By WTP Writer Richard Wertime
Woven Tale Press writer Richard Wertime reflects
on the craft of fiction in an ongoing series of craft notes
“That afternoon nothing new came to Thea Kronborg, no enlightenment, no inspiration. She merely came into full possession of things she had been refining and perfecting for so long.”
—Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark
Who are we, we writers?
Beyond the usual answer—we’re people who like to write or feel somehow compelled to (or a combination of the two)—and apart from those who dabble, but lack any ongoing commitment to the craft, we must ask this question: What distinguishes us from the “ordinary person,” that mythical being, or gives us any uniqueness among the artists of other disciplines—with whom, as with Cather’s diva, we will share so much of the creative process?
… Still: what is it to be a writer?
Often enough, it’s my suspicion, we sense a difference in ourselves we can’t readily articulate, the very term “writer” having an honorific aura (at least for ourselves) rather more than it has—indeed, even for us—any clear descriptive value. And yet, for all our vagueness, we feel that we’re called upon to measure up to something… a standard? expectations?… peculiar to our station.
What is that thing, then, that might make us in some measure, those of us who write creatively (dare we even use the word?), “remarkable” as persons? Extraordinary, even? That empowers us in ways that are not characteristic of most of our fellow-citizens? That validates deeply this breathtaking fact? The world admires a great intellect; but it reveres a story-teller… “stories” reaching us, of course, through many literary genres.
Whenever we set out to investigate these questions, we’re often brought up short against what I call (in one of its several forms) the modesty move, the “who-am-I-to?” tendency to back off from interrogating our sense of being special lest we grow overweening in our vanity and pride. In such a frame of mind, we find ourselves baffled, to take but one example, by Yeats’s saying famously in “Sailing to Byzantium” (for all that, it seems almost a non sequitur),
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence
—lines right after those celebrated ones about the “aged man” whose soul must “clap its hands and sing, and louder sing“—
… What, we might ask? No such“singing school but studying/ monuments of its own magnificence”?! Self-centered-sounding, is it? Wildly self–congratulatory? What need, what purpose, have the members of such a school to… what?… preen over their achievements? Make a collective enterprise of self-adoration?
The answer to such doubts might be found in many places, among them in a comment John Updike once made (if grousingly, as was his habit) to a brash young writer who was seeking his response to an early story of that writer’s: “Well, as you can see,” his letter began, “I’m not running a school here—or rather I am, with only myself for student,” then offering the youngster pearls of literary wisdom in a terse, dense critique, words of encouragement as well—thereby running, if in a “short course,” an invaluable school for the young writer!
“A school… with only myself for student”—words that highlight, make vivid, the autodidactic nature of a writer’s most important training, so much of what we learn as we master the craft of writing lying—of necessity—beyond such instruction as we’ve had as new writers, through the mentoring we’ve enjoyed, our creative-writing classes, our MFA programs… our coming into our own mandating finally that we end (here’s Pope again) by “snatch[ing] a grace beyond the reach of art”—in the broadest sense of “snatching.”
It’s of course fair to argue that all advanced training in any discipline whatever must exceed and transcend the bounds of early instruction—as how could it not, if the practitioner is to achieve anything truly distinctive—a generative outcome that strives for a result beyond the merely “replicative.” The stakes, in our field, are enormously high, as Ferlinghetti has told us in “Constantly Risking Absurdity,” the poet’s “act” being, as for all creative writers, the high-wire act of the trapeze artist,
……………….… who must perforce perceive
……………….before the taking of each stance or step
in his supposed advance
……………….toward that still higher perch
where Beauty stands and waits…
—lines reinforcing the old admonition that we’re not much good as writers until we’re really, really good.
… But that “singing school” of Yeats’s, and John Updike’s school-for-self—we must return to these! For the phrase, singing school, is a double metonymy of crucial importance to us writers. “Song,” “singing”—what the aged man, that “tattered coat upon a stick,” is called on to engage in, is, of course, ART, the prophetic enterprise that empowers the artist at the end of “Sailing to Byzantium,”
… set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
What can the “school” then be, in its broadest terms, but the tradition of the art form?—in our case fiction writing, for Yeats, writing poetry.
And then: “monuments of its own magnificence”—what else can they be but the greatest achievements within that tradition, to be aspired to by those who study in that “school” if they wish to achieve glory in the practice of their craft—“glory” for us, here, to be distinguished from “fame” (Milton’s “last infirmity of noble mind”), as consisting in the quest, satisfying in itself, apart from public recognition, to live up to the very highest summons of the “school.” (The composer César Franck, home from the premiere of his Symphony in D-minor, was asked by his wife, “Papa Franck, what did the critics say?” His answer to her, with a beatific smile: “It sounded wonderful, dear!”)
There’s much more to be said about our personal relationship to the literary tradition—that “burden of the past,” as one critic has described it, also addressed by T.S. Eliot in “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” George Santayana’s famous admonition, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” can’t not have a special resonance for us if, as creative people, we’re to avoid falling prey to the naïve myopia-cum-ignorance that Pope depicts so brilliantly in his famous “Alpine” passage in An Essay on Criticism,
Fired at first sight with what the Muse imparts,
In fearless youth we tempt the heights of Arts,
While from the bounded level of our mind,
Short views we take, nor see the lengths behind;
But more advanced, behold with strange surprise
New distant scenes of endless science rise!
Do any lines better capture the exuberant vanity of young-writers as-yet-unaware of the climb they face if they’re to become “trapeze artists” on Ferlinghetti’s high wire? “Short views we take, nor see the lengths behind”—all this, in turn, “from the bounded level of our mind,” reminding us—alas!—that a great many of us, for all our noble striving, will have lived our lives in the lower foothills of human achievement.
None of this is meant to imply that “native wit,” untutored, not steeped in the tradition, can’t strike sparks of original brilliance, or that writers must be scholarly to become savvy writers. Indeed, certain writers who have become more “academic” as they’ve advanced in their careers (as Yeats the poet did not), might well, in doing so, have taken the edge off their best creative moments. The “unlearned” (at least formally) among great writers hold a special place in the canon, their originality being one of the great inspiring mysteries.
Still, the self-cultivation required to become a serious writer has a number of key dimensions, quite beyond the need for courage and stubborn persistence (Wolff’s “stamina and self-mastery and faith” again). The central, “global,” two are these: (a) the mastering of the craft in its purely technical sense, its devices, its canonical requirements (as we might call them), its conventions and the like; and (b) the achieving of a sufficient degree of personal maturity, emotional and intellectual, empowering the writer to participate fully in the adult world, all adolescent fantasies-of-the-self left behind, and a keen, generous awareness of the world acquired.
Much more remains to be said about both of these key requirements—and about our striving to become “extraordinary” beings. Let me propose that four key categories exist that speak to our striving after literary excellence—and to the training we undergo. Two of these categories are more strictly literary; the additional two are psychological in nature. We can summarize them as follows:
The writer’s four claims to being “extraordinary”
The two “literary” claims: (1) A greater-than-average sensitivity to the literary heritage that stands behind and supports—and unavoidably gives shape to—the writer’s current efforts. (2) A greater-than-average awareness of the dynamics of live speech—current language, spoken and written—both how it sounds and generates meaning. The cultivation, in other words, of a writer’s “ear.”
The two “psychological” claims: (1) A greater-than-average understanding of the writer’s individual creative psychology, together with the ability to manage that psychology to the writer’s creative benefit. (2) A greater-than-average understanding of significant portions of general human psychology—an understanding grounded in a principled grasp of the dynamics that govern major areas of human conduct. (We’ll address, too, the issue of why not all of human psychology.)
It might seem sensible to take the four in order, all four so important. But since the theme of these craft notes is the empowerment of a writer, we’re invited to begin our further exploration by posing these questions:
Which of the four constitutes the creative writer’s greatest existential challenge?
About which of the four is the least guidance generally offered a writer?
Understanding which of the four is likely to prove the most elusive for the writer?
It’s not hard to see the major drift of these questions—namely, toward the first of the psychological questions: understanding of the writer’s individual creative psychology, together with the ability to manage that psychology.
If we are, indeed, autodidacts—each of us running “a school, with only myself for student”—few ways exist in which it is more left to us to do “self-teaching” than in the area of creative self-understanding and effective self-management. Here’s some strong medicine from the British polymath G. Spencer Brown in his book, Laws of Form:
To arrive at the simplest truth, as Newton knew and practiced, requires
years of contemplation. Not activity. Not reasoning. Not calculating. Not busy behaviour
of any kind. Not reading. Not talking. Not making an effort. Not thinking. Simply
bearing in mind what it is one needs to know. And yet those with the courage to
tread this path to real discovery are not only offered practically no guidance on how
to do so, they are actively discouraged and have to set about it in secret…
Potent stuff, this admonition—rather reflective, indeed, of what Wing Biddlebaum says to the impressionable George Willard in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio: “You must begin to dream. From this time on you must shut your ears to the roaring of voices.”
It will remain for us to ponder—as indeed we will—how “dissuasive” our culture is toward the aspirations of writers, and whether Wing Biddlebaum, and Spencer Brown, perhaps more, aren’t flexing paranoid muscles in their jaundiced view of the “public.” But few of the writers I’ve known intent on becoming serious ones haven’t had their early seriousness (which people fail to understand is less about themselves than about the craft they seek to master) mocked or belittled or be looked at askance with indulgent skepticism, treated as “cute” or, worse yet, as “pretentious,” comically so.
And it won’t do to say that this kind of response doesn’t often have a deeply negative impact, because we all remain susceptible, at least for a time (often, a considerable one), to outside influences, especially those coming from authority figures—parents, clergy, teachers, and the like (figures whom, in Yeats’s poem “Adam’s Curse,” “the martyrs call the world”). –As well as, alas, from “friends.”
Let’s then fix a goal as we begin this exploration of the empowered writer. We’ll certainly be delving, and deeply enough, into the four claims to be extraordinary enumerated above, in whatever order we take them. But let me offer a kind of koan in ending the first note in the series. Here is Martin Buber in his mid-century classic, I and Thou, words that speak deeply to our enterprise (I’ll shift the pronoun from he/his to the generalized/gender-neutral):
This is the eternal source of art: a writer is faced by a form which desires to be made
through them into a work. The form is no offspring of the writer’s soul, but is an
appearance which steps up to it [i.e., up to the writer’s soul] and demands of it the
effective power. The writer is concerned with an act of their being. If they carry it
through, if the writer speaks the primary word out of their being to the form which
appears, then the effective power streams out, and the work arises.
As we move forward, we’ll devote ourselves to seeing—trying to see—what all is entailed in the writer’s speaking that primary word out of their being to the form which has appeared. We have just begun!