Saturday, November 14, 2015

This Thing We Do...

It is a truth not widely enough acknowledged that inspiration comes during composition, not before. The way to write is to write. Put words on paper and work them until they strike fire. Recall the Chuck Close quote that Philip Roth references in Everyman: "...Amateurs look for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work." These are some of the wisest words ever spoken on the process of artistic creation; they render superfluous all those dusty, thumb-stained volumes of Paris Review interviews. The wait for inspiration is a "Beast in the Jungle" trip: you John Marcher your life away waiting for the muse's moment, and your dying thought is, Wow, what a great novel this would've made... I think it's probably healthier for a writer to consider herself a craftsperson, one who makes things, a builder in words, than to identify as an "artist" with all the post-Romantic bullshit the A-word still implies (torment, longing, suffering, starvation, alienation--that crazy caricature of 'the artist' that makes conformists feel good in their everyday idiocies). We are craftspeople, after all. We are workers in words, constructors of crazy labyrinths in the fake land of langue. Working with words, we build machines of story, from the exquisite miniatures of Kafka and Borges to the history painting-size grandes machines of Tolstoy, Proust and, yes, George R. R. Martin (not that Ser George rides in the same rank as Count Leo and cher Marcel, but his fantasy Song is indeed impressively gargantuan). This is not to say (needless to say) that all books are created equal. No, they are endowed by their creators with varying degrees of excellence--or its lack. Most novels are formulaic, mass-produced, undistinguished and indistinguishable; they roll off the pseudo-creative assembly line like so many identical Fords. Truly exceptional novels are a different kind of machine, a class of machine about which no further generalizations are possible. Each sits alone, a genre of one. Pynchon builds vast Tinguely machines that exist only to destroy themselves. Cormac McCarthy's books are elaborately trimmed 19th-century locomotives steaming straight to hell. Proust's novel is an imaginary art nouveau Parisian hotel designed by Gaudi and located in the neighborhood of the Arc de Triomphe (a 'machine for living,' indeed). And Joyce? He's a builder of cubistic labyrinths, Danielewski houses made of leaves, Braque studios that accordion inward into unexpected depths. All writers, from Grisham to Vollmann, from King to Proulx, are makers. Our magic lies in the making, in the process of writing, not in the endless Barton Finking of reading, research and preparation by which we avoid the fateful confrontation with the empty page.


And on the other hand (there's always another hand; my ruminations are like Hindu gods), we are artists, and we should embrace that word on our own terms. Toss overboard the ballast of bourgeois bullshit and understand ourselves as prose artists. Writers are artists in prose, poets in paragraphs, sculptors of sentences; architects constructing, chapter by chapter, novels as surprising as the height of a High Gothic ceiling soaring above us as we step from a honking, gassy, sunlit city street into the dark blue air of a cathedral that has stood for centuries. That sharp, shocking shift, like passing through a portal to the past, is very closely analogous to the experience of reading great fiction, wading naked into the rising tide of an amazing novel until its waters close above you and the supposedly 'real' world seems a muffled, wavering, filmy thing, phony as a failed magician's trick, flimsy as a cardboard fortress tornadoed by a gentle summer breeze. Reading the very greatest prose artists--Proust, Woolf, Faulkner, Joyce, Sebald, Borges, Gass, Lobo Antunes (a list betraying my Modernist bias)--can be a most hallucinatory experience, as dis-orienting and re-orienting as a psychedelic trip (a simile betraying my Sixties nostalgia). Of course the authors of such experiences are artists--and so, on the lower frequencies, is every writer who truly is a writer, an artist of prose, and not merely an 'author' of 'titles.'

No comments: