Khaled Hosseini on the Limitations of Language & the Disheartening Difficulty of Truly Expressing Ourselves

No urge is more human than the urge to express ourselves.uSAIvyK3_400x400 - Version 2  We are hardwired to tell stories: our first stories appeared in the form of magnificent cave paintings tens of thousands of years ago.  The ancient Greeks told epic stories to memorialize great heroes; Native Americans told stories to explain the origins of the world.  Today we tell stories on front porches and bus stops, in newspapers and on national public radio.  We tell stories even when we’re condemned to solitude: prisoners wait to hear the jingle of keys disappear down the hall before passing notes between their cells; sailors lost at sea send messages in bottles hoping to one day be found.  More than love and be loved, humans want one thing: to be seen and be heard.

Language is how we accomplish the extraordinary feat of understanding and being understood.  When we impose order on the clutter of our thoughts, when we fit nebulous notions into clearly defined semantic categories and arrange them in comprehensible sentence structures, we can reveal the hidden depths of our souls.  Words make it possible to bridge the gap between ourselves and other people.  Without words, we’d be like Marin County and San Francisco, within sight of each other but eternally alone.

Sadly, it’s not always possible to cross the uncrossable distance between people.  The most profound experiences are beyond words.  How can words ever communicate the colossal grief of losing our mother?  the unbearable void left after we broke up with our boyfriend of ten years?  Not only are the difficult things hard to describe, the beautiful things are as well.  The simple pleasure of waking up on a frost-bitten morning to find our lover still warm wrapped in our arms, the enormous relief we feel when—after missing for a few hours— our lost dog returns home.  Joy and bliss, catastrophe and crisis: all are ineffable.

In his lovely essay in Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, novelist Khaled Hosseini ponders the many limitations of language.  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 treasury of wisdom from authors as diverse as Mary Gaitskill, Maggie Shipstead, Marilynne Robinson, Andre Dubus III, and Elizabeth Gilbert.

For his passage, Hosseini chose the opening line of Stephen King’s “The Body,” a coming-of-age story that is perhaps more recognizable as its classic 80s movie adaptation “Stand By Me.”  In the passage, the protagonist, Gordie LaChance has a distressing epiphany: the most important things are the hardest to say.  The tragic irony of being able to speak, he realizes, is the things we most need to express our beyond our capacities:

“The most important things are the hardest to say.  They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them— words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out.”

For Hosseini, the opening lines of “The Body” remind us no matter how fundamental our need to understand and be understood, we can never be completely seen or completely heard.  Why?  Because there will always be a rift between what we want to say and our actual words.  Ultimately, man is as multi-dimensional as a Russian nesting doll: he says one thing but means another, he projects an outward persona but conceals his inner self. 

“All the world’s a stage and all the men and women are merely players,” Shakespeare once wrote.  To function in society, we must confine ourselves to our appropriate role: subservient suburban housewife, corporate CEO.  The problem?  A part is a performance— it’s not our real self.  A woman might play the part of shallow housewife when she gossips over mimosas at Sunday brunch, but— behind her Botox-enhanced lips and designer Louie Vuitton — be able to hold a spirited discussion on existentialist philosophy and recite T.S. Eliot by heart.  Similarly, a frat boy might spend his weekends displaying his machismo in bar fights but reveal a more tender, sensitive side when he’s away from the aggressive masculinity of the frat house with a girl he loves.  Reflecting on his first encounter with Stephen King’s opening lines, Hosseini recalls: 

“When I first read those lines I was twenty— not a teenager anymore, but certainly a young man.  At that age, especially, you feel like the world doesn’t get you— if only people could look inside you and see all you carry inside!  This passage is an expression of how alone we are, really.  How fully we live inside our minds, that the person who walks down the street and shakes hands is only an approximation of the self inside.  The personas we inhabit publicly are merely approximations of who we are internally— shrunken, distorted versions of ourselves that we present to the real world.  This is because the things that are most important to us, that are really vital to us, are perversely the most difficult to express.”

Just as our oversimplified exterior selves can never capture the interior complexities of who we are, what we write never quite expresses what we wanted to say— our words stumble short of our ideas.  The painter who tries to reproduce the surreal midnight blue of a starry sky, the novelist who attempts to articulate the inexpressible yearnings of the heart: anyone who calls himself an artist knows the exquisite torment of expressing oneself.  The artist is a dauntless explorer who sets out on the expansive sea of the blank page to discover new worlds.  The problem?  Much like Columbus, we intend to go to one place but often end up on the other side of the globe.

There will always be a gap between what we envision and what we execute.  The painter’s cheerful shade of blue won’t quite capture the mysterious wonderment of that surreal summer sky; the novelist’s heartbreaking scene between estranged lovers won’t ring true.  So what are we aspiring artists supposed to do?  Zadie Smith advised we resign ourselves to the “lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.”  The witty Michael Childress put it another way: accept that “a book is best before you’ve written a word.”

Hearing this advice, you might wonder: if we’re inevitably going to be disappointed with what we create, why write at all?  Isn’t it a cruel form of masochism to try to accomplish what we prove— time and time again— cannot be done?  To write, in the words of Bill Bryson, is to “come to terms with the dispiriting discovery that there is always more hill.”  Though the summit continually retreats by whatever distance we press forward, still we stagger on…what else can we do?  Most writers would say they write— not to arrive at the top of the mountain— but for the thrill of trying to get to the top.  Though writing involves discouragement and disappointment, Hosseini affirms it’s ultimately a joyous, humbling experience:

“This passage is one of the truest statements I’ve encountered about the nature of authorship.  You write because you have an idea in your mind that feels so genuine, so important, so true.  And yet, by the time this idea passes through different filters in your mind, and into your hand, and onto the page or computer screen— it becomes distorted, and it’s been diminished.  The writing you end up with is an approximation, if you’re lucky, of whatever it was you really wanted to say.  

When this happens, it’s quite a sobering reminder of your limitations as a writer.  It can be extremely frustrating.  When I’m writing, a thought will occasionally pass unblemished, unperturbed, through my head onto the screen— clearly, like through a glass.  It’s an intoxicating, euphoric sensation to feel that I’ve communicated something so real, and so true.  But that doesn’t happen often.

[…]  

Even my finished books are an approximation of what I intended to do.  I try to narrow the gap, as much as I possibly can, between what I wanted to say and what’s actually on the page.  But there’s still a gap, there always is.  It’s very, very difficult.  And it’s humbling.”

I once read that words are the instruction manual for reassembling our ideas.  As writers, our job is to outline our thoughts so clearly that our readers can reconstruct them for themselves.  If we don’t arrange our points in a logical fashion or use signposts to signal a shift in ideas, they’ll be like the unfortunate soul who tries to assemble an IKEA coffee table without the instructions— they’ll struggle to connect the parts of our argument into a coherent, comprehensible whole.  The result?  They’ll end up— not with a functional table— but a wobbly three-legged nightmare. 

This analogy attests to the difficulty of ever truly communicating with someone.  Transmitting a message to another requires reasoning abilities far more advanced than those required of a whale’s song or bird’s squawk.  Yet no matter how eloquent or sharp-witted we are, our capacity to express ourselves will falter.  Why?  Because not only are we imperfect writers, our audience is composed of imperfect readers— they can always misunderstand us.  As Gordie so poignantly observes, 

“…you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it.  That’s the worst, I think.  When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller but for want of an understanding ear.”

And isn’t that what so often happens?  We so fear being misunderstood that we safeguard the gems of who we genuinely are in the vault of our hearts.  Think about love.  Perhaps we’ve been dating someone casually for a few months and our initial seeds of infatuation are beginning to blossom into love.  Do we confess our feelings?  Of course not.  What if they think we’re needy/clingy/psycho?  What if dating as an adult is just as infantile as having a crush on the playground?  What if the moment our schoolyard crush knows the depths of our feelings, he ceases to like us?  After all, isn’t reciprocation a surefire way to repulse someone?  If we say how we feel, he might think we want a deeper commitment and run off.  Or—having finally won our affection— he might get bored and seek to conquer another woman’s heart.  Our biggest fear is being rejected and misconstrued.  The last thing we want is to utter those immortal words from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: “That is not it all.  That is not what I meant, at all.”

Yet no matter how impossible it is to be truly seen and truly heard, no matter how likely we are to be misunderstood, the beauty of literature— of all art, really— is it bridges the seemingly unbridgeable abyss between ourselves and others.  “Books make us less isolated,” exquisitely erudite philosopher and re-inventor of self help Alain de Botton once wrote, “They are friends waiting for us any time we want them, and they will always speak honestly to us about what really matters.”  An exalting line of poetry, a richly imagined novel: despite how challenging it might be to form close bonds in real life, art reminds us of our common humanity and alleviates our terrible sense of being alone.  Hosseini concludes by celebrating literature’s miraculous ability to connect people in a disconnected world:

“But that’s what art is for— for both reader and writer to overcome their respective limitations and encounter something true.  It seems miraculous, doesn’t it?  That somebody can articulate something clearly and beautifully that exists inside you, something shrouded in impenetrable fog.  Great art reaches through the fog, toward this secret heart— and it shows it to you, holds it before you.  It’s a revelatory, incredibly moving experience when this happens.  You feel understood.  You feel heard.  That’s why we come to art— we feel less alone.  We are less alone.  You see, through art, that others have felt the way you have— and you feel better.”

For more wisdom on writing and the writing life, visit Maya Angelou’s writing routine & the exquisite torment of the creative life, Anne Sexton’s advice to young writers, and Joyce Carol Oates on the myth of mood.  For even more guidance from our era’s most dazzling literary lights, delight in Brenda Ueland on the qualities of good writing, grammar school & the necessity of unlearning instruction, Annie Dillard on maintaining objectivity and having the courage to cut and Mary Oliver on attention, the artist’s many selves & the mysterious love affair of the creative life.

Rebecca Solnit on the Responsibility of Journalists to Challenge the Status Quo & Rewrite the World’s Broken Stories

break the story.png

Humans are hardwired to tell stories.  Because of our superlative intelligence and unrivaled reasoning abilities, we seek to make meaning from chaos.  Whether we’re telling a story about a disastrous blind date or the Geneva peace talks, we organize events using a logical narrative arc.  Rather than describe every detail of a scene, we choose what to omit and what to keep.  Storytelling is the art of selection.  If we were recounting a blind date, for example, we wouldn’t bore our listener with the clink of champagne glasses or the color of the waiter’s bow tie or an exhaustive inventory of the Merlot’s every flavor and note; we’d focus on what was relevant to the central plot.  If the story of our blind date was the story of yet another failed attempt to find love, we’d emphasize our date’s flaws: his too-confident demeanor, his obnoxious habit of always redirecting the conversation to himself— not the seductive scent of his cologne. 

In real life, it’s often hard to discern meaning: there’s no central conflict, no systematic sequence of events, no easy-to-follow arc.  Sometimes the boyfriend we thought would be our chief love interest turns out to be a passing fling; sometimes an interminable three hours on the phone with Comcast has no bearing on our life’s larger plot.  But in a story, every element performs an essential part.  A description of character, a specific sequencing of scenes, a use of one word instead of endless others: all are deliberate choices on the part of the writer.  Everything, therefore, is meaningful.

But a story is just that, a story— not an objective representation of truth.  As British philosopher Alain De Botton so astutely observed, stories “omit and compress; they cut away the periods of boredom and direct our attention to critical moments, and thus, without either lying or embellishing, they lend to life a vividness and a coherence that it may lack in the distracting wooliness of the present.”  Storytelling is ultimately a kind of manipulation.  Just as a photographer artfully arranges his frame, foregrounding his subject and relegating other aesthetically-pleasing but not-so-important objects to the background, the storyteller emphasizes certain things while downplaying or entirely neglecting others.  He zooms in and out.  But just as a photograph can only capture a small snapshot of a scene within its frame, a story is just one person’s perspective— it’s a version of reality, not reality itself. 

Stories may only represent a portion of reality, but they determine our collective experience.  Public storytellers like journalists tell the stories that dictate how we see the world.  In her paradigm-shifting essay collection Call Them By Their True Names, Rebecca Solnit argues journalists have a responsibility to rewrite our culture’s broken stories.  Why?  Because if they change their stories, they can change the world. 

In “Break the Story,” one of the collection’s most insightful essays, Solnit uses a sharp-witted play on words to suggest journalists have a duty not only to break stories in the traditional sense, but to shake up the status quo:

“‘Break the story’ is a line journalists use to mean getting the scoop, being the first to tell something, but for me the term has deeper resonance.  When you report on any event, no matter how large or small— a presidential election, a school board meeting— you are supposed to come back with a story about what just happened.  But, of course, stories surround us like air; we breathe them in, we breathe them out.  The art of being fully conscious in personal life means seeing the stories and becoming their teller, rather than letting them be the unseen forces that tell you what to do.  Being a public storyteller requires the same skills with larger consequences and responsibilities, because your story becomes part of that water, undermining or reinforcing the existing stories.  Your job is to report on the story on the surface, the contained story, the one that happened yesterday.  It’s also to see and sometimes to break open or break apart the ambient stories, the stories that are already written, and to understand the relationship between the two.”

My favorite English professor used to say there’s two levels to every novel: a narrative and a story.  The narrative lies on the surface of plot, character, setting.  To get to the story, you have to plunge beneath what is said and dive into the depths of what is implied.  This is just as true in real life.  Just as we must read between the lines to get the real story, we must shovel away the dirt of our socially-sanctioned stories to unearth truth.  Rather than simply perpetuate our culture’s most enduring myths, journalists have an obligation to question the very frameworks on which they depend.  Too often the stories we tell go unexamined.  And, too often, we only hear stories that reinforce rather than challenge.  While certain stories dominate headlines, other more pressing issues get little coverage, suppressed in shame and secrets, either spoken in whispers or completely ignored. 

What stories are heard and what stories are silenced largely depends on who’s in power.  Take terrorism and domestic violence.  Though the fear-mongering media might have us believe terrorism is the most urgent issue of our times, terrorism claims very few American lives.  In contrast, domestic violence kills nearly a thousand women every year.  To put the scope of the issue in perspective, between 2001 and 2012, 6,488 American troops were killed in Afghanistan and Iraq; in that same time period, 11, 766 American women were murdered by current or ex-partners.  That’s nearly double the number of troops who died during the war.  As Solnit writes:

There are stories beneath the stories and around the stories.  The recent event on the surface is often merely the hood ornament on the mighty social engine that is a story driving the culture.  We call those “dominant narratives” or “paradigms” or “memes” or “metaphors we live by” or “frameworks.”  However we describe them, they are immensely powerful forces.  And the dominant culture mostly goes about reinforcing the stories that are the pillars propping it up and that, too often, are also the bars of someone else’s cage.  They are too often stories that should be broken, or are already broken and ruined and ruinous and way past their expiration date.  They sit atop mountains of unexamined assumptions.  Why does the media obediently hype terrorism, which kills so few people in the United States, and mostly trivialize domestic violence, which terrorizes millions of U.S. women over extended periods and kills about a thousand a year?  How do you break the story about what really threatens and kills us?

[…]

Part of the job of a great storyteller is to examine the stories that underlie the story you’re assigned, maybe to make them visible, and sometimes to break us free of them.  Break the story.  Breaking is a creative act as much as making, in this kind of writing.”

So why is it that we speak so often of the improbable event of dying in a terrorist attack and so seldom of the very real threat of being killed at the hands of an intimate loved one?  In the end, society will only endorse the stories that maintain the status quo.  The baseless story that terrorism is the greatest threat to national security identifies a common enemy, breeds fear and paranoia and makes the populace easier to control.  Such a story upholds the power of the powerful.  If we’re too busy talking about terrorism, we’re not talking about rising income inequality or the disappearing middle class or mounting college tuition costs.  The story of epidemic domestic violence, however, exposes the serious problems underlying our power structure.  If we were to examine why nearly 40% of female murder victims are killed by an intimate partner, we’d have to rethink the damaging myths we propagate about romantic love: maybe a suitor who immediately showers you with adoration, for example, is not a fairytale prince but inappropriately obsessed; maybe a man who texts constantly wanting to know where you are and what you’re doing is not head-over-heels in love, but controlling and potentially dangerous.  We’d have to rethink how we teach boys to be men: the ways we make excuses for their bad behavior, the ways we encourage their aggressiveness and entitlement.  Indeed, we’d have to rethink society itself. 

The widespread occurrence of rape is yet another story our culture silences.  When we do discuss sexual assault, our tendency is to distrust the woman.  The prevailing belief is women lie about rape and make accusations either to exact revenge or get attention.  The narrative is women are spiteful and vindictive; the story is an alarming number of men rape and never face prosecution:

“Some of the stories we need to break are not exceptional events, they’re the ugly wallpaper of our everyday lives.  For example, there’s a widespread belief that women lie about being raped, not a few women, not an anomalous woman, but women in general.  This framework comes from the assumption that reliability and credibility are as natural to men as mendacity and vindictiveness are to women.  In other words, feminists just made it all up, because otherwise we’d have to question a really big story whose nickname is patriarchy.  But the data confirms that people who come forward about being raped are, overall, telling the truth (and that rapists tend to lie, a lot).”

George Orwell once said “good prose is a window pane”: when a reader looks out the window of a finely-crafted sentence, he should more clearly see the world.  Plainness and preciseness formed the pillars of Elements of Style, his definitive guide to writing well.  To his timeless advice, Solnit adds writers should construct their own windows rather than look through other people’s.  A good writer is a freethinker.  Never will he mindlessly conform to popular opinion or march with the masses in neat little rows.  Instead, he will dispel the myths that sedate us in a stupor of inaction and challenge his moment’s status quo:

“The writer’s job is not to look through the window someone else built, but to step outside, to question the framework, or to dismantle the house and free what’s inside, all in service of making visible what was locked out of the view.  News journalism focuses on what changed yesterday rather than asking what are the underlying forces and who are the unseen beneficiaries of this moment’s status quo…This is why you need to know your history, even if you’re a journalist rather than a historian.  You need to know the patterns to see how people are fitting the jumble of facts into what they already have: selecting, misreading, distorting, excluding, embroidering, distributing empathy here but not there, remembering this echo or forgetting that precedent.”

For more from our era’s most passionate defender of democracy, read Solnit on the impotence of anger, the importance of calling things by their true names, and the remarkable ability of ordinary people to redirect the course of history.  If you want to delight in even more of Solnit’s lyrical language, meander through her lovely meditations on walking as a political act and walking as a means of replenishing the soul and reinvigorating the mind.

Maya Angelou’s Writing Routine & the Exquisite Torment of the Creative Life

maya angelou

All writers have their routines and rituals.  While working on what would be his first novel, Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller, for example, established a stringent daily schedule: in the mornings and afternoons, he’d write diligently; in the evenings—if tired— he’d make time for relaxation and visit friends, go to the cinema, or read a book in a cafe.  Graham Greene, like innumerable writers throughout literary history, required himself to write a certain number of words a day (his quota of five hundred words seems rather unambitious compared to Stephen King’s, who requires himself to write ten pages a day, even on holidays).  Haruki Murakami views physical exertion as an essential part of his creative process and rises at daybreak every morning so he can run before he sits at his desk for the day.  For him, the rhythmic, monotonous movement of putting one foot after another puts his rational conscious mind in a trance so his more powerful subconscious mind can synthesize ideas in new, exciting ways.

In her soulful Paris Review interview in Women Writers at Work, poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou reveals her personal routines.  Ms. Angelou comes from a long lineage of writers whose mundane daily routine takes on the consecrated status of ritual.  She regards a few things as absolutely essential: a bottle of sherry, from which she’ll perhaps sip in the morning and take a celebratory swig at night, a dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, yellow writing pads, an ashtray, and a Bible.  When asked why she needed the Bible, she clarified:

“The language of all the interpretations, the translations, is musical, just wonderful, I read the Bible to myself; I’ll take any translation, any edition, and read it aloud, just to hear the language, hear the rhythm, and remind myself how beautiful English is.

[…]

I want to hear how English sounds; how Edna St. Vincent Millay heard English.  I want to hear it, so I read it aloud.  It is not so that I can imitate it.  It is to remind me what a glorious language it is.  Then I try to be particular, original.” 

“How do I become a better writer?” is the number one question of starry-eyed literary hopefuls.  No matter who you ask this perennial question— a novelist, an essayist, a poet, a playwright— the answer is the same: read.  “Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write,” Annie Proulx once said.  Colossus of modernism Virginia Woolf agreed: “Read a thousand books and your words will flow like a river.”  Stephen King put his tough love advice more bluntly: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.  Simple as that.”

Though we glorify writing as an inborn talent, writing is a skill, one that can be improved and refined.  How to construct compelling sentences with strong active verbs, how to spellbind our reader with the music of our language, how to convey our meaning through precise word choice: all can be learned through the devoted study of our favorite authors.  In much the same way Angelou learned to treasure the musical, poetic aspects of language by reading the Bible, we can learn how to play with words’ double meanings by reading Shakespeare or pace a story by reading a page-turning crime novel. 

I know that when I’m at my desk despairing that I have nothing to say, despising my every hideous sentence, my every careless turn-of-phrase, a good book can offer a powerful antidote.  If, the moment I feel uninspired, I feast on the sumptuous prose of Anais Nin or get intoxicated on the raw intensity of Sylvia Plath, I remember all the marvelous things language can do.  When I come across a perfect arrangement of words, a sentence where, as T.S. Eliot so elegantly said, every word has a “home,” I feel inspired to create striking sentences of my own.  Lesson?  Like Angelou, we should always keep a good book nearby to replenish and renew our soul.

Books inspire us not only to be better writers but better people.  When asked whether she read the Bible just to get inspired to write herself, Angelou added she read the holy scriptures:

“For content also.  I’m working at trying to be a Christian, and that’s serious business.  It’s like trying to be a good Jew, a good Muslim, a good Buddhist, a good Shintoist, a good Zoroastrian, a good friend, a good lover, a good mother, a good buddy: it’s serious business.  It’s not something where you think, Oh, I’ve got it done.  I did it all day, hot-diggety.  The truth is, all day long you try to do it, try to be it, and then in the evening, if you’re honest and have a little courage, you look at yourself and say, Hmm.  I only blew it eighty-six times.  Not bad.  I’m trying to be a Christian, and the Bible helps me to remind myself what I’m about.” 

Other than her Bible and glass of sherry, Angelou required one thing: a room of her own.  Because creative work demands a sanctuary of silence and solitude, Ms. Angelou had an eccentric habit of renting a hotel room over the course of her decades-long career.  When asked how she began her writing day, she explained:

“I have kept a hotel room in every town I’ve ever lived in.  I rent a hotel room for a few months, leave my home at six, and try to be at work by six-thirty.  To write, I lie across the bed, so that this elbow is absolutely encrusted at the end, just so rough with callouses.  I never allow the hotel people to change the bed, because I never sleep there.  I stay until twelve-thirty or one-thirty in the afternoon, and then I go home and try to breathe; I look at the work around five; I have an orderly dinner—proper, quiet, lovely dinner; and then I go back to work the next morning.  Sometimes in hotels I’ll go into the room and there’ll be a note on the floor which says, Dear Miss Angelou, let us change the sheets.  We think they are moldy.  But I only allow them to come in and empty wastebaskets.  I insist that all things are taken off the walls.  I don’t want anything in there.  I go into the room and I feel as if all my beliefs are suspended.  Nothing holds me to anything.  No milkmaids, no flowers, nothing.  I just want to feel and then when I start to work I’ll remember.  I’ll read something, maybe the Psalms, maybe, again, something from Mr. Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson.  And I’ll remember how beautiful, how pliable the language is, how it will lend itself.  If you pull it, it says, OK.”  I remember that and I start to write.”

A firm believer that writing is work, Angelou described the long, arduous journey from an idea’s initial conception to its execution on the page:

“Nathaniel Hawthorne says, ‘Easy reading is damn hard writing.’  I try to pull the language in to such a sharpness that it jumps off the page.  It must look easy, but it takes me forever to get it to look so easy.  Of course, there are those critics—New York critics as a rule—who say, Well, Maya Angelou has a new book out and of course it’s good but then she’s a natural writer.  Those are the ones I want to grab by the throat and wrestle to the floor because it takes me forever to get it to sing.  I work at the language.  On an evening like this, looking out at the auditorium, if I had to write this evening from my point of view, I’d see the rust-red used worn velvet seats and the lightness where people’s backs have rubbed against the back of the seat so that it’s a light orange, then the beautiful colors of the people’s faces, the white, pink-white, beige-white, light beige and brown and tan—I would have to look at all that, at all those faces and the way they sit on top of their necks.  When I would end up writing after four hours or five hours in my room, it might sound like, It was a rat that sat on a mat.  That’s that.  Not a cat.  But I would continue to play with it and pull at it and say, I love you.  Come to me.  I love you.  It might take me two or three weeks just to describe what I’m seeing now.”

One of my favorite writers once said there’s a blissful obsessive-compulsive quality to creative work.  Those who endeavor to express themselves know this neurosis well.  “Should I rearrange this subordinate and independent clause?”  “Is this word too plain?  too conversational?    Should I opt for a more dignified word?”  To attempt to articulate ourselves is an exquisite form of torture.  In most things in life, it’s obvious when you’ve arrived at your goal: the mechanic knows his work is done once the engine ignites and the car propels itself forward; the carpenter, once the house can stand on its own.  But in writing, it’s hard to know.  Draft after draft, there always seems to be more we can do: an idea we can phrase more elegantly, a dull sentence we can polish further.  How do we know when the burnishing and beautifying, pruning and perfecting so essential to revision has crossed the line into helpless (not to mention unproductive) obsession?  How do we know when our work is ready to be released into the world?  To this enduring question Angelou replied:  

“I know when it’s the best I can do.  It may not be the best there is.  Another writer may do it much better.  But I know when it’s the best I can do.  I know that one of the great arts that the writer develops is the art of saying, “No. No, I’m finished. Bye.”  And leaving it alone.  I will not write it into the ground.  I will not write the life out of it.  I won’t do that.” 

For more brilliant conversations with our era’s finest writers, read Anne Sexton on how poetry helped her exorcise her demons and find a sense of purpose and Joyce Carol Oates on the myth of mood.

Anne Sexton’s Advice to Young Writers

anne sexton #2

“How can I become a writer?” renowned authors have been asked throughout the ages.  Ray Bradbury believed you had to be irrepressibly in love with your work, “If you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling.  You must write every single day of your life.  You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books, and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next.  You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads.”  Henry Miller thought writing required strict schedules and single-minded commitment to your craft: “Write according to program and not according to mood!” he advised in his 11 commandments, a set of precepts meant to direct his conduct, If you can’t create, you can work.”  Henry James maintained a writer must be attentive and turn an unflinchingly eye to the world.  “Be someone on whom nothing is lost!”  he implored.

Anne Sexton added her own counsel to the storehouse of advice on the craft in her extraordinary Paris Review interview in Women Writers at Work.  In response to the perennial question “What advice would you give to a young poet?”, Sexton offered the following beautifully-phrased guidelines:

1. be careful who your critics are

2.  be specific

3.  tell almost the whole story

4.  put your ear close down to your soul and listen hard 

Women Writers at Work is a compendium of invaluable conversations with literary lights as dazzling as Maya Angelou and Joyce Carol Oates.  For even more writing wisdom, visit Andre Dubus III on writing as dreaming, not thinking, Elizabeth Gilbert on joy, curiosity & having the courage to rejoice in the marvels and mysteries of existence and Yiyun Li on seeing, staring & the necessity of looking closer.

Writing as Salvation & Sustenance: Anne Sexton on How Poetry Helped Her Exorcise Her Demons & Gave Her A Sense of Purpose

anne-sexton-1.jpg

What causes suffering?  Gaston Bachelard believed the source of our first suffering “lies in the fact that we hesitate to speak…it is born in the moments when we accumulate silent things within us.”  Maya Angelou agreed.  “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story within you,” she once wrote.  To suppress the dark side of our psyches, to enshroud our childhood traumas in a thick cloud of denial, to hide from our heartbreaks and sorrows is to hinder our ability to heal.  Our stories, no matter how devastating or disturbing, demand to be told.  Unless they find a healthy outlet, a mode of expression such as art or painting or music, our demons will destroy us.

For Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Anne Sexton, poetry was a transformative way to process her trauma and transmute her pain into something useful.  In her altogether illuminating interview in The Paris Review Interviews: Women Writers at Work, she suggests writing can offer salvation to the seemingly irredeemable.  Creative expression, particularly writing, which requires we make sense of our experience and give voice to our innermost selves, is a release of pent-up emotions, what the ancient Greeks called “catharsis”— a psychological discharge through which we can achieve liberation from turmoil and a state of moral and spiritual renewal.  To Sexton, one of the founding poets of the confessional movement, the page was quite literally a confessional booth, a sacred place where she could speak the unspeakable: her near unendurable struggles with depression, her dysfunctional upbringing, her childhood abuse.

When asked why she didn’t begin writing until she was almost thirty, Sexton explained she wrote as a way to cope with her demons after she had a mental breakdown:

“Until I was twenty-eight I had a kind of buried self who didn’t know she could do anything but make white sauce and diaper babies.  I didn’t know I had any creative depths.  I was a victim of the American Dream, the bourgeois, middle-class dream.  All I wanted was a little piece of life, to be married, to have children.  I thought the nightmares, the visions, the demons would go away if there was enough love to put them down.  I was trying my damnedest to lead a conventional life, for that was how I was brought up, and it was what my husband wanted of me.  But one can’t build little white picket fences to keep nightmares out.  The surface cracked when I was about twenty-eight.  I had a psychotic break and tried to kill myself.”

Sexton suffered from what pioneering feminist Betty Friedan befittingly called the “problem that had no name”— a despairing but difficult-to-place existential angst that afflicted countless women in 1950s suburbia.  Stifled by her bland Wonder Bread existence as subservient, self-sacrificing housewife, Sexton became more and more unstable.  The tedious duties of domesticity— changing diapers, washing dishes, doing laundry— offered no solace to the troubled yet-to-be poet, who needed a goal to challenge her intellect and imbue her directionless life with a sense of purpose (As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, groundbreaking positive psychologist behind the theory of flow, once said, “Contrary to what we usually believe, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable…The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”)

After her harrowing descent into madness, Anne sought the advice of her psychiatrist, who recommended she find a “difficult, worthwhile activity” to occupy herself.  Her rich imagination and agile intellect, he believed, had no outlet in the home.  Writing soon became her salvation and sustenance, a reason to continue living despite her loathing of herself and the world:

“I said to my doctor at the beginning, ‘I’m no good; I can’t do anything; I’m dumb.’  He suggested I try educating myself by listening to Boston’s educational television station.  He said I had a perfectly good mind.  As a matter of fact, after he gave me a Rorschach test, he said I had creative talent that I wasn’t using.  I protested, but I followed his suggestion.  One night I saw A. Richards on educational television reading a sonnet and explaining its form.  I thought to myself, ‘I could do that, maybe; I could try.’  So I sat down and wrote a sonnet.  The next day I wrote another one, and so forth.  My doctor encouraged me to write more.  ‘Don’t kill yourself,’ he said.  ‘Your poems might mean something to someone else someday.’  That gave me a feeling of purpose, a little cause, something to do with my life, no matter how rotten I was.”

A treasure chest of compelling interviews from Joan Didion, Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison, and Maya AngelouWomen Writers at Work supplies a rare behind-the-scenes look at the creative process of our era’s finest writers.  Whether you’re curious to learn how the most prolific writers seem to possess an inexhaustible spring of ideas or whether the most celebrated women of letters advocate keeping a journal, Women Writers at Work will inspire and engage you.

 

Joyce Carol Oates on the Myth of Mood

joyce carol oates

“Write according to program and not according to mood!” Henry Miller advised in his 11 commandments of writing, a series of maxims he devised to direct his conduct, If you can’t create, you can work.”  Jack London had a similar no-nonsense approach to the writing life: “You can’t wait for inspiration,” he insisted, “You have to go after it with a club.” 

Whether we’re rationalizing our decision to skip our regular morning run or our daily hour at the keyboard, we employ the same excuse.  “Ah, I’m just not in the mood!”  At some blissful juncture in the future (and it’s always the futurenever the present, this minute, this hour), we’ll finally be struck by that mythical lightning bolt and be able to articulate ourselves.  Until then, what’s the use?  Writing, we become convinced, depends on the “muse.”  When our muse calls on us, we’re inspired, a word literally meaning to be “breathed into.”  During these rare visitations, writing feels effortless; we’re not speaking so much as being spoken through.

But the problem is we can’t depend on the muse.  She could feel like getting to the page once a year or once an hour.  She’s erratic, mercurial.  Like a diva superstar, she’ll refuse to go onstage unless certain needs are accommodated for.  First, her requests will be eccentric but easy enough— water sourced from tropical rain and purified by equatorial trade winds, dim lighting, essential oils— but her demands inevitably get more impossible as time goes on.  Soon she’ll refuse to work unless her dressing room is exactly 78 degrees and all the yellow M&M’s are removed from her candy bowl. 

Though we believe we can only write when we’re in the “mood,” time and time again distinguished authors assert writing requires one thing: a willingness to work.  “Being in the mood to write, like being in the mood to make love, is a luxury that isn’t necessary in a long-term relationship,” Julia Cameron, creativity guru behind the perennial classic The Artist’s Way, once observed, “Just as the first caress can lead to a change of heart, the first sentence, however tentative and awkward, can lead to a desire to go just a little further.”  If we wait to write until we feel the irrepressible urge, we’ll never write a word.  Rather than romanticize writing as a sacred act surrounded by superstition and requiring ritual, why not begin where we are?  In writing— as in life— success is 99% showing up.

The idea that we have to be in the “mood” to write is a myth Joyce Carol Oates, novelist, poet, playwright and one of the most prolific writers of our time, cogently debunks in her thought-provoking interview in The Paris Review Interviews: Women Writers at Work.  Complied of wide-ranging conversations with our era’s finest women writers, including Joan Didion, Anne Sexton, Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, Women Writers at Work has been hailed as “invaluable to students of twentieth-century literature.”  Where do you get your ideas?  Do you read your reviews?  Do you keep a journal or follow a writing schedule?  Whether you’re an aspiring writer looking to crack the code of the creative process or simply fascinated by the mysterious inner workings of the mind of the artist, these compelling conversations will illuminate the path to the writing life, not to mention inspire and instruct you.

A slender, shy woman with pale skin and otherworldly eyes, Joyce Carol Oates gives the impression, her interviewer writes, that she “never speaks in anything but perfectly formed sentences.”  Indeed of all the interviewees, Oates is perhaps the most erudite and articulate.  When asked whether she has to be in the mood to write, the phenomenally productive Oates replied: 

“One must be pitiless about this matter of ‘mood.’  In a sense, the writing will create the mood.  If art is, as I believe it to be, a genuinely transcendental function— a means by which we rise out of limited, parochial states of mind— then it should not matter very much what states of mind or emotion we are in.  Generally, I’ve found this to be true: I have forced myself to begin writing when I’ve been uttering exhausted, when I’ve felt my soul as thin as a playing card, when nothing has seemed worth enduring for more than five minutes…and somehow the activity of writing changes everything.” 

Very few writers start the day wanting to write just as few runners start the day wanting to run.  But in much the same way that “life begets life,” writing begets writing.  Writing— like all creative endeavors— is self-generative and self-sustaining: once we begin writing, we want to write; we don’t wait till we have ideas, we get ideas once we put pen to paper.  The hardest part of writing is beginning: once we overcome our initial resistance and simply start, we gain momentum and become unstoppable.  Lesson?  We have to sit at our desks no matter what.  

Mary Oliver on Attention, the Artist’s Many Selves & the Mysterious Love Affair of the Creative Life

mary beach

In a wonderful moment of serendipity, I chanced upon the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver the other day at my local library (how I’ve never read her, I do not know).  Intrigued after reading a few poems, I checked out both Devotions, a colossal volume spanning her prestigious sixty year career, and Upstream, a collection of essays.  Both her poetry and prose radiate with an exuberant love of life.  What I love most about Oliver is her ability to find holiness in the humdrum, sacredness in the profane: she worships the little things— the New England woods at dawn, a rose, a spider.  But though her work preoccupies itself with the small moments, it interrogates larger themes of love, the search for the sublime, and nature.  

In Upstream, she writes about two major themes: nature and the writing life.  In one of the collection’s best essays “Of Power and Time,” Oliver contemplates the importance of uninterrupted solitude to the creative life.  She writes: 

It is a silver morning like any other.  I am at my desk.  Then the phone rings, or someone raps at the door.  I am deep in the machinery of my wits.  Reluctantly I rise, I answer the phone or I open the door.  And the thought which I had in hand, or almost in hand, is gone.  Creative work needs solitude.  It needs concentration, without interruptions.  It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once.  Privacy, then.  A place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.”

Nearly one hundred years after the publication of Virginia Woolf’s landmark essay, Oliver asserts writers still need rooms of their own.  Ideally, a writer’s desk is a sacred space, a sort of sanctuary from the pandemonium of the world.  But though writers crave nothing more than a string of unbroken hours, we’re often interrupted: by a nagging mother, by a ring at the door bell, by yet another phone call.  In our hyper-connected era, each of us is distracted by a never-ending dinging demon: our cell phones.  Though the ease of texting and email makes it more convenient to stay in touch, these technologies have had the unfortunate effect of scattering our attention and limiting our capacity to sustain deep thought.  In many ways, our rooms are no longer our own: we don’t completely shut the door and safeguard the silence and solitude so essential to creative work— we leave our entryways unlocked so the petty demands of the world can incessantly intrude.

Even more distracting than the exterior world is the interior.  “What am I going to wear today?”  “I need to pick up the laundry!”  “Oh crap, I forgot to buy toilet paper!”  From the time we rise from bed to the time our heads hit the pillow twelve hours later, our minds restlessly swing from one branch of thought to another.  Fearful and fretful, we exist in a living-dead purgatory torturously suspended between past and future.  But to be artists, we have to be attentive to make out inspiration’s barely audible whisper:

But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing, into the pond of meditation.  And what does it have to say?  That you must phone the dentist, that you are out of mustard, that your uncle Stanley’s birthday is two weeks hence.  You react, of course.  Then you return to your work, only to find that the imps of idea have fled back into the mist.”

In a wise moment recalling both Faulkner’s conviction that “the past is never really past” and Whitman’s affirming belief that the individual is large and contains “multitudes,” Oliver recognizes she’s still the child she once was:

I am, myself, three selves at least.  To begin with, there is the child I was.  Certainly I am not that child anymore!  Yet, distantly, or sometimes not so distantly, I can hear that child’s voice—I can feel its hope, or its distress.  It has not vanished.  Powerful, egotistical, insinuating—its presence rises, in memory, or from the steamy river of dreams.  It is not gone, not by a long shot.  It is with me in the present hour.  It will be with me in the grave.” 

According to Oliver, we not only possess a “child self” but an “attentive, social self” who is concerned with life’s practical day-to-day matters:

 And there is the attentive, social self.  This is the smiler and the doorkeeper.  This is the portion that winds the clock, that steers through the dailiness of life, that keeps in mind appointments that must be made, and then met.  It is fettered to a thousand notions of obligation.  It moves across the hours of the day as though the movement itself were the whole task.  Whether it gathers as it goes some branch of wisdom or delight, or nothing at all, is a matter with which it is hardly concerned.  What this self hears night and day, what it loves beyond all other songs, is the endless springing forward of the clock, those measures strict and vivacious, and full of certainty.  

The clock!  That twelve-figured moon skull, that white spider belly!  How serenely the hands move with their filigree pointers, and how steadily!  Twelve hours, and twelve hours, and begin again!  Eat, speak, sleep, cross a street, wash a dish!  The clock is still ticking.  All its vistas are just so broad—are regular.  (Notice that word.)  Every day, twelve little bins in which to order disorderly life, and even more disorderly thought.  The town’s clock cries out, and the face on every wrist hums or shines; the world keeps pace with itself.  Another day is passing, a regular and ordinary day.  (Notice that word also.)”

Throughout history, it’s been thought that artists contain many selves.  In her much beloved Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande maintained there were two dimensions of the writer’s personality: the prosaic and artist self.  Whereas the prosaic self was rational, discriminating, and preoccupied with the mundane and ordinary, the artist self was irrational, intuitive and free-associating.  For Brande, both the critical and creative spheres were essential to the writer’s psyche. 

Much like Brande, Oliver imagines the writer is split into an “attentive social self” and a “third self.”  While the attentive social self is a joyless, sensible adult obsessed with time and shackled by responsibility, the third self is dreamy, romantic, not governed by the inhuman tick tock of the clock but enamored of eternity.  This exalted part of the writer’s self prefers the transcendent to the worldly, the extraordinary to the ordinary: 

In creative work — creative work of all kinds — those who are the world’s working artists are not trying to help the world go around, but forward.  Which is something altogether different from the ordinary.  Such work does not refute the ordinary.  It is, simply, something else.  Its labor requires a different outlook — a different set of priorities.  Certainly there is within each of us a self that is neither child, nor a servant of the hours.  It is a third self, occasional in some ways, tyrant in others.  This self is out of love with the ordinary; it is out of live with time.  It has a hunger for eternity. 

Intellectual work sometimes, spiritual work certainly, artistic work always — these are forces that fall within its grasp, forces that must travel beyond the realm of the hour and the restraint of the habit.  Nor can the actual work be well separated from the entire life.  Like the knights of the Middle Ages, there is little the creatively inclined person can do but to prepare himself, body and spirit, for the labor to come — for his adventures are all unknown.  In truth, the work itself is the adventure.  And no artist could go about this work, or would want to, with less than extraordinary energy and concentration.  The extraordinary is what art is about.”

In a spirit-nourishing conversation with Krista Tippet on “On Being,” Oliver depicts writing as a love affair: to write, we must court the muse.  Only when we demonstrate our devotion and show up at the page day after day, doubt after doubt, dispiriting hour after dispiriting hour, will the elusive muse also commit to the relationship and learn to trust us. 

But no matter how determined or diligent, we can never will the muse to appear.  To some degree, the creative process will always be outside our control: the solution to a problem often materializes seemingly out of thin air.  Indeed, it is when we stop trying that ideas reveal themselves: when we leave our desks, when we wander the streets, when we turn the keys in our ignition and drive nowhere in particular.  To be an artist, then, we must relinquish our desire for control, embrace uncertainty and have faith that the maddening, mercurial muse will show up: 

Neither is it possible to control, or regulate, the machinery of creativity.  One must work with the creative powers— for not to work with is to work against; in art as in spiritual life there is no neutral place.  Especially at the beginning, there is a need of discipline as well as solitude and concentration.  A writing schedule is a good suggestion to make to young writers, for example.  Also, it is enough to tell them.  Would one tell them so soon the whole truth, that one must be ready at all hours, and always, that the ideas in their shimmering forms, in spite of all conscious discipline, will come when they will, and on the swift upheaval of their wings— disorderly; reckless; as unmanageable, sometimes, as passion?

No one yet has made a list of places where the extraordinary may happen and where it may not.  Still, there are indications.  Among crowds, in drawing rooms, among easements and comforts and pleasures, it is seldom seen.  It likes the out-of-doors.  It likes the concentrating mind.  It likes solitude.  It is more likely to stick to the risk-taker than the ticket-taker.  It isn’t that it would disparage comforts, or the set routines of the world, but that its concern is directed to another place.  Its concern is the edge, and the making of a form out of the formlessness that is beyond the edge.” 

Later Oliver asserts an artist’s commitment is to the timeless, not the timely:

Of this there can be no question — creative work requires a loyalty as complete as the loyalty of water to the force of gravity.  A person trudging through the wilderness of creation who does not know this — who does not swallow this — is lost.  He who does not crave that roofless place eternity should stay at home.  Such a person is perfectly worthy, and useful, and even beautiful, but is not an artist.  Such a person had better live with timely ambitions and finished work formed for the sparkle of the moment only.  Such a person had better go off and fly an airplane.” 

Oliver concludes by returning to the image of her at her desk on a cold, gray morning.  Like all artists, she’s “absentminded, reckless” but this— she attests— is “as it should be.”  With an intoxicatingly independent spirit and defiant distaste for social responsibility, Oliver reaffirms an artist’s obligation is to the work, not the mundane and ordinary:

The tire goes flat, the tooth falls out, there will be a hundred meals without mustard.  The poem gets written.  I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light and I have no shame.  Neither do I have guilt.  My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely.  It does not include mustard, or teeth.  It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot.  My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive.  If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late.  Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.”