Courage in the Face of Paper

September 25, 2019 § 4 Comments

Philip LawtonBy Philip Lawton

As a teenager, I knew I’d be a writer, but, fearing I’d have no ideas, nothing to write about, I went to college, majored in philosophy. The best decision I ever made, and the most costly. I discovered that I loved the kind of reading philosophy requires, loved the process of seeing the words, seeing them again, finally seeing through them to what was really on the philosopher’s mind. Nietzsche said, “I distinguish between courage in the face of people, courage in the face of things, and courage in the face of paper.” But the personal imperative that drove him to write was the moral obligation to face reality without flinching and tell the terrible truth as he saw it, even if, in the end, the sight of a horse being beaten broke his heart.

Then, as might have been expected, I discovered that my education did not reliably equip me to support a family. I went back to school, studied finance, spent some 35 years in the corporate world, thought of myself, not as a failed writer, but as a writer manqué. I’m retired now, living my own life at last, writing every day, and, sure enough, there are mornings when I just don’t have any promising ideas, at least, any suitable ones.

I won’t say my life was misspent, I can’t regret anything unless I’m prepared to regret everything, Nietzsche taught me that, too. It’s all connected, work, marriage, children, writing. But I’ll only have so much more time, squandering an hour is unfortunate, a day, unforgiveable. And there is, in fact, no shortage of things to write about, a universe of ideas, a lifetime of experiences. So what’s the problem?

I’m doing all the traditional writerly things, drinking, smoking, sleeping poorly, neglecting to shave, all without result. I’ve considered writing longhand, with a lead pencil, yellow No. 2, and a centering ritual: push the pencil into an electric sharpener, hold it fast, let the blades overcome resistance. But I’ve been using keyboards longer than I’ve been driving, writing at the computer is practically unmediated, just as, at the wheel, I don’t turn the car, I turn the corner. I have my own startup ceremonies, the pencil-and-paper approach won’t solve anything, I could lose as much time gazing at a blank sheet of paper as I do staring at the screen.

And I am not exactly short of ideas, just easy ones. I have a whole list of hard topics, addictions to explore, obsessions to exorcise, actions to explain, not justify, just explain. Some matters are off limits because they involve people who are still alive, have the right to tell their own stories, would be confused or distressed by my take. But most simply seem too shameful to confront, or, somehow worse, too embarrassing to recount. Next step: choose one. Screw my courage to the sticking place. Tell the terrible truth.

Philip Lawton was first a philosophy teacher and then an investment professional at major insurance companies and international banks. He now writes creative nonfiction in Charlottesville, Virginia. Lawton’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Flying South 2018, JuxtaProse Literary Magazine, the Bookends Review, Cagibi (runner-up for the 2019 Macaron Prize), Streetlight Magazine, and the Bangalore Review.




§ 4 Responses to Courage in the Face of Paper

  • ecopoet says:

    Write write write – because we can 😀

  • bethfinke says:

    You say you’ve been avoiding ideas that “simply seem too shameful to confront, or, somehow worse, too embarrassing to recount.” Au contraire!
    Writing a refreshing essay lauding writerly things like drinking, smoking, sleeping poorly, neglecting shaving? You are brave.
    I hear from writers about the merits of yoga, meditation, and quiet retreats. Before reading your essay this morning, I considered my own writerly habits (coffee all day, wine by night, lack of sleep and, often, choosing writing over grooming) too shameful to confess. But hey, your “Courage in the Face ofPaper” essay tells me I am not the only one. And that gives me courage. Thank you.

  • bearcee says:

    Loved your essay! I, too, spent years teaching philosophy—most of my professional life, in fact. And I taught communications, ethics, and writing. Now I’m retired and writing an essay a week for a magazine. But the struggle for ideas goes on. So much of what you said rings true for me as well. I’m taking a break from the struggle right now to read your piece and then comment. Now back to the joyful slog. Thanks for your honesty.

  • Thank you. This was what I needed to read today.

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