A Writing Life Without Lies

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In this third episode of Swarm and Spark, a new literary column at The Millions written by an anonymous NYC editor and an MFA professor with the goal of restoring humanism to the literary conversation, we consider memoirs, crushing doubt, secrets, and shame.  

Send in questions, comments, confessions, or complaints you would like to see answered, knowing your confidentiality will be equally assured, to [email protected].
Dear Swarm and Spark,
I’ve written a memoir which will be coming out from a major publisher in a few months. As with many memoirists, my life path has not been easy. I expose things in my book that most of my friends have no idea about. Throughout the editing process with my publisher, I’ve managed to calm down a lot and have come to accept that I’ve written this book for a reason and that I’ll just have to deal with whatever comes my way. That said, I do still wake in the night, in a panic, in a sweat, with crushing doubt. The world will know my secrets. The world will judge me. I feel completely overwhelmed most of the time but can’t let on, because I must maintain composure and be professional within this world of publishing. Might you have some words of wisdom for me? How do I deal with the exposure? How will I even speak about difficult topics while on book tour?
—Lucky Yet Fearful Debut Author
T​each​: Lucky raises the great question that plagues so many: how does one ever overcome shame?

E​ditor​: With honesty, I think; with belief that truth, however painful, is a curative. But it’s not easy. Do you think Lucky is more anxious about the reaction of her family or that of the outside world?

T: Maybe ​it is the projection of family onto the outside w​orld. One of the most common reasons I’ve heard new writers cite for taking up the pen is the need to bridge ​a​ perceived divide between their experience of interior versus exterior.

E: That can be a painful process — but often one designed to curtail the erosive pain of lifelong trauma, trading compartmentalization for an integrated life.

T: But if you say honesty acts as an antidote to shame, does the greatness of art ever  — or always — justify ​the ​human wreckage in its wake?

E: Well, I don’t think so — it’s a matter of balance, isn’t it? Privacy must be weighed against truth. But isn’t the cost of secret-keeping one of the great sources of human angst?

T: “If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.” — Orwell. Since each project creates its own particular ethical fences, the borders crossed or left sacred and taboo, how does an author know if her art justifies the human risk?

E: Isn’t the important thing to measure secrecy against a matrix of pain and justice?

T: Maybe Lucky, soon to face the hordes, could measure th​e​ project’s revolutionary possibility, asking: what imagined reader have I summoned and helped by disclosing x or y? As if there might be an ethical offset tax​!​

E: Right: the example of honesty is often a source of a work’s lasting value. And those whose reactions are most feared are sometimes most forgiving. But to get practical: is there anything Lucky can do to manage others’ reactions? Is that ​the writer’s responsibility?

T: The vastness of any writing comes from​ the myriad of interpretations​ readers ​find ​in a​ given​ work. Here’s reader-response theory gone biblical: once you finish a work, you set your baby off in its cradle of river-reed bulrushes for the pharaoh’s daughter to find. Much as you ​might ​prefer otherwise, you cannot control a work’s reception — even if you are president-elect and your work happens to be  a sub-par restaurant! ​Alongside​ the concept of killing ​your ​darlings​ — ​surrender​ ​the baby. Many beginning writers have the belief that, nonetheless, they must work overtime to control how readers accept a work. Even if every writer uses​ some ​imagined community as a magnet for his or her own aesthetic, a particular discourse. or readership, outcomes​ like to play tricks​. ​Yet i​f Lucky’s work stays authentic to its ambition, its cradle will end up in the right bulrushes. Maybe! At least that’s the hope​, or is it not?

E: What you describe is what all art is: a radical act of faith. And faith always involves risk. But perhaps that’s why we invented art: to give ourselves something so beautiful that it not only inspires faith — but sustains it.

T: ​Though anyone who aim​s​ to have radical faith ​knows it entails intermittent digging of the self up from its roots.

E: And trusting th​at ​the internal rewards are worth the interpersonal risks.

T: ​The bravest writers I know, the ones I most admire, sustain the exact negative capability evident in Lucky’s letter: writers aware of the cost, neither heedless narcissists nor writerly sociopaths but rather considering humanity in their work and life. Or, as Audre Lorde says: “I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be ​​spoken, made verbal and shared​.” ​So rest assured, Lucky: already you understand community, written and lived: all that makes up a writing life without lies, so essential in our moment.

Image Credit: Wikipedia.

Brother, Sister, Mother, Father, Where Art Thou?

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In this second episode of Swarm and Spark, a new literary column at The Millions written by an anonymous NYC editor and an MFA professor with the goal of restoring humanism to the literary conversation, we consider community and allies.  

Send in questions, comments, confessions, or complaints you would like to see answered, knowing your confidentiality will be equally assured, to [email protected].

Dear Swarm and Spark,
I’m currently finishing my first novel, which follows an older woman whose life is upended following the return of her estranged daughter.
Now, I have very strong and specific tastes both as a reader and as a writer. I’m interested in the way larger social, political, and economic forces play out on a personal level. I like books that are grounded firmly in a time and place, especially if they deal with ordinary people who find themselves in the crosshairs of pivotal historical events. I also love books that have long descriptions of gardens and/or interior decor. Essentially, I’m a realist — even a naturalist.
Which brings me to my question. When writing a novel, it’s important to cultivate a community of like-minded mentors and readers who are — forgive the pun — on the same page. How do you find these people? When I was working on a prototype of my novel in college, one of my writing teachers told me that its protagonist — who harbors some frankly racist opinions — should become more open-minded by the end of the book. I would hate to read such a novel, let alone write one! Since then, I’ve been fortunate enough to find a few people who share (or at least understand) my tastes, but how do I find more?
Craving Community

Dear Craving,

You have the right idea, I think — or, at least, a good idea that invites exploring. Writers need both comfort and critique during the creative process, and reciprocal reading relationships with smart and friendly readers can be invaluable. For some, this kind of “community” involves an actual in-person writing group; others solicit feedback from a handful of willing individuals. What matters most isn’t the number, or the forum, but the quality of the response. And for you, it seems, there’s the rub: It can be easier to get people to read your work than to be confident that they’ll respond in a helpful way.

How to go about finding those readers? Depends, in part, on the circumstances. When it comes to seeking out literary conversation, some writers live in a stocked pond — the hotbed of Brooklyn, the hothouse of a college town — although a competitive atmosphere can foreclose the kind of selfless response a writer needs. In the wider world, finding good readers often starts with searching out literary community, locally or otherwise: getting to know the person who runs a local reading series, or the owner of a new indie bookstore in a nearby town, or a writer whose voice on social media you admire. Reach out to introduce yourself as a writer; say a few words about your project; offer to exchange email addresses and keep in touch. Whether your new friend is a fellow early-career writer, or someone one step further along who may be interested in paying it forward, let them know you’d be interested in reading their stuff — and don’t be shy about asking if they’d have time to read a bit of yours.

But back to that rub: What if I find smart readers, but they just don’t offer the kind of feedback I’m looking for? Outside readers can have suggestions you’d never have thought of, but they can also come up with advice you’d never dream of following. The best way to elicit useful feedback is to be upfront about your concerns. What are your goals for the piece? What are you struggling with? If you’re facing a fork in the road — I can’t decide whether this 22,000-word novella wants to be a 5,000-word story or an 80,000-word novel — let your reader know. If you’re clear about what you want, the response you get is more likely to be news you can use.

That said, good readers won’t always restrict their feedback to answering your queries. If you ask a reader Should the hero of my literary thriller die at the end?, but the real problem is that the novel opens with 100 pages of undramatized moral philosophy, she’s right to bring that up. If you want to grow as a writer, it’s important to listen to every reasonable response. Your letter suggests you’ve been frustrated in the past by advice that ran afoul of your “strong and deeply held tastes.” This is why it’s helpful, when possible, to get to know someone before requesting a read: If you adore Ann Patchett and your reader’s idol is Anne Rice, you might not get the kind of guidance you’re looking for. It’s great to have at least one reader who shares your literary values — for instance, admiring novelists who excel in the kind of historical context you mention. But beware of limiting yourself to uncritical cheerleaders: Yes! Within you the naturalist tradition lives! may be comforting to hear, but it might not help you refine your work.

Ultimately, the point of getting feedback is to test new work against the sensibility of people we trust, even — no, especially — when their responses are challenging or unexpected. Rather than dismissing a reaction prematurely, do your best to understand it. It’s easy to conclude that your professor was wrong about wanting to redeem that racist protagonist, but it may be more valuable to wonder what sparked that recommendation. (One theory, purely speculative: It can be hard to build a novel around any protagonist who fails to change.) What really matters is how the conversation prompts you to see the work anew. If an otherwise sympathetic reader says Gee, these long garden passages are a little…long, you have a choice: You can dismiss the advice, telling yourself that you’ve written those passages for other readers like you — or you can reread them, with open eyes, and consider that you might just be a strong enough writer to make them work for an audience beyond the converted.



Dear Swarm and Spark,
I have recently finished a novel, but have had difficulty finding representation for it. I gather that, by today’s publishing standards, the book is something of a difficult read — not because of any plot pyrotechnics or because it has a cast of thousands or because it involves some recherché subject, but because it gives up its meanings gradually, requiring the reader to slow down and pay attention to the verbal signals it offers sentence by sentence. This kind of subtlety has always been the thing that drew me to literature; I’ve long felt that the best fiction works by expressing the inexpressible, often through indirection.
So I confess I find myself perplexed. Several agents, while expressing admiration for the novel, have implied it’s a tough sell in today’s market. One cited “the lack of literary courage among publishers;” another claimed that editors these days “don’t like complex protagonists.” Meanwhile, others — readers I’ve generally found perceptive — have flipped over it. The responses of these sensitive readers who “get” its aesthetics, who respond to the central character’s moral complexity, have sustained me during the past year, but none of them is in a position to further its fortunes.
Of course, I’m aware of other potentially complicating factors: it’s a first novel, written by someone with no publishing track record. But one of the practical difficulties I’ve encountered consists in getting through to literary agents in the first place: even those whose mission and vision seem aligned with mine will say on their websites that they are “closed” to queries. In other cases, the novel seems not to have attracted the attention of the young and perhaps impatient screeners at the top agencies, some of whom appear to have limited experience beyond contemporary publishing trends. As I told one writer friend: when your book is meant to be read for a second time, it’s frustrating not to be able to get even that first reading!
 Are we really in danger of losing this all-important stage in the literary process — the contribution of open-minded, perceptive readers, eager to take on new work? I shudder to think so, and I’d be grateful for any insights or advice that might help me break through.
A Believer in Vision and Maturity

Dear Believer,

We live in an era in which, for 60 years, our school system has been teaching children to behave more like computers even as our society seeks to have computers behave more like people. What will be left us is the ore of story and history. We will gather around the fires of story-telling, one of the few acts computers can never replace. And why? Because we hunger for the intimacy of story. As Henry James says, we read to be close to someone’s soul.

All of which means your desire to tell a visionary story that matters is right and necessary, and, happily, experience suggests that good work always surfaces and finds its readership. That you encounter logjams — to mix metaphors — is a frustrating part of the process and has to do with your finding the right allies.

To mix more: conceive of the literary world as a cocktail party of reciprocal affinity. In other words, just as you’d be drawn to particular people at a party, so too in the literary world a particular agent’s sensibility already converses with yours. And your note suggests to me that you might benefit from doing a little more research now.

How? Find the four or five strong contemporary authors already gathered around your particular aesthetic conversation. In each case, scan their books’ acknowledgments, look online or call the publishing company where you’ll ask the underpaid editorial assistant who represents X. Then, and only then, write your query letter! I know of a well-regarded agent who each week with an assistant reads these queries aloud, and if there comes a false moment, the letter is not answered. Your goal with this first connection is to show that you’re not one of those who write agents in blind scattershot fashion after a hasty scan of Writer’s Digest.

To get a bit technical: use your first paragraph to demonstrate your understanding of the sensibility in the agent’s list. In the second, make brief mention of anything notable in your background, whatever makes you singular; the third can be a simple sign-off.

Sending this query serves as the equivalent of dropping a handkerchief on a table, which means you send no writing with it. Some writers might do as Woody Allen did in an early film and preempt critique of one’s work by including it, e.g., while this novel might seem to have quiet content, this story deals with the passion which made Michelangelo etc. Final advice: be briefer than this response!

You don’t have to be a lover of Lacan or Winnicott to find truth in the concept that if you truly see the other, the other will be more likely to see you. In this case, your other happens to be your first gatekeeper, an agent who — if you’ve done your research — will be a hard-working soul wishing to do well by authors and serve the collective campfire.

So long as your work has urgency and grace, you will see your work published, if, perhaps, not in the manner you imagined. In our time, the small presses have been a great source of cultural heat and light. But before you consider these, first ask yourself: can you clear those agent lenses!



Dear Swarm and Spark,
I’m wondering: what’s the latest HVAC technology in the offices of literary agents and editors? Do their climate-control systems now pump molasses, forcing these professionals to swim around in a viscous fluid, impeding their workflow? I do understand that publishing folk contend with a merciless barrage of queries, requests, and demands. But, honestly, what working person doesn’t? In my day job, if you promise, say, to deliver a contract by a certain date, and then you fail to deliver said contract (without providing even the limpest explanation for the failure), your reputation suffers, you undermine your bond with your client, and your boss scowls ominously. If the client you’ve failed enquires about the missing contract, you don’t then ignore that inquiry, or — worse — set another deadline for delivery that you know deep down you’re just as unlikely to meet. Instead, you sincerely apologize, then do everything in your power to make good. Literature is a higher calling — at least I think I believe that. Is that why so many (no, not all) literary decision-makers feel free to act like poorly organized middle-schoolers who figure they can always get another extension, they can always make up the test, and that anyhow they’ll be graded on a curve?
Vexed by the Hex

Dear Vexed,

Duly noted! We’ll alert the principal.


Swarm and Spark

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Will Writing a Novel Jeopardize My Mental Health?

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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 [email protected]
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
Dear Teach—

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?



Dear Editor,

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

Dear 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.