Black on White: Why We Write



Whap! Whap! Whap-whap-whap-whap-whap-whap-whap.

Ching! Click. Click. Fzzzzwinggg!

You could hear it through the whole villa. It was music. Sometimes I would just sit on the couch and sip my Lipton tea with milk and smoke a hand rolled and listen to him go. It was 2011, and using a typewriter seemed sadly clichéd – romantic, but clichéd.

But Kevin hauled his typewriter all the way to Saudi Arabia. And there’s nothing clichéd about that.

My old roommate Kevin Dean. He taught me how to roll cigarettes and started me reading The Paris Review. On most afternoons when we got back to our villa on the north side of Jeddah, just about 500 feet off a little inlet that jutted in from the Red Sea, he’d brew a pot of tea, we’d add a mound of sugar and some milk to it, roll up a couple pure tobacco cigarettes, open the windows, sit on the couch, and let the breeze blow in. We’d chat for a while about the world, tell each other a few stories, and maybe switch on Al-Jazeera for a few minutes and talk about how batty the whole place was. Sooner or later, Kevin would pad off down the tile hall to his room, put on his military-grade noise-eliminating industrial headphones, slide a sheet of paper in, crank the wheel, and…

Whack! whap-whap-whappity whap whap! He would start making music.

Somebody once said that “writing is cutting a vein and letting it bleed.” But usually it’s not that easy. So I say that writing is more like vomiting all over a sheet of paper and then cleaning it up. Hemingway said, “Write drunk, edit sober.” And he was probably one of the few to follow his own advice.

Others say it’s dead. The West is burning – the dream is gone. Or so they say. We’re all idiots. Sound bytes, sound bytes, everywhere, and no one stops to think. The new Rome is falling and the new Nero is fiddling a tune. The artists are businessmen and the businessmen are creators…and their creations are eating us whole. And the thinkers and the dreamers and the writers and the music men are the first to go. Video killed the radio star, and writing – well, writing was dead a long time before that.

I talked to an old freelance writer and copyeditor a while back about how to break into the business; I wanted to know how to “become a writer.” But the guy was nothing but sad bastard news. He whined from the second he picked up the phone. It’s over, it’s over, it’s over he said. No one reads anymore. “Do yourself a favor and get into sales and make money.” Well thanks for the encouragement there pops.

But I don’t believe him. The word is not dead – and I don’t think it ever will be. I don’t think it can be. Pen and paper. Pencil and notepad. Typewriter. Ink. White sheets. A feather. A fountain pen. A keyboard. A touch screen. Word processing. Google docs.

Black on white.

It’s all black on white. This is the writer’s world. It doesn’t matter if it’s a typewriter or a Moleskine, or a Mac laptop (Macs are preferable), or the sketch bad you bummed off your little sister to scribble down a frantic flash of an idea, because you’re afraid that if you move from the middle of the living room floor at that instant, it will disappear forever.

And writing? Writing is just fine. It’s just as beautiful and infuriating as it’s ever been. And everybody who’s doing it professionally is just another guy in the way of everybody else who’s trying to do it professionally. If anything, writing is booming. Well, I guess that depends on whether you consider most of the crap that’s on personal blogs on the internet writing. But it’s there isn’t it? Words on a page and whatnot. It seems like everyone and their mother “has a book” these days. Everyone’s writing a book…because anyone can.

Millions of hipsters are running around New York, all crossing their fingers and telling themselves and the world that they are writers. Some of them are. Most of them aren’t. Hundreds of pompous young twits are running around Columbia School of Journalism right now. They all fancy themselves the next Wolf Blitzer or Tom Wolfe – or just whatever’s not the next Bill O’Reilly or Rush Limbaugh. God forbid they ever appear on Fox News. A million muckrakers are out there in force, from the hill on D.C. to the beaches in L.A. Others, the more imaginative fictionalists, are holed-up in cabins in the woods somewhere, trying to “discover themselves” or “write the next great American novel.” A few will succeed, most will fail.

Or will they?

Kevin at his typewriter. Me at my MacBook. Words on the page. I used to think being a successful writer would mean National Geographic assignments and a few major book deals and maybe the occasional interview piece for Rolling Stone, just because I’d become that much of a hotshot. But remembering the sound of that typewriter brings me back. It was a melody, a tune. It was rhythmic and physical – and real.

Don Miller says most writers don’t like to write; most writers like to “have written.” And I raise both hands and say a Southern Baptist amen to that. But I’m learning to appreciate the process. No, I’m learning to love it. And for now – that is success.

Black on white. Writing just to write. Writing and writing and writing ‘till you have a headache and are so strung out that you feel weak and exhausted, like you’ve been on a booze bender in the middle of a war zone with about 4 hours’ sleep in as many nights – as if you’ve climbed and climbed and are at the peak, your mind and body and soul spent and bare…but you’re there, you’re finally there.

It’s a funny thing putting words on paper. So many jumbled thoughts. So many emotions and whims and desires and stories to tell and things you want people to know – maybe things they need to know. But that’s the writer’s art. You get a desk and a machine and 26 keys to do it – to make something. To put words down; words which will, strange at it seems, outlive you. We will die. Our shadows and dust will pass. But the words – the creations and works of our hands – they will remain, at least for a little while.

And that’s it. So go on and write.

Black on white.

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image – xlibber