Revisit: On the honesty in writing


As I jot down these words, I was musing about my first love letter, which might also be my last one. All of it was meant to say “I love you”, but there was no “I love you” in it. I wanted to be honest, but at the same time I was afraid of being honest since it might ruin the friendship I had with a straight guy.

I was thinking of my diary back in the days of senior high, scattered with multiple symbols and countless metaphors, hidden beneath my bed and only brought out when nobody was home. I wanted to be honest, but at the same time I was afraid of being honest because if my sister read it by chance, my family would find out the not-so-little secret: I like boys.

I was thinking of Socrates, of Galileo, of Alan Turing and Anna Politkovskaya, and the price they had to pay to express themselves honestly. I was thinking of Orwell’s Animal Farm, of Nabokov’s Lolita, of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, the books that were born out of honesty but suffered a dreadful fate also because of its honesty.

I was thinking about the journey of Vietnamese literature, from the rebellious newspapers against the French colonial rule to the Nhân Văn – Giai Phẩm Affair that sought freedom for creativity. Wasn’t it massacre and discrimination that suffocated people and condemned them to silence?

“Hôm nay, con đường lớn nhất của chúng ta là mở cho tất cả những giấc mơ, những khát vọng thuộc về sự sáng tạo của con người tự do phát triển bay đi xe mật về ổ. Mở cho những giấc mơ, những khát vọng tự do phát triển bao nhiêu là tập trung tất cả giấc mơ và khát vọng của con người làm thành mũi nhọn kéo lê đi phía sau cái thực tế chậm chạp”
(Văn Cao, Một vài ý nghĩ về thơ, 1957)

Writers always want to be honest, but at the same time they were afraid of being honest. If one must always be honest in writing, then we never need euphemism and political correctness, do we? (cf. The Invention of Lying, 2009). How could we ignore the weight of expectations, of institutions, or of propriety on our pen in hand?

And if one writes just for oneself, then burns or buries their writings afterward, could he be honest with himself? I guess not, since to write is to call on an imperfect tool for thinking, which is language.

Language captures our thoughts in a linear and sequential form; it polishes the rocks of referents to turn them into the gems of signs; it drives the writers to frame their work so that it could fit the molds of genre. That is exactly what Marshall McLuhan means when he says: “The medium is the message”.

There are inevitable losses, misses and distortion of ideas from their womb to their tomb, the unbreathing text on the blank page. Language is not an absolute form of expression.

“Tôi nghĩ
Tôi nghĩ về sự đơn giản của ngôn từ
Sự bất lực của hình thức biểu đạt
Mà nỗi nhọc nhằn đầy mặt đất
Sự vô nghĩa trắng trợn đầy mặt đất
Những số phận hiu hắt đầy mặt đất
Bao tháng ngày trôi đi
Bao kiếp người trôi đi
Sự khéo léo của ngôn từ nào kể lại được
Ai nhặt cho tôi buổi sáng mai này
Nhặt được ánh hoang vắng trong mắt em gái tôi
Nhặt được sợi tóc bạc trên đầu mẹ tôi
Nhặt được niềm hy vọng hão huyền trong lòng chị dâu tôi
Và nhặt được mùi vị nghèo nàn trên cánh đồng quê
Tôi rốt ráo bắn tỉa từng ý nghĩ
Tìm cách săn đuổi cho nó vào chuồng
Và tôi hú gọi trên cánh đồng lòng
Tru lên như con sói hoang
Tôi gắng gặt một lượm sống
Bó buộc lỏng lẻo bởi dải băng ngôn từ
Tôi hú gọi trên cánh đồng người
Tôi nhặt những ánh mắt đời
Hòng dõi theo ánh mắt tôi
Dõi vào cõi ý thức
Cõi ý thức mênh mông xa vời
Dầu tôi biết vô nghĩa, vô nghĩa, vô nghĩa mà thôi.”
(Nguyễn Huy Thiệp, Thương nhớ đồng quê)

[After a brief read about structuralism, I hazily grasped the idea that maybe it’s a little too naive to say that language has its limitation. Of course, every writer must feel uncertain sometimes when they put their wild thoughts into words. But people like Levi-Strauss never give up on the power of language.

His writing is difficult to read not because it is stuffed with meaningless words, but because every single fragment of his thought is well defined with lexical items. He has formed a structure of thoughts in his mind where every word has its own position and is not mistaken for another word. And he trained his mind so patiently that it could surpass all the boundaries of language by creating new words or reusing old words with new meanings. Sometimes, it’s also necessary to adopt the strategy of the savage mind (“in the new born literary language of the Northeast Siberian Chukchees, “screw” is rendered as “rotating nail”, “steel” as “hard iron”, “tin” as “thin iron”, “chalk” as “writing soap”, “watch” as “hammering heart”, Jakobson, 1959). With that method, people like Levi-Strauss could latch onto even the most exotic territory of feeling and sensation.

“I have always aimed at drawing up an inventory of mental patterns, to reduce apparently arbitrary data to some kind of order, and to attain a level at which a kind of necessity becomes apparent, underlying the illusions of liberty” (Lévi-Strauss, The Raw and the Cooked, p. 10)

I personally think N.L. adopts this strategy in thinking, he created and consistently use so many apparently bizarre words, which are italicized in his entries: “vòng tròn”, “độ rộng”, “chiều ngang”, “chiều dọc”, “cái nhìn”, and so on.]

To write is to let out an urge of being honest in front of the fear of revealing. Writing is an effort to attain freedom when freedom is not allowed. It’s the suffering that is prolonged and magnified.

“Writing is a question of becoming, always incomplete, always in the midst of being formed, and goes beyond the matter of any livable or lived experience. It is a process, that is, a passage of Life that traverses both the livable and the lived.”
(Gilles Deleuze, Literature and Life, translated by Daniel W. Smith and Michael A. Greco)

[I was immature when I quoted this paragraph by Deleuze, whereas I didn’t really get it. Now, when I revisit this essay, I think what Deleuze means is that once the writer jot down an idea, he must give in to its constant transformation, and accept the fact that his knowledge is not enough, and his writings can always be reviewed and revised after acquiring new empirical knowledge about the world.

Malraux says that one cannot rewrite a novel. I guess this idea is somehow similar to Heraclitus’ idea: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man”. The moment a novel is written down only happens once in a lifetime, at a certain age of the writer, with his certain worldview. Of course, he can always revisit it and rewrite it, but that is when he is no longer himself of the old day.

So Deleuze was right when he says “writing is a process, that is, a passage of Life that traveres both the livable and the lived”.

Take this note in square brackets for example. I wrote this essay on 22 August 2019, yet now, after exactly one year, I want to revise it because I recognize some wrong-headed propositions. But if I change it, it will not be the same as it was written the first time.]

There is an obvious truth about writing, that is no one asks us to write. We write to satisfy ourselves. But what exactly is it that makes us satisfied? This has a lot to do with reading.

Whether we wanted it or not, we cannot get rid of the existence of an invisible reader when we write. Right at the moment a piece of text is written down, it was given a wish of being read by someone sometime. The key to a writer’s satisfaction lies in the comprehension and sympathy of the readers when they read his writing and recognize his honesty.

As a content writer, I’m all too well awere that what I write at work to earn my living could not bring me satisfaction, because that is not what I wanted to write about. Blogging, on the other hand, could make me happy because I am free to share my little interests, and it’s a good thing to know that someone out there care about them.

Now, I am thinking of Riggan Thomson in Birdman: The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance. Why didn’t he keep staying at Hollywood, serving the mass audience to win million dollar contracts? Why did he have to move to Broadway to suffer the harshness of the critics?

Probably because he wants his honest ambition of being a real artist, rather than a joke, to be recognized and appreciated.

Within 150,000 years of human existence, if one is not seen, not heard of, not understood, and not beloved by someone else, what would one live for?

“And did you get what you wanted from this life even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth”
(Raymond Carver, Late Fragment)

1st revised: 22.08.20

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