeared personal, rather than as a kind of doctrine. One of us grew up in a religious southern black family; another in working-class Spanish Harlem; another in white, middle-class suburbia, and in a way, each of us, in our work, was and is reacting aggressively to the world around us.

I'm the suburban kid, of course. My childhood was pretty great--family harmony, pleasant enough town, not a ton of money but enough to get by without worrying too much. But even for me, writing was a form of escape and rebellion. It was something I was always OK at, that teachers told me I could do--but I didn't really get into it seriously until I was in college, and was expected to enter into some kind of prestigious and lucrative career. My parents were never against writing, per se, but they weren't too crazy about the idea, not until I started publishing. They had been good to me when I was a kid, but a little inflexible, like a lot of parents, and writing felt like a shot across the bow of people's expectations for me, especially theirs.

When I was young, the approval of adults meant a lot to me. I deeply desired the ratification of authority. Writing was the only rebellion of my entire life (unless you count, as I did in the interview, wearing jeans to high school). And it still is. In general I like getting along with people, and tend not to rock the boat, but when it comes to writing, everyone can just go fuck themselves. That's my territory.

I guess I'm wondering if writing, good writing, has to be an act of rebellion, even if that rebellion is vanishingly small and personal. One has to rebel, perhaps, against others' expectations, against one's own inertia. You can comb your hair and wear your necktie, but you need to keep a revolutionary close at hand, a little John Brown of the soul, a MicroChe.


rmellis said...

Not just writing so much, as good art in general, I think. There's a lot of writing that just supports the status quo, that confirms beliefs and tells people what they want to hear. A LOT. But the only interesting art, as far as I'm concerned, is a rebellion against expectations.

Anonymous said...

i think we also take for granted simply being able to BE writers in the States. think of the third world countries and other nefarious parts of the world where scrawling anything not in line with a particular regime's doctrine is rebellion. bolano talked about how simply being a writer was being a revolutionary in parts of south america and mexico.

Anonymous said...

Yeh, no kidding...Ithaca, where we live, has a "City of Asylum" project for writers who can't return to their home countries...I should be doing an interview with one in the coming weeks, Sarah Mkhonza, from Swaziland. These people have amazing stories and are a constant reminder of how lucky we are to get to say what we please.

Anonymous said...

i think, like rmellis, that all forms of creation are in some way an act of rebellion, though the target of that rebellion is always never fixed -- parents, society, the suburbs, the ghetto, the government, the man. my long-time thesis is that those for whom high school was the happiest time of their lives never become great writers; they didn't have anything to speak up about, and usually don't have stories to tell.