Observations on Creative Writing and Creative Writers
“Writing shows its influences by the contagion of rhythm and pacing more often than by exact imitation of ideas. We know that Updike read Nabokov in the nineteen sixties by the sudden license Updike claims to unsubdue his prose, to make his sentences self-consciously exclamatory, rather than by an onset of chess playing or butterfly collecting.”
Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker, Jan. 16, 2017, p. 84
Most of today’s creative writing in America is highly imitative, lacking the creative spark of originality. Writers imitate other writers: their themes, their literary form, their tone, everything. Much of what is published amounts to bad imitations of bad stories to begin with. The imitators apparently took the bad stories for good ones. A writer writes another bad story imitating a previous bad story. How does a writer avoid such a misfortune? Read the greatest writers who have ever lived. Read Lev Tolstoy, Flannery O’Connor, Flaubert, Gogol, Rebecca West, Dostoevsky, Nabokov, Thomas Mann, Virginia Woolf, many many others in the grand pantheon of world literature. If you must imitate somebody, try imitating them. Don’t bother reading ninety-five percent of living American writers, even the ones who have won awards.
Then there is the brilliant young writer who proclaims, “Why do I got to read all them old dead white men (plus a few dead white women)? Me, I got my own ideas!” How do we answer such a proclamation? We say, “Duh, yeah.”
About imitation. One thing that’s ever so hard to be is original. Good writers present something novel in tone or style; a good writer has his/her own voice. When you find your voice you have begun. Some writers never begin.
On The Envy of the Creative Writer
One day a writer of creative literary fiction sits down and writes a masterpiece. Other writers are plunged into sorrowful depression, thinking, “Dang, there are only a limited number of masterpieces to be written, and now this guy has filched another one and run off with it.”
Paraphrase of James Salter, The Art of Fiction, p. 50
As for myself I don’t even know what Salter is talking about here. I don’t have any feelings of envy whatsoever. Never have had. What’s wrong with me? I just read the brilliant novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer. Didn’t feel envious of him; just felt, “Wonderful, how great to have a young writer writing at that level of creativity.” Then again, I don’t know what writer’s block is either; can’t even conceive of not being able to write—unless I go blind or senile. Guess I’m just dumb.
What do good creative writers do? They “make the shape and rhythm of sentences intensely felt” (Salter, p. 56). Yes!
Then there’s the aspiring creative writer who proclaims, “I’m not interested in rhythms of sentences; I want to write about ideas.” Urggh.
Here’s the layman’s image of a writer who teaches creative writing in a university: “… a dramatic figure striking in appearance, wearing boots and jodhpurs, perhaps, with long white hair like a prophet and bearing a kind of literary ichor, the fluid in the veins of the gods” (Salter, p. 57).
Can that white-haired prophet teach you to write? No, you have to learn yourself, through years and years of intensive practice, while reading only the best creative writers who ever lived and learning from them.
Salter mentions his friend Saul Bellow, who once remarked on “the sexual heartlessness of women.” As Salter says, “Women were especially on his mind at the time since his ex-wife—his third—was suing him for more money, given that he’d received the Nobel Prize with the six or seven hundred thousand dollars that came with it” (p. 58, 61). No big secret there—that women can be sexually heartless, or even just plain heartless, or mercenary, cruel or meretricious. But so can men. Welcome to the human race.
We Write Ourselves
“In a copy of a book that Colum McCann signed for an auction of first editions, beside the disclaimer that is always printed proclaiming that the book is a work of fiction, the names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination, or are used fictitiously, and that any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental, beside this McCann wrote simply, ‘Bullshit’” (Salter, p. 38).
Then again, you don’t want to get sued, do you?
Important Books and Unimportant Books
“Books that are important weren’t written to be important, generally. They became such. By important, I mean so-deemed. Referred to. I can’t think that The Catcher in the Rye was written as an important, life-altering or significant book. I believe that it was simply heartfelt. To Kill a Mockingbird doesn’t bear marks of an intended importance although I don’t know what Harper Lee actually felt. Fitzgerald thought all of his books were important. The Great Gatsby was a short book, only 214 pages, and he was insistent that the publisher sell it at the same price as his longer ones” (Salter, p. 42-43).
Speaking of the so-deemed, the above paragraph demonstrates the sometimes dated opinions of James Salter. Read by everyone and his brother in the fifties and the sixties, The Catcher in the Rye is read by practically no one these days. Not only not important, but already moribund, almost dead. To Kill a Mockingbird is still widely read, its so-deemed greatness still afloat, but it is “a book for children” (as Flannery O’Connor said), and for people who do not or cannot read real literature. As for The Great Gatsby, this book has claims to being the Great American Novel; it should be sold at twice the price of any other book.
Where and When You Write And Who Is Helping You Out
“You don’t do all the writing at your desk. You do it elsewhere, carrying the book with you. The book is your companion, you have it in your mind all the time, running through it, alert for links to it. It becomes your chief companion, in the real sense of the word, you can talk to it quietly. It becomes your sole companion” (Salter, p. 76).
What Salter hints at here is that, unbeknownst to you, the book is writing itself in your mind all the time. Your deepest neurons of the brain work on the writing day and night. As recent studies in brain science have revealed, on a conscious level we have no idea about the decisions those independent neurons are making. Romantic writers used to think of themselves as the amanuensis of the gods, who guided their pens and sent down original ideas. But more likely writers are the amanuensis of their own creative neurons. When your favorite character suddenly does something totally unexpected on the page, it’s not because God so decided. The neurons decided—and they very well may have made that decision at three a.m. in the morning, while you were fast asleep.
“There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real” (Salter, p. 77).
Selected Passages from the Writings of Good, and Sometimes Great Writers
[description of a ritual butcher in a Ukrainian shtetl, inspecting the lungs of a cow or sheep he has butchered] “the glossy brownish organs . . . . . the grotesque and otherworldly things that made life possible and which everyone—from a mouse to a man—had pumping and sloshing around in the dark hollows under his skin” (David Bezmozgis, The Free World).
“Her light-brown hair was drawn smoothly back and gathered in a knot low on her neck, but near the right temple a single lock fell loose and curling, not far from the place where an odd little vein branched across one well-marked eyebrow, pale blue and sickly amid all that pure, well-nigh transparent spotlessness. That little blue vein above the eye dominated quite painfully the whole fine oval of the face” (Thomas Mann, “Tristan”). [Mann is great at describing human faces, human bodies.]
[description of a delicatessen] “there were glass showcases where smoked mackerel, lampreys, flounders, and eels were displayed on platters to tempt the appetite. There were dishes of Italian salad, crayfish spreading their claws on blocks of ice, sprats pressed flat and gleaming goldenly from open boxes; choice fruits—garden strawberries and grapes as beautiful as though they had come from the Promised Land; rows of sardine tins and those fascinating little white earthenware jars of caviar and foie gras…” (Thomas Mann, Felix Krull) [Mann is also great at describing a scene by accumulating masses of detail; in this he reminds me of Nikolai Gogol.]
“She’d never met a child with beady eyes. Beadiness arrives after long slow ekes of disappointment,
usually in middle age” (Lauren Groff, “For the God of Love, for the Love of God”).
“She felt a single drop of sweat slip from the small of her back, hang for an instant, and then slide into the mellow groove between the flexed jaws of her buttocks” (Harry Crews, A Feast of Snakes).
“A vast strand of white fleece, brutally bright, moved south to north in the eastern vault of the heavens, a rush of splendid wool to warm the day” (William Kennedy, Ironweed).
“joyfully gazing out from behind the cobblestone barrier are white crosses and monuments, which hide in the greenery of cherry trees and look from afar like white spots . . . . . when the cherry trees bloom these white spots blend with the cherry blossoms to form a broad seascape of white; and when the fruit ripens the white monuments and crosses are bedizened with specks that are blood-scarlet in color” (Anton Chekhov, “The Steppe”). [Chekhov’s tone-poem novella, “The Steppe,” full of such brilliant nature descriptions, was much influenced by his friend, the wonderful landscape painter Levitan.]
“You know, I have an uncle who’s a country priest, and the man is such a believer that when, in time of drought, he goes out into the fields to pray for rain, he takes with him an umbrella and leather raincoat, so that on the way back home he won’t get soaked” (Chekhov, “The Duel”).
“there was something wooden about his walk, something like the walk of toy soldiers, the way he barely bent his knees and tried to make each stride as long as possible” (Chekhov, “The Steppe”). [Chekhov loves describing how people walk. Tolstoy, who loved Chekhov when he met him, marveled at the way Chekhov himself walked. “He has the walk of a little miss of the noble class,” said Tolstoy with delight.]
“In sadness there is some alloy of pleasure. There is some shadow of delicacy and quaintness which smileth and fawneth upon us, even in the lap of melancholy. . . . . Painters are of the opinion that the motions and wrinkles in the face which serve to weep serve also to laugh” (Michel de Montaigne, “We Taste Nothing Purely”).
[Desdemona, reveling in the stories Othello tells her about his adventurous life] “She swore in faith ‘twas strange, ‘twas passing strange; ‘twas pitiful, ‘twas wondrous pitiful. She wished she had not heard it; yet she wished that heaven had made her such a man” (Shakespeare, “Othello”).