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 email@example.com.