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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, April 02, 2007

be honest

While there is no one right way to write something, there are endless wrong ways. I've never taken a creative-writing course, although I have given tips to others on writing--those who have asked for them.

I'm trying to think whether there is a general statement for writing that is comparable to the general statement for visual artists: "draw what you see". I remember giving this tip to Kimmie years ago when she was drawing something on the dining-table up at my sister's place. She asked me how to draw better, and I gave her the "draw what you see, not what you think" tip. It was a revelation to her. She was amazed at the power of this simple advice; it changed the way she saw, and immediately and dramatically improved the way she drew.

Is there something similar for writing? The first thing that springs to mind is this: "be honest".

This advice, like the drawing advice, is deceptively simple. And, like the drawing advice, it calls first of all for a change in attitude. It has nothing to do with technique--with how to execute the work. It has to do with the way of perceiving what it is you're trying to portray. The painter detaches from his thoughts, his beliefs about what he is depicting, and shifts his attention to the raw input of his eyes. My stapler sits next to my keyboard. If I were drawing it, I would pretend I had never seen one before, and did not know what it was used for. It is mere colors and shapes on my retina, which I translate to paper.

Writing is perhaps more subtle, in that the writer's medium itself is conceptual: words. Nonetheless, the best writers are those who are able to detach from their preconceived beliefs about what they're depicting and see them with fresh eyes, shrugging off the conceptual influences of morality, religion, convention, and "common sense" to describe the thing as it is in itself. This, in my view, is a much more difficult trick to achieve than the painter's ability to set aside his conceptions when looking at an object.

The other day I had an unsettling taste of the flavor of honesty in reading this (compressed) extract in James's Principles of Psychology, volume 2, from the chapter on "Instinct":

As Rochefoucauld says, there is something in the misfortunes of our very friends that does not altogether displease us; and an apostle of peace will feel a certain vicious thrill run through him, and enjoy a vicarious brutality, as he turns to the column in his newspaper at the top of which "Shocking Atrocity" stands printed. See how the crowd flocks round a street-brawl! Consider the enormous annual sale of revolvers to persons, not one in a thousand of whom has any serious intention of using them, but of whom each one has his carnivorous self-consciousness agreeably tickled by the notion that he will be rather a dangerous customer to meet. See the ignoble crew that escorts every great pugilist--parasites who feel as if the glory of his brutality rubbed off upon them. Let a curtain be drawn over the ferocity with which otherwise fairly decent men may be animated, when (at the sacking of a town, for instance), the victory long delayed, the sudden freedom of rapine and of lust, the contagion of a crowd, and the impulse to imitate and outdo, all combine to swell the blind drunkenness of the killing-instinct. Our ferocity is blind, and can only be explained from below.

When I read that first observation by Rochefoucauld, I had an unpleasant sensation of recognizing something in myself. Rochefoucauld was reporting--writing--something about himself as well, of course: something unpleasant but true. He was being honest.

Honesty compels both the attention and the assent of the reader. The mind thirsts for truth, even as we spend so much of our time trying, for various reasons, conscious and unconscious, to bury the truth and substitute something more pleasant. But just as only water, in the last analysis, answers the body's thirst, only truth answers the mind's.

So the writer's dictum, "be honest", is not so easy. It means going within; it means not accepting the pat answers and slogans that we usually live by. It means looking to find out what one really thinks and feels, and then calling a spade a spade.

What one really thinks and feels: it sounds easy. It should be easy, since this is the stuff of our most immediate experience. But it's hard--very hard. For even the visual artist's approach of shaking of visual conventions is harder than it sounds--many people can't seem to do it at all. They don't understand what it means to look at, say, a table and not regard it as a table, but only as colors and shapes. This is why artists, for training, sometimes deliberately get away from a conventional point of view. One of the best likenesses in drawing I've ever achieved was when I drew Kimmie's sleeping face from a position where it was upside-down to me. Lacking any conceptual guidance, I was forced to draw only what I saw, as exactly as I could. While I drew I had no idea how accurate my likeness was; I was puzzled and shocked by some of the line-combinations I found. Not till I was finished and rotated the sketchbook could I see how I'd done, and I was very surprised and pleased with the result. My sleeping wife! Amazing!

I'm not aware of any comparable mental trick that a writer can use to see things differently. But a writer, to be any good, to have a chance of writing something that might stay in print, must see things differently. For, just as what we conventionally call a table is just colors and shapes on our retina, so what we conventionally call an event is made up of components--thoughts, feelings, intentions. We may not acknowledge these to ourselves most of the time, but we recognize them when they are shown to us, reported to us by a writer who has acknowledged them.

Thus the writer, the artist, as a denizen of this usually ignored world, is an alien, even as he is more intimate with our inner selves and inner lives than anyone else.


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