At this point in my creative career, it hardly matters whether I am a poet with a novelist’s mind or a novelist with a poet’s voice. The position is irrelevant as I am unlike to produce any work of importance (or interest). If I am not quite at ease with this situation, I am at least comfortable and accepting, which is as much as anyone could expect.
To illustrate the point, I offer the following:
On my morning walks between the studio and the cafe, I look carefully at the shapes of things, ordinary objects. For example, the set of overhead lamps outside the dance studio look like overturned salad bowls or enlarged domes from an old fashioned electric chair. Perhaps they are both at the same time and yet they also look like something someone might see attached to a warehouse on a foggy wharf; a thick yellow wash emanating from a deep, black mouth that screams midnight.
This sort of thing that clings to me when I sit down at my writing desk and clutters thoughts of plot or characters. Of course, when I give into the rising flood of purple ink, I fade right back into the depth of possibility in detail and action. I become encyclopedic as well as journalistic. I desire to know the smallest detail, which is not exactly what one aims for in poetry, though a smattering might be nice.
Back and forth the battle rages [though really it seems silly to call it a battle as it isn’t that intense and the outcome is not so critical] until I become very frustrated and have no further recourse than to laugh at myself.
I feel this way about certain writers who take themselves and their writerlyness to seriously. This is different from taking the craft seriously. Writerlyness is one of those bad traits that people acquire when they spend too much time by themselves. Woe to our loved ones who must suffer through this unless of course they find it humorous too, which no doubt they do but are wise enough to keep that under their hat.
Over the last few weeks I’ve played about with a few bits of advice here on this site. I’m not terribly happy with the results. The advice may be good or bad. I’m hardly a judge. But it does feel rather like writerlyness is creeping in and it’s time to put a stop to it.
In my case, writerlyness takes one of two forms:
1. An overabundance of self-worth – In my case, I think it’s best to maintain a low opinion of myself. When I start to think to highly of my work [thoughts, ideas, plots, characters, prose, etc.], I begin to get lofty visions I shall never be able to measure up against. This leads to an inevitable fall and many days of black clouds and doom.
2. A frenzied attempt at commercial success – If there is one thing I should know about myself, it’s that I shall never experience a conscious success. I have always lost the things I have pursued most vigorously, and especially those which I have coveted in secret. Commercial success is something that many people [viz. most everyone] feels they must achieve. There is no shortage of helpful books, seminars, and speeches on the subject. Most seem to revolve around pursuing your passion in life and the money will come. This sort of thinking gets under the skin and even the most ardent believer in ars gratia artis cannot help but wonder when they are going to make a nickel. I am the same. But when writerlyness strikes, I find myself looking desperately for some way of making this awful habit of mine into a vocation. Not just any vocation, mind you, but a full blown enterprise complete with sold out tours, awards, lavish parties, and heaps of cash. None of this is remotely realistic [which is why it comes to mind so frequently as I am wont to dwell on the impractical, the outlandish, and the outright stupid]. When an appropriate period of time has passed, say a month, it becomes clear that I have deluded myself once again. Queue the fall, complete with clouds and doom, etc.
I have no idea whether it is possible for avoid these swings. I do find that I am far more productive and happy when I am not in the clutches of such madness. I write a lot of this kind of stuff, though I have no idea if it is the least bit useful. I certainly can’t tell anyone about it.
“So what do you do when you spend all those hours holed up in your studio?”
“I write about not writing.”
“I write about not writing.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Well, you’re not a writer, are you?”
“No, but I like to read.”
“Yes, well that’s swell and all but unless you are a writer, writing about not writing is not going to make much sense.”
Yes, I feel like a moron for even writing down that dialogue. I mean, how can I be so hoity toity about this? I feel like Monsieur Daron in Guy de Maupassant’s story “The Old Man”:
Monsieur Daron has always had an obsessive fear of death. He had deprived himself of nearly all the pleasures of this world because they were dangerous, and whenever anyone expressed surprise that he should not drink wine – wine, that purveyor of dreams and gaiety – he would reply in a voice in which a note of fear could be detected: ‘I value my life.’ And he stressed the word my, as if that life, his life, possessed some special distinction. He put into that my such a difference between his life and other people’s lives that any rejoinder was out of the question.
Well, that brings us back to writerlyness symptom #1. I’m much better off saying that I write science fiction. I hardly ever run into anyone who wants to talk about science fiction, and if they do it’s because they are avid readers and have their little coterie of select writers all of whom I am unlikely to have read and thus causing me to be looked upon like so much dung. I can accept that. It is easier to face that small possibility than to have an honest exchange about the work that I do.