The Agony and the Ecstasy

My little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you...
Galatians 4:19

 This is not really a manifesto.  I suppose if you want a manifesto, you might do worse than to look here.  If anything, this will be a talk (hopefully brief, but who is to say?) on being a writer.  This will be a delving into my reading of other authors on the subject and also into my own experience.  It will, hopefully, not over-gild the lily, but equally I hope it will not diminish the exultancy of art.

I am quietly making my way through Mystery and Manners, a collection of essays by Flannery O'Connor.  While I have not yet read any of her fiction, her thoughts on the subject of writing (excluding Southern fiction, of which I confess to know nothing) have continued to ring true with my own experience - and it is an experience of great passion immediately juxtaposed to the absurdly awkward.  Take, for instance, the author's own reply to the question, "Miss O'Connor, why do you write?"  She said, simply, "Because I'm good at it."  She went on to mention that this reply was instantly disapproved of - possibly because the remnants of both Catholic and Protestant sentiment argue that if we enjoy something, it must be bad, and to succeed is to commit a sin.  (That is a subject I have touched on elsewhere, and is too long to tackle again here, but I trust you all recognize the absurdity in such a repugnance toward being remarkably good at one's craft.)  But in my own experience, I have been met at every turn by these unavoidable and at the same time irritating questions, and I can think of a no more succinct answer than Flannery O'Connor's:  "Because I'm good at it."  There are other reasons, but no inquirer will give me the time to indulge them: the simple fact that I'm not a bad hand at the art and that I enjoy my own work - because I'm good at it - seems a pretty sturdy answer, even though I know, as with O'Connor, my answer will be received with disapproval.

There is another question which I think every author abhors and which every author cannot really blame the inquirer for posing.  That is, "What is your book about?"  Being of a very shy turn of nature and my efforts to overcome my inability to communicate adequately verbally being, as yet, ineffective, I loath this question.  It highlights all my natural weaknesses as regards social interaction, it embarrasses me, and as a result I do no justice to my writing while I am trying to explain myself.  But even before reading Flannery O'Connor's essay "Writing Short Stories," I had begun to formulate a more militant reply to the awful question, so the perspicacity of her essay was not lost on me.
You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate.  When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story.
Which is also something no one likes to hear.  People like to get the gist of the book's subject (which is why authors are made to write those little blurbs on the backs of their books), and they like to know right off whether or not the book is something they would be interested in.  They do not realize that the last person on earth they should ask is the author himself, who has just spent years and thousands of words, blood, sweat, and tea discovering and fashioning and living in a world, bringing characters to life with the thrill and agony of a mother.  Such a person is least able to condense the story into a few words or so.  Such a person is more inclined to take the question "What is your book about?" as an insult rather than hope it exhibits any interest in the story.  Very truly, if I could tell you what Adamantine and Plenilune and The Shadow Things are about, I would not have spent these past nine years building and shaping and agonizing and putting words together to make a sort of living, breathing creation.  I would not have subjected myself to making life out of law, I would have kept the commandments scrawled in cold, impersonal stone.  I would not have strained and hurt and cried and laughed and soared.  I would not have written novels, I would have written essays.

The life of the author is one of joyous suffering.   I almost said quiet joyous suffering, but I would only mean quiet in the sense that the suffering is largely unseen - I have only to look at my own tempestuous worries and listen to the large, loud words in the prophets to know that a creator strives, and strives mightily, and that the suffering can be keen indeed.  And yet we persist for the sake of achieving the perfect, and in the long quiet death we endure doing this terrible thing called art, we are imbued with life.  It is a very personal experience, one which we cannot share, an incommunicable attribute of the writing process which, unless the reader is also a writer, the reader will not understand.  This is not an elitist comment, just a fact, and the experiential difference between the author and the reader continue to clash over literature as the two minds try to meet.  I do not know if they ever could (unless, again, the reader were also a writer), and in Flannery O'Connor's statements I find a refreshing, if jarring, return to a recognition of the limitations and expectations placed on the writer and the reader.  Art is not a superfluity (don't ask me why I do it), nor am I really capable of saying in a few cold words what it took me many lives to communicate.

After all, even God did not do that.

3 ripostes:

  1. Yes. Yes that is the worst possible question. I always feel panicked when someone asks what my book is about. I can't just tell them the premise! That has no soul!

  2. Ah, that wretched question! I try a new answer every time, but it never gets less difficult. Especially because, (like you?) I am incredibly shy and quite the poor socializer. I would rather listen to a conversation than say something meaningless "just to say something and breach the awkward silence". :)
    I've always liked reading things that make me say "yes!" or "me too!" and this one did. So I'm pinning it to Pinterest if you don't mind--I like to keep tabs on things that I like. ;)


  3. Ah, I loved this post to bits. And that question - though I am no introvert (I can be shy though!) - this question gets more difficult to answer every time I'm asked it. But how you said, we writers spend years trying to write the soul of a story and then they demand of you to describe it. Agonizing.