“There are few things more helpful to a writer than having once been a weird little kid.” Katherine Paterson
I am the writer.You are the writer.
Writers are born. Although you can teach someone how to write, you can’t instill the drive required to invest a lifetime in isolated focus. You can’t give a person the passion for language, the ear and covetousness for the ring of poetry, the tenacity to nitpick at syllables.
“Nobody could make me into a musician,” said P.D.James. “Somebody might be able to teach me how to play the piano reasonably well after a lot of effort, but they can’t make a musician out of me and you cannot make a writer.”
Susan Sontag wrote, “A writer is someone who pays attention to the world—a writer is a professional observer. To be a writer, also—and this is the contradiction—demands a going inward and reclusiveness, just plain reclusiveness—not going out—staying home all the time—not going out with everybody else going to play. You have to be obsessed. . . [Being a writer] is not like something you want to be—it’s rather something you couldn’t help but be… it’s an auto-slavery. You are both the slave and the task-master. It’s a very driven thing.”
Language Is Power
Widely circulated in literary spheres is the notion that writers emerge from formative years where language, in some way, meant power. Experience, in D.W. Winnicott’s words, has created a drive torqued “between the desire to communicate and the desire to hide.” John Lanchester put it more boldly—“The standard personality type for a writer is a shy megalomaniac.”
Why did I write? What sin to me unknown dipped me in ink, my parents or my own.
As this writer sees it, a writer results when a certain temperament meets a certain world. I call it the CIS Theory (pronounced kiss, as in “kiss of the muse”) because I suspect the temperament is markedly Creative, Intelligent, and Sensitive. Here’s how one layman’s theory unfolds—
A child thus predisposed spends his formative years in a world that doesn’t acknowledge he is understood, and so his thoughts turn inward. Conversing with himself grows into conversing with others. In the privacy of his mind, he speaks his truth and writes the dialogue of characters that deny their roles. Unbeknownst to the child, an inner world gradually becomes furnished, even formidable. It belongs to him. What’s more, to this inner world he belongs.
Epochs pass, and the adult finds his voice in the greater world. Still, his fortress sanctuary remains where he is most articulate and most at home. For him, speaking is a second language. He’s been writing the fulfillment of his soul from his earliest moments of consciousness. Regardless of the degree to which he becomes whole, he is unable to rest in the certainty that he is understood. He writes because he must get words on paper. He tells stories, ultimately, to tell his own.
Now to backpedal, lest I disparage anyone’s sense of family honor. For all I know countless writers come from blissful childhoods. I stress my use of the term layman, and my theory is tongue-in-cheek—reason based on knowledge of myself (which does not a study make), along with inference from a Nietzsche quote that says: “Good writers have two things in common: they would rather be understood than admired, and they do not write for hairsplitting and hypercritical readers.” Again, nothing scientific to indicate we were all dropped on our heads one too many times. Likely, my experience is common to some and accounts for one slice of the population. Please feel free to comment. I’d love to hear if you agree, disagree, or have a “theory”.
The Writing Persona
Perhaps no one has said more to define the writer than novelist, essayist, literary critic, and university professor John Gardner. From his book On Becoming a Novelist—
The writer sensitive to language finds his own metaphors, not simply because he has been taught to avoid clichés but because he enjoys finding an exact and vivid metaphor, one never before thought of, so far as he knows. If he uses an odd word, it is never the fashionable odd word of his time and place—for instance (as of this writing), “ubiquitous,” or “detritus,” or “serendipitous”—he uses his own odd word, not solely because he wants to be noticed as original (though that is likely to be part of it) but also because he’s fascinated by words. He’s interested in discovering the secrets words carry, whether or not he ever puts them in his fiction—for instance, how “discover” means “to take the cover off.” He’s interested in playing with sentence formation, seeing how long he can make a sentence go, or how many short sentences he can use without the reader’s noticing.
The novelist develops an acute eye, sometimes bordering on the psychic, for human feelings and behavior, tastes and habitats, pleasures, sufferings.
Like other kinds of intelligence, the storyteller’s is partly natural, partly trained. It is composed of several qualities, most of which, in normal people, are signs of either immaturity or incivility: wit (a tendency to make irreverent connections); obstinacy and a tendency toward churlishness (a refusal to believe what all sensible people know is true); childishness (an apparent lack of mental focus and serious life purpose, a fondness for daydreaming and telling pointless lies, a lack of proper respect, mischievousness, an unseemly propensity for crying over nothing); a marked tendency toward oral or anal fixation or both (the oral manifested by excessive eating, drinking, smoking, and chattering; the anal by nervous cleanliness and neatness coupled with a weird fascination with dirty jokes); remarkable powers of eidetic recall, or visual memory (a usual feature of early adolescence and mental retardation); a strange admixture of shameless playfulness and embarrassing earnestness, the latter often heightened by irrationally intense feelings for or against religion; patience like a cat’s; a criminal streak of cunning; psychological instability; recklessness, impulsiveness, and improvidence.
To be psychologically suited for membership in what I have called the highest class of novelists, the writer must be not only capable of understanding people different from himself but fascinated by such people. He must have sufficient self-esteem that he is not threatened by difference, and sufficient warmth and sympathy, and a sufficient concern with fairness, that he wants to value people different from himself, and finally he must have, I think, sufficient faith in the goodness of life that he can not only tolerate but celebrate a world of differences, conflicts, oppositions.
Of necessity the writer is unlike those of his friends who quit work at five; if he has a wife and children, the writer cannot pay as much attention to them as his neighbors do to theirs, and if the writer is worthy of his profession, he feels some guilt over this. Because his art is such a difficult one, the writer is not likely to advance in the world as visibly as do his neighbors: while his best friends from high school or college are becoming junior partners in prestigious law firms, or opening their own mortuaries, the writer may be still sweating out his first novel. One has to be just a little crazy to write a great novel.
One must be capable of allowing the darkest, most ancient and shrewd parts of one’s being to take over the work from time to time. Or be capable of cracking the door now and then to the deep craziness of life itself.
No novelist is hurt (at least as an artist) by a natural inclination to go to extremes, driving himself too hard, dissatisfied with himself and the world around him and driven to improve on both if he can.
A psychological wound is helpful, if it can be kept in partial control, to keep the novelist driven. Some fatal childhood accident for which one feels responsible and can never fully forgive oneself; a sense that one never quite earned one’s parents’ love; shame about one’s origins—belligerent defensive guilt about one’s race or country upbringing or the physical handicaps of one’s parents—or embarrassment about one’s own physical appearance: all these are promising signs. It may or may not be true that happy, well-adjusted children can become great novelists, but insofar as guilt or shame bend the soul inward they are likely, under the right conditions (neither too little discomfort nor too much), to serve the writer’s project. By the nature of his work it is important that one way or another the novelist learn to depend primarily on himself, not others, that he love without too much need and dependency, and look inward (or toward some private standard) for approval and support. Often one finds novelists are people who learned in childhood to turn, in times of distress, to their own fantasies or to fiction, the voice of some comforting writer, not to human beings near at hand.
Writers would clearly be madmen if they weren’t so psychologically complicated (“too complex,” a famous psychiatrist once wrote, “to settle on any given madness”)—and some go mad anyway.
The novelist is the particular kind of writer he is, what William Gass has called a “big-breath writer,” and in effect he does what is most natural for him. He has, unlike the poet or short story writer, the endurance and pace of a marathon runner. As Fitzgerald put it, there is a peasant in every good novelist. And he has, besides, the kind of ambition peculiar to novelists—a taste for the monumental.
Mean confidence—the habit of believing one can do whatever one’s art requires. Along with the peasant in the novelist, there must be a man with a whip.
The writer, as defined by Nabokov, is a storyteller, a teacher, and an enchanter. In his Lectures on Literature, he expounded on the qualities these personas bring to the writer’s work.
To the storyteller we turn for entertainment, for mental excitement of the simplest kind, for emotional participation, for the pleasure of traveling in some remote region in space or time. A slightly different though not necessarily higher mind looks for the teacher in the writer. Propagandist, moralist, prophet—this is the rising sequence. We may go to the teacher not only for moral education but also for direct knowledge, for simple facts… Finally, and above all, a great writer is always a great enchanter, and it is here that we come to the really exciting part when we try to grasp the individual magic of his genius and to study the style, the imagery, the pattern of his novels or poems.
The three facets of the great writer—magic, story, lesson—are prone to blend in one impression of unified and unique radiance, since the magic of art may be present in the very bones of the story, in the very marrow of thought. There are masterpieces of dry, limpid, organized thought which provoke in us an artistic quiver quite as strongly as a novel like Mansfield Park does or as any rich flow of Dickensian sensual imagery. It seems to me that a good formula to test the quality of a novel is, in the long run, a merging of the precision of poetry and the intuition of science. In order to bask in that magic a wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine. It is there that occurs the telltale tingle even though we must keep a little aloof, a little detached when reading. Then with a pleasure which is both sensual and intellectual we shall watch the artist build his castle of cards and watch the castle of cards become a castle of beautiful steel and glass.
Jean Giraud—”An artist is, by nature, someone very sensitive, who expresses with talent the pains that he has suffered. He uses art to replace the communication that he didn’t, or doesn’t have with others. Most artists were sensitive children, often introverted, and suddenly they discover that there is a big demand for that very same expression of their sensitivity. They discover that, in our harsh world, there’s an oasis for dream makers, and you even get paid for it.”
Madeleine L’Engle—”I think that all artists, regardless of degree of talent, are a painful, paradoxical combination of certainty and uncertainty, of arrogance and humility, constantly in need of reassurance, and yet with a stubborn streak of faith in their own validity no matter what.”
Janet Frame—”All writers are exiles wherever they live and their work is a lifelong journey towards the lost land.”
Cornelia Funke—”Being a writer? Not a bad thing, just a lonely thing. Sometimes the world you create on the page seems more friendly and alive than the one where you actually live in.”
Ray Bradbury—”You grow ravenous. You run fevers. You know exhilarations. You can’t sleep at night, because your beast-creature ideas want out and turn you in your bed. It is a grand way to live.”
T. Coraghessan Boyle—”First you have nothing, and then, astonishingly, after ripping out your brain and your heart and betraying your friends and ex-lovers and dreaming like a zombie over the page till you can’t see or hear or smell or taste, you have something. Something new. Something of value. Something to hold up and admire. And then? Well, you’ve got a jones, haven’t you? And you start all over again, with nothing.”
Thomas Mann—”A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
When George Plimpton asked Ernest Hemingway what’s the best training for someone interested in becoming a writer, Hemingway said, “Let’s say that he should go out and hang himself because he finds that writing well is impossibly difficult. Then he should be cut down without mercy and forced by his own self to write as well as he can for the rest of his life. At least he will have the story of the hanging to commence with.”
Jayne Anne Phillips—”Silence is the writer’s familiar. Silence, earned or merely present, is as natural to writers as writing. It fills the space between words, behind words. Silence, amniotic and replete, is the auditory equivalent of the empty page. Images and pictures float within it.”
George Orwel—”Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”
Tom Grimes—”Novelists sit in small lonely rooms three to five hours a day, exhilarated when we hit a slight groove, which may be only fifty words in a row, four or five handwritten lines on a notebook page. For me, this comes, if it comes, deep into the writing day, well after the initial what-is-this-about, who-wrote-this phase, the ritual confusion and shame that hits me each time I flip open to the page I’ve left incomplete the day before. Soon I may notice a word that captures all the nuance and rhythms I want, and I’ll erase the first one and test the new one, weighing it, running the new sentence through my head to see how it sounds. By then, the music coming through my head-phones has given way to the book’s music, which takes me with it until finally I’m in two places, at my desk and in the book’s world… I’m in the zone now and can’t pull out. This force field tugs me into a novel. I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m trusting the words, for only words can temporarily assuage the near perpetual doubt novelists live with, the revulsion for the work that sets in, as Beckett said, the instant the ink dries.”
Excerpts from Dani Shapiro’s On Living a Writer’s Life
There’s a danger in romanticizing what it means to be a writer. Because what it really means is hard, hard work. It means tearing your hair out. Feeling like your head is about to explode. It means enduring periods of time during which you have no idea what you’re doing. It means rejection, failure, disappointment and confusion, only occasionally tempered with acceptance, triumph, joy and clarity.
From a distance, it can look good—I know this as well as anyone—but if you get up close to a working writer, what you can see and hear and even smell is the steady thrum of tension and despair that is necessary to get the words to fall onto the page in the right way, in the right order, and with the possibility of lucidity, even poetry. We are after nothing so much as transcendence. We must lose ourselves, temporarily, as we find the shape of our consciousness on the page. This is living the writer’s life: existing in a kind of dream state, at once here and not here, paying attention while listening to a faint, internal music. Taking the leap, trusting the fall.
I do whatever is necessary in order to maintain the equanimity we all need to withstand the disappointment and rejection that are the lot of every writer, no matter where we are in our careers. How do we live the writer’s life? There’s only one simple answer: we write.
“There is the fear that you somehow neglected to say what was really yours to say.” John Updike