The excerpts of Susan Sontag’s journals in last Sunday’s Times revealed two interesting things about her: a tendency for self-loathing mixed with flashes of insight, especially on the nature of being a writer.
I suppose I know why self-loathing is such a frequent character trait of “greatness,” at least if I play the role of an armchair psychologist. Susan Sontag obviously possessed such a powerful need to be accepted on a grand scale—she needed the accolades of brilliance as much as she needed the sustenance of brilliance—and so drove herself mightily and crazily to be a part of intellectual life in the city, and to merit high standing among its secular priesthood.
The excerpts from her journals provided a few good quotes on the nature of writing (and a couple of little life lessons) among the jims and jams of sorting out who she was and who she could be:
Writing and moralizing
“It’s corrupting to write with the intent to moralize, to elevate people’s moral standards.”
Writing and egotism
“Why is writing important? Mainly, out of egotism, I suppose. Because I want to be that persona, a writer, and not because there is something I must say. Yet why not that too? With a little ego-building — such as the fait accompli this journal provides — I shall win through to the confidence that I (I) have something to say, that should be said.”
Truth and time
“There is no stasis. To stand still is to fall away from the truth; the inner life dims and flickers, starts to go out, as soon as one tries to hold fast. It’s like trying to make this breath serve for the next one, or making today’s dinner do the work of next Wednesday’s as well. . . .Truth rides the arrow of time.”
Fear of aging
“The fear of becoming old is born of the recognition that one is not living now the life that one wishes. It is equivalent to a sense of abusing the present.”
The American struggle to write
“In every important modern American writer you feel a struggle with the language–it’s your enemy, doesn’t naturally work for you. (Completely different in England, where the language is taken for granted.) You have to subdue it, reinvent it.”
It’s certainly refreshing to hear any author recognize egotism as a motive for being a writer, not to mention the love affair with the persona of being a writer. All writers possess both, I’m convinced, as much as any trait.
Both characteristics have motivated me (without payoff, but with satisfaction). In fact, I yearn for the days when playing out the persona of a writer filled up my soul. It’s always a wonderful feeling to be able to walk into a room with dashing hopes and reckless confidence, even if you don’t have a product to show for it. The problem with age is that you need the product. No one will let you play pretend anymore. You can’t say “I want to be a writer,” because if you’ve wanted to be a writer, you should be one by now.