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The art of not writing

Over two million books are published every year, not to mention countless essays, opinion pieces, and other articles. Here’s how to stop adding to the torrent.

May 07, 2021 / 09:51 PM IST

In 1934, the talented, tormented Russian writer Isaac Babel informed those assembled at the inaugural meeting of the Soviet Writers Union that he had invented a new genre. It was, he said, “the genre of silence”.

This was Babel’s ironic way of highlighting oppression and censorship under Stalin. For his pains, he was thrown into a Siberian prison camp some years later and, according to some, executed shortly after. The fortunate among us living under less repressive regimes can still take inspiration from his words and strive to not write.

Consider the facts first. According to some reports, there are over two million books published every year. Stephen Hawking once came to the conclusion that “if you stacked the new books being published next to each other, at the present rate of production you would have to move at ninety miles an hour just to keep up with the end of the line.”

You’d have to move a great deal faster if you added all those essays, articles and opinion pieces to that list. Clearly, the world may be facing a shortage of many things but words aren’t one of them.

We all need to do our bit to tackle this glut, and not writing is a good place to start. It helps to recall the sentiments expressed by Dorothy Parker, who retorted that if you had any young friends who aspired to become writers, the greatest favour you could do them is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.

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Then, there’s the prickly Flanner O’Connor, whose views were more extreme. “Everywhere I go, I'm asked if I think the universities stifle writers,” she once said. “My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them.”

This art of not writing is quite different from the phenomenon of writer’s block. In the latter case, the poor writer is struggling to write, but cannot, for whatever deep-seated reason. One of the most famous examples is of the New Yorker’s Joseph Mitchell. In the '50s and early '60s, he was known as “the voice of New York” for his profiles of the city’s colourful characters. His much-praised Joe Gould’s Secret was based on one of these eccentrics.

In 1964, though, came a great silence. For the next three decades, Mitchell arrived at the magazine’s office every working day without fail and without a single article being published. Years later, his colleague Roger Angell was to recall: “Sometimes, in the evening elevator, I heard him emit a small sigh, but he never complained, never explained.”

Nowadays, however, the intention should be to not want to write in the first place. The art of losing isn’t hard to master, wrote Elizabeth Bishop in her famous villanelle, and the same can be said for the art of not writing.

In a piece for McSweeney’s, author James Drummond offered some excellent tips. For a start, don’t write about what you don’t know – and don’t write about what you know, either. That should work for most people. The rest can sit about waiting for inspiration, which may or may not arrive. If it does, you can interrogate the Muse closely instead of getting down to work.

He goes on, in words that may sound harsh, but do the job: “Monitor your self-talk. If you are having positive thoughts, replace them with negative ones.” As a reward for not writing, you can always shop for a cart-load of books on how to structure a book, craft a scene, or create a character. These can further keep you from writing for a while.

Soon, you too will be able to say, in the words of the wonderful poem by Anne Boyer: “When I am not writing I am not writing a novel…I am not writing a scandalous memoir…I am not writing thank-you notes or apologies…I am not writing book reviews. I am not writing blurbs…I am not writing a history of these times or of past times or of any future times and not even the history of these visions which are with me all day and all of the night.”

Despite all this, if you’re determined to go ahead, you’re in good company and shouldn’t let anyone – least of all me – tell you what to write about and how. It’s worth keeping in mind though, that those in charge would be only too happy to distract you from their failures. So, don’t hold back. Bear witness. Hold the powerful to account. Be it fiction or non-fiction of any length or genre, make those words count and make a difference. Otherwise, there’s always Babel’s new genre.
Sanjay Sipahimalani is a Mumbai-based writer and reviewer.

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