Writing needs context. It is, for example, much easier to write with some purpose than just babbling on a blog.
So this is my fifth week of Arabic lessons. I love my class – we have a great teacher and I love working with the other five students who are all so different and interesting in their own ways. I enjoyed the diversity in the classroom and the fact that we are unmistakably united every day in this foreign tongue.
Above all I like the journal assignments. They reminded me of a time when writing in a foreign language was not yet traumatic. Currently my vocabulary in Arabic is very limited, and we haven’t even covered the most basic grammar rules yet. Therefore, I don’t have to worry about diction or style so much as I do in English yet. S, our instructor, expect us to write only basic, uncomplicated sentences.
That said, I found my storytelling not affected by my very rudimentary command of the language at all – what a fascinating discovery. You see, we have to do these writing assignments in respond to prompts and serial illustrations provided by the textbook. So in order to make my task bearable, I make up unreal, sensational stories.
On a Tuesday afternoon, P and I stayed after class to complete some unfinished exercise. After that, we found ourselves suddenly trapped by a raging, pouring rain. Chatting with her, I found she do the exact same thing as I did. For example, she wrote for a set of weirdly suggestive illustrations: “The professor had an affair with a student. After that he was fired. But he still thinks about the student, even now when he’s on the beach.” I wrote something similar, but certainly less dramatic. Therefore, I thought her story was much better.
读阿拉伯语的一周过得特别快。每天天不亮就醒来，然后煮上粥（听按摩医生的话总是撒一把红米），洗澡，出来炒个菜，然后粥就着腐乳一起吃，看Anthony Boudain的Parts Unkown。看天逐渐变亮，然后读两三个小时的阿拉伯语，做作业，九点多出发去上课。中午下课走几分钟去Harvard Square的clover吃一个三明治，然后回来继续上课到下午三点。回家的话会立马倒在床上，看点不费脑子的电影，做东西吃，很早睡着。
I’m really tired of the melodrama of life. At the end of the day I can’t even decide on in which language I shall write my diary. I write in a certain language to avoid certain readers and another to avoid others. I write in English to run away from certain aspects of myself and in Chinese to run away from the other aspects of myself. Writing in a foreign language is always a good way to keep a secret. Because I wouldn’t be too proud to revisit my writing in English, I can spare myself from the embarrassment.
When I think of him I find myself speechless in every language I know. It was rather a strange experience when I still imagined to speak to him, and that he’ll understand me like no one ever had. But I am in horrible despair now, yet simultaneously relieved from that tension, that constant guessing, always uncertain what to say and what to do next. Now that I know I had successfully ruined it, that I better admit the all was my illusion at last, I am finally at peace. Secretly I smiled at the cruelty of life, of how I wasn’t so alone in this ugly scheme after all, that the the ones I so loved, crazily, had all turned out to be just the same as those have never I had no hope for.
So there was no great tragedy or comedy in life after all. All there was were part myth, part melodrama. Now thinking back I can’t believe some of the things I did out of the perhaps blindness of the moment. I would however never regret what I did, wrong as it were. This is what I call melodrama. Useless self-conceit. But how I write to you, even now, and still cries for that empty space you never entered, is a myth. You represented a complexity that was beyond my reach. I know I was only wasting my time and hurting myself. And how selfish would it be for me to say “I love you”. So there, I never said it. So I’m saying it for myself now. I love you so much.
“I meant to write about death, only life came breaking in as usual.” Diary, 17 February 1922
Some notable figures: Woolf, Penelope Fitzgerald, Katherine Mansfield, Willa Cather.
I came to realize that what can be called “life-writing” is probably the most enjoyable types of reading for me. As Hermione Lee mentions in her interview，“Life-writing, a term used by Woolf in ‘Sketch of the Past,’ is made up of different kinds of ‘true’ narratives—biography, autobiography, memoir, diaries, letters, travel writing. ”
Now I certain that I’m always fascinated by the life-writing(s) that I’ve come across, maybe even more than the fictions and essays that define one as a writer. But I’m reluctant to admit that I’m drawn even more toward these life-writings than their “real work” — I had the notion deep in my mind that these types of writing are all secondary and less in value compared with the real achievements of the writers—their “true” masterpieces, the novels and stories and so on.
I think the reason why this idea has been so entrenched in my mind is that I was never taught to look at these materials in English classes, as if, as Lee says in the interview, that these writers don’t have lives, and they weren’t important enough to be worthy of examining as their words.
But episodes in my life lately have help me to realize that life in itself is no less important than writing (of course!). To live a good life is as hard as produce a good pieces of writing, if not more challenging. Should writing, than, subject to the demands of life, or it is possible that the text has the final say?
I find this predicament hard to live with yet fascinating. Such dilemma is, as one can imagine, most manifest in the “life-writing” of a writer. Must one be sacrificed to achieve the success of the other?
It is said that while life contributes to writing, writing doesn’t always if never contributes to life (health, relationships, finance, etc.). I recognize this message, but don’t necessarily want to change what I’d do to give up writing all together. There must some way in which life and writing cohabit perfectly. In the ideal situation, the existence of one supports, rather than jeopardizing the other. This hope drives me to read as much as life-writing as possible — they’ll contain the clues for the answer that I’ve been looking for.
Often, and I consider this phenomenon a quite strange one, that readers don’t expect writers (or artist, actors, etc.) to have a good life. They imagine creative persons die abruptly or suffer form poverty or persecution, etc. Think of the stand-up comedian, who is only allowed to joke about the unfortunate situations of his life. Perhaps as Aristotle says in the Poetics, we expect figures in comedy to be lower than / similar to us, while tragic heroes better than us. So maybe the reader would often like to see the creative person as a tragedy, and to fulfill such demand the biographers and historians might be incentivized to make what is life a legend. The reader is upset to see a writer who enjoys a good life. Therefore, he must “died a good death” — the biographers then must not choose to write about someone “who just declined“.
But decline we must as it is the condition of life. At the current moment I try to put as much care into life as writing, although secretly I’ve always preferred the latter.