Opinion | Columns

Why every Columbian needs to write

It is perhaps no small sin of writing to open any piece—poetry, prose, wide-eyed and red-faced Internet posting—with an appropriated wisdom. But this one, courtesy of Christopher Hitchens, deserves a good sharp read: “Everybody does have a book in them, but in most cases that’s where it should stay.”

I don’t necessarily dispute this: All literature is a war against cliché, and these primate brains of ours teem with plastic aphorisms, Tumblr- and tabloid-borne typecasts. Still, I can’t shake the sense that we confiscate a great deal from ourselves, cheat our minds, and impound our full capacities when we keep from putting pen to page for fear of inadequacy. All too often, we find the good stuff falling short before it manages to reach a page. 

We are children of the Core. Like it or not, the written word is in our blood (at the very least it’s in our bile). And it’s a very sad thing indeed, at an institution like this one, with vast poetic reservoirs behind every office door, inside each sleepy classroom, that there isn’t more writing going on for the simple sake of writing. True, a large chunk of the Columbia population does write. But for each amateur wordsmith, there are innumerable would-be’s who keen, “Christ, I just wouldn’t be any good,” who find themselves “just too swamped,” who lament the craft as a gallant, but ultimately ill-advised, diversion from the job-jihad, the Butler grind, the soundless existential panic, so on and so forth.

“Writing,” here, does not refer to the few dry, factory-fresh papers per semester that we are all forced to crank out. For the most part these works are lifeless and impersonal. No matter how spectacularly the facts are marshalled, the theses argued are—association permitting—to recreational forms of writing as vice-lipped pity sex is to love-making. 

No one can claim themselves immune to the author’s impulse—the “throb,” as Nabokov puts it. At some point we all have that experience (you know the one I’m talking about): the peering inward, the commune with the inner voice, and then the urge to put what we find onto paper. But how many actually make the leap nowadays? I know, at least, for those of us in the hard sciences, that reflective or inspired writing is always swept aside in favor of more pressing matters. After a while, the pressures of vocation, of research, of grade point survival, can start to look like steel bars through which one has to watch all the creative license—and thus all the fun—drift by. We get caught up in our B-cells and our T-cells, our oxymercurations, our Born-Oppenheimer approximations, and rarely do we foster the drive to create. Life becomes deficient of the creative element. And in this deficiency we lose a certain limb of the post-academic experience. 

Authorship, especially outside of the Courseworks Dropbox, provokes us to examine ourselves in a way that is both healthy and rewarding. Under the loose air and tight lid of the paperless mind, a lot of rationally unfounded, morally absurd nonsense can fester unchallenged. Writing has a way of forcing us to clear the grimy lenses through which we register and collate our worlds. One finds that the most non-negotiable convictions, when strained out of the head and slapped onto paper, can seem either unforgivably stupid or unbelievably poignant. 

Martin Amis famously divides the author’s existence into three domains: reading, living, and writing. Under this architecture, the vast majority of us are already two-thirds of our way to being writers. We read and engage even if we don’t always want to. The Core makes sure that we do. I mean really, what’s the point of reading Nietzsche, Marx, Ovid, Homer, if you’re not going to do anything with the information or lyrical insight? These classics are important not just because of their history or resonant ideology, but because they make us think about what constitutes radiant prose and beautiful poetry. They make us think—period. The written word, in its freer forms, without all the nasty shackles of propriety, gives us a way of inspecting and screening out the junk thoughts and then cultivating the good ones. 

Perhaps a pitch from another angle. This writing thing—it’s a fantastic beneficiary of our oldest and greatest chemical recreation: the consumption of alcohol, ad libitum. After a slurred Saturday night concourse with friends, or in the foggy reverberations of a really memorable hookup (good or bad, all the same, little judgment here), no better nightcap than a few seriously smashed sentences and piss-faced paragraphs. Be your tincture Keystone or Nikolai, Belvedere or Four Loko, all drink has the power to turn prince to pauper and then pauper to poet. Give writing a shot—a good old college try—next time you find yourself sloppy. You might just find yourself in thrall of your own capacity.

Kevin Bi is a Columbia College junior majoring in biochemistry. He serves as an executive board member of the Columbia University Wind Ensemble. Primate’s Per-spec-tive runs alternate Tuesdays.

To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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Anonymous posted on

Thanks for this eloquent opinion piece kevin. it really made me think about writing.

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Anonymous posted on

Absolutely brilliant. Thank you.

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Anonymous posted on

holy fuck. this is like an example in how not to write. luckily for you you're biochem not english. each paragraph begins more terribly than the last. "I don't necessarily dispute this" "We are children of the Core. Like it or not, the written word is in our blood" "No one can claim themselves immune to the author's impulse"

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Mike posted on

Good thing you know how to write, with your fancy lack of capitalization and punctuation.

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Anonymous posted on

And this is like an example of how not to comment—cruel, inaccurate, and badly punctuated.

Yes, it's a bit pretentious, but he's writing about writing. That's almost inevitable. Anyways, if it's engaging and interesting enough for even someone who despised it to read through, he clearly did fine.

Post an actual critique next time, will you?

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Anonymous posted on

"You might just find yourself in thrall of your own capacity."

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Anonymous posted on

i didn't even get to the end until i checked your quote. double holy fuck - it's worse than the begining

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Anonymous posted on

thanks for this; its accurate

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Anpadh@hotmail.com posted on

Not everyone (even at Ivy League schools) is familiar with the works of Nietsche, Marx, Plato, etc. In any case, you are still missing the Easterns, such as Vivekananda, Confucius, Buddha, etc. So, since you clearly have the inclination, if you have also the time, you may wish to create a blog with links to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Direct your readers to one specific entry there and have them respond to it on your blog, 25 to 100 words. I wonder if you will do this and, if you do, how many at Columbia and/or other educational institutions, worldwide, will respond.

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Anpadh@hotmail.com posted on

Not everyone, even at Ivy League schools, is familiar with the works of Nietzsche, Marx, Plato, etc. In any case, you are still missing the Easterns -- Confucius, Buddha, Vivekananda, etc. Clearly, you have the inclination to write. I wonder if you have the time to create a blog to see how many students are truly familiar with great thinkers and also whether they like to write. You could have a link to a different entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, every day. Ask your blog-viewers to read the entry and respond to it in 25 to 100 words. It will be interesting to see how many responses you get, each day, from Columbia and/or other universities, worldwide.

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