Late this summer I returned to a book I started writing a year or two ago. Every time I looked deeper into my characters, their individual stories emerged and they became fuller. A simple enough beginning of a story swelled till it contained several. Then came the familiar sense of losing control over my material. My characters were getting too real for me. Soon they no longer even seemed to be inhabiting the same place.
When I finished the TOEIC book earlier this summer, I finally had time to do my own work, but when I returned to it, I felt as if I were running around trying to catch chickens that escaped from their coop.
I wanted to write something simple, fable-like, and started outlining a story I’ve toyed with in the the past. I planned to write it in Greek, as well. I spent a couple of weeks drafting that, and liked how it was looking, till even there I started probing a little deeper into even the more minor characters. Just when it seemed this too would get out of hand, I put away the notebook and turned on the laptop. I went back to the first novel. Unaccountably, I felt hopeful about it. I completely reworked the second chapter, and started the seventh.
For me, the greatest part of writing (both in the qualitative and quantitative sense) is the momentum. The first chapters are the most difficult, but after a while there’s enough book behind me that I’m pushed along by it. In the same way, the work I did yesterday pushes me along today. If I miss a day or two, the wind is gone from my sails. I open the notebook, or turn on the computer, look at what I’ve done, but find I can’t relate to it. It’s a world too strange, too different from the one I inhabit on a daily basis. So I close the notebook, or shut off the computer, frustrated. More days pass, and I drift further away from the book and its world. Soon the air is perfectly still, all is stasis, and I’m too crestfallen to start paddling.
I want, when I return to the manuscript, to be immediately engaged in the writing of it. It’s a crucial, delicate moment, where dogged persistence is vital, but it’s always where I suffer my crisis, where my laziness and despondency take over.
Someone I’ve never met wrote me a letter and mentioned my “talent”. It made me examine my circumstances again, and this in turn led to the decision to put things on hold for a while.
Like most people, I imagine, I have no real understanding of where my talent — such as it is — lies. I have no confidence in it. Most of the time I don’t believe it exists. Or I believe it exists, but it simply doesn’t seem enough. Sometimes I think I had the makings of it, but wasted my developing years not developing it. Readers of the blog sometimes tell me that I write well, which both pleases and disturbs me. It disturbs me because I don’t try very hard here. When I try to write my fiction, I get bogged down in complications and ungainly charmless prose.
I began to ask myself what it is in my blog writing that doesn’t seem to find its way into my other writing. Is a talent only for expository writing? Is it when I’m writing in a less self-conscious, intuitive sort of way, when I’m writing quickly, not so concerned if it’s going to be art or not? Perhaps, deep down, I don’t really understand fiction as well as I simply understand prose.
As I responded to the letter, I had occasion to use the word “genius”. And something from Milton’s “Lycidas” came back to me.
Henceforth thou art the Genius of the shore
Milton was using the word here in its original Latin sense, meaning a guardian spirit or deity. I thought about how this word had come to mean “a person of natural intelligence or talent”, and how difficult it is actually to characterise the trait. Not inspiration, I thought, but something similar. Some sort of possession by a spirit.
I have, over the years, picked up a few books about the act of writing, and most of them are worthless. One book, however, stands out, for me: Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. The title sounds naive, but it’s a very practical book, and it’s a very comforting one. And Brande has some interesting things to say about the habit of genius, worth extensively quoting.
The author of genius does keep till his last breath the spontaneity, the ready sensitiveness, of a child, the “innocence of eye” that means so much to the painter, the ability to respond freshly and quickly to new scenes, and to old scenes as though they were new; to see traits and characteristics as though each were new-minted from the hand of God instead of sorting them quickly into dusty categories and pigeonholing them without wonder or surprise; to feel situations so immediately and keenly that the word “trite” has hardly any meaning for him; and always to see “the correspondences between things” of which Aristotle spoke two thousand years ago. This freshness of response is vital to the author’s talent.[T]he dual character of the genius is almost a commonplace. As a matter of fact, it is a commonplace for all of us, to some extent. Everyone has had the experience of acting with a decision and neatness in an emergency which seem later to him to savor of the miraculous; this was the figure which Frederick W. H. Myers used to convey his idea of the activity of genius. Or there is the experience of the “second wind” that comes after long grinding effort, when suddenly fatigue seems to drop away and a new character arise like a phoenix from the exhausted mind or body; and the work that went so haltingly begins to flow under the hand. There is the obscurer, but cognate, experience of having reached a decision, solved a problem, while we slept, and finding the decision good, the solution valid. All these everyday miracles bear a relation to genius. At such moments the conscious and the unconscious conspire together to bring about the maximum effect; they play into each other’s hands, supporting, strengthening, and supplementing each other, so that the resulting action comes from the full, integral personality, bearing the authority of the undivided mind.
The man of genius is one who habitually (or very often, or very successfully) acts as his less gifted brothers only rarely do. He not only acts in an event, but he creates an event, leaving his record of the moment on paper, canvas, or in stone. As it were, he makes his own emergency and acts in it, and his willingness both to instigate and perform marks him off from his more inert, less courageous comrades.
Later, Brande describes the difficulties and the despondency that most writers eventually feel:
He worries to think of his immaturity, and wonders how he ever dared to think he had a word worth saying. He gets as stagestruck at the thought of his unseen readers as any sapling actor. He discovers that when he is able to plan a story step by step, the fluency he needs to write it has flown out the window; or that when he lets himself go on a loose rein, suddenly the story is out of hand. He fears that he has a tendency to make his stories all alike, or paralyzes himself with the notion that he will never, when this story is finished, find another that he likes as well. He will begin to follow current reputations and harry himself because he has not this writer’s humor or that one’s ingenuity. He will find a hundred reasons to doubt himself and not one for self-confidence. He will suspect that those who encouraged him are to lenient, or too far from the market to know the standards of successful fiction. Or he will read the work of a real genius in words, and the discrepancy between that gift and his own will seem a chasm to swallow his hopes. In such a state, lightened now and again by moments when he feels his own gift alive and surging, he may stay for months or years.
It strikes me now that when I wrote the first part of this post, I hadn’t yet got out Brande’s book, and find the similarity of this passage to the first part humbling.
Brande’s point in her book is about developing habits, even a programme, for writing. Many books have prescribed this, but hers was an early one, published as it was in 1934. It seems countless books have parroted her advice without explaining why writers should develop this habit. She pays her reader the compliment of knowing that no really intelligent person is going to get up early in the morning, every morning at the same time, and write, regardless of what’s in his head, just to get used to the physical act, without first having a good understanding of why he’s doing it. Brande explains why.
But this is not the place to go into that.
So, why did I put away the projects I was working on?
Perhaps Brande would say it was because I hadn’t really listened to her and hadn’t done what she’d prescribed. And I suppose she’d be right.
I started thinking about voice, the voice of authority that some writers have, the voice that says, Trust me, I know what I’m talking about. I felt that, as far as my present habits are concerned, I needed to think about how I will approach my writing. I need to think about what sort of story-telling I want to do. I’ve already written one complete novel, and don’t want to start filling up pages again, just to see where my material takes me. Perhaps, in time, I’ll decide that this is actually the best plan, but for now I want to wait, and think, and read. Perhaps I’ll only need to wait until I feel I can’t wait any more. Or perhaps I’ll find that I’m content to wait, and think, and read.