Sartre on My Writing Mind

Over the years, I’ve used some lines by Jean-Paul Sartre on writing in my workshops to stimulate thinking on a subject a writer wants to write about. I’ve found the exercise helps writers determine and/or clarify the purpose of a project and create a conversation with it. As I write about the New American Diaspora, I frequently have struggled to define a particular voice or format to express and make sense of my experiences observing and interacting with the homeless. Perhaps this confusion results from the mind-boggling non-linear confusion of this issue. Perhaps this project will end up being one big meandering question mark of a book. I don’t know. I may never know. I may never compile the pieces of the newsletter into a book.

I was thinking about my Sartre writing exercise the other Sunday morning as I walked in dense fog to the river to observe the pirate fleet. (One new boat.) I thought it time I respond to his statements to engage my mind on what I have done with this project and where I might be going.

Words are loaded pistols.

I do not want to fire my words at those charged with solving the homeless crisis. I do not want to write about abject failure. There is enough of that going around in the journalism business and I wonder if it is doing any good. (I think so.) I also don’t want to write about general successes carried out by bureaucracies because I don’t want to write press releases laden with statistics. Perhaps I want to fire away at American culture and its debasement and destruction of so many people and watersheds and how it relates to the homeless crisis. That would require taking the larger view. But is that the right path? Maybe going small, one neighborhood, one encampment, several individuals, is the editorial path to pursue. Can you take two paths in a literary project? What about 17?

New problems demand new writing styles.

I agree. I must find one. I did once, when I wrote about rain and then later, the carved-up and carved-out men and women on probation. How does a style come to you? Can you discover or invent one? Can you experiment with several and then distill one into reality? Can you copy one? And what if a discernible one never consciously emerges?

Writing is certain way of wanting freedom.

The freedom to write anything I want on the homeless crisis is an editorial freedom many writers engaged with the issue don’t have. I can take the writing any direction I want. I can change my mind. I can challenge orthodoxy on the Left and Right. I have no agenda to debunk or uphold. I have no managing editor or publisher or head of a non profit or elected official coordinating my coverage or opinions. I have no deadlines or word counts to meet. I don’t have to use official jargon that obfuscates the subject, such as using a word like obfuscate. I have no book contract. I have no agent. I can range and roam. Perhaps the unique and self appointed freedom I have in writing on this subject is my greatest asset. It is the jolt of electricity into my storytelling. Or maybe it is my own tiny periscope.

What do you want to disclose about the world through your writing?

I offer some opening lines from a poem by William Blake to help answer this question:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,

And Eternity in an hour.

A Robin Redbreast in a Cage

Puts all Heaven in a Rage.

A dove-house fill’d with Doves and Pigeons

Shudders Hell thro’ all its regions.

A dog starv’d at his Master’s Gate

Predicts the ruin of the State

An American with a healthy dog, but he himself starved and emaciated in reality and metaphor, an American outside (or inside!) our decorative or barb-wired gates, living on the streets or in the willows, does not predict the ruin of the American state, it guarantees it.

What change do you want to bring to the world with your writing?

To paraphrase the poet William Stafford, I want my writing to inspire daily one or two or a million intricate or simple moves for justice and kindness. That might be a sobriety check on a man splayed on a sidewalk, writing a grant to fund an entirely new idea, holding a book club and serving Old Crow, asking a people camping in a wetlands to leave and helping the move, writing a zine about the death of a homeless man, buying a distressed property and getting a homeless family out of a car and into a house or going to a church and asking Christians to start acting like Jesus.

What would happen if everyone in the world read your writing?

People with significant means might consider consuming less and regard watersheds as our critical allies and thus quit destroying them in the name of profit.

My American readers might consider their culture as shattered beyond repair, (thankfully so) and thus, it must be completely rebuilt with new materials and a different kind of labor. Think of barn raising as the model. Think of that incredible scene in the movie Witness.

What will you commit to in your writing?

I will commit to putting my ass in the chair and writing up what I experience in connection to the homeless issue. I will also commit to changing editorial direction on this project any time I see fit or can’t help myself.

What will you do to be read?

I will publish this book myself and attempt to find a national publisher for it. I will be willing to gig again to disseminate this book and expose myself to harassment.

Why write?

Because the story is right in front of me and I encounter it daily, sometimes two or three times a day, and I’m not even looking for it, let alone want to confront it. It’s a calling like I’ve never felt before as a writer, and I am beginning to grasp where it all began, in a probation office, with that one man’s face. He was fresh out of prison and had no social security number. He didn’t know his last name, which is supposed to be impossible in America. But there he was, addled, confused, wrecked, and he was about to become homeless, then vanished, then dead. I had a chance to help him, with a written document he couldn’t write, and I did not help. I will never forget that moment when I shirked my duty as a human being, not to mention as a writer.