by Fenton Johnson
At the grave risk of thumbing my nose at the writing goddess for whom I have such love and respect, I don’t believe in writer’s block. The words come or they don’t. Sometimes – for me, rarely – they come easily. At other times, they are fearfully hard. There are long periods of generating crap. Sometimes the crap extends over weeks, months, years. There are long periods of silence. Sometimes the silences extend over weeks, months, years. I don’t think of that as writer’s block. I think of it as writing. The silences are part of the process. Am I producing words to feed a post-industrial capitalist / academic publishing machine, or – worse yet – my own ego? Or am I striving to write what needs to be said, when it needs to be heard?
Having said that, I also believe in sitting at the feet of the masters and striving to imitate them, brushstroke for brushstroke, verb for verb, comma for comma. Stuck against a deadline? Words not coming? Sit down with a paragraph of a writer who stuns you into silence. Then write that paragraph, laying aside any thoughts of plagiarism, holding in the heart only the desire to learn. Amazing what that gesture of respectful imitation can do to liberate the imagination from its self-imposed fears and fetters.
The first writing was plagiarism. All that came before is lost – except as it filters down to us through the writing of our conscientious thieves. It is the conscientiousness – the desire and determination to make it new – that distinguishes that gesture it from real plagiarism and makes it unique, makes it new, makes it mine, makes it yours.
Now I light a candle to the writing deities, Seshat, Saraswati, Hermes the messenger, St. Paul (St. Paul?), in gratefulness and supplication.
But while I’m waiting for those really fine golden beets I came across at the farmer’s market today to roast, let me grind a favorite kitchen knife and underscore the distinction, familiar to many of my Spalding students, between “fact” and “truth.” “Fact,” as the roots of the word suggest, is malleable – the root is the same as that of manufacture, i.e., that which is made by hand. “Truth,” on the other hand, is enduring, eternal – the root of the word is the same as that of “betrothed, i.e, “be-truth-ed”.
Newscasters and others who use phrases carelessly may use “fact” and “truth” interchangeably, but we are serious writers whose task and discipline – never forget, voluntarily taken on – is to use words with care and attention.
If you think I’m wrong, take a quick tour of “facts” that a century ago were taken for granted: non-Anglo races genetically inferior; women inherently weaker; same-gender love between men an unspeakable crime and between women nonexistent; two clearly defined, black-and-white genders; black and white. Try this parlor game, after a bottle of wine and/or bubbly water at your next dinner party: Ask the guests to imagine what “fact” we now take for granted that a century hence will be trotted out as evidence of how primitive, silly, and wrong-headed were our ancestors, by way of proving how much superior we are to them in perspicacity, judgment, and intelligence. As is demonstrated, say, by the rhetoric of the midterm election, upcoming as I write.
Then, after everyone has spoken to much discussion and hilarity, at the party’s end, speak this single truth: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
q.e.d., quod erat demonstrandum: Thus the proof is made.
Beets done — a kitchen knife, the very kitchen knife we met in paragraph five, above, sharpened by the intervening words, pierces easily to the center of the beet. I’m off to supper.