Reading: The Romance of Writing | Essay | Chicago Reader

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Reading: The Romance of Writing

Writers have no monopoly on small-mindedness or self-absorption. They do, however, have a unique means of inflicting their neuroses on the rest of humanity.


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I am haunted by a sentence in Annie Dillard's The Writing Life. Describing the single-mindedness that accompanied the creation of a book, she writes: "During that time, I let all the houseplants die." Detail of course is added: "After the book was finished I noticed them; the plants hung completely black dead in their pots in the bay windows. For I had not only let them die, I had not moved them. . . . The fanaticism of my twenties shocks me now."

I let all the houseplants die. This reminded me, in a tangential sort of way, of a newspaper interview with a San Francisco novelist that I'd read recently. She had just divorced her husband, and spoke of the relief afforded by not being expected to sit down regularly at the dinner table at seven; the creative juices just might still be gushing after seven, and then where would she be? Better novel au jus than beef au jus.

Let me tell you a secret. I know business executives who would be much happier burning the midnight oil than going home to dinner with their loved ones. I know lawyers who would gladly, till their eyes started going blind on them, follow the Muse of Briefs into the wee-small zircon hours of the morning. I know computer programmers who could happily let plants and marriages alike die--in fact they do, all the time--in pursuit of the perfect program. Self-aggrandizing romantic mythmaking to the contrary, writers aren't the only people in town all wrapped up in themselves, with a monopoly on self-importance, on small-mindedness, on lack of civility, on a form of alienation like a low-grade infection that only those around them notice. But something else. I let all the houseplants die is not merely a perpetuation of the mystification of writing, of the creativity racket, but also, oddly, a degradation of that mystification. I let all the houseplants die is not, pace Dillard, "fanaticism." I let my ten house cats die is fanaticism. I put six bullets in my husband's skull, behind his left ear, because the son of a bitch turned the stereo on while I was going to the mat with that goddamn sentence for the hundredth time is fanaticism. I neglected eating and sleeping until like a mad monk subsisting on ergot on a rock island off Galway I started hallucinating is fanaticism. But I let all the houseplants die is merely bad faith.

Dillard's slim book has made the best-seller lists. Which does not, I think, bode well for the land. I am not sure whether her book appeals more to writers or would-be writers or merely curious readers and admirers of earlier Dillard books--and I am one--such as Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and An American Childhood. To be sure, much of the book is beautifully written. Dillard is a woman who loves the language, who crafts her sentences painstakingly, for their cadenced and assonant effects. Much more worthy than that houseplant business is her description of going to the library one Fourth of July night. She becomes absorbed in her writing until a noise distracts her.

"Now a June bug was knocking at my window. I was wrestling inside a sentence. I must have heard it a dozen times before it registered--before I noticed that I had been hearing a bug knock for half an hour. It made a hollow, bonking sound. Some people call the same fumbling, heavy insects 'May beetles.' It must have been attracted to my light--what little came between the slats of the blind. I dislike June bugs. Back to work. Knock again, knock again, and finally, to learn what monster of a fat, brown June bug could fly up to a second story and thump so insistently at my window as though it wanted admittance--at last, unthinkingly, I parted the venetian blind slats with my fingers, to look out.

"And there were the fireworks, far away. It was the Fourth of July. I had forgotten . . . all of wide space and all of historical time. I opened the blinds a crack like eyelids, and it all came exploding in on me at once--oh yes, the world."

She can also be interestingly, startlingly contrary--possibly the most useful way to be when it comes to shaking up the complacent reader. She writes: "The reason to perfect a piece of prose as it progresses--to secure each sentence before building on it--is that original writing fashions a form. It unrolls out into nothingness. It grows cell to cell, bole to bough to twig to leaf; any careful word may suggest a route, may begin a strand of metaphor or event out of which much, or all, will develop." Then she turns right around and tosses out: "The reason not to perfect a work as it progresses is that, concomitantly, original work fashions a form the true shape of which it discovers only as it proceeds, so the early strokes are useless, however fine their sheen. Only when a paragraph's role in the context of the whole work is clear can the envisioning writer direct its complexity of detail to strengthen the work's ends." That is good stuff--because it doesn't tell you what to do, it doesn't let you off the hook, but rather it teases, it tantalizes, it lures you up a road of treacherous switchbacks and dead ends.

Dillard can also be smugly, blithely annoying. "Appealing workplaces are to be avoided," she writes authoritatively in one chapter, then in another describes how most of one book was written in two cabins on beaches on wooded islands "in northern Puget Sound, Washington state, across the water from Canadian islands"--one of the most beautiful spots in all North America--and another book, the present one, in "a pine shed on Cape Cod." I am not sure what her definition of "appealing" is, whether she dispenses advice she herself consciously eschews, or whether the fact that she places her desk against a wall rather than a window--whose breeze would blow the papers right off the desk anyway--makes these workplaces in her estimation less appealing. I can only guess.

But it is, finally, the mysticism of the book that is so grating, so damn irritating, that elevation of writing to the level of mystical endeavor. Various high-flying metaphors for writing are sprinkled generously throughout the book: Wile E. Coyote continuing to run "for several yards beyond the edge of a cliff, until he notices." Or the Algonquin woman stranded in the Arctic with her child and a fishhook, who cuts a strip from her thigh for bait (this is on par with that dramatic fellow who said writing is simple: you sit down at a desk and open a vein). Or the writer as lion tamer entering his den "with bravura, holding a chair at the thing and shouting 'Simba!'"

This kind of magniloquence, so seductive if you don't catch it early, can magic into a malignancy. I much prefer--but here is George Goethals, a classmate of Norman Mailer's at Harvard, recalling Mailer for a biographer: "He was incredibly self-disciplined, but I never knew a more unenchanted writer in the making. To him it was work. He used to say, 'George, this business of inspiration is shit.' He would take a theme and sculpt it five or six different ways. He was going to be a writer, dammit." Unenchanted! That's the ticket.

A more companionable, even practical book for the working writer is The Writer's Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice From the 20th Century's Preeminent Writers. Hundreds of quotes have been culled by editor George Plimpton from Paris Review interviews, then grouped under various headings. Part one, for instance, is called "The Writer: A Profile," and includes subheadings such as "On Reading," "On Motivation: Why I Write," "On Work Habits," and "On the Audience." Under any one heading you will find gathered, one after another, writers as various as Robert Penn Warren, John Updike, Frank O'Connor, Jean Rhys, Philip Roth, Philip Larkin, Aldous Huxley, Faulkner, Hemingway, Celine, Francine du Plessix Gray, and Joan Didion offering contrary, impractical, useful, soothing, irritating, lucid, maddening advice on one and the same matter.

If you are having trouble with a character in a story you are working on, or if a bit of dialogue is giving you back talk, you can turn to the appropriate section. And if one writer's nitroglycerine sentences don't blow up the roadblock before you, don't jolt you from your motor paralysis, then the next one's will, and you can push on.

Quotes from different writers often collide hilariously. Under "On Artificial Stimulants," we find Allen Ginsberg ecstatically describing a hallucinatory experience. Three pages later, Andrei Voznesensky is raging against Ginsberg for giving him a hallucinogenic that caused Voznesensky to spend "most of the day in a blackout," culminating in a reading he gave at town hall where he didn't know what he was saying or doing. W.H. Auden says, "LSD? Nothing much happened, but I did get the distinct impression that some birds were trying to communicate with me." More helpfully perhaps, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, that strongest and most romantic of writers, says: "To be a good writer you have to be absolutely lucid at every moment of writing and in good health. I'm very much against the romantic concept of writing which maintains that the act of writing is a sacrifice and that the worse the economic conditions or the emotional state, the better the writing. I think you have to be in a very good emotional and physical state."

So if you're bothered by the pushy, piddling romanticism of I let all the houseplants die, you can always turn to the section in this book "On Work Habits," and fish around for a restorative. Here is Nadine Gordimer: "I can't understand writers who feel they shouldn't have to do any of the ordinary things of life, because I think that this is necessary; one has got to keep in touch with that. The solitude of writing is also quite frightening. It's quite close sometimes to madness, one just disappears for a day and loses touch. The ordinary action of . . . spraying some plants infected with greenfly is a very sane and good thing to do. It brings one back, so to speak. It also brings the world back."

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard, Harper & Row, $15.95.

The Writer's Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice From the 20th Century's Preeminent Writers edited by George Plimpton, Viking, $19.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Peter Hannan.

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