Reading and Writing, no Arithmetic

About a month ago or so, I ran across someone who turned out to be an avid reader, and it happened during the course of my work, which makes it that more interesting and rare, considering what I do for a living.  How I came to know she was an avid reader is kind of silly — I was delivering one of those canned Microsoft Courses, where the presentation material contains trite introductory diversions in order to “loosen up” the audience — something like going around the room introducing oneself and then providing your favorite hobby, etc.   Corny as it sounds, it actually worked well, everyone in the room learned more about each other in the ensuing conversation than we might have otherwise.

And so this led to more conversations, and actually inspired in me a desire to start reading again — I mean really reading — books, that is, and not just semi-weekly editions  of the New York Review of Books or Harpers, or that SPAMlike of magazines that seems to arrive on practically a daily basis – The New Yorker.  She provided me with The Samurai’s Garden, a beautifully-written book about a Chinese boy in the 30’s that is shipped off to coastal Japan by his wealthy family for health reasons, and where he meets a number of finely drawn characters with complicated and tragic pasts.

Then she told me about Paulo Coelho, whom I had barely heard of,  being so completely out of literary touch, as it were.  So I purchased a couple of his books tonight, and realized in the bookstore that I had always left it up to my father to feed me literature, and, considering he has been dead for twelve years, maybe it’s time I started paying attention to these things myself.

Perhaps more importantly, this chance friendship has also inspired me to dust of “Fish,” which is the novel I wrote in a mad fury over a four week period about sixteen years ago, while in Seattle between fishing seasons.  My father was still alive then, and as an illustration of how powerful affect he had on me, especially in terms of my literary ambitions, after receiving from him two or three critical sentences in response to the chapter I sent that I thought was my best, I put the manuscript down and never picked it up again.  Until now.  In fact, just two days ago late at night in this hotel room in Boulder I rewrote probably the last part I am willing to rewrite at this point.  I do think it is ready or very close to being ready for Lulu, or whatever.  (POD being the subject of another post at some point …)

In talking with Ginnie today about writing, though, it was great to hear that she herself has a yearning to write — and this is the first conversation I’ve had about writing in, oh, about fifteen years — but I forgot to mention something that I now remember Dad telling me when I started to write seriously, about thirty years ago: 

Do not, under any circumstances, judge anything you write when you start.  It is the kiss of death.  Just, simply, write.

He cited a few reasons —

1) Everything you write when you first start will likely be garbage, but it WILL get better.  But, if you stop and judge too quickly, you will never get past the garbage stage, and will likely give up, and

2) You don’t know , and you cannot know, the quality of your own writing.   No matter who you are, you are not equipped to be subjective about your own literary art.  It could be a masterpiece, or it could be completely unreadable, but you will not know it.  At least certainly for the first ten or so years of writing.  So don’t, for cryin’ out loud, stop and judge anything you write.  Just … write.

I think he’s right about that, at least based on my limited experience.  And it’s true, I think, for everyone. A few weeks ago The New York Review printed some of  the letters of Norman Mailer to the couple of writers he admired in the 50’s, right around the time he had recently written his anti-war masterpiece The Naked and the Dead, and he was full of a mixture of brio and doubt in his letters about his current projects — not completely sure that the work was damned good or not.  He thought it was, but wasn’t quite sure. And you read, between the lines of the letters, a desire to be validated by his peers.  So I think it’s fair to say that if it’s tough for Normal Mailer to judge his work, writing at the height of his powers, then it’s not worth trying to judge your own.

One of the things we talked about was one the most thrilling and mysterious aspects of writing fiction — the concept of the Muse.  It’s no joke that the Greeks went to such lengths to explain the mystery  the creative force in art as the result of a Goddess, or Nymph, separate from your own self, that is responsible for the life that comes to the characters you create.  It really does happen that way, and just talking about it gave me the chills today, and I long to feel that again.  It’s such a strange thing when it happens, because you think you have created these characters, right out of your head, and then they begin to take on a life of their own, and proceed to act in ways that baffle and amaze you.  I remember shrugging and laughing at some of the turns of events that came out of what I wrote when I was staying for a year in a cabin the Adirondacks, finishing my first novel, starting my second, and then trying to write short stories, all the while reading the likes of Lie Down in Darkness and bemoaning the likely fact that no matter how many years I remained holed up in that cabin I was not going to be able to write like Styron.

Nowadays, of course, no one writes like Styron — or, how would I really know, anyway?  But the excerpts I read in the review magazines that garner effusive praise such as “luminous, enchanting”, etc. are written in a flat, spartan style that is far, far from Styron and his southern predecessors, that I can only imagine that no one is reading him or the likes of him these days.

But does it matter, really, what people are reading?  No, it’s about the writing.  We must remember that we write, foremost, for ourselves.  If a book gets out and makes its way to some people and you end up with some nice feedback, I suppose there can’t be too many things that can happen to a person to top that, but when you are sitting in that quiet place, deep in the writing, I would hope that you are writing  for yourself, and not with others in mind.