Lorrie Moore: It’s Better to Write Than Be a Writer
The Route to Truth and Beauty is a Toll Road
Recently I received a letter from an acquaintance in which he said, “By the way, I’ve been following and enjoying your work. It’s getting better: deeper and sicker.”
Because the letter was handwritten, I convinced myself, for a portion of the day, that perhaps the last word was richer. But then I picked up the letter and looked at the word again: there was the s, there was the k. There was no denying it. Even though denial had been my tendency of late. I had recently convinced myself that a note I’d received from an ex–beau (in what was a response to my announcement that I’d gotten married) had read “Best Wishes for Oz.” I considered this an expression of bitterness on my ex-beau’s part, a snide lapse, a doomed man’s view of marriage, and it gave me great satisfaction. Best Wishes for Oz. Eat your heart out, I thought. You had your chance. Cry me a river. Later, a friend, looking at the note, pointed out, Look: This isn’t an O. This is a 9—see the tail? And this isn’t a Z. This is a 2. This says 92. “Best wishes for 92.” It hadn’t been cryptic bitterness at all—only an indifferent little New Year’s greeting. How unsatisfying!
So now when I looked at the deeper and richer, I knew I had to be careful not to misread wishfully. The phrase wasn’t, finally, deeper and richer; it was deeper and sicker. My work was deeper and sicker.
What did that mean, sicker, and why or how might this adjective be applied in a friendly manner? I wasn’t sure. But it brought me to thinking of the things that I had supposed fiction was supposed to be, what art was supposed to be, what writers and artists were supposed to do, and whether it could possibly include some aesthetics of sickness.
I think it’s a common thing for working writers to go a little blank when asking themselves too many fundamental questions about what it is they’re doing. Some of this has to do with the lost perspective that goes with being so immersed. And some of it has to do with just plain not having a clue. Of course, this is the curse of the grant application for instance, which includes that hilarious part called the project description (describe in detail the book you are going to write), wherein you are asked to know the unknowable, and if you don’t, then just to say it anyway for cash. That a grant-giving agency would trust a specific and detailed description from a fiction writer seems sweetly naïve—though fiction writers are also allowed to file their own taxes, write their own parents, sign their own checks, raise their own children—so it is a tolerant and generous or at least innocent world here and there.
What writers do is workmanlike: tenacious, skilled labor. That we know. But it is also mysterious. And the mystery involved in the act of creating a narrative is attached to the mysteries of life itself, and the creation of life itself: that we are; that there is something rather than nothing. Though I wonder whether it sounds preposterous in this day and age to say such a thing. No one who has ever looked back upon a book she or he has written, only to find the thing foreign and alienating, unrecallable, would ever deny its mysteriousness. One can’t help but think that in some way this surprise reflects the appalled senility of God herself, or himself, though maybe it’s the weirdly paired egotism and humility of artists that leads them over and over again to this creational cliché: that we are God’s dream, God’s characters; that literary fiction is God’s compulsion handed down to us, an echo, a diminishment, but something we are made to do in imitation, perhaps even in honor, of that original creation, and made to do in understanding of what flimsy vapors we all are—though also how heartbreaking and amusing. In more scientific terms, the compulsion to read and write—and it seems to me it should be, even must be, a compulsion—is a bit of mental wiring the species has selected, over time, in order, as the life span increases, to keep us interested in ourselves.
For it’s crucial to keep ourselves, as a species, interested in ourselves. When that goes, we tip into the void, we harden to rock, we blow away and disappear. Art has been given to us to keep us interested and engaged—rather than distracted by materialism or sated with boredom—so that we can attach to this life, a life which might, otherwise, be an unbearable one.
And so, perhaps, it is this compulsion to keep ourselves interested that can make the work seem, well, a little sick (I’m determined, you see, if not to read sicker as richer then at least to read sicker as okay). Certainly so much of art originates and locates itself within the margins—that is, the contours—of the human self, as a form of locating and defining that self. And certainly art, and the life of the artist, requires a goodly amount of shamelessness. The route to truth and beauty is a toll road—tricky and unpretty in and of itself.
But are the impulses toward that journey pathological ones? I took inventory of my own life.
As a child, I had done things that now seem like clues indicating I was headed for a life that was not quite normal—one that was perhaps “artistic.” I detached things: the charms from bracelets, the bows from dresses. This was a time—the early 60s, an outpost, really, of the 50s—when little girls’ dresses had lots of decorations: badly stitched appliqué, or little plastic berries, lace flowers, satin bows. I liked to remove them and would often then reattach them—on a sleeve or a mitten. I liked to recontextualize even then—one of the symptoms. Other times, I would just collect these little detached things and play with them, keeping them in a wooden bowl in a dresser drawer in my room. If my dresses had been denuded, made homely, it didn’t matter to me: I had a supply of lovely gewgaws in a bowl. I had begun a secret life. A secret harvest. I had begun perhaps a kind of literary life—one that would continue to wreak havoc on my wardrobe, but, alas, those are the dues. I had become a magpie, collecting shiny objects. I was a starling in reverse: harboring a nest of eggs gathered from here and there.
“A book by a woman, a book that began up close, on the heart’s porch, was a treat, an exhilaration, and finally, I think, that is why women who became writers did so: to create more books in the world by women, to give themselves something more to read.”
When I was a little older, say 11 or 12, I used to sit on my bed with a sketch pad, listening to the songs on the radio. Each song would last three to four minutes, and during that time, I would draw the song: I would draw the character I imagined was singing the song, and the setting that character was in—usually there were a lot of waves and seagulls, docks and coastlines. I lived in the mountains, away from the ocean, but a babysitter I’d had when I was nine had taught me how to draw lighthouses, so I liked to stick in a lighthouse whenever possible. After one song was over, I’d turn the page and draw the next one, filling notebooks this way. I was obsessed with songs—songs and letters (I had a pen pal in Canada)—and I often think that that is what I tried to find later in literature: the feeling of a song; the friendly, confiding voice of a letter but the cadence and feeling of a song. When a piece of prose hit rhythms older, more familiar and enduring than itself, it seemed then briefly to belong to nature, or at least to the world of music, and that’s when it seemed to me “artistic” and good.
I exhibited other signs of a sick life—a strange, elaborate crush on Bill Bixby, a belief in a fairy godmother, also a bit of journalism my brother and I embarked on called Mad Man Magazine, which consisted of our writing on notebook paper a lot of articles we’d make up about crazy people, especially crazy people in haunted houses, then tying the pages together with ribbon and selling them to family members for a nickel. But it was a life of the imagination.
When I was older, I suppose there were other signs of sickness. I preferred hearing about parties to actually going to them. I liked to phone the next day and get the news from a friend. I wanted gossip, third-handedness, narrative. My reading was scattered, random, unsystematic. I wasn’t one of those nice teenage girls who spent their summers reading all of Jane Austen. My favorite books were The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Such Good Friends by Lois Gould. Later, like so many (of the “afflicted”), I discovered the Brontës. One enters these truly great, truly embarrassing books like a fever dream—in fact, fever dreams figure prominently in them. They are situated in sickness, and unafraid of that. And that’s what made them wonderful to me. They were at the center of something messy. But they didn’t seem foreign in the least. In fact, very little written by a woman seemed foreign to me. Books by women came as great friends, a relief. They showed up on the front lawn and waved. Books by men one had to walk a distance to get to, take a hike to arrive at, though as readers we girls were all well trained for the hike and we didn’t learn to begrudge and resent it until later. A book by a woman, a book that began up close, on the heart’s porch, was a treat, an exhilaration, and finally, I think, that is why women who became writers did so: to create more books in the world by women, to give themselves something more to read.
When I first started writing, I often felt sorry for men, especially white men, for it seemed the reasons for their becoming writers were not so readily apparent, or compelling, but had to be searched for, even made excuses for. Though their quote-unquote tradition was so much more celebrated and available, it was also more filled up. It was ablaze. What did a young male writer feel he was adding? As a woman, I never felt that. There seemed to be a few guiding lights (I, of course, liked the more demented ones—Sexton, Plath, McCullers), but that was enough. Admiration and enthusiasm and a sense of scarcity: inspiration without the anxiety of influence.
I feel a little less like that now, in part because I know the main struggle for every writer is with the dance and limitations of language—to honor the texture of it but also to make it unafraid. One must throw all that one is into language, like a Christmas tree hurled into a pool. One must listen and proceed, sentence to sentence, hearing what comes next in one’s story—which can be a little maddening. It can be like trying to understand a whisper in a foreign accent: Did she say Je t’adore or Shut the door?
To make the language sing while it works is a task to one side of gender. How often I’ve tried to shake from my own storytelling the phrase And then suddenly, as if I could wake up a story with the false drama of those three words. It’s usually how I know my writing’s going badly; I begin every sentence that way: And then suddenly he went to the store. And then suddenly the store was brick. And then suddenly he had been asleep for eight hours. The writer marries the language, said Auden, and out of this marriage writing is born. But what if the language feels inadequate, timid, recalcitrant, afraid? I often think of the Albert Goldbarth poem “Alien Tongue,” wherein the poet thinks wistfully, adulterously of an imagined language parsed to such a thinness that there is a tense that means “I would have, if I’d been my twin.” What an exquisite, precision tool such a tense would be for a writer! Whole rooms could be added to scenes; whole paragraphs to pages; books to books; sequels where at first there were no sequels. . . But then excessive literary production, George Eliot reminds us, is a social offense. As far as language goes we have to live contentedly, and discontentedly, with our own, making it do what it can and, also, a little of what it can’t. And this contradiction brings one back, I suppose, to a makeshift aesthetics of sickness.
Writing is both the excursion into and the excursion out of one’s life. That is the queasy paradox of the artistic life. It is the thing that, like love, removes one both painfully and deliciously from the ordinary shape of existence. It joins another queasy paradox: that life is an amazing, hilarious, blessed gift and that it is also intolerable. Even in the luckiest life, for example, one loves someone and then that someone dies. This is not acceptable. This is a major design flaw! To say nothing of the world’s truly calamitous lives. The imagination is meant outwardly to console us with all that is interesting, not so much to subtract but to add to our lives. It reminds me of a progressive Italian elementary school I read of once in which the classrooms had two dress-up areas with trunks of costumes—just in case, while studying math or plants, a child wanted to be in disguise that day.
“As far as language goes we have to live contentedly, and discontentedly, with our own, making it do what it can and, also, a little of what it can’t.“
But the imagination also forces us inward. It constructs inwardly from what has entered our inwardness. The best art, especially literary art, embraces the very idea of paradox: it sees opposites, antitheses coexisting. It sees the blues and violets in a painting of an orange; it sees the scarlets and the yellows in a bunch of Concord grapes. In narrative, tones share space—often queasily, the ironies quivering. Consider these lines from the Alice Munro story “A Real Life”: “Albert’s heart had given out—he had only had time to pull to the side of the road and stop the truck. He died in a lovely spot, where black oaks grew in a bottomland, and a sweet, clear creek ran beside the road.” Or these lines from a Garrison Keillor monologue: “And so he tasted it, and a look of pleasure came over him, and then he died. Ah, life is good. Life is good.” What constitutes tragedy and what constitutes comedy may be a fuzzy matter. The comedienne Joan Rivers has said that there isn’t any suffering that’s one’s own that isn’t also potentially very funny. Delmore Schwartz claimed that the only way anyone could understand Hamlet was to assume right from the start that all the characters were roaring drunk. I often think of an acquaintance of mine who is also a writer and whom I ran into once in a bookstore. We exchanged hellos, and when I asked her what she was working on these days, she said, “Well, I was working on a long comic novel, but then in the middle of the summer my husband had a terrible accident with an electric saw and lost three of his fingers. It left us so sad and shaken that when I returned to writing, my comic novel kept getting droopier and sadder and depressing. So I scrapped it, and started writing a novel about a man who loses three fingers in an accident with a saw, and that,” she said, “that’s turning out to be really funny.”
A lesson in comedy.
Which leads one also to that paradox, or at least that paradoxical term autobiographical fiction. Fiction writers are constantly asked, Is this autobiographical? Book reviewers aren’t asked this; and neither are concert violinists, though, in my opinion, there is nothing more autobiographical than a book review or a violin solo. But because literature has always functioned as a means by which to figure out what is happening to us, as well as what we think about it, fiction writers do get asked: “What is the relationship of this story/novel/play to the events of your own life (whatever they may be)?”
I do think that the proper relationship of a writer to his or her own life is similar to a cook with a cupboard. What that cook makes from what’s in the cupboard is not the same thing as what’s in the cupboard—and, of course, everyone understands that. Even in the most autobiographical fiction there is a kind of paraphrase going on, which is Katherine Anne Porter’s word, and which is a good one for use in connection with her, but also for general use. I personally have never written autobiographically in the sense of using and transcribing events from my life. None—or at least very few—of the things that have happened to my characters have ever happened to me. But one’s life is there constantly collecting and providing, and it will creep into one’s work regardless—in emotional ways. I often think of a writing student I had once who was blind. He never once wrote about a blind person—never wrote about blindness at all. But he wrote about characters who constantly bumped into things, who tripped, who got bruised; and that seemed to me a true and characteristic transformation of life into art. He wanted to imagine a person other than himself; but his journey toward that person was paradoxically and necessarily through his own life. Like a parent with children, he gave his characters a little of what he knew—but not everything. He nurtured rather than replicated or transcribed.
Autobiography can be a useful tool: it coaxes out the invention—actually, invention and autobiography coax out each other; the pen takes refuge from one in the other, looking for moral dignity and purpose in each, and then flying to the arms of the other. All the energy that goes into the work, the force of imagination and concentration, is a kind of autobiographical energy, no matter what one is actually writing about. One has to give to one’s work like a lover. One must give of oneself and try not to pick fights. Perhaps it is something of a sickness—halfway between “quarantine and operetta” (to steal a phrase from Céline)—to write intensely, closely—not with one’s pen at arm’s length, but perhaps with one’s arm out of the way entirely, one’s hand up under one’s arm, near the heart, thrashing out like a flipper, one’s face hovering close above the page, listening with ear and cheek, lips forming the words. Martha Graham speaks of the Icelandic term doom eager to denote that ordeal of isolation, restlessness, caughtness an artist experiences when he or she is sick with an idea.
When a writer is doom eager, the writing won’t be sludge on the page; it will give readers—and the writer, of course, is the very first reader—an experience they’ve never had before, or perhaps a little and at last the words for an experience they have. The writing will disclose a world; it will be that Heideggerian “setting–itself-into-work of the truth of what is.” But it will not have lost the detail; detail, on its own, contains the universe. As Flannery O’Connor said, “It’s always necessary to remember that the fiction writer is much less immediately concerned with grand ideas and bristling emotions than he is with putting list slippers on clerks.” One must think of the craft—that impulse to make an object from the materials lying about, as much as of the spiritual longing, the philosophical sweep. “It is impossible to experience one’s own death objectively,” Woody Allen once said, “and still carry a tune.” Obviously one must keep a certain amount of literary faith, and not be afraid to travel with one’s work into margins and jungles and danger zones, and one should also live with someone who can cook and who will both be with one and leave one alone. But there is no formula, to the life or to the work, and all any writer finally knows are the little decisions he or she has been forced to make, given the particular choices. There’s no golden recipe. Most things literary are stubborn as colds; they resist all formulas—a chemist’s, a wet nurse’s, a magician’s. There is no formula outside the sick devotion to the work. Perhaps one would be wise when young even to avoid thinking of oneself as a writer—for there’s something a little stopped and satisfied, too healthy, in that. Better to think of writing, of what one does as an activity, rather than an identity—to write, I write, we write; to keep the calling a verb rather than a noun; to keep working at the thing, at all hours, in all places, so that your life does not become a pose, a pornography of wishing. William Carlos Williams said, “Catch an eyeful, catch an earful, and don’t drop what you’ve caught.” He was a doctor. So presumably he knew about sicker and better and how they are often quite close.
From See What Can Be Done. Used with permission of Knopf. Copyright © 2018 by Lorrie Moore.