The sign that he was a born writer, however, is not to be found in them, but in a remark in Aus Meinem Leben [From My Life], where describing his earliest efforts in verse, he says, ‘In any event, it was always my design to write a little book and read it myself’–a childish expression of the narcissism of the true artist, who works because he wants to admire what he has done.
There is one rather mundane way in which one reads what one writes: the infuriatingly necessary re-readings of one’s writings in an effort to get them ‘just right.’ This results–as I have experienced in the closing stages of getting a book manuscript to the publisher–in a peculiar sort of nausea at the sight of one’s ‘beloved.’ At that moment, weary and exhausted by the endless redrafting, polishing and proof-reading, I want only to be done with the damn thing. It’s not as if I’ve considered the ‘product’ then to be complete; rather, it is that I cannot summon up the energy for another painfully close and exacting edit. (Months later, when I look at the submitted version, I’m astonished by how much dross I let get by me.)
Then, there is the ‘narcissistic’ way: going back to read what one has written, perchance to admire and self-congratulate. It doesn’t always quite work out that way: all too often, our reaction to what we have written in the past is horror at the juvenile confusion on display. (I suspect this is by far the most common reaction that most writers have.) The internet, of course, has added a wrinkle to this: what we have written in the past is preserved seemingly forever, for others to search, track down and deploy against us. (I shudder to think of the trail of unmitigated nonsense I have left behind me in my perambulations through internet fora.)
But there are times when we do admire what we have written. And this is productive of a pair of peculiar sensations related to each other. One, I think, is a kind of mystification: Did I really write that? The second, is an acute anxiety: Will I ever be able to repeat that? The sense of wonder, of puzzlement, about the source of the sentence(s) we see before us reminds us that we are often not quite sure of the provenance of a desirable turn of phrase, from whence it came, what prompted it. The worry about our capacity to pull off a repeat is an acknowledgment of the same conundrum: If I don’t quite know how I pulled it off the first time, how am I ever to encore? The endless theorizing about the ‘process’ of writing, the ‘writers’ tips,’ indeed, the entire arsenal of writing instruction, often seems a tacit acknowledgment of this simple fact of writing: we are never quite in control of it all.