The Making of History, Writing, and You

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NapoleonThe poet is to memory what the hero is to action.  It is the poet, writer, and storyteller who memorializes the actions of the hero, considers things good and bad, and brings them to future generations.

Despite his military and political accomplishments, Napoleon wanted above all to be a writer.  He wrote memorials, histories, dialogues, even a short novel.  When he wasn’t writing, he talked of writing as when he addressed his troops after Waterloo, “…that I may further serve your glory…I shall write of the great things we have done together.”  Why would a man who so thoroughly directed the course of history want so badly to record it, and even more strangely, to write fiction; to record a world which doesn’t exist?

Napoleon knew that his actions would end, but that the memory of them would continue in the hands of writers and storytellers.  He was ambitious, and not content with the transience of his heroism, he wanted the longevity, nay, the immortality which only the poet can offer.

Why would a maker of history want to write fiction?  Because more than factual historical recordings, great fiction tells an even deeper truth about us which is even more long lasting.   We peer into the soul of the ancient Greek and know him not so much by historical accounts, as by Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and the plays of the tradgeans.  We envision the founding of Rome through Virgil’s Aeneid , the story of India through the Mahabharata, Romeo and Juliet not as historical characters, but through Shakespeare as the fictional symbols of all human love and passion.

Because writing was considered so important to the Romans, the Emperor Caligula felt that good writing should be rewarded and bad writing punished.  Caligula held contests in eloquence wherein the losers not only had to buy the winners their prizes, but also had to make speeches in praise of the winners.  If the speeches were not good enough the artless loser was thrown into the Rhone River.  To the Romans if a writer was deemed intelligent and eloquent enough to articulate the soul, or at least the history, of a people, then worst of all was pretence.  Bad writers according to Caligula needed to be thrown into the river.

Annie Dillard said that the world needs good shoemakers more than good writers.  Jorge Borges said that the world needs good readers more than good writers.  Of course both writers proceed to discuss and praise the craft of writing.  (I recommend Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life.)

The fact is, the need to write something arises nearly every day for many people.  But no matter how mundane the task there is always something magical in the act of writing.  Of course most of us are not writing a seminal history or a work of fiction to speak to a generation; but every time we write, we record something, we crystallize a thought or action and bring something new into the world, and there is always magic in this.  Whether our words are recorded for eternity or soon obliterated by the delete button, whether a petition to save a man’s life, or to sell a product, the art of writing carries with it the importance of giving something shape and content and putting into the memory banks of civilization some hopefully worthwhile account of something.  Every written word conjures the spirit of the first poet recording the first hero.

So write well lest ye are thrown into the river.

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