THE ACT OF WRITING
What goes on in your mind
It helps to explain the creative process, if only to illustrate the duality of mind required to be able to write: the Jekyll and Hyde of intuition and sharp analysis. I will concentrate on the intuitive side first. ‘All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath,’ wrote Fitzgerald. The grave robbing of your work (i.e. the editing) can come later.
I am a strong advocate of writing intuitively, of what is called automatic writing. Too much preplanning can petrify the writer and make him or her word-shy. Just because intuitive writing puts the conscious mind into low gear doesn’t mean it is not a product of profound thought.
T.S. Eliot compares automatic writing to laying an egg:
‘What one writes in this way may succeed in standing the examination of a more normal state of mind; it gives me the impression ... of having undergone a long incubation, though we do not know till the shell breaks what kind of egg we have been sitting on. To me it seems that at these moments, which are characterised by the sudden lifting of the burden of anxiety and fear which presses upon our daily life so steadily that we are unaware of it, what happens is something negative: that is to say, not ‘inspiration’ as we commonly think of it, but the breaking down of strong habitual barriers – which tend to reform very quickly. Some obstruction is momentarily whisked away. The accompanying feeling is less like what we know as positive pleasure, than as a sudden relief from an intolerable burden.’
But what to do if the ability to slip into this creative unconscious world does not come naturally? Dorothea Brande in her book On Becoming a Writer gives advice such as practicing daydreaming, and getting up earlier in the morning and writing before you’ve fully woken up.
Or you could always take to drink. Dylan Thomas, Willliam Faulkner, Raymond Chandler and Dorothy Parker did. Or take to opium, like Coleridge. Or romantic love like Emily Bronte. Or Irish politics like Yeats. There’s nothing like an addiction of any form – whether to a drug, a belief or a passion – to loosen the inhibitions. Although it could be argued that writers need to alter their state of consciousness not to write, but because their touch-sensitive states of mind can’t tolerate reality.
What goes on in your heart ...
... involves another duality: the necessity of having to write from a position of vulnerability, even naïveté, but to retain, at heart, a certain objective iciness. You can’t fight against the exciting tensions in writing between emotion and an absolute rejection of it.
As TS Eliot wrote:
‘Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not an expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.’
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery
William Faulkner exclaimed:
‘Read, read, read. Read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you’ll find out. If it is not, throw it out the window.’
I started out by imitating the writers I loved. The space in which your imitation will fail is the space in which you’ll find your original voice.
A matter of style
What is style? The style of words, the style of structure? How can you say one style is superior to another, when you have Joyce, Austen or Melville to choose from? Is the formal accomplishment of an Emma more impressive than the rambling anarchic genius of a Moby Dick? I mean, it has a list of whales in it. Does that make it a loose and baggy monster? Style, in the end, is not about avoiding purple prose (look at DH Lawrence or Angela Carter) or writing with clear sentence structure (look at Henry James or James Kelman) but about the expression of the individual voice.
Style comes down to, comes out of, the integrity, the thoughtfulness, the passion of the writing. It can’t be imposed on an idea, afterwards. Style isn’t form for form’s sake – that would be pretentious.
Scott Fitzgerald writes:
‘Let me preach again for a moment. I mean that what you have felt and thought will by itself invent a new style, so that when people talk about style, they are always a little astonished at the newness of it, because they think that it is only style that they are talking about when style is the attempt to express a new idea with such force that it will have the originality of the thought.’
For Joan Didion, style is the accurate imagining of the picture she has in her head. Original thought, picture – they all come down to the same thing in the end.
‘All I know about grammar is its infinite power. To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed. Many people know about camera angles now, but not so many know about sentences. The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind. The picture dictates the arrangement. The picture dictates whether this will be a sentence with or without clauses, a sentence that ends hard or a dying-fall sentence, long or short, active or passive. The picture tells you how to arrange the words and the arrangement of the words tells you, or tells me, what’s going on in the picture. Nota bene: it tells you. You don’t tell it.’
Being realistic is not what it first appears. Writers are exhorted to get real. But what is real? Sometimes science fiction can ring more true than present fact. And as for that recurring refrain of realistic characterisation in all the best handbooks ...
Human behaviour isn’t necessarily consistent; even more worryingly, men and women can act out of character. Lawrence writes: ‘You mustn’t look in my novel for the old stable ego of the character. Again I say, don’t look for the development of the novel to follow the lines of certain characters: the characters fall into the form of some other rhythmic form, as when one draws a fiddle-bow across a fine tray delicately sanded, the sand takes lines unknown.
Virginia Woolf dismisses the idea of conventional realism in relation to plot as well as characterisation.
‘Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions – trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms, and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance came not here but there; so that, if a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted sense, and perhaps not a single button sewn on as the Bond Street tailors would have it. Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display.’
Everything in a novel must be relevant to everything else. Reading detective stories is good training for the importance of an interior logic to the structure and content of the novel. Elizabeth Bowen believed that the teaching of the value of relevance is the only advice that can be given to an aspiring writer.
‘The most striking fault in work by young or beginning novelists, submitted for criticism, is irrelevance – due either to infatuation or indecision. To direct such authors’ attention to the imperative of relevance is certainly the most useful – and possibly the only – help that can be given.’
Your point of view
Sometimes you come to a novel knowing in what person it is going to be written. Sometimes you realise only halfway through writing it in the first person that it was meant to be in third. James writes, half-admiringly, of the first person’s ‘terrible fluidity of self-revelation’. But he is also master of the indirect consciousness of the third person because of that ‘magnificent and masterly indirectness which means the only dramatic straightness and intensity.’
Having written the whole first draft intuitively and automatically, it’s in the second, third and fourth drafts that the style, the details of word order and rhythm manifest themselves. The structure takes a more specific shape, as if the form of a figure is being chipped out of ice. Revising is more like sculpturing than writing. Scenes that were perhaps underwritten are fleshed out and scenes that are not strictly relevant – this makes them of course utterly redundant – are cut out. There is for me a distinct pleasure in the process of revising and editing. The bones of the work are there – I no longer have to panic at having nothing to say – and it’s just a case of grave-robbing the best bits and burying the rest. It’s hard graft, too.
So what do you think?
Other people’s opinions are never as important as your own. They may help, especially at the beginning. It may even be worth listening to them. But in the end the buck stops with you.
Rilke writes, in Letters to a Young Poet:
‘I would finally just like to advise you to grow through your development quietly and seriously; you can interrupt it in no more violent manner than by looking outwards, and expecting answers from outside to questions which perhaps only your innermost feeling in your silent hour can answer.’
Jean Cocteau goes a step further:
‘Listen carefully to first criticisms of your work. Note just what it is about your work that the critics don’t like – then cultivate it. That’s the part of your work that’s individual and worth keeping.’
Of course, if you’re wanting outside criticism, be careful who you ask. You might not get a straight answer. Groucho Marx told S.J. Pereleman:
‘From the moment I picked your book up till I laid it down I was convulsed with laughter. Someday I intend reading it.’
You can’t make rules for writing. Quite simply, because most of our greatest writers have always broken them. Writing involves unnerving things like the unconscious, the imagination, a sensibility and a kind of intelligence. The imagination doesn’t operate within pigeon holes, doesn’t have a specific sense of order. Writers play poker with wild cards. The only rule is that there are no rules. As Conrad wrote:
‘Liberty of Imagination should be the most precious possession of a novelist. To try voluntarily to discover the fettering dogmas of some romantic, realistic or naturalistic creed in the free work of its own inspiration, is a trick worthy of human perverseness.’
Rules can be made, however, for the comportment of writers. Wesley Price has three:
‘Never make excuses, never let them see you bleed, and never get separated from your baggage.’
So how do you know when you’re finished writing a book?
A young writer, slaving away at her first novel, was introduced at a party to a publisher. She buttonholed him. ‘Tell me, what is the length of the average novel?’ she asked. To which he replied, offhand, ‘Oh, about 70,000 words.’ ‘Thank God,’ she cried. ‘I’ve finished.’