Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The necessary vanity of a writer

Pankaj Mishra, author of An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World, says in an interview that writers have to believe in the importance of what they are doing, though such an idea is often delusional:
"... so much of writing is fed by vanity and the feeling that what you are doing is the most important thing in the world and it has not been done before and only you can do it. Without these feelings, many writers would not be able to write anything at all. If you think that what you’re doing is not all that important in the larger scheme of things and that you’re just an insignificant creature in the whole wide world, which is full of six billion people, and that people are born and die every day and it makes no difference to future generations what you write, and that writing and reading are increasingly irrelevant activities, you’d probably never get out of bed. You need to work yourself up into some kind of a state every morning and believe that you are doing something terribly important upon which the future of literature, if not the world, depends. Buddhism tells you that this is just a foolish fantasy. So, I try not to think too much about Buddhism early in the morning. From noon on, I think about it."
The full interview, in which Mishra talks about many different things, is here. Mishra says he used to read a 350 page book in 5-6 hours - that makes me jealous. I feel good if I can finish one in two weeks. And while I am at it, let me confess that I am also jealous of how prolific this young man is.

The illustration of Mishra above is by Charles Burns.


Pallavi said...

:)..he made it all sound so worthless for a minute! And I feel bad that I don't read as much, I will blame it on lack of time..:)

Hari said...

It does feel worthless, and it's true to an extent; there are so many things going on in the world that one can feel lost and insignificant :)

And time for reading: I wish I had lots more!

Helen said...

This is just one person's POV, right? ;-)

Hari said...

I guess it probably is just the POV of some writers, not to be generalized :) But I think it's interesting, this feeling in a writer that he/she is doing something fundamentally important, yet also this awareness that it's all very insignificant in the big scheme of things...

Chandrahas said...

Hi Hari,

Actually, there's nothing much to be admired about speed-reading - all the fun of reading is the "how" rather than the "how much". One book a week, or even two weeks, is absolutely the best way to read.

In fact, that vanity and self-projection necessary for writing means that writers also dream of their readers lingering over their work, and not just zipping through the pages. So in reading a book slowly you pay the writer the ultimate compliment.

Hari said...

Thanks for your comment; it's a pleasure to have you here. Regarding reading, I've always felt the same way: that books need to be lingered over, thought about and savored. But this insecurity about not reading enough always creeps back; it's tied to this other profession I have, which earns me a good living, but which cuts significantly into my reading and writing time.