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.

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