How do you write about a city or The City or cities in general?
A particular set of words, organised a particular way, produce beauty.
It is that simple.
And that complex.
The act of writing is not an easy one. It took our species hundreds of thousands of years to begin and thousands more to make it something banal – one of a hundred tasks that tyrannise a day. We have written descriptions of the birth of the Universe and its death; we have written of Gods and love and motorcycles; of dust, the seas and nearly everything else. We have written with gravity and loveliness; with life and breath and occasionally with blood. Unforgivable prejudice, hate and stupidity populate our writing as deeply as the heroic and the wonderful. Despite and perhaps because of this, the Word has bound us as a species. It’s allowed us to share knowledge and transmit it through space and time; with each generation of readers developing ideas and carrying them for better or for worse, into an uncertain future. It serves as our witness and our inspiration. The carrier of our truths and our fictions. It defies us to better ourselves; yet leaves us with no means of doing so. Writing is in a sense, our shared brain – filled with contradiction, confirmation and wonder.
Yet no part of it is easy.
The critic Roger Ebert (one of the greatest essayists of his time), once wrote that the work of almost-great writers feels like an accomplishment; while the Greats produce work that seems effortless. Many months ago, I began an essay comparing the phenomenon of Nationalism to Urbanism. It is now over a thousand words long and shows no sign of ever getting to a point. The vastness of a Nation and the complexity of Cities may deserve more or less than those thousand epithets. Nations rise and fall almost constantly. They inspire passionate discourse and irrational devotion to their being. The vast majority of humans claim them as their own and attempt (sometimes vainly) to build something greater than themselves. Cities deal with more prosaic problems related to order, hygiene and money. They exist almost entirely because of their ability to gather people together in their own interest and not a higher, more intangible ideal. Yet cities exhibit staggering diversity and life, unrivaled by any other form of human activity; and are far more dynamic than Nations. The graveness of the issues involved is as much an inspiration as it is an obstacle for clarity and profundity. The arguments and ideas that can come from these two sources may be nearly infinite. There have been many polemics that have written with the same theme that have done it better as there have been many more that have done worse.They have all been, in some sense; complete. Or at least as complete as the author allows.
Yet mine is not there yet. It may never be.
Somehow, even the simplest sentence can be as much as an essay or lesser than a word. To find the right words, to arrange them in a manner that results in beauty, is agonisingly difficult. I’ve been trying to do this for a few years now, and I can tell you this – I have no idea what I am doing. There have been times when the transition from thought to idea to words has been seamless in my mind. My fingers meet their keys the instant a notion begins to form. Words appear and disappear on the screen with a surety born of no definable attribute other than that they simply seem to belong together. These are not great days or even good ones; but they inevitably lead to either. On other days, intent and outcome are distant, disconnected and broken. A sentence begins one way and ends another, seeking to find its way back to meaning; but fails miserably. A paragraph that aims for brevity dissolves into blather and one that seeks to elaborate falls silent on everything that’s important. The capriciousness that haunts the muse is devastating and humbling.
The problem lies not in the Subject, but in the many shadings that a writer finds within his or her lives, days and nights. The writer is sadly; tragically human. Yearning for a proper In search of an implausible immortality for his ideas, he struggles to communicate with his readers; reaching for them in the darkness of his imagination; knowing he will not see most of them in his life. The terror of an Unknown Reader’s opinion haunts an author relentlessly, driving him to a servility that can be his greatest ally. As long as the words keep coming, that is…
The lack of words is an intolerable silence that empties the writer. It inspires a terrifying loneliness and longing for the fullness of having sent an idea into the world. He is doomed to live out his life in search of the next thought that will enter his head and spur him onto the next word… And the cold dread that it may not arrive.