Swarm and Spark is an advice column, the first installment of a series: an ongoing conversation– sparked by questions from readers — between an anonymous Manhattan editor with lauded years in the industry shepherding both fiction and nonfiction (“Editor”), and an equally anonymous writer and professor in a well-established MFA program (“Teach”). One goal of the exchange is to help those perplexed by our current state of affairs, literary and social and cultural. It’s an experiment that comes from a belief that a greater humanism should underwrite reading and publishing in our unusual time. Readers are invited to send questions, blushing or not, on any topic related to their own needs or projects in the life of literature, to both Editor and Teach at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear E and T,
As a recent graduate from an MFA program, raised in urban settings and now heading off to a cabin in the woods for some four months to commit wholly to a draft of my first novel, I am wondering how the writer, in isolation, best protects mental health. How, in other words, can I achieve healthy balance in total commitment to the book without sacrificing reality for fictional reality? One of you once mentioned Flaubert’s comment, in a letter to George Sand, about how one dinner party gave Flaubert enough stimulation to dine out on, internally, for some three to six weeks. So my question might be: how deep is too deep?
The Newly Committed
Such an interesting question, with many more questions woven subtly into its fabric. How deep is too deep, Committed asks; will writing a novel jeopardize my mental health? But the glimpses of background offered here — observed with a novelist’s acuity — suggest other concerns: After a lifetime in the city, how will four months in the woods affect me? After the community immersion of an MFA program, can I cope with four months in “isolation?” Most notably, After a lifetime of writing other things, will “fully committing” to a novel upend me?
First of all, let’s congratulate Committed. Anyone who decides to spend even four months (never mind the year or several it often demands) devoting imagination and energy, hopes and ambitions, to a single work of art is doing one of the worthiest thing we humans can do. It’s the work of the lantern-carrier, who casts light into the forests and caves of the human experience, and of the cartographer, who surveys and calculates and then uses craft and art to capture what the light has shown.
I hope that, as the cityscape recedes, Committed can carry some of that light — and lightness of spirit — into the woods. To be granted four months’ peaceful reprieve from the rhythms and responsibilities of daily life is a pretty rare gift. And, at its best, the writing process itself can create a kind of virtuous circle of exhilaration, where each day’s work leaves at least a glimmer of something new, something worth saving and returning to and coaxing into life.
But I know it’s not that simple. Even the most even-keeled, congenial writers I’ve worked with have had their walks through the dark valley, their moments of boredom or inertia or self-doubt. Still, their trials have usually ended the same happy way: the work is its own cure.
Committed says that what’s unsettling about this woodsy sojourn is that prospect of sacrificing reality for fictional reality — that somehow the isolation, and a full-body plunge into this novel’s world (all those dinner-party details), could eventually be overwhelming. I can understand that fear, and it seems important to take precautions against pure stir-craziness: If this cabin is part of a writer’s colony, for instance, there should be plenty of opportunity for social interaction, a surprising curative that writers (and bashful editors) sometimes underestimate. If it’s not, I hope Committed will commit to drive into town every few days. A passing chat with a grocery cashier can do the mind and heart a world of good.
I hope, too, that Committed will take some comfort in the feeling of control that can come with writing itself. One of the great gifts of writing fiction is the thrill of letting your imagination take the reins. Even if you launch a new project with the story already clear in your mind, every sentence is the result of asking yourself a question — What if? What would she say here? What happens next? — and responding in the way that you, and only you, think is right. If a scene seems inert, you can invent something new to shake things up: a spoiled dinner, an overheard whisper, the sudden appearance of a boisterous stranger. If you’re feeling swamped by too much detail, too many choices, you can put the manuscript aside and clear your mind by writing a simple exchange of dialogue between two characters, whether it belongs in the book or not. It’s your world, your story, your project; you get to decide. Writing isn’t always easy, but at heart it’s a form of self-entertainment, a solo performance of campfire tales, and for sheer self-comfort it can be hard to beat.
One more thing: After college, an MFA, and a lifetime of reading, a four-month writing retreat can come with some heavy self-imposed expectations — as if that cabin were the stage of Carnegie Hall. Under the circumstances, any writer might start weaving stories about what could go wrong: What if I can’t handle the intensity of creative work? Or, for that matter, What if the muse disappoints? To my mind, the best way to relieve this kind of internal pressure is to demystify the process: to remember that writing may be an art, but that art is conjured through good, simple, demanding work, like building a fieldstone wall. It’s a matter of trial and error, of discovery and alteration. It requires steadiness, but rewards improvisation. Each new day’s work fills in old gaps, opens new ones, but always points toward completion.
What’s most daunting of all, for Committed, may be the unknown. But once the work begins, I’d be hopeful that those fears will give way to the quiet concentration of writing — of placing each new stone in the wall — and the confidence that comes with a growing command of craft. That kind of trust in the work, and a kindness toward one’s self and one’s goals, can be a writer’s best friend.
But, Teacher, you’ve not only guided many writers, you’ve also written several novels yourself. What do you think? What am I missing? What would you tell Committed?
Though I’d like to call you by an even more invented name, as if this advice column might unfurl within the world of Don Marquis and his Archy and Mehitabel, a book that probably informed my sense of the writing life too much when I stumbled across it in grade school, gleaning its least consequential aspects, and now able to recall mainly this: free-verse poet Archy is a New York City cockroach unable to hit the caps-lock key on his typewriter while writing letters to the curious and roaming alley-cat Mehitabel. Archy makes the most of his lack — as do we all, as will Committed, as is the case with all writing! The blind spot becomes the stylistic imprint!
Manifestos aside, Committed does stir up my wish to find that book somewhere in the toppling library of books, and whether that is the library invented, Borgesian, dreamt, recalled, or actual, who knows? Trying to remember a long-ago book is like trying to remember a dream, which is in its way not dissimilar to writing a book, and this aspect — remembering the dream you mean to write — forms part of what I’d like to advise Committed in relation to your response, which I’m going to call magisterial.
I’ll get to the advice, I promise, via one of the creative strategies Brian Eno advises: obliquity.
Some years ago, when the massive Barnes & Noble bookstores began relegating literature to the tiniest of invented districts within its megalopolis — the world of literature stowed between self-help and pop-up books, just before magazines and after mechanics — as a milk-stained writer I saw this as the visual correlate of where literature stands in our society. On a very slim perch! The conversation I yearned for, one that slipstreamed back to the first caveman who saw fit to chisel the story of a speared bison, all the way through Defoe chronicling life through the eyes of a lovable woman with self-justifying morals, through our present and highly self-reflexive literary moment — that conversation lives, as you know, on very little floor space in the bookstore of today. If we take up that idea of ikon, of society raising a construction of what matters before praying to the spirit behind, we find that what is being worshiped, in those bookstores, is mainly the dollar.
What I want to say here is not new: we the chattering classes — readers, writers, critics, scholars, editors, teachers, anyone who finds life and solace on the page — have a particular idea of how our chatter matters, how loudly our creations boom within the great cultural echo chamber. Yet if you need a hit of more commonly held reality — is that hit really so necessary? — all you need to do is walk not to your beautifully curated independent bookstore, run by a person with proclivities not unlike your own, but to your corner megalopolis — or, even more readily, your online marketer, if that last entity has not yet inferred your aesthetic genome so thoroughly as to create the addictive illusion that the masses also care for your own precious ragged corner of the aesthetic universe.
That was a mouthful! And of course, Ed., you know much more about this than I do, bringing many great works out to the wilds while retaining your bright ideals — right, mostly? (Though I’d be curious to hear at some point which ideals you might feel you’ve had to abandon in publishing.) As a writer, I can only see that whole emergence-into-the-world thing from the wrong end of the kaleidoscope, and sometimes I’ve kept my eyes half shut, willing myself into innocence about the marketplace, partly because I’ve always felt the job of the writer, once the manuscript leaves the hamlet, is to surrender control: to let that little baby down the stream of public conversation and just trust the fates, however much each writer chooses to engage with the later public discourse around a book. And when I say public, I mean that represented by that wee strip of Barnes & Noble (or Nobles, as one centenarian I know extols the megalopolis he sees as a palace).
The worst and most common questions the debut author hears in airports, bars, and cafes, and always from anyone outside the world of publishing: You’re a writer? That’s great! How are your books selling? How’s your book doing? Of course, Don DeLillo has said many times that there is great freedom to be gained by writing in the margins of a dying art, now that terrorism from all nations has hijacked our central narratives.
Or, he might have continued, now that the dollar has forever hijacked our sense of time. And some idea of nobles, terrorists, dollars, and time haunts our letter-writer Committed, whose question, which involves the risk of choosing a Thoreauvian experience of extreme solitude in a cabin — much more rigorous and self-punishing than an arts colony, though, yes, we should touch on that some other time — raises for me a host of larger questions: How, generally, does one find pleasure in the act of writing? How does a writer, to be most in touch with the creative spirit, cede control, which you mention as well?
Here’s the paradoxical gauntlet: the very control one needs to create the optimal conditions for the act of writing can also impede that which lets you write most freely. Whether apprentice or expert, a writer must find a way to outwit the superego’s goal of paralysis — to unhand it of its main tool, a prism that makes one’s efforts look paltry, often in direct relation to one’s reverence for the greats. Pace the Romantics, one question every writer faces is this: how to ensure that your work becomes more than a document of the flavor of your intelligent madness in a particular period — even if, with luck, it ends up committed to print? How do you ensure that your writing is not just folie à deux between you and your editor, or, worse, pure solipsism?
So the main question for Committed seems to be a Romantic one: if I begin this private tango with my own demons — hoping to create work that will enter the greater conversation, the readers of the world, and, forgive me, the Barnesian nobles — will I remain intact at the end?
In one of many jobs, working as a waiter, I had a question posed me by a lawyer-customer, a man who thought in billable hours: how does a young writer have time enough to experience life, write, and create work? I floundered for years trying to find the answer. I still often advise people not to rush off into an MFA program (if the external structure and funding of an MFA is needed at all; more on that in some future note), but rather to engage with life, to be a waiter or construction worker, and mainly, all along, a reader. Because what the MFA gives is community — exactly that which Committed shucks at this crucial moment in his/her own chrysalis-making — but no program offers the experience s/he is about to undertake.
And so another way to phrase the question: how to keep the chrysalis from becoming a tomb?
Whoever you are, in coming to writing, your questions about process create your aesthetic thumbprints on the page, your own stylistic gift. Questions such as How do I put on the page my own singular subjectivity, and yet have it be intelligible to others? My first writing mentor happened to tell me that writing did not matter if it was not read. The comment came as a surprise after years I’d spent writing all manner of jejune stuff (poems, journals), considering it all compost for the greater garden, a habit I continue today, while knowing that we have great contemporary writers who are neither journal-keepers nor letter-writers, or who are only journal-writers, saving all their precious fluids (forgive the Strangelove reference!) for the public page.
Committed, seeking for the first time to span the interior (the singularity that will make his/her future work matter) with the exterior, wonders if the world of creation will be such an alluring or sticky wonderland that s/he will have a hard time emerging back into the light of our workaday world, with its more conventional task-reward structures. The flag of the dollar again, triumphantly planted!
Well, your grocery-store reference is useful. In times when I have imposed monastic discipline on my writing practice, a small outing to a town meant so much, the interactions so highly charged and alive, and then, interestingly, as I walked back to whatever isolation hut I’d found, I’d happily return to the world of reverie. The novel itself is such a generous medium: it awaits you, your world populated with your characters and issues. And, in relation to how tethered to reality Committed will be, barring an addictive habit of any sort, it is amazing to feel how internalized our superegos — the parts of us that keep us on schedule — can be, even at such moments of isolation. One almost needs to mandate pleasure!
Why? I don’t believe it is salutary for a writer, young or old, to create conditions that go against Eros, against the life instinct. If you write with no pleasure, is this the practice you wish your life to be? Here I’m advocating awareness over hedonism, believing that in the former lies meaning. Once I had a teacher, a literary scholar who tied herself to a chair to write and stayed there until she threw up and finally wrote: is this what anyone wants? Who wants a business card to say, in invisible ink, professional masochist? Added to this, I am not alone in offering advice you might well find in the self-help section of B&N: find a way to fill your aesthetic well, every day, somehow, to follow a path of ease, and if you find the greatest succor in nature or culture, all the better. Milton said that the lyric poet gets to drink wine but the epic poet must sip water slowly from a wooden bowl. In other words, care for your own physical vessel. Have the vision of the marathoner, but without the lacerations! Make a daily habit of physical movement and of taking at least a moment to quiet the mind. Use nature, the aleatory and allied arts (visual arts, music, dance, anything), to help jar the creative force. The best you can do, Committed, to help ensure your project’s happiness, is to find a way to be compassionate and surrender perfectionism. To avoid being daunted, to care for your own being as much as the project, to find joy in the day. Use anything you can to keep a happy tether to what gives you pleasure. Barthes may have gone roguish and French with his idea of jouissance but, who cares, writing is pleasure, and, as Editor says, the gift of four months is a boon. What you practice is what you become.
So take this as it’s meant, from the caps-unlocked position of a free-verse cockroach poet, and from my perspective, Committed, what you need is a bit of faith in whatever guiding principle led you here. Another way of saying this: when waters are choppy, steer by the light of the moon. Because, as Editor suggests, what writer does not revile a project midway through? A project can crumble like an archaeological find in the harsh air of self-critique. And if you, Committed, find pleasure in expressing a singular subjectivity, trust that there will be others, in the great bookstore of life, who will read the resulting work — nobles, peasants, beasts drawn to writing that articulates some aspect of their experience — and so a greater good will come about, some freedom will be released in them. Write what scares you, I say, and know that this act gives you pleasure. That alone could get you through the four months!
This month, I was speaking with you, Editor, about whether or not some current project of mine would serve some greater good. In response, you quoted Virginia Woolf, who will get the last word in this long screed:
Yet who reads to bring about an end, however desirable? Are there not some pursuits that we practise because they are good in themselves, and some pleasures that are final? And is not this among them? I have sometimes dreamt, at least, that when the Day of Judgment dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards — their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble — the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when he sees us coming with our books under our arms, “Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.”
Faithfully as well,
T. or Archy
Wow! I knew this was a good idea, though it seems to me you’ve brought both the swarm and the spark. You’ve given us much to think about, but in the spirit of helping Committed, just a final thought about the one big ingredient you stirred into the pot.
What I responded to, in Committed’s letter, was the surface query: If I dive deep enough to capture a pearl — a true, jagged grain of myself, adorned with beauty — can I withstand the pains of decompression when I resurface? It took you, from the world of academia, to perceive another question behind that question: If I do, will it be worth it? Will anyone want the pearl?
Editors share this anxiety. When I was young in publishing, still painfully earnest, I remember writing in my journal: Will I ever find the place where my interests, and the interests of “the public,” come together? The earliest books I worked on were good ones, I thought, and they were generally received as such, but their sales were often modest, and that worried me.
What I came to realize — after many years, many such quietly rewarding books, and a decent handful of deserving breakthroughs — is that you can’t worry about selling the pearl until you’ve found it and carried it safely to shore. If you want to write something of real value — a true expression of your singular self — then total commitment to that goal is no risk. It’s the oxygen that preserves you.
Have faith, we seem to agree: Every true pearl will find a home.
Image Credit: Pixabay.