I read two very different pieces a few months ago which have both been rattling around in my brain since then. One was Paul Kalanithi’s http://stanmed.stanford.edu/2015spring/before-i-go.html. The second http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-middle-of-things-advice-for-young-writers.
They are not about the same topic. Paul Kalanithi’s essay was about facing mortality as a 37-year old neurosurgeon diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer. Kalanithi’s piece poignantly captures the reality of looking at the end-of-life; and there is so much courage and nobility in his unvarnished sharing of his emotional journey. His innate thoughtfulness and brilliance come across, making us appreciate the complexity of his experience.
Andrew Solomon’s piece is advice for young writers about the middle of things, not the beginning or the end. Solomon’s advice to writers talks about the reality of the undramatic middle. The every day life of those who carry on after the exciting beginning with no real dramatic end in sight. Solomon addresses the issue that life often brings more unanswered questions rather than answers and he quotes Rilke extensively and says, ‘we must all write as though eternity lay before us.”
At first read, you may not see any link between these two essays. But for the timing of my reading, I may not have seen the connections either. Yet, I believe both do address the same themes – they are commentaries on life, living, writing and death. They transcend the categories of race, gender, age and region because they share an emotional authenticity. These writers got to the heart of the issue from two completely different angles. One from the imminence of death and the other from the potential desultoriness of life. Life is rich and yet sapping; writing can seem reductive of this complexity and yet, but for words where do we record our emotional cosmos?
And the other delicate balance that these two writers strike, and it is a particular favorite of mine, is the balance between the intellect and sentiment. Or as another writer chose to see it, sense and sensibility. Both Solomon and Kalanithi have written essays that could have potentially been very emotive, and they may still have been great pieces. However, they both take it beyond this, and here in I see the emotional authenticity. They are gentle discourses that invite the reader on ruminative journeys. That to me is the essence of great writing.