Writers and Writing
When writers get together, what do they talk about?
The late Miles Kington told me once about the meeting of Kingsley Amis and Roald Dahl at one of the fabled Punch lunches, when Miles was the magazine’s literary editor. He thought he’d be in for a treat, eavesdropping on the no doubt erudite conversation of two literary giants.
In the pause after the introductions, Amis said to Dahl, “So, how much was your last advance?”
“Oh, don’t ask, ” Dahl replied. “What was yours?”
“Appalling. Mean buggers, my publishers.”
“They’re all mean buggers. Have you ever thought of writing for children?”
“Maybe you should.”
“Well, there’s more money in it.”
“Really? How much more?”
And so it went on, all through lunch. They didn’t once mention writing.
But also - or maybe eventually – people who write do talk about writing. And as Margaret Atwood observes in Negotiating with the Dead, her brilliant Empsom lectures on being a writer, it’s interesting that people who don’t write also talk about writing (or at least wanting to write) while, generally speaking, people who don’t paint or play the piano don’t talk about painting or playing the piano. She suggests, rightly I think, that this is because the raw material of writing – words – are available to everyone, so while it’s accepted that painting or piano playing require some special talent and technique that only a few people have and that take years to develop, writing presents no such obstacles. People who feel they have something to express tend to feel that writing, ahead of other art forms, is available to them as a means of expressing it, because we all know what words are and how to use them. In that sense, those eighty-six per cent of Americans who believe they have a book in them (as the adage goes) may be right.
So, I thought it would be interesting, to writers, non-writers and maybe-one-day writers, to collect here a few of the many and various insights about writing I’ve amassed over the years: closely argued and learned lectures and articles, a poem or two, some throwaway observations and one-liners, some serious and some not, some lofty and wise and some bitter and twisted. I hope you enjoy them. I’ll add new ones as I find them, and I hope you’ll comment and also contribute your own. (I’ve sought permissions as far as I can for what’s included, and acknowledge all authors with gratitude; I hope any copyright owners I didn’t manage to find will contact me direct.)
A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.
Two Poems by Billy Collins
ADVICE TO WRITERS
Even if it keeps you up all night,
wash down the walls and scrub the floor
of your study before composing a syllable.
Clean the place as if the Pope were on his way.
Spotlessness is the niece of inspiration.
The more you clean, the more brilliant
your writing will be, so do not hesitate to take
to the open fields to scour the undersides
of rocks or swab in the dark forest
upper branches, nests full of eggs.
When you find your way back home
and stow the sponges and brushes under the sink,
you will behold in the light of dawn
the immaculate altar of your desk,
a clean surface in the middle of a clean world.
From a small vase, sparkling blue, lift
a yellow pencil, the sharpest of the bouquet,
and cover pages with tiny sentences
like long rows of devoted ants
that followed you in from the woods.
My favourite time to write is in the late afternoon,
weekdays, particularly Wednesdays.
This is how I go about it:
I take a fresh pot of tea into my study and close the door.
Then I remove my clothes and leave them in a pile
as if I had melted to death and my legacy consisted of only
a white shirt, a pair of pants and a pot of cold tea.
Then I remove my flesh and hang it over a chair.
I slide it off my bones like a silken garment.
I do this so that what I write will be pure,
completely rinsed of the carnal,
uncontaminated by the preoccupations of the body.
Finally I remove each of my organs and arrange them
on a small table near the window.
I do not want to hear their ancient rhythms
when I am trying to tap out my own drumbeat.
Now I sit down at the desk, ready to begin.
I am entirely pure: nothing but a skeleton at a typewriter.
I should mention that sometimes I leave my penis on.
I find it difficult to ignore the temptation.
Then I am a skeleton with a penis at a typewriter.
In this condition I write extraordinary love poems,
most of them exploiting the connection between sex and death.
I am concentration itself: I exist in a universe
where there is nothing but sex, death, and typewriting.
After a spell of this I remove my penis too.
Then I am all skull and bones typing into the afternoon.
Just the absolute essentials, no flounces.
Now I write only about death, most classical of themes
in language light as the air between my ribs.
Afterward, I reward myself by going for a drive at sunset.
I replace my organs and slip back into my flesh
and clothes. Then I back the car out of the garage
and speed through woods on winding country roads,
passing stone walls, farmhouses, and frozen ponds,
all perfectly arranged like words in a famous sonnet.
A Reply to Billy Collins
Thank you for your advice, since when
I have washed down every wall,
the floor shining like Solomon’s palace,
and a second letter to the Pope
sits spotless on the hall table.
As there are no fields or rocks nearby
I scoured undersides of pots placed
around the garden, but the only eggs found
were on rafts of migratory ants which flew out
whenever I managed to lift any flagstone.
On returning to the house I stowed
what brushes were found under the sink.
Did it matter they were hardened white,
and the sponge a body part
collected from a skeletal coral?
At dawn - weary-eyed - I encountered
the immaculate altar of my desk,
but the only sully rising from its surface
was a stack of poems that rose like layers
of ungarnished tortilla.
From a small jug, lapis lazuli,
I took the sharpest (the only) pencil,
and wrote the tiniest sentences possible.
Mr Collins, I have been up all night
and no ant has followed me in from the wood
Jim Dodge on Writing
Jim Dodge is an American novelist and poet. As an adult he spent many years living on an almost self-sufficient commune in West Sonoma County, California. He has had many jobs including apple picker, a carpet layer, a teacher, a professional gambler, a shepherd, a woodcutter and an environmental restorer, and he has been the director of the Creative Writing program in the English Department at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California since 1995.
I think this article on writing, published in The Guardian in 2004, is truly intelligent, and intelligently true. It is also vibrant and funny and in itself a wonderful piece of writing. I re-read it on those days when I need reminding how exciting it can be to write.
Jim Dodge Goes Out of His Mind to Let the Story Tell Itself
In my lifelong quest for a firm grasp of the obvious, I've scraped together a notion about writing that so far has served me well. Writing is a collaborative act of imagination with another person (the reader), employing language as the medium of exchange. Rexroth called imagination "the organ of communion", but unlike the lungs or liver, the imagination - beyond a fusillade of neural firings and an effulgence around the cerebral hemispheres - has proved difficult to locate. I imagine it as the confluence of memory and dream, or, to put it in Jungian terms, as the dynamic interplay of the four psychic centres: the emotions, the bodily senses, the intellect, and the spirit/soul. However, as much as I admire Jung, to dwell on the centres and their interdependencies becomes an exercise in moving the furniture around in a room when my true impulse is to bust down the door and go flop outside in the spring light. My finest moments as a writer (and as a reader) have required that I literally go out of my mind, shed my sorry-assed self, and wholly enter the story I would tell - become each character; know every plant, critter, and geological process comprising the narrative's time/space location; hear every phoneme and feel every breath in each sentence; follow the ripple and resonance of each image; adopt points of view and narrative voices different from my own; sense the story's trajectory, which entails knowing the conflicts that move it, what's at stake, and what revelations and harmonies might attend closure.
Another peak of my artistic endeavours, one experienced by many writers, occurs at that mysterious point where you amass enough momentum that you stop telling the story and the story begins telling you. I heard Mel Gibson recently claim that his movie The Passion of the Christ "was directed by the Holy Ghost... I just sort of directed traffic". Although I can't claim the Holy Ghost has ever approached within hailing distance of my work, I can say that what Dylan Thomas called "the force that through the green fuse drives the flower" has occasionally hit me with a few volts, enough anyway to make me leap on my desktop and do the Watusi while weeping with jubilation. I absolutely don't mean to suggest that the secret to writing resides in simply pushing the pen till the Muses, out of pity or respect, blow you some inspiration, or that The Force requires ego loss, or dramatic self-surrender, feverish transcendence, drug wipe-out, or some sort of psychic woo-woo known only to adepts or initiates. On the contrary, what the Muses seem to favour for getting out of your mind is a concentration so ferocious and total that you seem to disappear.
While the writer has surrendered his or her imagination to the story, some part must still make, by my careful count, 257 exquisitely difficult aesthetic decisions per second about diction, usage, sonics, punctuation, and a few hundred other craft choices required for coherence, compatibility and clarity. If you have to stop to wonder whether a semicolon is called for, or if a Mountie would use the expression "Your brain is like baked, dude" in 1934, your pure concentration on the story flowing through what used to be you is shattered. To sustain imaginative engagement, especially for the months or years required for a novel, craft must be a reflex, and that only comes with years of dedicated practice, practice, practice; and dedication is meaningless without discipline, and discipline without honest desire becomes empty drill, which will eventually collapse on the weight of its own emptiness.
As Gregory Bateson has noted, "[rigour and imagination are] the two great contraries of mental process, either of which by itself is lethal. Rigour alone is paralytic death, but imagination alone is insanity." If imagination is indeed the organ of communion, and art is a collaborative act of imagination with another human being, writers would be wise to remember that communication and communion are as inextricably allied as medium and message.
It may rankle writers, but it's the saving grace of this make-believe community that we cannot be better than our best readers. Through the magic of imagination tempered by rigour and the conjuror's art of voluntary incarnation, we can extend our identities to include other humans and sentient beings, expend our compassion to care for each other, and through co-creation perhaps expand our spirits, thereby enlarging the temple.
“Save the typing, save the trees, save the high tax on your own vanity. Don't write that book, my advice is, don't even think about it. Keep it inside you, where it belongs.” Joseph Epstein
Writing is less mental and more physiological than is generally understood - decisions and calculations, matters of reason, hardly ever come into it.
It took me years to find out how true this is. When I was younger, I would come up against a difficulty in the narrative and I would beat my head against it for hours and days at a time.
Now I feel prompted to leave my desk and pick up a book; and I don't return to my desk until my legs take me there, and I find that the difficulty has been resolved.
Your unconscious does it. Your unconscious does it all.
To be an artist of any sort, one has to be stubborn, to have a very strong inner compass. It's the hardest thing and no one can teach you. You have to know yourself.
It's part of the personality of a writer to absorb the emotions of people around them whether they want to or not.