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Colson Whitehead‘s contribution to the New York Times Book Review’s “How To” issue on Sunday is titled How to Write. You know, a topic that fits neatly into 11 easy-to-follow rules. Well, sort of.
It’s a funny piece. Famously smart and clever, Whitehead’s novels include The Intuitionist (which I loved) and most recently, Zone One.
And as is often the case, advice for writers (even when tongue in cheek) can also be be good advice for painters and other makers. Here are a few of Whitehead’s rules that may speak to the rest of us:
Rule No. 2
Don’t go searching for a subject, let your subject find you. You can’t rush inspiration…Once your subject finds you, it’s like falling in love. It will be your constant companion. Shadowing you, peeping in your windows, calling you at all hours to leave messages like, “Only you understand me.” Your ideal subject should be like a stalker with limitless resources, living off the inheritance he received after the suspiciously sudden death of his father. He’s in your apartment pawing your stuff when you’re not around, using your toothbrush and cutting out all the really good synonyms from the thesaurus. Don’t be afraid: you have a best seller on your hands.
Rule No. 8
But of course!
Rule No. 9
Have adventures. The Hemingway mode was in ascendancy for decades before it was eclipsed by trendy fabulist “exercises.” The pendulum is swinging back, though, and it’s going to knock these effete eggheads right out of their Aeron chairs. Keep ahead of the curve. Get out and see the world. It’s not going to kill you to butch it up a tad. Book passage on a tramp steamer. Rustle up some dysentery; it’s worth it for the fever dreams alone.
The last and arguably most important:
Rule No. 11
There are no rules. If everyone jumped off a bridge, would you do it, too? No…Most of all, just be yourself.
I wasn’t familiar with the poet Christian Wiman before watching his interview with Bill Moyers. But his tone in that conversation—the comfort with the “don’t know” mind, a willingness to drop into the interior landscape in spite of many prevailing cultural trends that favor distance and detachment, a fearlessness in facing up to the exacting demands of the creative life—was so singular and memorable that I immediately ordered a volume of his poems and his only prose book, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet.
Once I started reading the essays in A&E, there was no putting it down. It is all I’ve read for days. Already well worn and dog-eared, my copy has marks and annotations on every page. What a great book. What an extraordinary writer.
Wiman is the editor of Poetry magazine and has published several volumes of his own work. A few years ago he was diagnosed with a rare and incurable form of blood cancer, one that mysteriously might end his life immediately or then again, may not. The profound precariousness of his life has, understandably, sharpened and concentrated his wisdom about poetry and about life. He has a voice that merges the poetic with the spiritual without falling prey to the usual disbalancing distortions that often occur when those two are coupled up. What is often a source of discomfort for many contemporary readers is a seamless ride in Wiman’s world. The refiner’s fire of his life has clarified and crystallized the personal into something much larger than one man’s journey, one man’s life.
There’s food for weeks in this book (and I’ll be pulling more from it in future posts) but here’s a few samplings to whet your appetite for Wimanian wisdom:
Any writing that is merely personal, that does not manage to say something critical about life in general, is…inert. Our own experiences matter only insofar as they reveal something of experience itself. They are often the clearest lens that we can find, but they are a lens.
There are people of abstract passion, people whose emotional lives are intense but, for one reason or another, interior, their energies accumulating always at the edge of action, either finding no outlet into reality, or ones too small for the force that warps them.
What happens to a passion that, though it fuels art, remains in some essential human sense abstract, never altogether attaching itself to any one person, any one time or token of the perishable earth? Does art, at least in some instances, and for some artists, demand this, that they always feel most intensely the life they’ve failed to feel? Is it worth it? The will, at least in its higher manifestations, is not a capacity that humans have learned to exercise with much precision. Always there are secondary casualties, collateral damages inflicted upon whoever happens to be in the way. To love is to really be in the way.
If you one day find that you are living outside of your life, that whatever activity you thought was life is in fact a defense against it, or a crowding out of it, or just somehow misses it, you might work hard to retain some faith in the years that suddenly seem to have happened without you. You might, like Milton, give yourself over to some epic work in which you find a coherence and control that eluded you in life. You might, like me, begin recounting vaguely exotic anecdotes to account for a time when you were so utterly unconscious you may as well have been living in Dubuque—might present them in such a way that your real subject remains largely in the shadows they cast. You might find that the hardest things to let go are those you never really took hold of in the first place.
The artistic value of hermiting and the need for isolation has been an ongoing theme on this blog, so of course I was intrigued reading Tony Perrottet‘s essay in the Sunday New York Times Book Review about writers, isolation—self-inflicted and otherwise—and the discipline needed to work. (Curiously, the piece is titled Serving the Sentence in the print version, Why Writers Belong Behind Bars online.)
Perrottet, author of The Sinner’s Grand Tour: A Journey Through the Historical Underbelly of Europe, researched the life of that legendary “sinner”, the Marquis de Sade, and came to the conclusion that, based on output, “prison was the best thing that ever happened to the Marquis de Sade. Other writers should be so lucky…By 1788, after only 11 years behind bars, Sade had churned out 8 novels and story collections, 16 historical novellas, 2 volumes of essays, a diary and some 20 plays. Whatever you make of Sade’s oeuvre, you have to envy his productivity.”
Other writers found their own way of creating isolation and inviting productivity. Annie Dillard pushed her desk away from the windows looking out on a verdant forest in Cape Cod to face a blank wall. Her warning: “Appealing workplaces are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark.” John Cheever worked in a dark basement of his New York apartment building. Edna Ferber of Algonquin Round Table fame looked onto the “blank brick wall of a cold-storage warehouse.”
Blank walls don’t serve the same purpose for a visual artist that they might for a writer. The eye needs to be fed, and sometimes it can be delighted by a twig’s shape or a pebble’s surface. But the demons of distraction for artists are still real, and as for writers they are ubiquitous, clever and constantly morphing. The 21st century has made it possible for them to find us whenever and wherever we may be working:
Being chained to the desk, as the expression goes, is no longer a guarantee of productivity. Who can stick with the blank page when the click of a mouse opens up a cocktail party of chattering friends, a world-class library, an endless shopping mall, a game center, a music festival and even a multiplex? At once-remote literary colonies, writers can now be spotted wandering the fields with their smartphones, searching for reception so they can shoot off a quick Facebook update. These days, Walden Pond would have Wi-Fi, and Thoreau might spend his days watching cute wildlife videos on YouTube. And God knows what X-rated Web sites the Marquis de Sade would have unearthed.
Jonathan Franzen has famously described how he wrote The Corrections wearing “earplugs, earmuffs and a blindfold”, and for his latest novel, Freedom, he shut down his Ethernet port with Super Glue.
Honoré de Balzac had no ports to plug up, but he found other ways of staying focused on his work:
[Balzac] felt that the most effective spur to productivity was abject poverty. As a best-selling writer in his early 30s, Balzac looked back fondly upon his younger days as a bohemian, living in a garret and gnawing on a diet of bread, nuts, fruit and water. (“I loved my prison,” he wrote, “for I had chosen it myself.”) Even when successful, he would wake at midnight, symbolically don the habit of a medieval monk, and write for eight hours straight, fueled by pots of coffee. His biographer Graham Robb suggests that Balzac went so far as to deliberately run up debts to force himself to churn out the pages. Given the dwindling amounts writers are paid these days, the fear of bankruptcy—the modern debtor’s prison—remains an inspiration to us all.
Some artists thrive by living and/or working in artist buildings and by being part of lively communities of like-minded folk. Others need isolation, lots of it, and seek it with a spiritual hunger. Maybe it is just figuring out what works for you, be it a blank wall, the spur of poverty or a disabled Internet. For me, it is just quiet. Lots of it.
The artist seeks contact with his intuitive sense of the gods, but in order to create his work, he cannot stay in this seductive and incorporeal realm. He must return to the material world in order to do his work. It’s the artist’s responsibility to balance mystical communication and the labor of creation. I left Mephistopheles, the angels, and the remnants of our handmade world, saying, I choose Earth.
—Patti Smith, from Just Kids
I came of age in New York City about the time Patti Smith was catapulted into notoriety and fame in the 1970s. A skinny young woman whose proto-grunge, anti-glam stance was the perfect compliment to her deeply personal, unvarnished music, Smith’s music and presence was a straight hit to my heart. She was a frequent downtown presence back then, but she never seemed to be tainted by the disabling toxicity of celebritism. She has been a special kind of hero for me all these years.
I finally found the time to begin reading her much lauded book (winner of the National Book Award last year) when I fell upon the perfect blog post to accompany my read. Luke Storms, one of my favorite online cohorts, writes the site Intense City. His thinking is eclectic, unexpected, honest, thoughtfully structured, well informed and yet humble (a quality I admire more than most.) So if Smith’s memoir is just one of many interests for you, stop in and spend some time. WWTR—well worth the read.
Art and meaning. Big topic, and one that just keeps morphing and moving through our relationship with art making in whatever form that takes. I’ve written on that complex topic a lot here, if only peripherally given its depth, but my interest in it is tireless. Leon Wieseltier’s New York Times review of Saul Bellow’s newly published volume of letters touches on it too as well as other salient Bellow insights into life, living and consciousness.
Here are a few passages that jumped out at me:
As with his novels, the reading of his letters leaves one amazed by how much Bellow saw. He was always glancing and glimpsing. In a letter to a former student, in 1955, he cautioned her about “American books, including my own” that “pant so after meaning. They are earnestly moral, didactic; they build them ever more stately mansions, and they exhort and plead and refine.” He instructed her, instead, that “a work of art should rest on perception.” In 1957, criticizing a story that Philip Roth had sent him, he scolded the young writer that “I have a thing about Ideas in stories.” And Bellow was just as vigilant about the arrogance of form. To Alfred Kazin, in 1950, he complained about the prevalence of the notion that “to write a story is to manipulate symbols,” and warned against “what happens when literature itself becomes the basis for literature and classics become crushers.” About “The Adventures of Augie March,” he wrote to Bernard Malamud that “a novel, like a letter, should be loose, cover much ground, run swiftly, take risk of mortality and decay…Bellow’s cause was actuality, the whole mess of it. His ideal was wakefulness.
He declares, almost creedally, that “the man we bring forth has no richness compared with the man who really exists, thickened, fed and fattened by all the facts about him, all of his history.”
This is the sort of drollery that gives evidence of an uncommonly large internal space. “The 19th century drove writers into attics,” he tells Alice Adams. “The 20th shuts them in nutshells. The only remedy is to declare yourself king, or queen, of infinite space.”
He informs Barfield that “lately I have become aware, not of illumination itself, but of a kind of illuminated fringe — a peripheral glimpse of a different state of things.”
Bellow somehow managed to combine intellectuality and vitality without compromising either of the indispensable terms. The life-force never deserted him, even as it was always attended by interpretation. The unruliness of existence was Bellow’s lasting theme; but while he studied it, he never quite ordered it. In his fiction and in his life, he seemed to believe in the fecundity of disorder.
“A language is a spiritual mansion from which no one can evict us,” and in that palace Bellow was sovereign.
He never loses his constancy of purpose…“Actually, I’ve never stopped looking for the real thing; and often I find the real thing. To fall into despair is just a high-class way of turning into a dope. I choose to laugh, and laugh at myself no less than at others.”
Kathleen Kirk’s post, Persistence and Patience, is a thoughtful description of how she ended up, after several career explorations, being a poet. In her graceful telling, she describes her many forays into other creative fields—music, art, theater, teaching—but none of them evoked the necessary persistence and patience in her that is needed to keep the passion fed and fueled when the work is hard and the way is difficult. Once you find your métier, something shifts. When you are wired for sound, you just have to let go.
I found Kirk’s point of view resonant with my own experience:
I get rejected, accepted, and published all because I am patient and persistent. I have lived through various “trends” in writing, waiting patiently until the thing I do can be appreciated and accepted once again. Beauty has gone out of fashion, and come back. “Nature poems” have been despised, but now everyone is “going green.” Some people equate simplicity of language with simplistic thought, and thus ignore me, while I have always found that the most complex thinking usually requires the greatest clarity of statement. I am not a flashy poet, nor a trendy or political poet. I write about what goes on around me, and inside me.
Paul Auster has said, “Becoming a writer is not a ‘career decision’ like becoming a doctor or a policeman. You don’t choose it so much as get chosen, and once you accept the fact that you’re not fit for anything else, you have to be prepared to walk a long, hard road for the rest of your days.” I am committed to walking this long, hard road and have been on it, in my meandering way, for quite a lovely while.
He Lit a Fire with Icicles
For W.G. Sebald, 1944-2001
This was the work
of St. Sebolt, one
of his miracles:
he lit a fire with
icicles. He struck
them like a steel
to flint, did St.
only at a certain
body heat. How
cold he had
to get to learn
that ice would
burn. How cold
he had to stay.
When he could
feel his feet
he had to
One of my favorite Far Side cartoons features a back woods, slouchy guy lazying in front of a ramshackle rundown shack. The place of business sign above his head reads: HUBCAPS AND CROISSANTS.
Sometimes pairings are exciting because they are unlikely. But then there are those pairings that, as soon as they appear, make complete sense. It is intuitively obvious. That’s the way I feel about two writers whose works I love—Poet Kay Ryan and German novelist/memoirist/mystic, W. G. Sebald.
In a recent profile of Kay Ryan written by Adam Kirsch in the New Yorker called “Think Small: America’s quiet poet laureate”, Kirsch comments that on the surface these two writers do not have a lot in common. But as Kirsch points out, “Sebald wrote a book called ‘The Rings of Saturn’, and Ryan is another disciple of the god of melancholy; Sebald was obsessed with transience and decay, and Ryan can never stop noticing what she calls, in ‘Slant,’ ‘a bias cut to everything,/a certain cant/it’s better not to name.'” So writing this elegy for Sebald about an incident in the life of St. Sebolt, the writer’s namesake, is memorable and timbre-perfect.
As a further comment on Ryan’s work, Kirsch identifies where she lives on our cultural poetic continuum:
In American poetry, the contest between glut and starvation is inevitably epitomized by Whitman and Dickinson. Between these two tutelary spiritis, Ryan would of course choose Dickinson, and the resemblances between them have been made much of by critics. This is natural enough—after all, Ryan, too, writes brief, compressed lyrics, and has been a kind of outsider to the literary world.
But of course. As always, I am drawn to the quiet ones, the outsiders, the understated. And my interest in Ryan’s work is even more alive after reading Kirsch’s excellent piece.
Note: You can hear Kay Ryan read her poem at Poetry Archive.
This is a continuation of the post below since I am letting myself fall under the spell of Borges, the Borges of these 7 lectures. (There are, after all, so many versions of him, which is part of the mystique.)
Something in me is having this experience of feeling as if I am encountering my own feelings. But they are so much more eloquently expressed.
For example, on the topic of traveling:
In Buenos Aires, one day is much like another…But when I travel, I move from one comfortable armchair to another, a kindly ghost materializes and talks to me, very informedly, about my writings, then vanishes, to be replaced at once with another. It makes for great variety.
Kindly ghosts coming and going, talking informedly. I know about this!
From the short but excellent introduction by Alistair Reid:
The lectures in this book all reveal these connected shifts in Borges’ attention, the flow of his mind and memory. In understanding Borges, it is important to remember that, for him, literary experience has been more vivid an affecting than real experience, or better said, that there is no sensible difference between the two; so that when Borges is talking about books and writers, it is like talking of landscapes and journeys, so vivid has his reading been to him…
Criticism, he has reminded us, is simply a branch of imaginative literature…
For him, literature at its highest point generates awe, the disquieting astonishment that arises from a poem, a deep image, a crucial paragraph, what he calls either asombro or sagrada horror, “holy dread.” The writers he reaches for are those who have given him this essential experience; and it is what most distinguishes his own work, when, in a few phrases, the sharp edges of reality quiver in doubt, the awe is tangible.
Regarding The Thousand and One Nights:
The Orient is the place where the sun comes from. There is a beautiful German word for the East, Morgenland, the land of morning. For the West it is Abendland, land of afternoon. You will recall Spengler’s Der Untergang des Abendlandes, that is, the downward motion of the land of afternoon, or, as it was translated more prosaically, The Decline of the West. I think that we must not renounce the word Orient, a word so beautiful, for within it, by happy chance, is the word oro, gold. In the word Orient we feel the word oro, for when the sun rises we see a sky of gold. I come back to the famous line of Dante: “Dolce color d’oriental zaffiro.” The word oriental here has two meanings: the Oriental sapphire, which comes from the East, and also the gold of morning, the gold of that first morning in Purgatory.
While talking about Dante’s Divine Comedy:
Enchantment, as Stevenson has said, is one of the special qualities a writer must have. Without enchantment, the rest is useless.
Is it just me or is this man a conjurer, a magician? I don’t ever want to exit his spirited zone. Please, let me stay in Borgian flotation forever.
A few months ago New Directions came out with a reissue of Jorge Luis Borges’ Seven Nights. Based on a lecture series Borges delivered in Buenos Aires in 1977, the book is full of the themes that will feel familiar to anyone who has read the work of this brilliant writer and towering cultural figure—Dante’s Divine Comedy, the Kabbalah, nightmares, the Thousand and One Nights.
I am still mid-book, so I am sure there will be more to share later on. But for now, here are two passages that struck something in me:
We must reach the understanding that the world is an apparition, a dream; that life is a dream. But we must feel this deeply. In the Buddhist monasteries, the neophyte must live every moment of his life experiencing it fully. He must think: “Now it is noon; now I am crossing the patio; now I will meet the superior.” And at the same time he must think that the noon, the patio, and the superior are unreal, that they are as unreal as he and his thoughts.
One of the great delusions is the I. There is no subject; what exists is a series of mental states. If I say “I think,” I am committing an error, because I am assuming a fixed subject and then an act of that subject, which is thought. It is not so. One should say, not “I think,” but rather “it is thought,” as one says “it is raining.” When we say “it is raining,” we do not think that the rain is performing an act but rather that something is happening. In the same way that we say “it’s hot,” “it’s cold,” we should also say “it’s thinking,” “it’s suffering,” and avoid the subject.
We may draw two conclusions, at least tonight; later we can change our minds. The first is that dreams are an aesthetic work, perhaps the most ancient aesthetic expression. They take a strangely dramatic form. We are the theater, the spectators, the actors, the story. The second refers to the horror of nightmares. Our waking life abounds in terrible moments: we all know that there are moments in which reality overwhelms us. The nightmare has a particular horror, and that horror may be expressed in any story.
Well, what if nightmares were strictly supernatural? What if nightmares were cries from hell? What if nightmares literally took place in hell? Why not? Everything is so strange that even this is possible.
Continuing on a theme of Fitzgerald…
To have something to say is a question of sleepless nights and worry and endless ratiocination of subject – of endless trying to dig out the essential truth, the essential justice. As a first premise you have to develop a conscience and if on top of that you have talent so much the better. But if you have talent without the conscience, you are just one of many thousands of journalists.
–F. Scott Fitzgerald
And one more companionable thought:
The writing itself is no big deal. The editing, and even more than that, the self-doubt, is excruciatingly impossible. Profound, bottomless self-doubt: it has no value, what’s the point? In a way, that takes up as much time as anything else.
–Jonathan Safran Foer
All of this of course maps over into the other métiers. “Profound, bottomless self-doubt” takes up space in painting, poetry and music just as easily as it does prose.