How to Become a Writer, Part 1 — by Laura Kalpakian

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One on Whom Nothing is Lost

by Laura Kalpakian

 First, forget the notion that there is a magic wand, an elixir, an incantation, a diploma, a badge, a license, a handstamp from a big burly bouncer that will certify you as a Writer. Trash that. Trash the idea that book-in-hand, I’m a writer. We’re not discussing publishing. Trash the MFA. Lovely, I’m sure, but we’re not about credits and stuffing your ideas into someone else’s corset. To become a writer you must educate yourself to become, as Henry James so succinctly put it: One on Whom Nothing Is Lost.

What does that mean? Firstly, that experience without articulation is, well, useless. For the writer, experience only becomes valid when it has somehow been rendered into words. This is not the same as journaling (an odd verb if ever there was one). This is not to say that one uses in one’s work everything one experiences or articulates. This simply means that the writer reflexively renders experience into something useable, just like those old frontier men and women would stir vast pots of tallow and lye, lavender if you were lucky, and make of these unlikely elements, soap. One on Whom Nothing Is Lost ceaselessly stirs a similar sort of cauldron, not because she wants to, but because she cannot help herself. All experience is rendered.

If you are One on Whom Nothing Is Lost, you will sit before the casket of your own grandmother—who loved you from the moment you were born, whose affection you returned, whose guidance…..etc. etc. etc—and notice, absorb, cast into language and verbal sensation the lugubrious music, (Oh God why do they always play that awful…..) the shift of sunlight through amber windows (why are the windows in funeral homes always amber?), one aunt in navy blue, one aunt in pink, none of them in black, a cousin dying for a cigarette (he has a tic-ish smile), the hum of the air conditioner, and the scent of flowers, even the freshest, dying, drying (how is the death of flowers supposed to be comforting to…). One On Whom Nothing Is Lost catches scraps of conversation. A shard of laughter. A blowing nose. A silent fart. You can tell which cousins have their shit together, know enough to be grave and caring, and which cousins have been hastily dressed like dolls and told not to disgrace everyone. One on Whom Nothing Is Lost does all of this—and a good deal more— while listening, and saying Amen when required.

One On Whom Nothing Is Lost does this because, quite simply, it’s reflex. The writer has educated herself to notice, evaluate, judge (yes, that nasty, unfashionable word, one renders judgment as one renders tallow into soap, part of the process) to absorb everything, knowing, or perhaps not knowing, (by this time not even caring) that one day I’ll use that, and even if I don’t, without this rendering, none of this is real to me. None of this (sorry, Grandma) is very evocative.

In articulating, in turning all experience into words, the writer courts the occupational hazard best exemplified in the apocryphal story about Balzac: On the streets of Paris one afternoon, Balzac met a friend who was downcast, pale, eyes red-rimmed. Balzac said: My dear friend, what has happened? What terrible trouble has beset you? The friend replied: Ah, Balzac, my world is ended, I am crushed! My little daughter has died. Balzac—so the story goes, replied without irony or sarcasm, certainly without malice—Ah my friend, I know exactly how you feel. Yesterday I killed off my character, and my heart is broken.

Is Balzac an unfeeling, egocentric bastard? Probably. But the story itself suggests that Balzac the writer could make no creditable distinction between killing off his character, pen in hand, and his friend’s loss of a beloved child. Should Balzac be in therapy? There’s no help for his affliction. He educated himself to be One on Whom Nothing Is Lost, and in doing so, he lost perspective.

Other than a punch in the gut, the writer more fully responds to words than anything else. Give One on Whom Nothing Is Lost, a two-bit lyric from a silly song (You are my sunshine, my only sunshine….) and you can give him a veritable heart attack of Love. Offer that person a line from a novel or a film or some threadbare cliché from the Bible or Shakespeare (Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death....) and you can render her into a blubbery mass of sorrow. A scrap of poetry (A thing of beauty, a joy forever..…..) can wrap its lovely arms around an unruly swath of experience to make it intelligible, meaningful, moving.

In any profession there are perils. Tennis elbow. Carpal tunnel. Housemaid’s knee. To be a writer—One On Whom Nothing Is Lost—the peril is that one may come to love, to value the Word above the Deed. To respond more vividly to the word than to the world. Is this healthy? No. Will it make you wealthy? No. Is it wise? No. But you will be a writer. And you will have learned how to take the world in through your senses, absorb everything around you, stir it, like lye and tallow (and lavender if you are lucky) in the cauldron of your heart and mind, and then, bring it out your fingertips and make of it narrative prose. Or not.

2 Responses to “How to Become a Writer, Part 1 — by Laura Kalpakian”

  1. Jes

    Oh my. So THIS is the/my problem…

    Reply
  2. Grace Peterson

    We really are doomed aren’t we? And how blissfully so. Great writing!

    Reply

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