Once I believed that all writers should write the way I do, or rather, the way I want to write but mostly don’t because my skills fail. I believed, in other words, that there is one right way to write, and innumerable wrong ways.
Well, I’ve changed my mind. Thirty years of wanting to write the way I’m supposed to and finding that way more or less permanently elusive has mellowed me even though it doesn’t seem to have broken my will. It turns out to be very, very hard to write the way I’m supposed to, and it is hard to write well by any other lights. Good writing, it turns out, is more an event to be celebrated for its rarity than an accomplishment that once achieved by a writer becomes a permanent possession or constant companion. So, since I can’t write my writing well on a regular basis, expecting others to without my peculiar experience and skill set is unfair and a little silly. I’ve likewise given up my belief that there are innumerable wrong ways to write. Instead, there are merely innumerable instances of bad writing.
Mellowing isn’t relativism. Instead of a single way to write well, I can see that there are at least six acceptable motives for writing. Each can result in good writing, and each will tend to dictate subject matter and formal consequences, which means that motivation is a primary energy source for intellectual method, and/or personal style.
Some of the motives I’ll detail are “legitimate” in that they’re expressions of the best impulses human beings have: curiosity, for example. Others are circumstantially unavoidable or physically fundamental, like writing for money and food. Others are spiritually or emotionally so compelling that they seem fundamental—and may in fact be so, personally and culturally. Others again are seductive, as when something is believed to the exclusion of every other thing. Each of the six motives requires different human and literary skills and will produce distinct and different artifactual and real world outcomes, and each will let loose different cosmologies in their slipstream and aftertaste. These cosmologies can be usefully tracked. The job of doing the tracking is one of the things literary criticism and university literature departments ought to do.
Now, it goes almost without saying that writers aren’t motivated by single impulses, except for very bad or dumb writers. Nearly all functional writers today work with mixed motives and by an assemblage of techniques and (increasingly) technologies, most of them now electronic. This simply means that we’re writing in the 21st Century, not the 19th, and that in the real world, the rules of engagement enforce a broadly-applied heterodoxy. The alternative is binary logic and the non-contextualizing simple-mindedness of computers and corporations.
From the beginnings of literature, there has been a single constant for writers that supersedes private motives: consonance between motive and technique. This consonance is the best and often sole recipe for writerly success, particularly the worldly kind. At the most simple level all that this means is that it is no accident Stephen King doesn’t publish a lot of sonnets. He may write them, but that’s contextually irrelevant. All genre really ought to define are effective strategies for recurrent situations.
At a more complicated level, I’d like to suggest that King and writers like him practice a pragmatism that is both native and studied. If you look at King’s work with a clinical eye, you’ll notice he’s not dedicated to any particular form of expression. Rather, he is a writer skilled at framing narratives against archetypes reduced to their most elemental possible degree. He will then send the narratives out as movie scripts or whatever other way will net him the largest audience and the most cash. I don’t mean this cynically. When King exercises his considerable faculties with narratives like “Stand By Me”, or “Carrie,” he deserves the public acclaim and wealth he’s gotten. He’s a great writer.
Now, I’m not Stephen King, and because I’m essentially agoraphobic, I don’t aspire to be. I write in order to discover what it is I think, and to then rethink it and articulate my understanding as efficiently and accurately as I’m able. Instead of the “calculate-the-market/organize/research/execute/package-for-the-market” sequences by which King and others operate, I write by trying to rescue whatever it is I’m trying to think through from the debris and rubble of unsuccessful thinking, from my bad ideas or fractured prejudices, or from stupid psycho-chemical and physical reactions that could as easily hang from a chimpanzee as from me.
Like all writers, I have an identity, or “self” I generally have to outwit in order to write anything very interesting. My particular self is thick-headed, and quite insistent about being the centre of the universe. From a writing point of view it is inefficient and often unpleasant, this self, but it is a workable one, comparatively. Other writers I’ve encountered must cope with selves that are paralyzingly fearful or phobic, or emotionally feckless and precipitate, while others again must struggle with bodies that fail them, either by clamouring for too much attention or by not functioning adequately to allow them the leisure to think and write. I suppose there are a few writers more stupid than I am somewhere out there, along with a tiny minority so clever their giftedness has rendered them idiot savants. I’ve never actually encountered any writers quite as stupid as I am, and I avoid idiot savants like the plague.
To write by my method, which I can describe simply as composing relatively quickly and carelessly and then revising repeatedly until what I started with doesn’t sound completely moronic, is a deeper level a deliberate and stubborn process of setting down successive layers of meaning upon an initial insight or idea or group of connected insights and ideas. If the initial materials were genuine, each revision anneals to them a depth of meaning not originally there, and eventually what I’ve written becomes more intelligent than I could ever hope to be in the immediacy of thought or conversation. When my writing is going well, the textures I can make by revising grow a little richer and deeper with each pass, and the surfaces of the language harder and more faceted.
As the cultural importance of literary writing has faded, I’ve become progressively more pragmatic about its artifactual purposes. The chances of anything I write surviving longer than a few decades, or—if I’m very, very, successful—a few centuries, is small and shrinking. Books on a shelf remain a pleasing sight to me, but that doesn’t delude me into thinking that they’re in and of themselves important. I just happened to be raised in a print-oriented culture, one in which books were valuable aesthetically and philosophically, and were a prime conduit of information. That culture has been both collapsing from within and being superceded from without throughout my life, and books are now considered the least useful and valuable of the many informational commodities thrust at us even while they haven’t lost any great degree of their intellectual credibility. Perhaps that’s because the idea of “intellectual credibility” has lost much of its social credibility.
But since thought is what matters—its temporary and cosmic relevance, its depth of penetration, its originality—to write by my laborious method is accidentally an exemplary political and social procedure that strikes a blow against all the not-thinking moments and temporary commodifications that we are now offered as value and meaning. If I no longer practice an influential occupation, I can still have an ethically decent one and one that is entertaining and interesting to practice.
Too many writers today seem to believe that thought is tertiary in importance to aesthetic effects, and some of them actually believe that the production of printed (or printable) aesthetic objects is among the intrinsic and ultimate goals of human civilization. This is not only foolish, but an abrogation of the fundamental miracle of human intelligence. We have consciousness of self and others, and we have language complex enough that we can use it to create social and political—and cognitive—technologies that give testimony to what we see and understand that does not falsify its miraculous beauty, complexity and tenuousness. That we are able to manufacture aesthetic commodities out of paper and ink is, by comparison, a puny accomplishment. Print, books, and the culture of that surrounds them—pleasant and comforting as they are to people like me—are at most a minor and technologically speaking, possibly temporary expression of that great miracle.
If that makes me appear pessimistic about the future of writing, I’m not. I’m only pessimistic about our ossified forms of literary expression, along with their shrinking zones of cultural impact. Okay, maybe I’m pessimistic about writers who treat those things as if they’re the Eternal Verities, too. At the risk of repeating myself in different words, the deliberate composing of language is, it seems to me, the most complicated neurological activity of which human beings are capable. The corollary to this is that poetry is the most complicated form of music and mathematics and the hardest thing for a human being to render with precision and beauty. If the human species has a future, it will certainly include composed language. In fact, the future may depend on the quality of that future composition.
That being said, working writers today have to live in the world in which they find themselves, just as they’ve always had to. For today’s writers the world is a very peculiar place. Nearly every human society going is now ruled by its commercial marketplace, a situation that is informationally and socially insane. From there, things gets even wackier. The production of literary writing is to some extent regulated and in nearly all cases judged by a class of interpreters and theorists who don’t write themselves, know little or nothing about the commercial marketplace, and make a virtue of defending the past of literature against its present and future.
Thus, when I suggest to you that thought is more important than art, I am also lodging a complaint against the formalisms of contemporary university Literature programs, whose mission has never been a very convincing one for me and seems much less convincing today than a few years ago. Establishing the classificatory identity and lineage of a given piece of writing is a solipsistic industrial activity if not quite the practice of fools. With progressive exceptions, Literature Departments have had their heads so far up their own asses during the last half century that they have neglected to notice that the marketplace has become the defining instrument of polity. Worse, they have utterly forgotten their fiduciary responsibilities toward the further evolution of human thought.
Repeat: the impulse to formulate, articulate and embody ideas is the truly remarkable thing about human beings, not our impulse to classify things within arbitrary accounting systems and to accumulate the ossified artifactual remains in storage facilities. Speculative and metaphoric thinking are the most marvelous of cognitive entertainments, and I’m perpetually astonished that only a minority of people, educated or otherwise, seem to understand this. When I first read Joyce Cary’s famous remark that no one should feel sorry for artists because we get to spend our days thinking imaginatively and in metaphors about the really important things in life, I knew what I wanted to be and do in life.
Finally, I’m aware that there are very talented writers who do not need to proceed as I do in order to get their writing done. They compose internally, and then squirt their sentences onto the page and walk away without further ado; done—so to speak, in a single pass. At one point in my career I was utterly demoralized by the very existence of people who could do this trick. Now, I’m just not very interested in them, and if prodded, I will point—carefully and respectfully—to the cognitive disabilities their method of composition burdens them with. Among the disabilities is that of never having the opportunity to overcome their own stupidity by writerly labour, or to experience the joy of getting to the ground of a thought by rooting and scraping at its linguistic and conceptual constituents. Running at my stupidity several times in the course of a normal writing day—and once or twice a week, winning a temporary respite from it—is vastly more rewarding than any callow satisfactions the single-pass crowd get. As William Carlos Williams once remarked: “Revise. Something good always comes of it.”
So, with that as my preface, let me lay out the six legitimate motives I see for writing.
4.) The Muses
6.) The Record
Money—needing it or wanting more than one has—is a perfectly acceptable motivation for a writer. Among the different motivators, it has produced more good writing than any other. Dickens and Conrad wrote for money, and so did Shakespeare.
To be successful at writing for money requires a writer to accurately understand his or her audiences. Dickens got paid by the word, as did many of the 19th Century novelists. This accounts for the often indirect and dispersed narratives of the novels written with that motive. Subplots are lucrative; if a writer can get his/her audience interested in the difficulties a security guard at the World Trade Center has with removing protruding nose hairs while other characters in the same story are trying to detonate a stolen H-bomb in the parking garage, KaChing! These are Dickensian strategies, designed for an era when writers were paid by the word, and when killing time was the major purpose of fiction, along with teaching people to read and filling their heads full of the sort of nonsense that accidentally propagandized the interests of the ruling class—or more rarely—tickled the fancy of the writer.
Then there is William Shakespeare, who may be unique in the history of writing in that he wrote for all the classes of his society, and managed to get and keep them all interested in what was going on his stages. We hear about Shakespeare’s wordsmithing skills ad nauseum, and such talk hides a more important truth that is the source of his greatness. He knew his world well enough and was comfortable enough in it that his creations appealed to his entire society. No writer has done that since.
Not to appear crass and vulgar, but if I were betting on the writers of the late 20th Century likely to be remembered 200 years from now, I’d be putting my money on Philip K. Dick or Stephen King. Better to bet on writers who cold-bloodedly understand how to work a formula for the sake of holding the reader’s attention than on writers who are explicating their own personal and cultural linen-ware—and thus more often give their readers sinus headaches than cheap thrills or profound insights.
In our era, to write skillfully and seriously and for money requires understanding the capitalist system far better than most writers do, and having an unusually strong moral and intellectual constitution. Another asset is a relatively low level of self-involvement. It is no accident that when King was hit by a car several years ago and almost killed, he wrote about the driver of the car, the people who rescued him, and the people in the hospital before it occurred to him to be interested in his own near-death reactions.
The above comes with the following caveats. 1.) If all you care about is making money, it is easier and much more lucrative to write real estate contracts, ad copy, or stock market buy/sell orders. 2.) You can’t be Stephen King, so his technique can only be your gimmicks—and gimmicks never work.
What do I mean by that? Well, during the time I spent teaching writing in maximum security prisons, I was pestered constantly by my students to reveal the tricks of the trade. I told them that writers like Stephen King or even old Charles Dickens didn’t become famous because they used gimmicks. They were lucky, yes, that their peculiar set of skills and interests found a coincidence with public needs and tastes. But much more important, I used to say, was that those writers knew their own strengths and limitations, and that they worked hard. Successful writing means writing every day pretty much the way normal people breathe, and doing enough research on whatever you write about that you no longer think of it as “research.” I still believe that.
2.) THE RECORD
It is a postmodern taken-for-granted to suppose that history is dead and over, and that there is nothing left but jewelry design and self-involvement of one reeking sort or another. Among the most damaging penalties of the post-modern condition is the one many writers revel in: a pervasive sense that progressive time has ended and that history—perhaps particularly the history of ideas—is simultaneous, relative, truthless, and open to entrepreneurial manipulation. Admittedly, there are considerable advantages to the resulting intellectual buffet. One can, in the 21st Century, be as easily a student of Heraclitus as Milton Freedman or today’s version of yesterday’s Bagwan or Marshall Applewhite. The problem with this is that it tends to reduce everything to issues of fashion and commodity. I’d need a book’s length to argue the many hazards of this. But I do want to address one hazard here that writers can do something about.
With the collapse of historical consciousness, personal journal-keeping has fallen into disuse, and I mean the kind of journal keeping in which people regularly write down their impressions of what it is they see, hear, smell and touch. People today, including writers, don’t think life is worth recording because we’re at the centre of time and at its end. What’s the use?
The danger in not keeping these records is perfectly substantial and simple: we’re about to leave an information gap for those who come after us that will be irreparable. Fifty or a hundred years from now, no one will know what it was we are seeing and thinking today. This is doubly dangerous because electronic technologies have destroyed the world of exact and verifiable documentary evidence—a world that commenced during the 1850s with the advent of photography—transforming it into a world where everything is fraudulent and fictitious. In such a world, Personal testimony must take the place of what was documentary, because no document can any longer be reliably authenticated. Yet as our faith in documentary evidence crumbles before the more or less total ability to rearrange and tidy everything, we are ceasing to testify to what is happening around us. This will leave the writers of the next generation with nowhere near the data base that today’s writers have, unless we see a quantum improvement in the permanence and translatability of digital and video storage media.
Perhaps the most crucial function of writing in the 21st Century, then, will be the one we see as the least important today: that of keeping accurate records and making laconic descriptions of the world around us. If we don’t do that, there will be no tomorrow.
It seems to me that very few people today, writers or not, have an adequate understanding of the degree to which they and what gets written by them are determined by ideology. Ideology need not be professed in order to be the controlling force in a piece of writing or in an life-project. The most common ideological determinant today when it comes to writing is the one that is most rarely acknowledged: the idea that whatever one is doing—art, social advocacy, community development—is not political because it is right, just and correct. Conflating political content with polemic content is stupidity, because all writing has political content. Those who argue for the apoliticality of writing are merely making a clumsy defense of some element of the status quo they either don’t recognize or have reason to obscure from others.
By ideology I mean something quite specific: a moral or intellectual value system imposed on phenomena as received truth or infused into the body of imaginative work clandestinely as subliminal messaging. It was once called “common knowledge”, but such a condition of cultural unanimity has not existed for hundreds of years in the West. Generally speaking, we’ve been better off without common knowledge because it breeds authoritarian and totalitarian notions. Its general but always temporary eclipses permitted the flowering of knowledge and free inquiry over the last two or three centuries, and the various outbreaks of imposed cultural unanimity in the 20th Century—Soviet and Chinese Communism, Nazi-Fascism and many of the recent outbreaks of exclusionary tribal, ethnic or preferential nationalism—have been uniquely lethal.
This is because ideology is the inevitable repository for—and energy source of—all the processes that are inimical to free inquiry and expression. Ideology is also dedicated to the subjugation and controlling of consciousness and is therefore inimical to the fundamental purposes of art, which are to liberate the human mind from whatever happens to be encumbering its attempts to entertain the mind and educate the body. Ideology today is a greater danger to writers than it was a generation ago, when the global movement toward secularized scepticism was at its too-brief apogee. In case you haven’t noticed, we’re now in a headlong retreat from that scepticism into fundamental and sectarian beliefs of all sorts.
There is a naïve tendency among liberally educated writers to equate ideology with propaganda and dismiss both as vulgarities of little concern. Their lack of attention makes them ignore a fundamental change in the relationship between ideology and propaganda, and the subtle shifts in form it has taken. In a strict sense, propaganda, which Cyril Connolly usefully defined during the 1940s as the “genial undermining of truth and beauty by the State”, has become relatively rare in the West now that multinational corporations have overpowered the state in virtually all terms of effective power, with the result that commercial advertising has far outstripped government propaganda as a determinant of both the public realm and individual consciousness.
A hard look at the evolution of corporate advertising in the last 30 years reveals the visible effects of this transformation. A startling percentage of today’s advertising no longer pitches the virtues of a specific product, but rather, is aimed at making the corporations palatable or even heroic. Structurally, it is aimed at buying and occupying media space. This has two effects: to buy the attention of the media—in a literal sense—i.e. the corporations are paying their bills by buying advertising from the media companies, and they are occupying the attentions of the public while ensuring that others don’t. In an era obsessed by information, media space constitutes a new type of totality that is unique because it contains no silence or absences. Thus, whatever portion of the space is occupied by a given entity constitutes real control of that portion of public attention, since media space and the public realm are informationally the same thing, particularly since the corporations have no interests in, or responsibilities to, public well-being and individual privacy.
Because it is schooled by corporate advertising and shares the same willingness to engage in self-interested cognitive obscurants, today’s ideological writing is more subtle than the committed writing of the past, tending to separate itself from its gestalt and logical consequences without its authors understanding. You’ll hear writers suggesting, subtly or not, that what their enemies and opponents posit as value is propaganda, whereas their own claims are analytical and “true”. An extremely simple way to sort out the new dimensions of propaganda would be to treat anything articulated from received truth as different from old-style church/state propaganda only in its surface rhetoric.
Thus, in a corporate-determined (if not formally governed) cybernalia, business writing and feminist writing are basically the same because the cosmological attributes attached to them are determined before the phenomenal elements are treated, and will ultimately govern the latter’s selection.
Now, I’m not suggesting that good writing can’t come from a socially or politically committed writer. Many of the great writers of the 19th and 20th Centuries were committed to various aspects of social justice: like Emile Zola, Ignacio Silone, Charles Dickens or John Steinbeck. The list of competent politically committed writers is an absurdly long one, and if I name any more, it’ll be an unproductively contentious list, and one that misses my point. What is different about most of the writers who have survived their own time and many of today’s committed writers is that the old writers had a clearer idea of the limits that need to be placed on ideological commitment. It is one thing to be committed to some idea or cause, another thing to be a partisan to it. Partisans are prone to shoot people they think are getting in their way. This isn’t a very good way to get art done and it is a very bad way to get your work remembered. Good writing, it seems, must transcend orders-of-the-day, however hot and seductive they seem in the ecstasy of the present. At a basic level, I’m playing a variation of the old “Don’t run with the scissors, kids!” with pen or laptop computer substituted for scissors. You may be more likely to damage the technology than your physical person if you fall, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that the penalties will be less damaging in the long run. Information technology is cognitive prostheses, and as essential to survival as our wrists, ankles, and lower intestines and the more commonly mentioned appendages.
I’m not saying that ideologically determined writing isn’t a legitimate form of human expression. Just that writers who have an overly confident sense of what is good and what is evil are almost always bad writers and thus almost never survive their own moment in time. In our world, the term “Activist-writer” is very close to oxymoron.
Therapy gets a bad rap from writers, and not always for just cause. There are reasons for the bad rap, of course. Self-therapy by and of itself is contentless the same way the self is without content when separated from external processes and other people. Additionally, in a market-obsessed culture interactive and/or group therapies fail because they get hijacked by the therapists’ need to develop profitable clienteles or to hold onto them once developed. Therapeutic processes, in other words, too often end up in the service of the therapists. (And sometimes, of course, the reason therapy gets a bad rap is simply that therapy-heads are so easy to make fun of.
That said, the bad rapping makes it very easy for writers to lose sight of the fact that nearly all of us first put pen to paper because we wanted to explain to ourselves some ineffable or confusing real world circumstance or consequence that was impenetrable by conventional means of assimilating (or dismissing) experience. Writing is therapeutic, in other words.
I first began to write, for instance, at the age of 16 when my friends decided to punish a disliked Junior High School teacher by killing a stray cat and hanging it over the teacher’s door—something that during those years wasn’t nearly the outrageous it would be today. But on an instinct I was completely unable to explain to my friends or to understand for myself, I couldn’t join them. When they went out and did the deed, I stayed home. Staying away wasn’t enough: I needed an explanation, not of the cat-killing but of my refusal to participate. I found some paper and a pen, and sat down at the kitchen table. Before long, I’d written a very bad (and mercifully soon lost) poem about it.
I felt no moral superiority because of my pacifism, then or now. At the time, what I did was instinct, and I rather feared it was a shameful one. From writing the poem I discovered that my instinct had not in fact been shameful, and that stepping away from the dynamics of social life could be an honorable course. There was more to it than honour, too. In the moment of that first composition, I experienced the deepest pleasure I had known to that point in my life: I was thinking, and I was exercising my independent will, and I was finding the best way to substantiate those with words. I wanted to spend my life doing it.
Other pleasures have since succeeded that moment in intensity and depth: parental and romantic love, for instance. There have also been one or two culinary and aesthetic experiences that have matched it, and many moments of reading have been in the range. But I became a complete human being by writing that first time, albeit a particular and maybe peculiar kind of human being: often solitary, usually independent, and yet the public messenger of everything that was not me, everything in the world I am inextricably linked with. For me, to write is to become fully human.
I suspect that nearly all writers begin writing so they can understand themselves better or to explain some important personal or historical event, circumstance or stress that is obscured by everyday living. The process of writing is in and of itself illuminative, and even the most professional and experienced writers retain an element of that beginning in their work. Whether they admit it or not, many writers continue to write in order to explicate or purge personal traumas, or to transcend perceived disabilities or disservices and injustices inflicted by others. Juggling the demands of two masters is very hard in the best of conditions and trying to juggle with admitted disabilities is harder still. Serious problems can arise when the rhetoric of therapy invades the writers motivation and makes the writing itself responsible not to the technical demands of art—clarity of articulation, the embracing and celebration of complexity and accuracy—but to the therapeutic concerns of the author..
Let me offer an anecdote to illustrate what I mean. Several years ago I became the unpaid editor/counselor to a young gay woman trying to come to terms with her mother’s impending death—and not incidentally—with her mother’s refusal to accept her sexual preferences. I encouraged the young woman to document her mother’s last days, and to use the role of observer to try to get through the long-standing hostilities between her and her mother. She did this, with some positive results, making tape-recordings of her last conversations with her mother. After her mother passed away, I suggested that she could get a stronger understanding of what had happened by writing about it.
Eventually, the young woman did move past recordings and journals, and began to write stories. At first I welcomed this, because I thought it would offer her a chance not only to investigate but also to possibly transform her past—to make her parents real to her in ways they’d failed to be in life. But from the first, the stories she showed me were slow-moving and devoid of substantive action or insight. The characters she modeled on her parents were without any seeming capacity and purpose other than that of explaining their future hurtful behavior toward the story-author, their daughter. Both stories and characters were drab and untransformative, capable only of a depressingly inexorable descent into the exact conditions under which their author’s parents ended their lives.
When I objected to the turgidity and the self-serving distortions, the young woman argued that the events depicted in the stories were “real”, and that the stories were therefore “true”. I hung lugubrious quotation marks around the words “real” and “true”, but she didn’t crack a smile. I offered her Audrey Thomas’ useful dictum about how real world verities don’t excuse bad architecture in fiction, and then, more gently, suggested that as a young (or for that matter, old) writer she needed to, as Kurt Vonnegut has it, be a good date on a blind date, and generally, try to “show strangers a good time.” When she accused me of being callous with her feelings, I replied that when a relationship involved writing, my priorities are to make the writing more readable, and that everything else, including tender authorial feelings, is well down the list.
She didn’t want to hear any of this. I don’t know exactly why, but it’s reasonable to assume that she was more interested in feeling better about herself—in this case by confirming her victimhood and alienation from the imaginary normality of her parents—than in writing readable fiction. That’s a perfectly acceptable life choice, but it is one that ensures that once made, you won’t write very good fiction.
In order to succeed—however we want to define success—writers must learn to gain and keep control over their neuroses, at least for the purposes of writing. I remain prepared to go the distance on the point that among writers better prose is more important than stroked feelings. But it has also become clear to me that contemporary writers could use their skills for purposes other than creating good sentences and/or technically sound fictions. There exists a void in our, er, Mental Health Procurement Apparatuses, that writers—perhaps particularly fiction writers—could easily fill, and with powerful effect. It involves story-telling, and helping others who don’t have the skills writers have at refining stories.
What writers know about telling stories, may be, in the end, the most important social skill they possess. No, don’t laugh. If I were setting down what I think the basic needs a human being today has, I would list food, shelter, tactile contact with others and some measure of social and political justice, pretty much in that order. Right after that—before the need to get laid, actually—I would put the need to know where one’s life has been, where it is set, where one stands in the immensely complex continuums we inhabit, and where one would like to be in the future or in an ideal world: to have an understandable life story, in other words.
People who don’t know their own stories are dangerously common today and getting more so. The skills of narrative-making are often among the first casualties of the speed and provisional nature of contemporary life—and of contemporary mass media, which tends to break individual experience down into atomized parcels inevitably headed in the direction of the nearest market check-out counter. It’s one of the rarely recognized costs of living fat in a safe world.
I had this driven home to me recently by a friend—not a writer—in the throes of a nasty divorce. He complained to me one afternoon that the lawyer he’d hired wasn’t having much success defending his interests, and as he described what had been happening, it came to me that the reason the lawyer couldn’t serve his case was because my friend had become so scrambled with the collapse of his domestic life that he didn’t any longer know his own story or his position in the world in relation to those around him. He was therefore unable to define either his interests or his intentions—to his lawyer or to anyone else.
Over the three weeks that followed his confession, I used the skills I’ve accumulated as a fiction writer to help him construct a written version of the events of his decade-long marriage—its “story”, as it were. I began by getting a bare-bones structure of names and dates from him, which I wrote up as a first person narrative, one that contained several deliberate misinterpretations designed to get his attention focused on the virtues of getting the story right. From there, I convinced him to read and revise it until it was fleshed out into a connected net of events anyone could follow. As his story rounded slowly into coherence, I saw my friend, for the first time, come to terms with what had taken place in the time since the marriage fell apart, and as he did, I saw his anxieties fade. When the story was complete and he’d read it over a few times, he took it off to his lawyer, and the divorce began to proceed–not happily, but at without the crippling effects it had been having on him.
Now, doing this for him wasn’t a big drain on my time, and the writing part of it was easy because I was aiming only at narrative coherence not artful language. But its effect on him and his life was disproportionately large, and it made me consider whether this sort of narrative-making is a service professional writers should be offering to non-writers more generally and generously than they do. It would likely be a highly effective therapy for a number of contemporary psychological predicaments ranging from sensory and event overload to regression analysis. As writerly jobs go, it isn’t quite as exciting as transcribing the dictums of burning bushes onto stone tablets on a mountainside, but it is decent work, and something to do that will diminish the general misery of our stupid lives.
If you pinch me hard, I’ll still tell you that therapy by and for its own sake doesn’t work, and that writers better not be writing merely to makes themselves feel jingle-jangle and warm down below or between their ears. But now I’ll add that none of that should prevent writers from employing their skills to help people who don’t have those skills themselves.
5.) THE MUSES:
Every poet once knew who the Muses were. In Classical Greece there were just nine of them, and they’re still worth naming: Calliope for epic; Clio for history; Erato for lyric poetry, Euterpe for flute; Melpomene for tragedy; Thalia for comedy; Polymnia for church music; Terpsichore for the tango, and Urania for astronomy. Today there are many more Muses around because the human part of the world is much more complicated, and these new Muses rarely stay within the categories by which the Greeks understood reality. A few of the original ones have changed—like Polymnia, who’s now doing TechnoRock at raves, and Euterpe, who’s catatonic in an institution somewhere, suffering from Kenny G. and Zamphir overload. Urania writes her own astrology column at U.S.A. Today, etc.
We could amuse ourselves this way more or less indefinitely by adding and subtracting muses, but the Muses are not a parlour game, and they aren’t antique or obsolete. They are, today as in the past, externalizing agents for identifying and channeling the obsessive energies without which writers can’t get anything done. That’s why it might be a useful exercise for writers to gain an understanding of who and what the Muses were to the ancient poets, and how they can help writers today to gain and hold perspective on themselves and the subject matters they are best suited to pursue. Most of today’s organizing icons are narcissistic personifications of aspects of career and private projections: The Entrepreneur; the Earth Mother; the Captain of Industry; the Female Pioneer; the Lover; the Warrior Prince or Princess. Fine for pursuits that require heavy doses of egomania to thrive in but utterly distracting if you’re lining up the registration pins on the most exacting details life gives up.
To be a writer is to be professionally schizoid—or to use T.S. Eliot’s distinction, to live with a slight but permanent separation between the person who observes and writes, and the person who acts and feels and is acted upon. The Muses, in effect, are the anchors within the experiencing identity that reminds those of us who write that for us, life is about writing, not about us—or at least, not merely about us. To embody that permanent reminder that we are not our own is a convenience that involves a piece of trickery of which we are at once the victims and proprietors. To be openly both will bother few serious writers, because the dualities are already familiar whether we acknowledge them or not.
In the last two centuries, the Muses have been collectivized by Stendhal as The Happy Few, conflated with the history of music and poetry by Robert Graves as The White Goddess or abstracted to what Mayakovsky called as The Social Command. Each of these distinctions is educative. The Muse has also been understood as The People, or The General or Reading Public—although it is hard to find a constituency that recognizes those collectivities today.
Often since the Second World War, the Muses take the form of life experiences that rearrange one’s sensorium or moral apparatuses. For Kurt Vonnegut, it was being captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944, which put him in Dresden in 1945 for the massive Allied air raid that created a firestorm and burned the city to ashes—along with all of Vonnegut’s preconceptions about the human condition. For Primo Levi and Paul Celan, it became the Nazi death camps. Yet for Albert Camus, it remained the city of his birth, Algiers. Or for Dorothy Parker, more minimally, a table in a New York restaurant.
For me, much less profoundly, my private Muse first appeared while I was sitting solemnly in a coal-shed at the age of three while my family frantically searched for me in the bright world outside. This four-hour experience was so inexplicably ecstatic that it has had me since permanently peering out at the world through a slight, dark, but always intervening reserve that the world’s overwhelming but seductive violence perpetually seeks to invade.
More than any other class of fools the 20th Century and its ideological steamrollers has flattened into dictatorships of the Proletariat or the Entrepreneurs or the Self-Involved Middle-Class Ninnies, artists and writers have been cheated of a large part of their cultural birthright by remaining ignorant of what the Muses actually do. The poet we now call Homer didn’t get his vision of the string of bonfires stretching from Troy to Mycenae to signal the end of the war and the beginning of a new world from gazing it a campfire or holding hands in a tribal circle. He—or she, because there’s powerful evidence to suggest that Homer was a woman—saw it from the hilltops outside the city, or from the roof of Agamemnon’s palace. He was of the city, of the people but not with either, physically or spiritually. The recognition of that essential but never absolute condition defines the activities of the Muses.
Awareness of the Muses is one thing, consciously writing for them another. In our era, perhaps as a reaction to the sheer force and pervasiveness of the governing systems around us, conscious writing for the Muse expresses itself in a narrower-than-it-looks formal and behavioral band that ranges from non- or anti-commercial obsession to exemplary political and social activities. I suspect that most of the instructors in this program write primarily for the Muses, but I will let them make their own testimonies on this matter.
It is usually but not inevitably poets who can be found writing for The Muses. In some cases, this is in part a consequence of temperament, although I’d be hard-pressed to identify a typical temperament except to posit that writers who can say without being disingenuous that by the time a book or story goes to press or a poem to performance, the fun is over is likely writing for the Muses.
Personally I’ve reached the point where my performance anxieties are fairly temporary and minor distractions but this isn’t because I’ve made myself a good performer, and it isn’t because I enjoy the performance/publicity part of writing. It’s more that I don’t take it very seriously because it now has so little effect beyond sales and social prestige, and because I get so much more pleasure from reading, writing and revising.
As I’ve grown more solitary, I’ve lost much of the interest I once had in tracking the psycho-kinetics of writing—my own and those of other writers. I’ve also trained myself to sever contact with the Muse for months at a time in order to suppress the obsessive elements of my personality, opting instead to generate writing from conventional research activities. The logic behind this trick is completely pedestrian: if I can’t use the research for writing, at least I’ll know something more than did before I started, and what I’ll know won’t be my feelings about myself.
I wouldn’t go so far as to make a blanket recommendation for this approach, because everyone needs to relate to their Muse efficiently—i.e. in ways that will make them productive and more skilled. Standing at a slight and darkened remove, remember, is an instinct intimately connected to my personal Muse. Still, I do think it’s worth reminding writers from time to time that they shouldn’t toss the whole notion of the Muses in the rubbish because It’ll just piss them off, and they’re no fun when they turn on you.
Curiosity has become my chief source of motivation as a writer. I’m becoming more rather than less curious about the world, you see, as my self becomes less intrusive and demanding. I’m curious about how the world works and doesn’t, about what’s in it, and about how much longer it can rest on nature and the planet without crushing the life out of the former and thus being removed by the planetary biological collapse that could result. Attempts to formalize writerly curiosity inevitably fail, so I won’t try beyond restating that the inherent heterodoxy of art makes it the perfect tool for investigating a world that has become otherwise almost intolerably complex.
That said, writerly curiosity can be cultivated. I’ve noted that writers who seem to be the most happy in old age tend to have cultivated their curiosity the most assiduously. That’s because curiosity is a better and more clean-burning fuel than testosterone, dedication to a cause or ambition and lust, or the fear of failure.
I don’t see much need to apologize for the sort of curiosity I exercise and the peculiar way it operates in the world. In part that’s because at this stage in my life it has become so thoroughly integrated with my personality I can’t separate it from who I am. But I could also excuse it by noting that a writer’s curiosity has little of the coldness of its empirical cousin—or at least a different sort of coldness—and if it sometimes also involves experimentation on living beings, both the experiments and the animals so used are metaphorical, and so are the electrodes that get attached. This is, actually, the sole benefit I can ascribe to the descent of writing into cultural and political unimportance. That Doug Coupland’s Generation X hasn’t had the range and kind of impact of A Christmas Carol, which single-handedly created Christmas as we practice it today with its Peace-On-Earth-Good-Will-To-Men theme, or Heart of Darkness and All Quiet on the Western Front isn’t merely a comment on the relative quality of the language and thought found in them. Today, works of literature can no longer expect to reshape social or cultural institutions, stop massacres or change the face of war. They’re also unlikely to convince people to kill others in very large numbers or in newly organized ways. What remains, after the acclaim has faded, are the luminous traceries anything good leaves in the world. For today’s writers that may be the only permanence we can leave behind.
Depressing? Sure. But therein lies a small but brilliant freedom that the commercial cropping of genre literature has clouded for most of today’s writers. It is the freedom to take the leash off one’s deepest curiosities about the world and its contents. The indifferent liberty of 21st Century writers is a more or less direct incitement to curiosity, and perhaps (I can never quite resist a manifesto moment) a responsibility. If one’s writing has no automatic effect on the centre, it becomes the logical instrument for exploring its margins and its obscure but chemically active back-eddies. If one is no longer at the centre of human culture, one can claw at the doors to the lost Imperium hoping for reentry, or one can go off and explore the distant shores. The third alternative, industrial production isn’t a terribly attractive or serious one. I’d sooner find a factory and manufacture widgets, or something else that’ll make me rich while it’s rendering me terminally dull.