Writing Lessons

First, Please Yourself

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By Peter Turchi

January 19, 2015


 

 

I started composing fiction almost as soon as I could read. What kept me going wasn’t so much advice as encouragement, and I was fortunate to get a good bit of that from any number of generous, thoughtful people. But there is a particular declaration about writing that has resonated with me for decades.

During my first or second year of college, I was introduced to the work of the great Argentinian poet and fiction writer Jorge Luis Borges. The first story of his that captured my imagination was “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” I remember wandering the stacks of the college library and coming across his then-recent story collection, The Book of Sand. In the introduction to that book, he says, “I write for myself and for my friends, and I write to ease the passing of time.”

Not yet 20 years old, I was both prolific and intent on publication. Standing there in the college library, I found Borges’s words sadly unambitious, the admission of a tired old man. He was about 80 then, and would die a few years later.

That line from Borges stayed with me in part because, even in translation, it’s nicely rhythmic; but also, I suspect, because after I had grown a little older, I realized that it carries a sense of hard-earned wisdom. And it reminded me of another moment in college, when we watched a filmed interview with Vladimir Nabokov during which he talked about writing primarily for himself and his wife, Vera, and for the few readers who seemed to take the same pleasure in his work that he did.

That, I slowly came to understand, is the important thing: not to write primarily for monetary gain, or for public recognition, or for the approval of anyone else. The most gratifying work is the writing that seems true and necessary to the writer. That isn’t to rule out those “friends” Borges mentioned, those like-minded readers Nabokov spoke of. They weren’t talking about the sort of friends and family members who congratulate you for anything you do; they were talking about the ones who challenge you, who help you to identify your own greatest ambition.

Finally, easing the passage of time as a writer, as an artist, isn’t the same as playing shuffleboard or bingo. The sort of easing Borges was talking about has to do with recognizing one’s mortality, one’s small place and short time in the world, and observing and contemplating parts of that world in ways that might bring some kind of pleasure, to oneself and to others.


Peter Turchi teaches at the University of Houston and in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. His books include, most recently, A Muse and A Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery, and Magic and Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer.


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