Do you ever wonder whether you’re just a pretender when it comes to pursuing this writing business? That unless your writing is motivated by a drive or desire to exorcise deep, dark personal demons, it is hackwork? That you are kidding yourself if you harbor any illusion of creating art, popular or literary, if you just want to tell a good story in carefully-crafted language?
You might be inclined to answer in the affirmative if, like me, you’ve been listening to interviews with, or reading reviews of the latest books by, two big-name authors recently.
First, there’s Jonathan Franzen, author of the acclaimed new novel Freedom.
On NPR, Franzen told Terry Gross of “Fresh Air,” “If I’m just writing about something moderately interesting and using interesting, well-termed sentences, it just has no life. It has to come out of some issue that’s still hot in me, something that’s distressing me. And there are plenty of things to be distressed about and for a long time, I was able to get a lot of energy onto the page from certain kinds of political distress, environmentalist distress — even aesthetic distress. . . . And that kind of anger has become less interesting to me. . . . Particularly in the new book, I tried to let go of that. I found myself letting go of that. [I] went to the deeper, more upsetting things, which were much harder to get onto the page but whose presence I could feel. . . like some pool of magma beneath the crust. There is heat down there, if only I could find a way to tap into it.
“. . . Much of the work on a novel for me consists in the kind of work you might do in a paid professional’s office of trying to walk back from your stuck, conflicted, miserable place to a point of a little bit more distance, from which you can begin to fashion some meaningful narrative of how you got to the stuck place. And the stuck-ness, for the working novelist—or at least for this one—has to do with not wanting to get into certain intensely fraught or private experiences. . .[but] feeling that it’s absolutely necessary to say things that are absolutely unsay-able.”
And speaking to NPR’s “All Things Considered Saturday,” Franzen said, “For me, that’s part of work, because the bad feelings that are stirred up when you really, really, really want to write something and you really, really can’t, and you also feel that the stuff that has to be written is the stuff that is unwritable, the most private, most upsetting parts of yourself, the extreme position you’re then in as a writer, it seems bound to be accompanied by occasional significant darkness and some suffering.”
Then there’s James Ellroy, whose new book, The Hilliker Curse, is about his obsessive, tortured history with women and its roots in his relationship with his mother, Jean Hilliker Ellroy, and her murder when he was 10.
In a review in the September 13 edition of The Wall Street Journal, author/reviewer Andrew Klavan put it this way: “Mr. Ellroy. . . manages to suggest the ways in which such obsessions and crises serve as the novelist’s muse. ‘Yearning is my chief fount of inspiration. I live in that exalted state,’ [Mr Ellroy] writes. ‘Wanting what I cannot have commands me to create large-scale art in compensation.’ ”
No doubt, both men are deep and sincere thinkers about their creativity with words and what fuels it. Never forget that digging deep for the correct thought and correct phrasing is what elevates your writing. It might be wise, however, for us workshop types to avoid—or at least balance—this kind of intense psychological analysis of our creative writing processes and motivations with a much simpler notion of what it is we are doing.
I feel good about citing the following remark, glib though it may be, because the writer who offers it also is acclaimed for his literary artistry. In an interview with Terry Gross a few years ago, Richard Price boiled down his 30 years as a novelist and screenwriter to this definition of the process: “rearranging the 26 letters of the alphabet.”
How simple is that?—Alex McNab