Monday, October 27, 2014

Forget need: write from joy

Oh Joy (dog running on beach)
"Oh Joy!" by dank1012

I'm going to talk to myself out loud for a few paragraphs. You're welcome to listen in.

I've heard the advice that you should only write that story that grips you and won't let you go. You should write because you have to. You should write out of some kind of dire necessity. And I do believe there's truth in that. A lot of truth, and maybe even most of the truth.

But that's not the whole truth. From another angle, as I wrote in a recent post reflecting on playing cornet (for no earthly or professional reason), too much of our lives are devoted to duties. Things we have to do, because if we don't do them ... whatever will happen. I won't be able to pay my bills. My kids will grow up to hate me. My such-and-such will get mad at me. Whatever it is. Duty calls, and we jump to our feet (grudgingly, but quickly). And the deeper the need, the quicker our response, the more attention and energy we give that thing, and the harder we push to "do it right."

Writing, I think, shouldn't be like that at all. Or at least not the kind of writing I'm interested in. A story that has to be written is, well, a newspaper story written for a deadline. Or a sequel to a novel promised by the writer, or demanded by a contract. (I respect both of those kinds of writing, by the way. But it's not what I signed on for here!) Freedom--the kind of freedom that is essential to art--has to come from a different place. It has to come from a kind of joy. Or at least "joy" is one of the places it can come from. A superabundance, an exuberance, an overflow, an excess.

That, I admit, is its own kind of necessity. And it might be the necessity these advice-givers have in mind. But its primary trait is not, I think, need. Its primary trait is "joy." Or "enjoyment." Delight. Ecstasy. Richness. Excess. A freedom from duty, a desire that transcends the demands of everyday life, that celebrates "waste" and "profligacy." Just look at the endless hours spent clacking at a keyboard to produce a small piece of excellent, exquisite prose. Novels write far slower than they read. If they existed for reading alone, they would never be written. The writer would collapse under the pressure of duty, the duty to produce what was demanded.

The same could be said about painting. It doesn't exist only to be looked at and seen. If it did, what painter could bear the strain to produce a finished work?

So novels are written for another reason altogether. Call it "need" if you want, I prefer "joy." The very best novels are experiments in delight, distillations of endless lingering, idiosyncratic and meandering, exploratory and clever, taking the time to shed light on some aspect of life, or just to tickle some curious itch. There are mercenary novelists, I'm sure. But like I said, I'm talking here to myself about the kinds of novels I enjoy reading and would want to write. They all have that trait of exuberance, even if it's the sparse lines of Hemingway or the voluble passages of Dostoevsky, the vivid descriptions of a Neal Stephenson, the arms-length humor of H. G. Wells, the lush prose of Patricia McKillip, or the ascetic blade of Ursula Le Guin. None of these writers, I think, are writing because they have to--out of some kind of duty imposed on them from an external force. (Dostoevsky sometimes did, I realize, to pay bills. But that's beside my point.) It might not even be that they have to write this particular story because its teeth got into them. It might be that they have found room in their life, in the internal space of their interior life, to play. (Play, either frivolously, or with great earnestness. But play, nonetheless.) And in playing ... out came these delights.

I don't know if that's the way to say it. But there's something true in what I'm trying to articulate here. Something that the advice to write "what you have to" has never conveyed to me. Writing, for me, has to live outside the realm of "duty." At least for now. It has to exist in a place that's free of those kinds of mercenary constraints. It thrives on exploration, on a rich diet of leisure and thought and space and time. From there a story might well seize me and not let me go. But it seems to me it's more often the reverse: that I seize a story, an idea, an inkling, that emerges from that rich interior life, and I don't let it go until I've found out the insight it's hiding in its murky depths.

Stories, to me, don't come fully formed, but rather as semi-conscious or even unconscious nudges that I have to seize and follow out if I want to understand them. I can go on without them--and have--but I'd rather take hold of them. This doesn't feel like necessity, but rather opportunity. A chance to find joy, to pursue my bliss.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Wind in My Sails

This cornet is exactly like mine (including the case)
You can get one for under $100
After 20 plus years, I recently picked up my cornet and started playing. It's not a fine instrument, my cornet. It has age, and character. The first valve sticks sometimes. The sound is a bit bright, a bit stuffy, and the mouthpiece is bowl-shaped instead of the more typical V you want for a cornet. On the other hand, I haven't had so much fun in years.

What's fun, oddly, is the discipline of doing something that has no professional purpose or possibility. Writing used to be that way, and then I got the crazy notion of trying to publish some things (not that I try that hard, but I do try). On cornet, I'm just a guy in his forties blowing sound out of a brass pipe.

But the process of learning to hold the instrument to my lips, and create from my body a sweet sound, is its own reward here. Most of my playing is done in a practice room at the college. If other people can hear me, they mostly have my sympathy. I'm not there to impress anybody. I just want to do it right, not because of some duty but for the sake of creating a pure sound, a sweet and clear tone.

Not many things in life are like this, I think. Most of what we do is for duty--that's been my experience. Why else do I get up at the crack of dawn? Why else do I read certain books and put in my hours and go here and there running around in the car? All of that--a good chunk of my life--is for nothing but duty.

But playing a horn that nobody can hear, and disciplining my body to learn to breathe, and my lips to buzz, and my jaw to stay in position ... all this is just completely outside of any necessity whatsoever. I'm doing it because I want to. And nobody else wants me to ... er ... expects me to.

I guess writing is like that still, even in spite of my feeble efforts to publish what I've written. I don't do any of that because I have to. I'm not a starving artist with no other skill set. (Maybe that's why I'm not more driven to send out my work.) Nobody's expecting me to write something or put it in the mail. The closest I get to that is writing I do for work which, partly for that reason no doubt, feels like drudgery and toil. And I suppose disciplining myself to learn the craft of fiction, how to shape a narrative, how to hone description and bring out voices and delve into the red blood of a character ... all that is for the sake of doing it right, getting that "clear tone," too. I do want to make my stories sing, for myself first and foremost. And here comes the other reason I don't send things out as diligently as I should: I can hardly get a better rush than when I know the story is right, in the quiet of my own study. (And more often it's something far worse than a rush that I get back from my endeavors to interest an editor in my delicacies.)

At some point, I know, I am going to want to step out of the practice room and play a few tunes in the hearing of human ears. I'm not there yet, but when my horn is responding to me the way I'd like it to, that moment won't be far behind. Even then, it won't be performance that I'm after. I'll want the joy of playing with other musicians, contributing my horn's voice to a larger whole, on the sweet sounds set down by a genius. If writing could somehow be more like that, I suppose I'd be less timid. But every bit of words scratched on paper--even this half-random blog post--feels like a performance, even if only to me. When it's read, there's a finality to it that a musical rehearsal doesn't have. That's not always true--critique groups break the rule there--but it's often enough true. And out there in the world of professional performance, there be wolves and dragons.

So maybe that's my last hurdle, the reluctance that keeps me close to the vest. Who knows? Who cares? What matters tonight is that I've found little gusts of joy that, in spare moments, refresh me, like a cool wind on the sea, filling my sails.


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