On Helpfulness

I’m using my blog to nail down some terms regarding the central question of why I write. The overarching term is “necessity,” and I think it consists of some component parts: truth, compassion, and helpfulness. I’ll write about compassion soon — but last, because I really need some time to figure out what I mean by that in the context of my writing life. Right now, I’d like to write about helpfulness.

A piece of writing can be helpful by conveying useful information, instructions, advice. That’s a practical and literal understanding of the term. Hard to wander too far astray by adhering to it. Particularly if I take pains to ensure that the information, instructions, or advice I offer is true.

But the kind of writing I do, have done, isn’t always expository in that way. It often seeks to share a more nuanced form of understanding with an audience. Here I consider (as I’m wont to do) the poet Dean Young’s assertion that people use language for two reasons: to be understood and to not be understood. I think he’s making a distinction between two different kinds of meaning; in the former case, literal (logical, linear) meaning, and in the latter case, a more intuitive and illogical kind of meaning. A wilder kind of meaning; Young’s term for it is “the art of recklessness.” The meaning we find (if we find it; often we don’t) in dreams or music or inebriants, or simply staring at the night sky. Both kinds of meaning can help a reader understand the human experience a little better. They can both help a reader feel not so alone on this big chunk of space-rock as it hurtles toward whatever end it has in store. I’ve done both kinds of writing. That said, much of my writing — the writing that matters most to me — seeks to incorporate the wilder kind of meaning.

Here’s what I don’t think Dean Young is talking about when he says people use language to not be understood: I don’t think he’s talking about a lack of clarity. I don’t think he’s talking about mistaking ambivalence for (fruitful) ambiguity. I don’t think he’s talking about being coy or vague. I don’t think he’s talking about being purposely inaccessible or obscure. Those kinds of writing aren’t helpful. Thinking in those terms, I have to admit that a lot of my writing has been unhelpful.

Writing helpfully, for me, has come to mean writing with a specific audience in mind. That audience could be large or small. It could be (and often is) just myself. The important thing is that I try to be as clear as possible for that audience. It (crucially) means not writing for myself and trying to pass it off as writing for others. It means not pretending I know something when I don’t know it. It means letting go my notions of virtuosity, of my own genius. Writing helpfully requires a measure of humility I have not often enough displayed in my own writing (and life). And now, having written all of this about helpfulness, I think I have found an entry point toward the last component of necessity (for me). That is, being helpful in my writing is a kindness (to myself and others). It requires a brand and degree of compassion that I want to get better at cultivating, in writing and in life.