Utterly and Magnificently … Useless.

Paul Auster

I started writing at the local library today, just a couple of blocks away from my house. I found an unoccupied table by a large window overlooking College Street. It turned out to be pleasant day–a grey morning transformed into perfect blue. I sat myself in a large sprawling room with several shelves of books cloistered in the middle of it. The library was full of people, especially in the magazine and newspaper section where I happened to be. A pile of Rolling Stone magazines sat on the table to my right left behind by a bald middle-aged man, and a Chinese woman in a red sweater sat across from me, leafing through the latest glossy issue of House and Home. I looked out the window and wondered how long it’s been since I’ve spent this much time in a library. They are still remarkably quiet like I remember, and they still have that aged professor in a tweed jacket smell about them. Maybe it’s really that nourishing silence that makes libraries sacred, even if it’s cracked open once in a while by a cough or the hush of human voices. Somehow, that silence always seems to return naturally.

I am writing at the library for a couple of reasons. First of all, I had forgotten how much I really love libraries, and I am really just reacquainting myself with one of the places that I found sacred as a child. And secondly, I have been neglectful of my writing because of the demands of my computer and the interweb. It seems easier here to just show up and begin. At home there are a thousand distractions, and the struggle to throw words onto paper is easily eclipsed by the difficulty of just getting down to it. So there I was, writing. Freed from the ordinary way of going about things, sticking it to the familiar and filling hours with words.

I started my writing session by reading a little essay from The Observer by Paul Auster that I had printed out and saved as a way of encouragement. It’s a wonderful response to the question: Why does someone embark on this “magnificently useless” endeavor of writing. The piece is actually from Paul Auster’s acceptance speech for the Prince of Asturias Prize for Letters, Spain’s premier literary honor. It’s definitely worth a read or two. Here a few excellent quotations from the piece:

I don’t know why I do what I do. If I did know, I probably wouldn’t feel the need to do it. All I can say, and I say it with utmost certainty, is that I have felt this need since my earliest adolescence. I’m talking about writing, in particular, writing as a vehicle to tell stories, imaginary stories that have never taken place in what we call the real world. Surely it is an odd way to spend your life – sitting alone in a room with a pen in your hand, hour after hour, day after day, year after year, struggling to put words on pieces of paper in order to give birth to what does not exist – except in your head. Why on earth would anyone want to do such a thing? The only answer I have ever been able to come up with is: because you have to, because you have no choice.

***

In other words, art is useless, at least when compared, say, to the work of a plumber, or a doctor, or a railroad engineer. But is uselessness a bad thing? Does a lack of practical purpose mean that books and paintings and string quartets are simply a waste of our time? Many people think so. But I would argue that it is the very uselessness of art that gives it its value and that the making of art is what distinguishes us from all other creatures who inhabit this planet, that it is, essentially, what defines us as human beings.

To do something for the pure pleasure and beauty of doing it. Think of the effort involved, the long hours of practice and discipline required to become an accomplished pianist or dancer. All the suffering and hard work, all the sacrifices in order to achieve something that is utterly and magnificently … useless.

***

…human beings need stories. They need them almost as desperately as they need food and however the stories might be presented – whether on a printed page or on a television screen – it would be impossible to imagine life without them.

***

Every novel is an equal collaboration between the writer and the reader and it is the only place in the world where two strangers can meet on terms of absolute intimacy.

I have spent my life in conversations with people I have never seen, with people I will never know and I hope to continue until the day I stop breathing.

It’s the only job I’ve ever wanted.

***

So may you write until you drop, or as my favorite columnist, Sugar on the Rumpus says: “Write like a motherfucker.”

7 Comments

Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

Katherinereply
October 14, 2011 at 08:10 AM

Wonderful Luke. Even though I don’t think of myself as a writer per se, all that you pull out of this essay I nod my head, and say “Uh, huh,” it’s just like that. Perhaps to some degree it’s the contemplative acts of creation in themselves that beg the question of utility. The conversations without the conversation partner or, more accurately in this world of the interwebs, conversation without the need for a conversation partner – the not knowing what might return or not but doing it anyway, because one must, without knowing why.

I’ve also been visiting the library recently. It opens new worlds–as you say, a sacred space. I like the change to manifest, by the way, it certainly suits you.

Luke Stormsreply
October 19, 2011 at 10:10 AM
– In reply to: Katherine

Thank you, Katherine. For someone who doesn’t identify themselves as a writer, you write exceptionally well. It reminds me of one of my favourite quotes about the writing process itself and it comes from the French poet and writer, René Daumal letters. He asks: “How to be writing without becoming a writer.”

As I am discovering, the library can also become a place of distraction to writing, in the sense of so many books, so little time. A library card, in my hands can become a very dangerous thing.

All the best,

Luke

Lewisreply
October 15, 2011 at 02:10 PM

Luke,
I think I might have a slightly different take on your observations. Up until recently, there were a couple of “kids” in my building, just above my unit, who managed to make the biggest racket 24/7 that you could imagine. But without really thinking about it, they never seemed to be much of a distraction when I was studying – maybe I just got used to it. Now that they have been kicked out (rumors of starting up a meth-lab abound), the quiet is driving me crazy! I too have rediscovered my love of the library, but I think part of it is that I need the ambient noise levels to shove to the side so that I can concentrate. Funny how different people respond, without knowing why
Peace,
Lewis

Luke Stormsreply
October 19, 2011 at 10:10 AM
– In reply to: Lewis

Hello Lewis,

Your right. People are different, and as a result need different approaches and methods. I know of a writer who wrote in seedy places, like brothels, and dance halls. Writing in a seething mass of humanity seemed to work for him. There are four apartments in the Victorian house where we live, and right across the hall from us live a young couple who are both classical musicians. Since they are both in the Toronto Symphony, all they do is practice all day, and into the evening. Their incessant practicing does not distract me at all, in fact it provides a wonderful soundtrack to our lives over here in the next apartment. It is also an indication of the kind of discipline and drive it takes to be an accomplished musician, or artist in any field. Even as I am writing this, I can hear them tuning up. I would really miss them if they moved out.

For me, the library is really a place I can go to to get out of my comfort zone. Right now, I find it less distracting than being at home. Of course, when I find the library getting a little too familiar, I’ll have to change my tact once again. Maybe I’ll experiment with the electric buzz of the cafe around the corner.

All the best,

Luke

Ianreply
November 02, 2011 at 09:11 PM

“I am really just reacquainting myself with one of the places that I found sacred as a child. ”

This is great Luke, I was really happy to hear this. I went through kind of the same thing when I moved to Portland, but it took me a little longer to figure out what was going on!

I hope the sacred silence of the library is supporting your Nov(el)ember endeavors. 🙂

Luke Stormsreply
November 06, 2011 at 10:11 AM
– In reply to: Ian

Dear Ian,

Thank you. I think that I am also slowly discovering my inner Portland. Writing is a hell, facing myself and that blank page, but I love it.

Ianreply
November 07, 2011 at 11:11 PM

A hell that you love?

Ah, we should all be so painfully blessed…

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