Kathryn Harrison on Why She Writes

kathryn harrisonFor colossus of modernism James Joyce, writing in English was the “most ingenious torture
ever devised.”  For Kurt Vonnegut, it was a heartbreaking reminder of the difficulty of articulating himself: “When I write,” he confessed, “I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.”  Hunter S. Thompson also humorously  described the torment of putting pen to page: “Writing is the flip side of sex— it’s good only when it’s over.”  Those of us who’ve stared down the blank page know to write is to battle your inner saboteur:  

Who do you think you are?  What makes you think you have something worthwhile to say?”  

“Really…that’s your topic?  All your ideas are hackneyed and tired.  Millions of people have already written the same thing and have written it better.”

“Nothing you do will ever be intelligent/funny/original enough.”  

If you write, you invite your most merciless demons to your desk day after day.  Sometimes writing even a single sentence is beset with debilitating self-doubt.  Yes, there are days of creative rapture, blissful moments when writing is a mystical convening with the muse but they are few.  Most days writing is work: rather than scribble in a fit of ecstatic revelation, we combat one line after another.  No matter how hard we try to quell their rebellion, our sentences continue to mutiny.  More often than not, the act of expressing ourselves requires excruciating effort: instead of feel seized by a divine power, ideas pouring forth from some otherworldly plane, we experience each sentence, each word as a struggle.  At times, writing a meager one hundred words is a trudge up a steep hill. 

So why, when writing is such a demoralizing profession, do novelists and essayists, poets and playwrights, willingly put pen to page?  In her timeless essay “Why I Write,” originally published in the December 1976 New York Times Book Review, Joan Didion, patron saint of mythic 1960s LA, observed, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.  What I want and what I fear.”  When distinguished author and National Book Critics Circle member Meredith Maran posed this perennial question to twenty of our era’s most acclaimed authors in her indispensable collection Why I Write, the answers were as assorted as the authors.  Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jennifer Egan remarked she writes “because when I’m writing…I feel as if I’ve been transported outside myself.”  New Yorker contributor Susan Orlean responded in characteristically beautiful, understated prose, “I write because I love learning about the world.”  Fearless poet and memoirist Mary Karr replied she wrote “to connect with other human beings; to record; to clarify; to visit the dead” while controversial bad boy James Frey wisecracked he wrote because he “wasn’t really qualified to do much else.”  

One of the most insightful responses came from Kathryn Harrison, writer of haunting, hypnotic beauty whose memoir The Kiss shocked audiences around the world.  When first published in 1998, the deeply disturbing account of her incestous affair with her father was both lauded and scorned: while novelist Tobias Wolff argued Harrison redeemed her dark subject matter with the “steadiness of her gaze” and the “uncanny, heartbreaking exactitude of her language,” Wall Street Journal critic Cynthia Crossen admonished her to “hush up.”  Thankfully, Harrison ignored her detractors.  A woman of remarkable candor, today she continues to turn an unflinching eye toward the taboo.  But what, exactly, motivates her to write— especially when speaking the unspeakable has historically made her the target of vehement vitriol?  Like many overachievers whose obsession with success conceals deep-seated feelings of inferiority, Harrison hoped writing would finally be an accomplishment impressive enough to win her mother’s approval:

“I write because it’s the only thing I know that offers the hope of proving myself worthy of love.  It has everything to do with my relationship with my mother.  I spent my childhood in an attempt to remake myself into a girl she would love, and I’ve translated that into the process of writing— not intentionally, but just as I was always looking beyond my present incarnation toward the one that would woo my mother’s attention, I’m always looking toward to book that hasn’t come out yet: the one that will reveal me worthy of love.  

[…]

When it’s great, writing can be ecstatic.  Even when it’s just hard, it’s always involving.  The moments that are sublime— I get just enough of them that I don’t lose hope of being given another— are only so because for that moment, when even as little as a sentence seems exactly right, before the feeling fades, it offers what I think it must feel like to be worthy of love.  I want praise of course; it’s a cousin of love.  But equally important to me is a bit of evidence, here and there, that a reader got it, saw what I’d hoped to reveal.”

When pondering why she writes, Harrison notes writing is a meaning-making machine, a consoling way for her to comprehend what at first seems unfathomable:

“I write, also, because it’s the apparatus I have for explaining the world around me, seemingly the only method that works.  By the time I was in high school I’d discovered that the process of hammering text on the page— being able to articulate things, to get them right— offered not only consolation but a place I could live inside.”

The taoists called it “wu wei,” or doing without doing.  Today, we know it more informally as being “in the zone.”  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, father of the optimal psychology movement, officially named this transcendent state of complete absorption “flow.”  To experience such an elevated state of consciousness, explains poet of resplendent prose Diane Ackerman, is to be transfixed in a “waking trance.”  When artists throughout the ages have compared creating to being a vessel, they were describing this psychological process.  For Harrison, writing is a portal to this euphoric, almost otherworldly state of being, a magical place where she can both erase and affirm her identity:

One thing I love about writing is that in that moment, I am most completely myself, and yet totally relieved of my self.  I don’t really like spending that much time with myself when I’m not writing, but when I’m in that strange paradox of being most and least myself, I can be transcendently happy, rapturous.  Those moments are rare— I’m doing well if it’s two percent of the time— but memorable, like a drug you have to get back to.”

In a moment equal parts tough love and practical no-nonsense, Harrison concludes by dispelling the long enduring myth of the suffering artist.  Though we sentimentalize the image of the artist as a tormented drunk, Ms. Harrison, a graduate of the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop, maintains the most productive writers are actually sane, happy and healthy— not irreparably fucked up.  A real writer doesn’t harbor romantic notions about his profession (“Writing is hard…coal mining is harder.  Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine coal?  They do not.  They simply dig,” Cheryl Strayed counseled with hard-earned wisdom in her advice column Dear Sugar) nor does he wait around for the mercurial muse to whisper a masterpiece into his ear—he treats writing just like any other job.  In other words, he shows up:

“Writing is a job.  If you’re going to do a job, you’re going to do it everyday.  You’re going to get enough sleep, and not fall into dissolute habits.  I never had a romantic idea about writing.  In grad school other people would spend the evening drinking, then tear home to write something at three in the morning, thinking the work would be exceptional because of the exceptional circumstances under which it had been produced.  You don’t write by sitting in a garret thinking the muse might arise under some particular circumstances.”

Jennifer Egan on Writing as a Magical Mode of Time Travel & the Dark Side of Success

jennifer eganGeorge Orwell once said writing a book was a “horrible exhausting struggle.”  Oscar Wilde, who had more of a dandy’s flair for the dramatic, compared the artist’s life to a “long, lovely suicide.”  Artists throughout the ages have romanticized their demons, believing torment a requisite component of the creative process.  “If my devils were to leave me,” luminous German poet Rainer Maria Rilke worried, “I’m afraid my angels would take flight as well.”  To create- we’ve been told- is to suffer.  Artists are dark and brooding, too temperamental to forge intimate human bonds, too promiscuous to be faithful lovers.  They’re deplorable drunks who most often meet their demise drowning in their own vomit or passing out in gutters.  They put their heads in ovens and chop off their own ears.  We glamorize these notions of the tormented artist as if it were somehow noble to be so desperately dysfunctional.  But being an artist doesn’t mean being miserable.  Despite our cultural fascination with the figure of the suffering artist, when asked why she writes in the altogether lovely collection Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jennifer Egan- like many of her fellow scribes- speaks with an ecstatic, almost rapturous love for her craft.  In response to the titular question, she replies she writes for the bliss of being transported to another world.  For her, writing is an act of enchantment, a magical mode of time travel in which she can live countless other lives without leaving her home:

When I’m writing, especially if it’s going well, I’m living in two different dimensions: this life I’m living now, which I enjoy very much, and this completely other world I’m inhabiting that no one else knows about.  I don’t think my husband can tell.  It’s a double life I get to live without destroying my marriage.  And it’s heaven.”

After winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2011 for her tour de force A Visit From the Goon Squad, Egan ascended to the utmost heights of literary superstardom.  While securing such a prestigious prize might have assured others of their own genius, Ms. Egan didn’t let the applause go to her head.  Because she had served on judges panels herself, she had the insight to understand that luck had played a vital role in her success.  A Pulitzer didn’t designate her the voice of a generation or prove her superior literary talents.  If anything, all it proved was that A Visit From the Goon Squad had tapped into the zeitgeist— it had simply been the right book at the right time.  Though in the modern meritocracy we tend to conflate winning with being the best, Egan knows “making it” has less to do with a work’s objective quality than with subjective taste.  Whether you earn a critic’s commendation or a critic’s scorn, whether you garner illustrious prizes and rise to literary acclaim or toil away in bitterness and anonymity is largely a matter of chance:

In one hundred years, if humans still exist, and if anyone remembers the name Jennifer Egan, they’ll decide whether I deserve the Pulitzer or not. The question doesn’t preoccupy me. I’ve judged a major prize and I know how it works. It all comes down to taste and, therefore, luck. If you happen to be in the final few, it’s because you’re lucky enough to have written something that appeals to those particular judges’ tastes.

I think my book is strong, and I know I did a good job. I also know it could have been better. There are plenty of books out there that are also good, and those writers could also have had the luck I had. Deserving only gets you so far. Winning a prize like that has a lot to do with cultural forces; with appetites at work in the culture.”

Though most aspiring young writers look longingly to the day they’ll arrive at the dazzling peaks of literary fame (not to mention probably sell their grandmother’s kidney to receive an honor as impressive as a Pulitzer), Egan speaks ambivalently about her newfound success: while on one hand, she’s grateful to have written a book so universally beloved, she— like novelists throughout time misfortunate enough to compose a massive bestseller— is tormented by the more than likely possibility she’ll never write such a popular book again.  Whatever she writes next will be compared to Goon Squad and inevitably be found less than.  When a “writer” is transfigured into an “author” and a “person” transmutes into a “persona,” writing is no longer a private act of creation undertaken for the sheer transcendent joy of putting one word against another— it’s a public act debased with worries of how we’ll be perceived by others.  Will the next book sell as many copies?  win as much praise?  Hurled into the limelight by the Goon Squad’s blockbuster success, Egan finds herself battling these voices more than ever.  Like many featured in Why We Write, she seems to yearn for the days before she was published, a time when she was not yet beholden to publishing houses or the public, a time when she wrote for no one but herself.  In order to maintain our integrity as artists and safeguard the playful exuberance of writing from the commodifying forces of the market, Egan suggests, we must not write for approval but for the joy of writing itself:

The attention and approval I’ve been getting for Goon Squad– the very public moments of winning the Pulitzer and the other prizes- is exactly the opposite of the very private pleasure of writing.  And it’s dangerous.  Thinking that I’ll get this kind of love again, that getting it should be the goal, would lead me to creative decisions that would undermine me and my work.  I’ve never sought that approval, which is all the more reason that I don’t want to start now.

I’m curious to find out what influence this will have on my writing.  I won’t know until I start another book.  A scenario I could easily envision is the following: I start the book, feel it’s not going well, and start to freak.  My rational side says, “Let’s get one thing straight.  You’re going to hate the next one.  The whole world’s going to hate the next one.”  I have no idea why this one got so much love.

But part of me thinks, they liked my last book.  Hurray.  Now we move on.  The moving on will undoubtedly involve massive disappointment on the part of others.  It never happens this way twice.  In a way, I find that sort of freeing.  My whole creative endeavor is the repudiation of my last work with the new one.  If I start craving approval, trying to replicate what I did with Goon Squad, it’s never going to lead to anything good.  I know that.  Stop getting better?  There’s no excuse for that.”

Mary Gaitskill on How Books Help Us Penetrate Outward Personas & See the Person Beneath the Exterior

“Some books are toolkits you take up to fix things,” remarked Rebecca Solnit, “from the most mary gaitskill - Version 2practical to the most mysterious, from your house to your heart, or to make things, from cakes to ships.  Some books are wings.  Some are horses that run away with you.  Some are parties to which you are invited, full of friends who are there even when you have no friends…Some books are medicine, bitter but clarifying.  Some books are puzzles, mazes, tangles, jungles.  Some long books are journeys, and at the end you are not the same person you were at the beginning.”  For Eudora Welty, the miracle of books was their ability to liberate us from the limitations of our own personality: “a reader lives a thousand lives before he dies,” she said, but “the man who never reads lives only one.”  Whereas for Joyce Carol Oates, reading was the sole means by which we could slip into “another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.”

The humanizing power of books to infiltrate the ordinarily impenetrable barrier between “us” and “them” is what Mary Gaitskill ponders in her lovely essay “I Don’t Know Anymore,” one of forty six stunning pieces that compose Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process.  Complied of the best essays from the Atlantic’s much-beloved “By Heart” column, Light the Dark asks literature’s leading lights one question: what inspires you?   They then choose a passage that was formative to their development as writers.  The result?  A delightful trove of wisdom from authors as diverse as Aimee Bender, Sherman Alexie, Stephen King, Khaled Hosseini, Andre Dubus III, Hanya Yanagihara, and Elizabeth Gilbert.  As reassuring as good conversation and a cup of coffee, Light the Dark offers insight and inspiration not only to aspiring writers but to anyone who’s been enthralled by the imaginary world of books.  

When asked what inspires her, Gaitskill chose a passage from Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece Anna Karenina.  Anna, a passionate, sophisticated woman, has just left her husband Karenin for another man.  After getting deathly ill, she writes to Karenin begging for his forgiveness.  At the height of her fever, she confesses to him, “There is another woman in me, I’m afraid of her— she fell in love with that man, and I wanted to hate you and couldn’t forget the other one who was there before.  The one who is not me.  Now I’m real, I’m whole.”  For Gaitskill, what’s remarkable about this exchange is how both Anna and Karenin behave in way that’s totally out of character:

“Anna’s speaking about the decisions she’s made in the third person— as if the person who betrayed Karenin was a stranger.  And she does seem to be transformed here, as though she’s become a different person.  I was so surprised by that.  I think of it as a very modern insight, Tolstoy’s idea that there may be two, or more, different people inside of us.  

And it’s not just Anna.  As his wife tells him she loves him, begging his forgiveness, Karenin transforms, too.  The man we’d thought could never be anything but stiff and dull turns out to have this entirely different side to him.”  

Though this moment gives us hope for the estranged couple, their reconciliation doesn’t endure: Anna never talks about the “other woman” inside her again.  So which, Gaitskill wonders, is “the real Anna, and which is the real Karenin: the people they are at the tender bedside moment, or the people they become afterward?”  Tolstoy never offers a definitive answer.  Perhaps the regretful Anna who displays remorse for her wrongdoings, Gaitskill speculates, is the “truer part of herself.”  Perhaps death has a way of dispelling the falsehoods we tell.  Who knows?  

What’s genius about Anna Karenina is the way it probes the complexities of the self.  Like all great characters, Anna and Karenin reveal man is as multi-dimensional as a Russian nesting doll: he projects an outward public persona that conceals countless other selves.  Rather than confine his characters to shallow and superficial categories, Tolstoy agrees with champion of the human spirit and paradox-embracing poet Walt Whitman’s belief that man is “large and contains multitudes.”  Anna is both the unfaithful wife and the repentant cheater just as Karenin is both a spiteful husband betrayed and a man willing to forgive her.  By granting us access to a character’s inner self, a self often at odds with the facade he presents to the world, books remind us every person has an interior life we’re not privy to.  Like us, others suffer from fear and insecurity.  And like us, others possess yearnings so intense they don’t dare be uttered.  Literature’s humanizing power lies in its ability to bridge this seemingly unbridgeable abyss between self and other.  As Gaitskill concludes, “the truest parts of people can be buried”— we must be more empathetic and largehearted toward each other.