Following up on my earlier post about 16 resolutions, or thoughts to live by, inspired by this article at Brainpickings.org, here is the fourth thought. It is by Susan Sontag when she was asked to give advice on writing, and it says: “I’m often asked if there is something I think writers ought to do, and recently in an interview I heard myself say: “Several things. Love words, agonize over sentences. And pay attention to the world.”
Needless to say, no sooner had these perky phrases fallen out of my mouth than I thought of some more recipes for writer’s virtue.
For instance: “Be serious.” By which I meant: Never be cynical. And which doesn’t preclude being funny.
To tell a story is to say: this is the important story. It is to reduce the spread and simultaneity of everything to something linear, a path.
To be a moral human being is to pay, be obliged to pay, certain kinds of attention.
When we make moral judgments, we are not just saying that this is better than that. Even more fundamentally, we are saying that this is more important than that. It is to order the overwhelming spread and simultaneity of everything, at the price of ignoring or turning our backs on most of what is happening in the world.
The nature of moral judgments depends on our capacity for paying attention — a capacity that, inevitably, has its limits but whose limits can be stretched.
But perhaps the beginning of wisdom, and humility, is to acknowledge, and bow one’s head, before the thought, the devastating thought, of the simultaneity of everything, and the incapacity of our moral understanding — which is also the understanding of the novelist — to take this in.”
Whew! That’s a lot to chew on. What does this mean?
I think the clue is in the last paragraph. The world is full of so many things going on all at once, so what do we pay attention to? The more we increase our ability to pay attention the more of it we can take in. And, everything we take in can be put in order of importance, and how this is done is a moral judgement.
To be a writer and a moral human being, we must pay attention to the world and take in as much as we can. We can then do the best job possible of deciding what is most important, and deciding what we will pay attention to as writers and as people.
I can see this as a writer. There is a whole world out there. What do I choose to pay attention to today? What do I choose to share with my readers? But, even if you don’t write it makes a difference what you concentrate on, what you talk about with your friends and family, what you raise to higher levels of importance. The more we can broaden our awareness and sort through our worlds, the more we increase our ability to be moral human beings.
Susan Sontag (January 16, 1933–December 28, 2004) was a writer, teacher, filmmaker, and political activist. If you want to read more about this very interesting woman there is a Wikipedia article here, and of course Google.