Thoughts on Writing

It all happened on the same day. A post I wrote about my first e-book, Special Forces, appeared on this blog, a friend suggested I look into producing my own audio book, and I received a visit from a charming retired Japanese journalist, Shoichi Nasu. Mr. Nasu, making a series of pilgrimages to American literary sites for a book he is writing, had stumbled onto me, seeking an answer to the question: why is Gone With the Wind not considered a great work of literature?

Mr. Nasu was too savvy to have gone looking for Tara, but he had been to Steinbeck country in California, In Cold Blood’s Kansas, Cather’s Nebraska, various shrines in New England, and was headed to Oxford on Monday. All astonishingly without a car. His appeal, with rare counterpart in my line of work, was that of a person engaged in a challenging project born of deep personal interest. That, and his frank, witty, polite nature.

Canon smanon, he just wanted to know. The story is quite popular in Japan, in its film avatar at any rate, and he had gotten a brochure on southern literature somewhere that didn’t even mention that fabled tome! Why not? Well, I, no apologist for any canon, and a loather of any sort of “100 Books You Must Read” list, a believer instead that one’s own reading life is a unique expedition as intimate as a fingerprint that may very well omit the entire list of esteemed titles to no harm, could only stammer some clichés: it’s basically a melodrama with stock characters, it is complicit in the promulgation of a myth that greater writers (the one on his next stop came to mind) had agonizingly and ingeniously dismantled, leaving its author stranded in the zone of her subject matter in a way that leaves article-hungry critics little to do but point that out, and one can easily imagine it serialized in Redbook. Abaslom, Absalom! not so much.

Mr. Nasu—whose English was good, and who admitted that he was a slow reader in his own, and certainly in his adopted language—was plodding his way through a massive paperback version of Miss Mitchell’s book, an exercise he politely labeled as “torture.” I thought to myself, surely this is ill-invested labor. Why not just watch the movie? Well, of course he had, many times, and I fear our conversation may have taken something from his resolve to stay the course of his laborious decoding with its dubious trophy. Be that as it may, his dilemma, and the other events of the day, turned my thoughts to the distinction between the “news,” and the medium through which it is delivered.

I love the minimalist impulse, the Hemingway distaste for over-stating, the John Ford hatred of the cute and the contrived, because it usually reflects a salutary aversion to preciousness. It seems to know that fiction writing (filmmaking needs its own reflection) has long since reached a point where it is so aware of itself it is more akin to a game than an art—a situation which any writing seminar veteran can justify with a few well-turned phrases, of course, but that only leaves us in the same trap. Oh, God, to live in those earlier landscapes of our language and culture, Elizabethan England, say, where little was fixed, regulated, precedented, or prey to people ungifted in critical judgment but able to detect a match at a hundred paces, even if you couldn’t take a shower. No, we’re here where the news is subordinate to the writing itself, a topsy turvy state of affairs that, among other offenses, perpetuates the lie that you can write about any ol’ thing! Not that there shouldn’t be anything interesting about technique—there should, of course. But it’s a fine line. The challenge any writer faces is to make the book, like a sand trap, appear to have happened rather than having been made. Or, ideally, the two in some kind of symbiosis. One of my personal eureka moments that made me want to be a writer was reading Silas Marner in the seventh grade. Ah! Dunsey was in the stone-pit with the money the whole time! She planned that! She did it for us! And she’s nowhere to be seen.

The history of art shows clearly how artistic ideas rise with original energy and fall with the attempt to describe and regulate and reproduce that energy—think no further than country music. Technical perfection, like an obsessive devotion to the letter of the law, is a symptom of spiritual infirmity. Our attention has shifted from what is said to how it is said—a sure sign that there’s no news.

Take God, for example. He’s got all the news, but where is He? Felt only as a sleeping baby feels her mother in the house. As Stephen Dedalus (echoing Dumas) said, next to God Shakespeare created most, and, of course, as Keats knew, the greatest thing about him is that he is personally undetectable. Our attempts to impose personality upon “Shakespeare,” whatever Shakespeare was, say nothing about him or her or it, and everything about us. (Same for God.) The current movie Anonymous, riding the Oxfordian wave, is only the latest, and one of the more transparent, attempts.

Homer had some great stories, and maybe it was even pleasing to him to feel the interest being shifted from his material to himself, making him a celebrity, but we can be forgiven our need to be appreciated. He spellbound those people, for long stretches of time, and when the stuff got written down, however that happened, it was essentially someone making a DVD of a videotape—translating the story to the next medium. The problem is, this created a physical text. And anybody who’s gone through graduate school in English has heard enough of that word to last a lifetime. I believe that the French observation that there is no author is essentially correct—works of art are not discrete but are swellings in the fabric of culture, and the deeper into them one burrows, as with the exploration into physical particles, the less distinct they become. This is true for text, and that we don’t see through it is of course not only a testament to our need to render the flow of reality into things, but also to our even deeper need to work from our armchairs.

I’m thinking about offering my stories in audio form—full circle from Homer. Ken and I may do the same with our plays. If I could turn them into birdsong and play them outside your window, I would do that. As long as they lived in spirit.

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John M. Williams

John M. Williams

I teach at LaGrange College–a small, pleasant island in the ocean, Academia.  My colleagues are my friends; we are collegial.  I deal with creatures of inexhaustible charm, a foot on either side of that just beginning to widen crack which will force them shortly to leap one way, or fall the other.  They have vastly more promise than ignorance, but are rich in both.

I’ve been here so long I’m beginning to suspect some sorceress is playing a joke.  How did I get here?  Circuitously.

I was riding a stick horse in the pecan tree filled yard of a flat-roofed house in Auburn, Alabama–that much is vivid.  Then, it all begins to blur.  All my grammar school teachers were old (perfectly lovely) women; my children’s grammar school teachers were all hot babes.  Why is that?  The main thing I remember about high school is Mr. Goff.  Him, and a handful of friends (you know who you are).  I think everything I learned in high school could have been easily condensed into one strenuous afternoon.  Then college, where I was rejected by calculus and attracted to letters, my favorites being M and G.  The eras of my life have all been covered, one way or another, in my scribblings.  My childhood is encoded most accurately and completely in my story “In the Beginning Was Kitto.”  That gripping tale is not included here because it’s in a collection called Snake Dreams that I’m trying to sell!

After college, travel–then grad school, then travel, then five years in the printing business, then aimlessness, then LaGrange, grad school again, marriage, children, and a series of red felt-tipped pens.  Here, the birthdays have become like cards being fanned in a deck.  Like I said, a blur.  Blur blur blur.  You have to fight the blur!  Speak truth to blur!  You have to nail little exertions of precision to the shadowy walls of life’s dubious corridor.

To those of you in other trenches who hear this faint tapping–tap back!