Black Letter Magic
Posted on July 10, 2011
As a writer I find myself eternally discussing my writing, and not so much the writing itself but the process of creating it. And this process, no doubt unlike any other known to civilized man, is one of myth, superstition, delusion and creativity, all of which I willingly accede to on a daily basis. There is just something about writing, and writers, that people find forever enchanting, and I believe it has something to do with the solitude in which the tasks of the career are carried out.
As a former chef, and now moonlighting film director, I am well acquainted with the feeling of being surrounded by a frenzy of activity and subjected to an onslaught of endless questions. Not to mention incessantly being rushed against the always-winning march of time. Writing is perhaps one of the few careers that can happen in complete isolation and veritable seclusion. I like it way. I was often told, as I entered the cutthroat, shit-spinning world of show business, that the scariest person on a film’s payroll, to the people who stock its waters, is the writer. And not because writers are the mentally unstable, loose cannons that they are rumoured to be, but because they are the only ones who can’t be supervised while they work. What happens in those dark offices and mouldering basements is, to the paranoid suits, a mystery.
After writing a few successful screenplays in true hermitic fashion, I realized that nobody parades their fear around in the film world anyway, so the notion that someone is actually nervous about your efforts mattered not. However, I have since made the transition to fiction and, in doing so, multiplied the mysteries surrounding my work and amplified their influence upon me greatly.
Let me briefly elaborate upon some of these head-cocking, eye-squinting, shoulder shrugging concepts:
We Are Not Our Characters
When I first fell in love with fiction writing at the age of twenty six (the same year I read my first novel cover-to-cover) I became enamoured with Norman Mailer and all his masculine swagger and literary prowess. I remember watching a televised debate in which two hundred some-odd feminists verbally wrestled with Mailer over his character’s recurring chauvinistic philosophies and sexist mentalities. Mailer chortled to himself behind the large microphone and explained simply that just because characters he designed (for the purposes of a fictional narrative) possessed those virtues it didn’t necessarily mean that he agreed with them.
I am glad that I watched that comical exchange so early in my literary career, for I would have to defend the same dislocation many times to strangers and family members alike because of something they had read in one of my stories. If I wrote of a man who frequented brothels, my girlfriend would confront me in a dark corner of the house and ask if there were some impulses I had been stifling. If one of my characters spoke about his tempestuous childhood it wouldn’t be long until my mother would shed a tear before my eyes and ask if she had made a mistake in my youth. We no more concur with the thoughts of our characters than a lawyer does with the actions of the man he defends. We create for a living.
Our Characters Can Surprise Us
After I have put hours and hours of arduous labour into defining, building and vitalizing characters for one of my stories they become real in my mind’s eye. They are no longer fictional beings with no memory, pulse or blood relations. They are as real, sometimes even more real, than those who live and breathe around me. So it is commonplace for a character I devise to know far more about themselves than I do. It may sound strange, but there is a maximum capacity to the writer’s mind, though even when it has been reached, the writer is aware that creativity knows no bounds. And thus, the players in his scene often say things which surprise him – for the writer’s hand can not hope to operate nearly as fast as the speed of his imagination.
This ‘creationist’ element to the writer’s work is possibly the most difficult to explain but also the most imperative to his story’s honesty. If every character in a novel spoke and thought just like their author it would be more an autobiography than a fabrication.
We Are Sensitive To Our Surroundings
The gardener toils so long as the garden is present and the painter paints only if the canvas sits before him. It may be assumed that wherever a typewriter sits, or a computer is plugged in, a writer, in theory, should be able to write. Not so. The first short story I ever wrote, called “The Day The Old Man Knocked”, was written against the playlist of Glenn Gould’s 1982 Golberg Variations and so, when I sit down to write just about anything these days, I must turn on my Glenn Gould, otherwise, it just doesn’t feel right.
How the light is coming in through the window, what sounds are being carried on the wind, who meanders about the house, upon which chair do I sit; all these, and a thousand more, are critical factors in my creative comfort and without them in place, the words might not comes as deftly. As my girlfriend and I have just moved in together, into a house in Central America, the subject of my required writing environment has been the theme of much discourse and as our space is somewhat limited it has also become quite the Rubik’s Cube. Like any true writer; my words on my pages are ever eloquent while the words out of my mouth are bumbling and offensive. I said to her “I will mange just fine, baby, I just can’t have you anywhere in my sight…” Needless to say I didn’t write that night, but she understood that the conditions in which I write are just as important as the subject upon which I write.
We Put Value In Things On Faith
This is a concept that is far better understood by my girlfriend than by her parents, or even mine for that matter. While some writers have the luxury of stability (and some of those may call it a curse) those like myself, who write on speculation, do so completely on faith with no guaranteed financial reward. We have a feeling deep down in our artistic gut that tells us these words must be written and this story will be read. It is a sensation that the salesman knows little of and the receptionist finds difficult to relate to, for, every other Thursday they get paid for their efforts. But like the squirrel who stores his nuts when he comes into a pile, writers are accustomed to the inconsistency of income, though some writer’s deal with this palaver better than others.
The fact that you are exhausting an entire year, or two, or three, upon 100,000 words that you aren’t being compensated to write is hard to explain to someone. Yet, the writer sees nary a thing wrong with the equation, for it is what he knows. Such is why this element of faith is one of the predominant riddles that puzzle the non-writer’s mind.
Reading Is Part Of Our Job
Eating was part of my job when I was a chef. Watching movies was part of my job when I was a film director and reading is part of my job now that I am trying to write for a living. However eating, watching movies and reading appear far from duties of employment to the untrained eye. Now, I am well aware that this section of the article could resonate much like a well written excuse, though I can’t stress enough the importance of knowing your field, studying those who built it and improving upon those who have steered it wrong.
Hemingway said, in “A Moveable Feast”, that after every day of writing he would pick up a book in order to occupy his consciousness and prevent it from dwelling upon the words he wrote that day. He believed that his subconsciousness would take care of all the necessary analysis and examination and prepare him for the following day of writing. Without that book his mind would have barreled down the rabbit hole of over inspection and led to self-doubt and uncertainty which would be sure to cripple his momentum.
Yes, it is always interesting when the life of a writer collides with the life of a non-writer, for the writer lives by this abstract and metaphysical set of rules and without them he is hollow and sluggish. I have said it before, and often felt the sting of its candor; ‘Corrosive is the artist’s idle mind’, meaning to be slowed down or stopped in one’s writing is a precarious notion. My goals for this piece are two fold; explain to those people who are perplexed by writers the strangeness of their work and the reasons for their oddity as well as assisting me in making sense of these virtues and regimens that with each passing day become less work ethic and more religion.∗
Originally published in Digital Americana