Writing Against Your Life

The November 1986 “Gift of Fire” Speech
by Richard Mitchell
[Presented at a writers’ conference at Loyola Marymount University]

I was fascinated by the title of your conference, “Writing for Your Life.” It’s a remarkably ambiguous title, which allows for all sorts of interpretations. The first one that came to my mind was by analogy with the expression, “Run for your life.” And I tried to imagine the circumstances under which one would say to another, “My God, write for your life!” I confess I haven’t yet fully imagined those circumstances, but I am working on it.

Then there was the possibility of “writing for life,” meaning something like a sentence, being sentenced to writing for life. This was especially congenial to me, because I will have to say it right out that I do not like writing. It’s worse than that–I hate writing. I love the telephone, I think Jane this morning was uninterruptible by telephone–I am so interruptible, that if I am in the middle of a sentence, and the girl from Omaha State calls to sell me something for Christmas, I love her . . . I want her to be mine, forever.

I once gave a lecture at the college where I teach–a public lecture, I try not to do that because I don’t like those people–and I had not spoken in public on the campus for about five years–I had been busy with less important things, I guess–but I chose, as I always do, a title for my lecture long before I had any idea what was going to be in it, and the title was “Five Years of Solitary Confinement.” Because in effect I had spent those last five years writing, and writing is, to me, solitary confinement, very very hateful, painful, and lonely.

But I didn’t think that was what you meant by writing for your life. I suppose what you meant–I don’t know who “you” is, actually, when I say this–was something positive, something favorable–writing for your life, in behalf of it, in favor of your life in some way, and so I had to reflect on that, and in reflecting on that it occurred to me, I don’t think of writing that way, I think of writing as being, if anything, against my life. And then it occurred to me that maybe that’s not so bad, and if I were to suggest writing to another human being–a very bad act, I think–but if I were to suggest it to another human being, I would suggest it because that human being needs something against his life, something to change it in some drastic way, by which I would mean, his life was not in good condition, and he had damn well better write, to destroy it. And it is with that in mind that I speak.

I spoke, not long ago, to another group, not as large as this, of people who call themselves the Mensans–perhaps some of you have heard of an organization called, “MENSA.” It is an organization of terribly intelligent people. I have heard in the meantime of another organization called DENSA [laughter]–really, I am not kidding, there is an outfit called DENSA. If any of you have an application form please leave it with me, I want to join up.

I went to speak to them in the morning; they were having an all-day meeting in some hotel in Philadelphia, which is quite near me, so it was not a burden, and they were going to start the day with hearing some sort of a speech from me, and I rushed in, full of trepidation. Now these are the smartest people in America, indubitably–and I was sure I could not be one of them–and, only two days before the schedule for this lecture I had heard a man mention, in random conversation, something called the “lexigraphical fallacy.” Now, I had every intention of going home to look up the “lexigraphical fallacy,” and driving into Philadelphia it occurred to me that I had not looked it up, and that therefore I was sure to commit it, and I would furthermore commit it in front of the smartest people in America, and they would fall laughing on the floor–I was very nervous–I feared I might not even get coffee or cakes from them…

I got to the convention, I got there, and I was all alone, in this big lobby, except there was a girl sitting at a table registering people, and I said I was here for the convocation, and this girl said, “Oh, well, everybody’s upstairs in room something or other,” and I said “Well, I don’t know if I should go up; I’m the speaker.” She said, “You have to understand that Mensans never do anything on time.”

I always resent it when somebody tells me what I have to understand. It flavored the rest of the day. I went upstairs, where they were all having coffee, and I did get some, but nobody spoke to me because they were all watching television. So I went back downstairs and said I would wait in the lobby until they were ready to come down and convene.

Now, I had planned to speak to the Mensans about the god Prometheus. One of my favorite characters, I speak of him and think of him and write of him often. Because the god Prometheus is the god who is said by the Greeks to have given us–not just fire; indeed, in his little speech in the play by Aeschylus he doesn’t even mention fire–but to have given us mind. He tells what man was like before his gift. Like animals, we were, like herds, we blindly floundered on from day to day until he gave us various gifts–among them, language; the high art of number; the possibility of planning. He gave us in effect everything we think of as our humanness, our selfness: he gave us mind, and the grasp of mind. Mind’s own ability to consider itself. And before that we were like the zebras, or the aardvarks, probably living rather well–probably living better than afterwards–but differently–and it was Prometheus, whose very name means the ability to look ahead, who made us thoroughly human, and I knew the Mensans were interested in their minds, so I thought it would be good to talk about Prometheus.

As I brooded on this I picked up some papers, lying on the table there, and they turned out to be sample tests for Mensans. Little tests on how to get into Mensa. Uh, you have to take a test to get into Mensa, you don’t just go in there–you must be admitted, and you must have a certain score. And I looked at the tests, again fearful of the lexigraphical fallacy–and it was a wonderful test. In some ways it took me home again. It took me into childhood, and all the warmth and comfort … it was like Oreo cookies and milk. Because the first question on the test was a train question. God, I love a train question. You know: Train A leaves the city of B at hour C and proceeds at rate D towards E. In the meantime train F leaves the city of E at time G and proceeds at rate H towards the destination of city A. And, well, where do they cross? When will these trains … just a beautiful question. I saw so many of those in my childhood.

And it was laden with metaphoric power, too, because when I was a little kid I traveled often back and forth to Chicago, and we didn’t have airplanes in those days. We went by the Twentieth Century Limited, a train which ran overnight between New York and Chicago, and the railroad people advertised that train in a very beautiful way. They had a marvelous picture, and the point of the picture was to show how regular the scheduling of these trains were, because they could go to a certain place, out in Buffalo, I think, and point to the very spot where the Centuries passed. And sure enough, every day–maybe twice a day–the Centuries would meet each other at that spot and shoot by. And that–just a train problem right before your eyes.

Another question that was not quite so homey but was pretty good was about Bob and Carol and Alice and Ted. And Bob and Carol and Alice and Ted all took the Mensa test. Now, Bob scored ten points more than Carol. However, one-half of the total of the scores of Bob and Carol, multiplied by 1.4, was equivalent to the math scores of Alice and Ted. Ted’s score, however, was either eleven percent greater or eleven percent less than Alice’s. . . . Which of them got into Mensa?

That was a very good question. It was too much for me, but it was good.

And then there was one of those SAT questions, or IQ–you have this little diagram here with some lines, and over here there was another little diagram, and you have to figure out what do you do to that little diagram, which has already been done to this little diagram, to make it into which one of these six little diagrams down here? And that was good, it was a good question. I liked the diagrams a lot. But I was unable to handle any of these questions, and I fell to brooding, and as I brooded I looked up, and sitting right across from me–there was sort of a coffee table with settees on either side in the lobby–I saw the god Prometheus himself.

You can imagine–well, what a strange mixture of awe, and pleasure, and . . . confirmation, in a way. And–believe me, when you see a god you know it–I said, “Sir, sir, how good to see you here . . .” and he said, “Yes, well, I have come from a long long way away today, on a very special mission. I have noticed you sitting here and I can tell from your demeanor, and from your–wardrobe, that you are probably in the mind business, and I wonder if you could answer a question for me. I’d like to know about that gift I gave you and all of your friends–you remember a long time ago I gave you a certain gift, and I spent a long time paying for that, but now that I’m free to wander I thought I’d check up and see what you’re doing.”

I said, “Sir,” I said, “You have come to the right place. And to the right man, indeed, I am in the mind business. I don’t carry anything. I don’t paint, I don’t tighten screws. I just do mind work. What is it you would like to know?”

He said, “Well, what goodness have you had? What achievements can you show from the gift of mind?”

“Oh,” I said. “How lucky. How lucky that you came on this day. Let me give you an example. Just imagine that a train–‘Train A leaves city B…'” and I recited the whole thing to him, but he didn’t seem to react in any way. He gazed at me, very steadily. I felt somehow I hadn’t stated our case. I rushed on, I said, “Uh, haba, how about, uh . . . Bob, and Carol, and Alice and Ted, and do you realize, sir, what we can do with our minds, with our unaided–well, some of us can do it–we can tell you where those trains will pass, and who got into Mensa . . .”

He looked at me, and he got up, and he turned, and he walked away, and he headed for the door.

And I rushed after him, with the diagrams, I said, “Look! You see these six little diagrams here, we can–“

But he was gone. And I began to worry whether or not his gift was rescindable. I could feel my grasp of my mind slipping away . . . it was not fully returned since, frankly, which will in some way account for some of what I am going to say to you today.

You are writers, or would-be writers. I would remind you first of this: I do know that in some cities, there is a shortage of taxicabs. And in some cities in America there is a shortage of men’s rooms; this is probably true of women’s rooms, too, but I don’t notice that shortage. I can think of numerous things of which there is a shortage. Of writers, there is no shortage. I do not hear people going around in the streets, saying, “You know what we need in this country’s more writers!”

I would consider that before you embark on a career, or before you continue on, and then I would consider some of the following things. We have the strange notion that the work of the mind takes place in problem solving, this is a notion that has been given to us by the schools, there’s nothing we can do about that, although if we were a more violent people there would be something we could do about the schools, but we have the notion; and we have a strange notion as to what intelligence is. If the Mensans are the most intelligent people in the nation, we’re in a lot of trouble.

I would like to see a Mensan test which has these questions on it:

1) “How would you suggest that it is better to suffer an injustice than to do one?”

2) “What line of reasoning would you use to demonstrate that there must be some difference between what we know and what we believe?”

3) “How does one test the proposition that there is some difference between what we know and what we believe?”

I would like to see Mensans handle questions like that. I would like to see anybody and everybody handle questions like that; but the fact is, nobody can handle questions like that except writers. No one. I know, you probably do too, that Aristotle discouraged writing. I think he went further–he forbade it among his students. Writing, for him, was just a crutch. I myself do believe that he wanted to monopolize the books, and so be the only writer. There’s a lot in what he says; it’s not good advice for you and me. Never–never take advice from geniuses, never. For them it may be good, for us it doesn’t count, so don’t take Aristotle’s advice, but there’s an interesting reason for his having said that. Aristotle would like us to know the difference between knowing and believing, and Aristotle would like us to consider whether he who does the injustice is happier than he who suffers it, as it so often seems, and this can be done only in discourse. No scribbling in the margins will help you, no equations, no truth tables; nothing of the sort with which you answer questions on an intelligence test will help you in this matter. The only thing that will help you is connected discourse of a certain nature, and that nature is what makes writing so very painful. You must be truthful.

One of the things I have gathered from the people I have heard today–and I’ve heard a number of them–although perhaps none of them said it right out, I think everybody was saying it in one way or another, that is, that the one thing a writer must do, is tell the truth. Now, the truth is different from the fact. The truth is not the same as the history: but the Truth. And those of you who have ever found yourselves in the position of having to tell the truth–HAVING to tell the truth–being driven, at last, to tell truth–you know that it is not pleasant.

This business, though, of mind is really first with itself. The business of mind is not with problems, but with something that has no name, for us. If we imagine that life is a problem, if we imagine that such things as war, and poverty, and hatred, which press on us rather heavily (but no more heavily in these days than in any others, really), if we imagine that these things are problems like train questions, which can be worked out if only we find the formula, we imagine a vain thing, and I want to try briefly to suggest the difference between one kind of thinking and another.

When you solve a train problem, you are walking where somebody else has walked before. Now this is true whether or not anybody else has ever solved the train problem. That is to say, between the question of the train problem, and the answer of the train problem, there lies–whether we have found it or not–there lies an absolutely real path of logic. It is there. Otherwise this wouldn’t be a problem, you couldn’t put it on a test. So when you solve the train problem, or any problem, you walk the path that is there and the only path that is there, except in the case of binomial equations, in which you walk one of two paths, both of them being the only two paths that are there.

That’s not the gift that Prometheus gave us. He gave us the mind’s power to grasp itself. Not to solve problems, but to reach understanding. And when you go in search of understanding–and if you are a writer who does anything except go in search of understanding, then we really don’t need you, you’re part–you are a problem–when we go in search of understanding, we go not on a path, beaten out for us, unless we are parrots, but we go out of the known, and into the unknown. We embark on a perilous voyage, a perilous voyage because anyone who takes this path seriously, and looks for truth in his writing, will discover several things–I can tick some of them off very easily, because I discover them all the time.

1) I have been wrong. All my life, obstinately, stubbornly, and utterly thoughtlessly, I have been wrong.

2) I have lied. That’s much worse than being wrong. I have said again and again, as though I knew it and thought it, that which was simply a distortion of a truth that I really did know, and I didn’t find this out until I had written myself to this point. It’s no fun.

3) Let me put these together. I have been a parrot. I have said in my mind and on my page–what the world has said to me, what my parents have said to me, what my teachers or my bosses have said to me, without even thinking about it.

4) I have been a whore. This is the most likely event, by the way: to find what a whore you are. I have been saying that which I knew would please. Remember what whoring is–you young people especially, you’re all obsessed with sex, you think everything is about sex–whoring has very little to do with sex, sexual whoring is a minor and trivial business, it’s hardly worth talking about [laughter]–no, remember what Plato, or how Socrates understood whoring: What is whoring? Whoring is to provide to others pleasure without any principle, by which to understand whether or not pleasure and goodness are the same, and whether or not they should have this pleasure. That’s whoring. And I find again and again what a whore I have been. Why did I say this before? Well, so that people would like me! Or so that people would hear something that would make them feel good, and because I’m the one who made them feel good then they would give me … well, whatever it is that they give writers; frankly, I don’t know what that is.

5) That I have been ignorant of myself. Now, I am talking here of course of the kind of writing that I do. I don’t write fiction, I don’t know how to write fiction; I don’t make characters, I don’t know how to make characters; I don’t have plots, I don’t know how to make plots–all I do is try to think on the page–but I have read numbers of the works of those who makes plots, and write fiction, and know how to do that, and there is no difference. There is no difference there whatsoever. They make, insofar as they can, the truth. They make true human beings, who in true human predicaments, seek the truth for themselves. They make there all of the agony and joy, both, that it is to be a human being, coming into self-knowledge or suffering in its lack. As a matter of fact they make it far better than any discursive writer–like this one–can do, and they make it in drama, and they make it in lit, and they make it in living before our eyes, and it is the search for truth … and whether or not you know, the difference between a good book and a bad book, I don’t know–and I don’t know the difference between a good book and a bad book–but you do know the difference between a true book and a false book. That is the real distinction. And if you will think about it a false book is whoring, or a false book is parroting; or a false book is a book in which the author–I loved what you said about this this morning, Jane–you write for yourself. And it goes further: I think you write because of yourself. It is you who are illuminated by what you write; and what is the nature of that illumination? It has one simple name–although the terms underneath the name are numerous and complicated–and that is self-knowledge.

We live in a time when writing–writing has become too common, too widespread among us. I expect any day to meet a man at a cocktail party and ask him what he does and he says, “I’m a writer,” and I ask him, “Oh, what have you written?” and he answers, “Close cover before striking.”

Or “HOT.” “HOT.” I know the man who wrote “HOT,” I wonder if he’s the same man who wrote “COLD.” Or a man who takes his brushes and paints on a door, “MEN.” A writer? Yes! We have people who write in manuals, people who write instructions, people who write speeches for other people to deliver, people who write wheedling, conniving invitations to us to spend money for one thing or another–people who write their initials on the oak tree, I suppose. We have to start understanding this business of “writer.”

You remember Graham Greene’s novel A Burnt-Out Case? That was about a novelist who had run out his string, and I think it was Cromelin who wrote a spoof of it in The New Yorker called “A Burnt-Out Ace,” and that was about a man who went around to cocktail parties brooding, and introducing himself as a disappointed writer, and it turned out he was a sky-writer; he wrote “Pepsi-Cola” as one of his very, uh, great works.

Now, I am confronted by millions and millions of students; I’m sure there aren’t millions, but by God they look that way to me–they are numerous–and ever so many of them, I am told, are supposed to learn to write. Now I don’t teach writing, and I don’t know how to do that, and I’m rather suspicious of those who do it because I’m not sure it can be done. And I’m beginning to ask myself, Why? Why? Why are we teaching these people to write? Why would they want to write? When will they write? And when we teach them to write, we teach them about prepositions, and about split infinitives, and participles and things like that, and I wonder why. I know it pleases English teachers to get these things right, but we do not teach them the only legitimate reason, the only reason for writing that Prometheus would understand —

“Listen: I have given you not only your minds, but the power to take hold of that mind, and form it for yourself, not just take it as the world of suggestion and influence and environment makes it for you, but to take it, to make it, to make of it your own mind and not another mind, and to do this as thoroughly and as truthfully as possible.” Now as it happens, this is where I think Aristotle is wrong. I cannot sit around and do that in my head, because as soon as I let my head go, it runs to Sissy Spacek or someplace like that.

I don’t know what it is about that girl, she has some power over me. I don’t know, I hope she doesn’t hear about this . . .

And so, I must do this: I must put before me the page, and write. And there stands what I have said, and it is a rebuke. And it must be a rebuke. It says, “Well, what now?” Or it says, “Seems to me it was different yesterday.” Or it asks, “What does that word, in fact, mean?” And then, the next sentence is a response to its rebuke. And also a new rebuke.

Now, as I say, I know nothing of the writing of fiction, but I am certain that those who write it, know this–“You’re making a character? Oh, talk about hubris. We do it all the time, though. You’re making a character? You’re making a human being? Do you have any idea what goes into that? Do you have any idea of the depths of a human being? Look to your work, writer! Look here for truth! And forget about accuracy for a while, too. Let that come later.”–so that to them, every sentence is a rebuke.

And so it must be. Now, if you take up writing seriously, I can’t promise this, but I can hope this: I hope that it will make you profoundly unhappy. I hope that every day will bring you some bad news from the frontier of that unknown territory in which you work. I hope every day you rise up from your desk and say, “God, what a fool I was yesterday!” So that you can say that again tomorrow. And thus write against your life.

There was a very popular whoring book around lately–I don’t know, it hasn’t been for some time, I can’t remember when, it was called “I’m Okay”–uh, something–“I’m Okay, You’re Okay.” Oh, what pleasant news. Believe me, you’ll never lose money by telling people how nice they are. You’ll never lose money by telling people, “Hey! Don’t worry about your miserable rotten behavior and your perversions, and your lies, and your thefts! You’re okay!” No one will blame you for this, and you may actually do quite well. I don’t know about you–I suspect, but I don’t know about you–however I will tell you this: I am not okay. I am not okay. I do not carefully define my terms when I think. I do not test, rigidly, as though I were a stranger, every one of my quaint and curious notions, prejudices, and beliefs, I do not do this, I am not okay. I lie. Whether I lie to you is none of your damn business; I lie to me, as to what I am and how it is in me. And I am not okay. (And I don’t think you’re okay either, but all I can do is suspect that.)

Okayness does not ever come; I’m sure of that. But writing is the path towards it, and it’s a path that hurts.

The main point of the gift of Prometheus, I think, is this. He made of us, with that gift–by the way I’m a literal fundamentalist where the myth of Prometheus is concerned, you’ll understand–but by that gift, he made us absolutely unique in the universe, as far as we know. Before, all blindly floundering on, which is roughly as Aeschylus puts it, we were like the zebras, or the gnus (it’s always good to mention the gnus): When bumped from the left, we veered to the right. And when bumped from the right, we veered to the left. We responded, perhaps very successfully as the zebras and the gnus do, matter of fact; but in a sense we lived what I think of as a satellite life. We lived, really, like moons. The moon … shines. But not of herself. The moon is beautiful, but her beauty is provided for us by another power, the sun. The sun … the sun does the sun. We do not see the sun by reflected light, we see the sun by its own light, and the day after Prometheus gave us that gift we who were satellites, creatures like others, entirely–flowing–where influence came, we became a new creature, something entirely different, all of us. You, you, you did. From having been a moon, you became a sun. The energy is in you. It starts in here. It has its home, its dwelling place, in here. Not in the world. Not in society. Not in your family. Not in your political party. Not in your church–here is the life, and here is the light. Who of us knows that light? And who of us knows much about it? Damn few.

Any serious work that a human being does must be looking for this light. And if you don’t find this light, you will be able to write, and to be a writer–either as a parrot or a whore, of course. But you’ll never find the truth. Perhaps you’ll never miss it, as a matter of fact I think the worst of them don’t. But you will miss it. Because I am telling you this. I am a very arrogant schoolteacher; when people sit before me as though they are students, I imagine that they want to hear what I have to say and so I tell them what I have to say, and I tell them that because I have told you this, now you must be different, or deliberately reject some light. Go ahead and do that, if you will. But if you do pursue it, if you take this step from unknowing into knowing, you do walk a dangerous, perhaps even a deadly path; but it’s the only path. I encourage no one to do this. But those of you who do it, and will do it, I will tell you this–and I will tell you this as a command, because you can walk out now before you hear this command, but I’m going to give you this command:

Don’t shine.

Don’t seek to shine.