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

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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

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“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, a compendium of conversations with leading literary lights as dazzling as Joan Didion, Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison, and Maya Angelou.  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

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

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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

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“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

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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.”  

Proust on the Benefits & Limitations of Reading

It is a truth universally acknowledged that reading contributes to the public good.  As any librarian or public service announcement will tell you, the benefits of reading are too many to count.  libraryNot only does reading magnify our capacity for empathy and strengthen our ability to be open-minded, it fortifies the foundations of democracy itself.  On the societal level, literacy reduces crime, fosters freer, more stable governments, and promotes social activism.  Books empower us with the tools to be strong critical thinkers and bestow us with the gift of words to depict our world.  Books are museums, ways of preserving the wisdom of our collective past, and crystal balls that grant us insight into our possible futures.  Books are medicines that can cure almost any ailment, from the most life-threatening bouts of existential angst to more common cases of hard-to-place melancholy.  Books are lamps and life rafts, friends and teachers, time machines and time capsules.  “We read to remember.  We read to forget.  We read to make ourselves and remake ourselves and save ourselves,” Maria Popova once said.

British philosopher Alain De Botton insists reading has yet another benefit: it sensitizes us.  In our hyper-exposed era where we’re relentlessly besieged by sexualized images, disturbing portrayals of violence, and tasteless profanity, books offer a bastion against the inhumane forces working to desensitize us.  Rather than blunt our ability to feel distress at scenes of cruelty or anesthetize us to brutality, books make us feel: love, empathy.  And because they describe what we usually neglect— the wrinkled topography of someone’s face, the sky on a frost-bitten December morning— they can stir us from our semi-conscious stupor and remind us life is endlessly fascinating if we only pause to look. 

In his charming self-help manual How Proust Can Change Your Life, the same trove of Proustian wisdom that taught us how to be happy in lovereawaken to the beauty of ordinary things, and avoid the enticing lure of platitude and cliche, Botton argues Proust’s adoration for British art critic John Ruskin is an example of the power of books to transform us.  Proust first discovered Ruskin when he was one thousand pages into writing his first novel Jean Santeuil.  “The universe suddenly regained infinite value in my eyes,” he said of reading the great Victorian author.  Proust was so taken with Ruskin that he abandoned his novel and spent the next three years translating his idol’s prolific body of work into French. 

So why did Ruskin have such a tremendous impact on the budding author?  Botton hypothesizes in Ruskin “he found experiences that he had never been more than semiconscious of raised and beautifully assembled in language.”  Though at some level Proust surely recognized the grandeur of northern France’s great cathedrals before reading Ruskin, Ruskin helped him more keenly experience their beauty and, in so doing, restored to him a bit of the world.  In The Seven Lamps of Architecture, the influential critic minutely described one particular statue in Rouen Cathedral, a figure of a little man carved into one of the structure’s magnificent portals.  Proust had never noticed the statue before.  But by writing with the same heartfelt attention a portrait painter pays to his subject, Ruskin showed Proust that the statue was worthwhile and that, perhaps, life was as well:  

“For Proust, Ruskin’s concern for the little man had effected a kind of resurrection, one characteristic of great art.  He had known how to look at this figure, and had hence brought it back to life for succeeding generations.  Ever polite, Proust offered a playful apology to the little figure for that would have been his own inability to notice him without Ruskin as a guide (“I would not have been clever enough to find you, amongst the thousands of stones in our towns, to pick out your figure, to rediscover your personality, to summon you, to make you live again”).  It was a symbol for what Ruskin had done for Proust, and what all books might do for their readers— namely, bring back to life, from the deadness caused by habit and inattention, valuable yet neglected aspects of experience.”

monet's cathedrals

But though books possess the conscious-raising power to reinvigorate our senses and revive us from the numbing effects of over-exposure and habit, they have their limitations.  Yes, reading writers we admire can be inspiring (what a joy to revel in the inexplicable pleasure of a graceful sentence, a delight to discover a beautifully-crafted arrangement of words!).  And yes, a brilliant book can sometimes be an effective antidote for writer’s block: a prescription of Proust, for example, can inspire us to more deeply delve in our own characters’ psychology; a pill of Plath can rouse us to write with raw emotional ferocity; a spoonful of Anais Nin can rekindle our passion for the poetic aspects of language, leading us to play with figures of speech and write with more elegance and delicacy.  

But when we worship an author too fervently, he becomes the cruel yardstick with which we measure our own efforts.  “Why can’t we write with Didion’s understated restraint?” we wonder, unable to scribble a single sentence since reading her landmark essay “Why I Write.”  “Why can’t my sentences sing with the lyrical simplicity of Solnit’s?  Or mesmerize with the exquisite beauty and intricacy of Fitch?”  It is often we bookish writers who find ourselves most debilitated by self-hatred and self-doubt.  Because we’re so well-versed in the canon— or, as Matthew Arnold once termed, “the best that’s been thought and said”— we possess a centuries-old library in the shelves of our heads, hundreds upon hundreds of volumes with which to compare ourselves.  When we craft a sharp bit of wordplay, we might momentarily delight in our own cleverness only to glance backward and see the towering presence of Shakespeare himself.  Our attempts at double entendre are god-awful compared to his.  Certainly our wit will never be a match for the bard’s! 

So though reading is invaluable to a writer’s formation, too much reading can discourage us from writing at all.  After all, why put pen to page if x, y and z author has already said what you wanted to say and said it better?  Even the most talented writers have opened the pages of their favorite novels and felt a terrible sense of their own inadequacy.  Take titan of modernism Virginia Woolf.  Despite her indisputable genius, she— too— suffered agonizing periods of self-doubt after encountering what she thought was the work of a superior writer.  In a 1922 letter to English painter and fellow member of the Bloomsbury Group, Roger Fry, she raved about In Search of Lost Time, the magnum opus of Mr. Marcel Proust:

“Well – what remains to be written after that?  I’m only in the first volume, and there are, I suppose, faults to be found, but I am in a state of amazement; as if a miracle were being done before my eyes.  How, at last, has someone solidified what has always escaped – and made it too into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance?  One has to put the book down and gasp.”

Virginia Woolf

Reading Proust, Woolf felt nothing short of wonderstruck.  She was astounded by his facility with language, his ability to weave a story with both the “utmost sensitivity” and “utmost tenacity.”  So in awe was she of his talents that she came to question her own.  She wanted desperately to write like Proust but her attempts at imitation revealed— much to her dismay— that she could only write like herself.  Later she told Fry:

“Proust so titillates my own desire for expression that I can hardly set out a sentence.  Oh if I could write like that!  I cry.  And at the moment such is the astonishing vibration and saturation that he procures— there’s something sexual in it— that I feel I can write like that, and seize my pen and then I can’t.”  

Even after writing Mrs. Dalloway, a masterpiece of never-before-seen stream-of-consciousness that would come to be regarded as one of the most important works of the 20th century, Woolf still felt herself lacking.  “I wonder if this time I have achieved something?” she confessed in her diary, “Well, nothing anyhow compared to Proust…he will I suppose both influence me and make me out of temper with every sentence of my own.” 

Thankfully, Woolf didn’t let her admiration for Proust discourage her too much: she continued to write and would go on to publish such groundbreaking novels and essays as Orlando and A Room of One’s Own.  But hers is still a cautionary tale: we shouldn’t exalt human beings to the status of idols.  If our admiration for an author slips into adulation, if we glorify books as if they were bibles, we’ll eventually discount our own talent.  The result?  The Virginia Woolfs of the world will try to write the next In Search of Lost Time instead of To the Lighthouse.

Proust on How Cliche Narrows Our Perceptions & the Obligation of the Artist to Create His Own Language

Proust praised his friend Gabriel de La Rochefoucauld’s novel The Lover and the Doctorproust as a “superb, tragic work of complex and consummate craftsmanship” but criticized its reliance on cliches: “There are some fine big landscapes in your novel,” Proust began, “but at times one would like them to be painted with more originality.  It’s quite true that the sky is on fire at sunset, but it’s been said too often, and the moon that shines discreetly is a trifle dull.”

Why, we might ask, did Proust loathe the cliched phrase?  After all, when we break up with someone, isn’t it occasionally true that “it’s not you, it’s me”?  Don’t beautiful women have “long blonde hair”?  Aren’t attractive men usually of the “tall, dark, and handsome” variety?  For a cliche to gain popularity and enter the common idiom, it must have at one time expressed a truth in a never-before-seen way.  To describe a tidy girl as “neat as a pin” or a quick wit as “sharp as a tack” once was an original articulation.  At first, these phrases had flavor, spice.  But with overuse, such expressions became insipid and trite. 

Nearly all writers share Proust’s distaste for cliche.  “Anything you’ve heard or read before is a cliche,” Janet Fitch once told an interviewer, “If you’re a writer, you have to invent from scratch.”  Francine Du Plessix Gray agreed.  “Combat the embrace of all words that are too long married,” she instructed her pupils.  In a wonderfully un-cliched metaphor, she likened the tired phrase to tepid sex, a “form of verbal missionary position.”  For her, good writing was intoxicating, passionate, hot-blooded.  A writer who didn’t titillate us with his every word was a writer who failed in his one goal: to seduce us.

In his delightful self-help manual How Proust Can Change Your Life, the same compendium of Proustian wisdom that taught us how to be happy in lovereawaken to the beauty of ordinary things, and remember the benefits and limitations of reading, British philosopher Alain De Botton argues we should avoid cliches “because the way we speak is ultimately linked to the way we feel, because how we describe the world must at some level reflect how we first experience it.”  The problem with stale expressions is not only that they bore instead of captivate our audience— they are too imprecise and vague.  And when our language is inexact— general instead of specific, superficial instead of complex— so is our experience.  Like Rebecca Solnit, who maintained “calling things by their true names cuts through the lies that excuse, buffer, muddle, disguise, avoid, or encourage inaction, indifference, obliviousness,” Botton believes how we describe the world determines how we perceive it.  We all write our own stories.  But if we only depict life in the most unoriginal terms, we’ll only see it in the most unoriginal ways.  Art which is truly novel, on the other hand, has the “ability to restore to our sight a distorted or neglected aspect of reality.”  A fresh portrayal of something mundane, like Monet’s Impression, Sunrise, can resuscitate us from the slumber of our customary ways of seeing and help us understand the world in a new way:

“In 1872, the year after Proust was born, Claude Monet exhibited a canvas entitled Impression, Sunrise.  It depicted the harbor of Le Havre at dawn, and allowed viewers to discern, through a thick morning mist and a medley of unusually choppy brushstrokes, the outline of an industrial seafront, with an array of cranes, smoking chimneys, and buildings.  

The canvas looked a bewildering mess to most who saw it, and particularly irritated the critics of the day, who pejoratively dubbed its creator and the loose group to which he belonged ‘impressionists,’ indicating that Monet’s control of the technical side of painting was so limited that all he had been able to achieve was a childish daubing, bearing precious little resemblance to what dawns in Le Havre actually look like.  

The contrast with the judgement of the art establishment a few years later could hardly have been greater.  It seemed that not only could the Impressionists use the brush after all, but that their technique was masterful at capturing a dimension of visual reality overlooked by less talented contemporaries.  What could explain such a dramatic reappraisal?  Why had Monet’s Le Havre been a great mess, then a remarkable representation of a Channel port?  

The Proustian answer starts with the idea that we are all in the habit of ‘giving to what we feel a form of expression which differs so much from, and which we nevertheless after a little time take to be, reality itself.’  

In this view, our notion of reality is at variance with actual reality, because it is so often shaped by inadequate or misleading accounts.  Because we are surrounded by cliched depictions of the world, our initial response to Monet’s Impression, Sunrise may well be to balk and complain that Le Havre looks nothing like that…If Monet is a hero in this scenario, it is because he has freed himself from the traditional, and in some ways limited, representations of Le Havre, in order to attend more closely to his own, uncorrupted impressions of the scene.”  

impression sunrise

A stylist who fashioned his own distinct manner of expression, Proust believed artists had a single responsibility: to develop an authentic voice.  “Every writer is obliged to create his own language, as every violinist is obliged to create his own tone,” he wrote.  No path is more difficult or disheartening than the path to discover our own style: the trail is not straight and clear-cut but winding, obstructed by the overgrown shrubbery of insecurity and self-doubt.  We worry that our ideas are stupid and unoriginal, that we’re not talented or witty or interesting enough.  So we make feeble attempts to be other people, at various times imitating the controlled compactness of Hemingway and the ritzy lyricism of Fitzgerald.  Writing begins with mimicry, impersonation.  But, for Proust, a “writer” only earns the elevated title of “artist” when he finally strips away the costumes of his idols and finds the confidence to dress like himself.

While Proust contended the artist had an obligation to create his own language, leading man of letters and literary editor of La Revue de Paris Louis Ganderax believed the writer had a duty to adhere to the established rules of the language.  At one time appointing himself “Defender of the French Language,” Ganderax was a linguistic traditionalist who took offense to the slightest deviation from conventional grammar, the kind of pompous purist for whom the use of “good” instead of “well” was an unforgivable faux pas.  According to his philosophy of art, literature had to sound literary: a good writer was one who wrote with the grandiloquence of his 19th century forefathers.  Proust despised this overblown mode of expression.  When in 1908, he came upon an excerpt from Ganderax’s preface to Georges Bizet’s collection of correspondence, he laughed, calling it a piece of “enormous, comic pretension.”  So outraged was he that he wrote to George Bizet’s wife, Madame Straus:

“‘Why, when he can write so well, does he write as he does?’  ‘Why, when one says ‘1871,’ add ‘that most abominable of all years,’  Why is Paris dubbed ‘the great city’ and Delaunay ‘the master painter’?  Why must emotion inevitably be ‘discreet’ and good-naturedness ‘smiling’ and bereavements ‘cruel’, and countless other fine phrases that I can’t remember?'” 

proust #2But what, exactly, was so terrible about Ganderax’s prose?  Because Ganderax insisted on upholding the traditions of his literary predecessors, Proust believed, he could only spew the most meaningless cliches and banal ideas.  The result was a parody of literary-ness, writing that perhaps sounded sophisticated but contributed nothing new or interesting to the topic.  “I don’t mean to say that I like original writers who write badly,” he clarified to Mrs. Straus, “I prefer— and perhaps it’s a weakness— those who write well.  But they begin to write well only on the condition that they’re original, that they create their own language.  Correctness, perfection of style do not exist…The only way to defend language is to attack it, yes, yes, Madame Straus!”