The Empowered Writer, Part Two
By WTP Writer Richard Wertime
Woven Tale Press writer Richard Wertime reflects
on the craft of fiction in an ongoing series of craft notes
Read Part One here
“I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.”
—Adrienne Rich, “Diving into the Wreck,” lines 41-43
For some, it’s not a problem—being empowered. Finding their sea legs early, through natural aptitude or a quick assessment of their needs, and spared inhibitions, they get on with it—and have success in their writing.
Some writers, too, work intuitively more than not, eschewing self-analysis and the pondering of craft in favor of the feel they bring to their composing. English novelist Rupert Thomson favors this approach—“craft notes” and such being anathema to him—his method having yielded such innovative novels as The Insult and Dreams of Leaving.
Then there remain… the rest of us!
—For whom, we others, learning to turn our bodies “without force/ in the deep element”—being able, that is, to speak the primary word out of our being*—doesn’t come so easily. And our journey toward fulfillment, if it’s ever to happen, may find us wading through the slough of despond or encountering numerous hurdles while we grow as creative people.
Yet it’s the case for us all who labor at writing fiction that at times the gods shower us freely with gold, and we write with utter ease—inspired or, it could be, simply finally ready, much as Cather’s Thea was, to experience the “fusion” of self-with-task that Yeats celebrates at the end of “Among School Children”:
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
—dancing, too, an instance of the body turning without force. As Dostoevsky observed, the inspired parts of a novel take care of themselves. It’s in building the connective tissue that link the inspired parts that the hard work comes—to make it all seem effortless, graced with sprezzatura.
(*See the conclusion to Part One of “The Empowered Writer,” WTP website, November 2, 2023)
Indeed, if the writing’s going well, why think about it? Why pause while dancing to consider “What is ‘dance’?” As we’re painfully aware, it’s when it’s not going well—or stops going well, dead in its tracks—that we’re thrown off so much, the self-task fusion no longer holding firm. We find ourselves then, as we’re likely to say, beside ourself—in consternation, disappointment, perplexity, whatever… and left to wonder how and why (we have to add when) our creative selves prove such oddly “pulsating” things, like Rich’s undersea creatures “swaying their crenellated fans/ between the reefs” (lines 48-49).
I detect two key areas where our perplexity is keenest regarding those rhythms—“phases,” we might call them—that can so often bedevil a writer’s working life. The one we might call “macro” for pertaining to the broader shape of a writer’s career. The other I’ll call “micro” for bearing on the localized “pulses” or rhythms we experience in the day-to-day act of composing.
If I consider the macro first (for all our keen interest in the micro rhythms) it’s because it speaks, I think, to an abiding curiosity about what happens—can happen, and often does—when a writer’s career enjoys a very promising start, and then hits stalling headwinds of one sort or another, leading if not to writer’s block, to be taken up later, to what I’ll call “writer’s sag”— that baffling tapering off in the ability to produce at the level attained in the writer’s first success… if able to produce anything further at all.
As we look at this phenomenon, let’s bear in mind (tying back to Part One) those key lines of Pope’s about youthful hope and naïve enthusiasm, and the “chastening” that awaits the early ardor of a striving writer—
… But more advanced, behold with strange surprise
New distant scenes of endless science rise!
(An Essay on Criticism, lines 223-24)
—lines that will merit a closer look a bit later.
The “lucky hit”—and After
Early achievement—that stunning first success so many writers have had! A first novel; a first story; the début collection… such excitement for the writer, and often, as well, for a welcoming public, so eager to see more!
And then—? Where to next—?
A tale often told: the dreaded sophomore slump so many writers have endured while trying, hoping—sincerely expecting—to follow their first triumph with still better work, or at least successive work of no less quality… only to find, alas, that the early magic has departed, and they are struggling, struggling, to find their way forward…
What has happened? What constitutes the mystery?
The answer is to be found in what I’ll call the “lucky hit” and what so often comes after. Every writer, it’s fair to say, begins a career with a certain fund of “stuff”—their personal experience (we all have a “history,” unique enough to us); some ideas to write about; story-telling experience of one sort or another—and often, too, yes, a bolt of inspiration, the sudden realization that this particular story can be made into something!… And so the writer gets to it… and through a fortuitous combination (let’s emphasize fortuitous) of relaxedness, early confidence, a solid knowledge of the material, a knack for story-telling and perhaps, as well, some prior training as a writer, pulls it all together for what I’m calling a “lucky hit.” And the world welcomes it!
Almost anyone, I have to say, in greater or smaller measure, can have a “lucky hit” the first time out—the high-school kid writing the first short story, the school child penning a lovely poem for a parent, the first-time novelist.
But sustaining the success… there’s the rub!
And the “rub” consists—let’s say it—of the onset, in some measure, of literary ambition. The new writer gets “hooked,” the allure of validation, of praise, recognition… Whatever the source of their particular desire for more, they are likely unaware of what is actually happening to them.
No such first-time writer won’t have been, as Pope says, “fired by the Muse,” the ignition switch thrown, the engine set to humming with new determination. But it’s its own “rub,” determination! For with it comes intention, and striving, and will… plus the collateral danger (is it fair to say?) of greed. The wish for something more steps in to supplant the ready means to attain it—which is to say that the will exerts itself in an effort, deeply wishful, and often enough futile, to fulfill a goal not so easily achieved.
What the baffled/frustrated writer hasn’t likely grasped is that they have, willy-nilly, by the act of seeking to sustain their success, embarked on a new phase, unaware that—it’s a rule—ambition prompts apprenticeship.
A major feature of which—apprenticeship—is the laborious process of mastering the particular elements of the craft through long attentive practice, repeated floundering and instruction—“schooling,” that is, of one sort or another—a process, for a time, as the apprentice is attending to those elements individually with the uncertainty of a beginner, is likely—more than likely!—to produce an overall result that is clumsy, clunky… a journeyman effort, one lacking the grace and full relaxedness of mastery. And thus not measuring up to the quality of the lucky hit.
“Sophomore slump” it might appear—but like the sophomore year in school it’s a necessary passage in many writers’ development, the temporary clumsiness, as each separate element of the craft is more fully mastered, reminding us very much of a teen learning to drive—the initial hesitant struggle to put it all together… having to steer, checking traffic, adjusting speed, using those pedals!… And yet, after some months’ experience, all those separate elements become integrated, and the now-proficient driver—their skill “automated,” untroubled and relaxed—can attend from their newly attained skill to the road, to their destination and whatever else is on their mind!*
(*The attending-to attending-from distinction comes from Michael Polanyi’s brief book, The Tacit Dimension, whose account of “tacit understanding” can be a writer’s valuable resource.)
If we double back for a moment to those two lines of Pope’s,
… But more advanced, behold with strange surprise
New distant scenes of endless science rise!
we see the relevance of Pope’s emphasizing “distant” and “endless.” If only learning to write took as long as learning to drive! But Horace said it in antiquity: Arts longa, vita brevis. Authentically surprising and endless—time-consuming—challenges can await those laboring to master our craft, the high-wire act—Ferlinghetti again—of the trapeze artist (who must also learn to turn the body without force).
This “longitudinal” dimension of a literary career is pointed up in an observation the Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne once made—
An artist must work today in terms of what [they] will do forty years from today.
—suggesting that we need a “binocular” sort of vision for the enterprise at hand—our immediate “short views” (Pope) balanced against more visionary, far-seeing ones. And more patient ones as well. Patience is animal cunning, we might well add—when to hold off and when it’s time to “pounce” is knowledge essential to full authorial composure, as we’ll see in more detail. And we’ll see why “pouncing” is not the same thing as lunging, a significant temptation to be avoided by writers.
Writers who have stalled —this has to be noted—after a first great success might not have experienced the “lucky hit” syndrome. All sorts of factors can thwart a writer’s progress: the crippling effects of overwhelming fame, the wealth accrued by it; the onset of illness; family responsibilities; professional demands; guilt induced by whatever—accusations, family pressures, the censure of peers, purely personal misgivings… the list goes on. Women writers in particular have been eloquent on the subject of what can inhibit a writer’s life—the age-old problem of fitting that life into LIFE! Say what you will, it really is a “war of the worlds”! Of which more later.
At times, too, it’s the case with those who’ve had a “lucky hit” that their initial success has more or less shot their bolt—their best “stuff” used, and used up, in the process; and they’re left to turn elsewhere, the “ready-to-hand” no longer providing material quite so pliant. For certain fiction writers, this amounts to a “depletion of the autobiography,” no residue left over for persisting in that vein. Where to turn then? It’s an old conundrum: Are we writers, indeed, people who have something to say, or is it rather that we’re people who have to say something? Which is the more urgent—having a story to tell, or wanting to tell one? Dostoevsky was not alone in ransacking “history” for what to write about next!
Contending With “Letdown”—Where to From Here?
Again: if the writing is going well, why think about it? It’s so curious, so wonderful, how we’re at our very best when, our intellects switched off, we’re in that nether zone—in Rich’s deep element, fluid and agile in our “turning”…
In the second of my craft notes (“Trying to Get it Right,” May 27, 2021), I suggested that we need to cultivate for ourselves an “articulate inner language” that enables—empowers—us “to speak to ourselves about ourselves” whenever perplexities confound us. And that, lacking such an ability to communicate with ourselves, we run predictable risks, the first of which, and gravest, is that we make flawed judgments that result in poor decisions.
Such flaws of judgment are often—as sadly happens—altogether sincere ones, representing as they do the very best we can manage at a given moment, the resulting poor decisions as to how we choose to act leaving us baffled and dismayed by their unhelpful outcome. And by the forfeitures, too, that result from our misjudgments—our missed chances, that is: opportunities passed up that we needn’t have passed up had we had a better “name” for what induced us to make the poor judgments in the first place.
How this need for an articulate inner language bears on those writers who have enjoyed a “lucky hit,” but been dismayed afterward, will, I hope, be apparent. But the story isn’t done yet. The “macro” issue that I’ve taken up first—the scope of a career—so dovetails with the second, the “micro” issue—again, the localized “pulses” we will experience in the day-to-day act of composing—that, going forward, we must look at the matters in tandem.
The abiding matter of “letdown”—again, writer’s sag—is equally pertinent to issues large and small: to the “today” of Cézanne’s comment and his “forty years from today.” In the broadest of contexts, a writer’s whole career, it might call for large reserves of fortitude and courage, of which more’s to come. In the more immediate context—the writer’s daily working life—letdown, as we’ll see, is merely the cost of doing business: a healthy component of our writer’s dissatisfaction with “things as they are.”