Creation myths (an essay on writing)

Al Alvarez – Financial Times

A great essay on writing, which I’m including snippets of below. It appeared in the January 9, 2005 FT. See the link for the entire article.
My subject is imaginative writing: how it’s done and how to read it; how a writer develops his own distinctive voice and how the reader reacts to it; how the true voice and the public personality sometimes clash, confuse and contradict each other. My point of view is that of an endangered species that used to be called a man of letters, one of those unfortunate people who write not because they are Ancient Mariners with stories they are compelled to tell, or lessons they have to teach, still less because they are entranced by the sound of their own voices, but simply because, when they were young and impressionable, they fell in love with language as musicians fall in love with sound, and thereafter are doomed to explore this fatal attraction in as many ways as they can.
So what I have to say is based on a lifetime of trying to write in several genres: poems, novels and, above all, the kind of higher journalism that universities sometimes dignify as “the literature of fact”: non-fiction books on subjects that happened to interest me – anything from suicide to poker – several of which began as long pieces for The New Yorker. I have also written a great deal of literary criticism which, when I was starting out half a century ago, had not yet become just another arcane academic discipline with a technical vocabulary and specialised interests; it was thought of, instead, as a creative activity in its own right – a writer’s way of describing how other writers handle language and what it is that makes them unique.
Freelance writing is a precarious trade and I feel about it much the same as Mayakovsky felt about suicide: “I don’t recommend it to others,” he wrote, and then put a gun to his head.
Shifting from one literary form to another may mean you end up mastering none, but it has at least one advantage: it keeps you alert. The art of poetry is altogether different from that of prose, just as writing fiction is different from writing non-fiction, and literary criticism is different from them all. Fifty years of writing for a living have taught me that there is only one thing the four disciplines have in common: in order to write well you must learn how to listen. And that, in turn, is one thing writers have in common with readers.
What happens when you sit down with a book? Why do you do it? What’s the pleasure in it? Why do books, poems, even fragments go on being read years, sometimes centuries, after they were written, no matter how many times the death of literature is announced?
I’m not talking about transmitting or acquiring information. On the contrary, at this present moment of change, when the industrial revolution has been superseded by a revolution in information technology, facts and figures have never been easier to come by, although now they are packaged in an appropriately new form…
To acquire facts efficiently, scan a synopsis or gut a newspaper, you have to master the art of reading diagonally. Real literature is about something else entirely and it’s immune to speed-reading. That is, it’s not about information, although you may gather information along the way. It’s not even about storytelling, although sometimes that is one of its greatest pleasures. Imaginative literature is about listening to a voice. When you read a novel the voice is telling you a story; when you read a poem it’s usually talking about what its owner is feeling; but neither the medium nor the message is the point. The point is that the voice is unlike any other voice you have heard and it is speaking directly to you, communing with you in private, right in your ear, and in its own distinctive way. It may be talking to you from centuries ago or from a few years back or, as it were, from across the room – bang up to date in the here-and-now. The historical details are secondary; all that really matters is that you hear it – an undeniable presence in your head, and still very much alive, no matter how long ago the words were spoken: “Western wind, when wilt thou blow That the small rain down can rain? Christ, if my love were in my arms And I in my bed again!”
Nobody knows who wrote that poem or even precisely when he wrote it (probably early in the 16th century). But whoever it was is still very much alive – lonely, miserable, hunkered down against the foul weather and a long way from home, yearning for spring and warmth and his girl. Across a gap of five centuries, the man is still our contemporary.
… The poem breathes from the page as vividly as the long-dead faces and their little dog breathe from the canvas. But it is a two-way pact: the writer makes himself heard and the reader listens in – or, more accurately, the writer works to find or create a voice that will stretch out to the reader, make him prick up his ears and attend.
I think this is something like what happens in psychoanalysis. Of course, there has always been a close connection between imaginative literature and the talking cure, not least because Freud himself read widely and wrote compelling prose. Both these accomplishments were unusual in a scientist and they generated in him an even more unusual respect for the arts. When, during the celebration of his 70th birthday, one of his disciples hailed Freud as “the discoverer of the unconscious” he answered, “The poets and philosophers before me discovered the unconscious. What I discovered was the scientific method by which the unconscious can be studied.”
In the early years, psychoanalysts often seemed to take this connection in a literal, straightforward way. Freud, with his interest in archaeology, laboured to dig up the past and recreate it, almost as a work of art. It was as if psychoanalysis were a kind of dual story-telling: the patient told his story from his point of view and the analyst told it back to him, using his interpretations to give it a new shape and meaning. Freud may have called his method scientific but, in practice, he worked more like a novelist than a researcher, creating form and significance out of the chaos of the unconscious, especially as it expresses itself in dreams, the one area in which the imagination of even the most unimaginative people reveals itself.
And because dreams, in their dotty way, seem creative, this led to a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of art, particularly in the early days of psychoanalysis, when the idea of sexual symbolism was fresh and exciting and subversive. Instead of reading, say, a poem as a work of art with a life of its own independent of the author – as something which, in Coleridge’s words, “contains in itself the reasons why it is so and not otherwise” – psychoanalysts with a taste for literature often used it as though it were mere dream-stuff, welling up uncensored and unbidden, another “royal road to the unconscious” of the unfortunate author.
A century later, many psychoanalysts tend to be less interested in telling stories or creating an archaeology of the unconscious by digging up the past. They have broadened their focus to study not just the patient’s self and his history but his whole inner world. Because this inner world includes both his self and what analysts call his “internal objects” – imaginative representations of other people, both past and present, with whom the patient is continually entangled – the therapist’s task is to study how these “phantasy” figures are projected in the transference and counter-transference – that is, in the minute changes in the relationship between the patient and the analyst as they occur, moment-by-moment, in the consulting room.
From this more modern perspective, the story matters less than how it is told. Instead of looking for clues, the therapist is listening, like a poet or a critic, to the overtones and undertones, alert to the false notes, to whatever is off-key or flat, distinguishing between the genuine emotions and the fake, monitoring when and how and why he is moved and – equally important – when and why he is bored. It’s about detail and nuance – the body-language and the silences, what is said and what is left unsaid. And as with literature, everything depends on the tone of voice.
…The writer discovers this liberating and oddly invigorating relationship between psychic reality and aesthetic pleasure when he finds his own voice: it picks the locks, opens the doors and enables him to begin to say what he wants to say. But in order to find his voice he must first have mastered style, and style, in this basic sense, is a discipline that you acquire by hard work, like grammar or punctuation.
Voice is altogether different: “I don’t mean style… “ Philip Roth wrote, in The Ghost Writer, “I mean voice: something that begins at around the back of the knees and reaches well above the head.” Voice, he means, is the vehicle by which a writer expresses his aliveness, and Roth himself is all voice. Style, in the formal or flowery sense, bores him; he has, he has written, “a resistance to plaintive metaphor and poeticised analogy”. His prose is immaculate yet curiously plain and unostentatious, at once unselfconscious and unmistakably his own. Someone once said that reading him is like opening a cellar door and hearing the boiler roar into life. It’s also like being pitched headfirst into a family quarrel, with everyone shouting to be heard; it makes your heart contract with outrage and excitement both at once.
By comparing writing and psychoanalysis, I’m implying that finding your own voice as a writer is like the tricky business of becoming an adult. For a writer, it’s also a basic instinct, like a bird marking out its territory, though not so straightforward or so musical. So how do you do it? First, you do what all young people do: you try on other people’s personalities for size and you fall in love. Young writers, in fact, are a peculiarly promiscuous lot; my schoolboy passions included Eliot, Auden, Housman, Aldous Huxley, one after the other with not a gap between them. Every so often serial promiscuity culminates in le coup de foudre: you hear a voice and recognise it and know it’s for you just as surely as you recognise Miss Right across the room before you’ve ever spoken to her, even when – or especially when – she is hand-in-hand with Mr Wrong.
First, the writer’s voice dazzles you and you read everything you can lay hands on. If that doesn’t cure you, the sickness goes critical and you become obsessed with the beloved’s whole take on life: what he did, where he went, even the kind of people he slept with. You don’t want to be like him, you want to be him. In retrospect, infatuation is as embarrassing as promiscuity, but for the writer it is a necessary part of the weary process of growing up. That’s what happened to me with Aldous Huxley when I was at school and with William Empson and D.H. Lawrence when I got to Oxford. But literary infatuation is the same as other youthful infatuations: it doesn’t last and it’s hard to be friends afterwards. These days, I still admire Empson in a guarded way, but, apart from a handful of stories and poems, I find Lawrence’s shrill nagging almost intolerable. As Auden wrote in The Sea and the Mirror: “I am very glad I shall never / Be twenty and have to go through the business again, / The hours of fuss and fury, the conceit, the expense.”
There are other writers whom you fall for and stay in love with. It happened to me when I was a schoolboy and was given a poem by John Donne to comment on. At that point I had never heard of Donne and I had to read the poem – “Witchcraft by a Picture” – several times before I began to understand it. But I was seduced, at first hearing, by the tone of voice. It was like listening to subtly charged talk, aroused, casual, witty and restlessly argumentative, a curious mixture of logic and tenderness – real tenderness for real women with appetites and sweaty palms and unreliable temperaments. This, I felt, was how poetry should be – alive with feeling yet utterly unsentimental, and with nothing conventionally poetical about it. For a lusty adolescent, shut away in a monkish, sports-mad boarding school where love of poetry was not a weakness you confessed to, it was a revelation, love at first sight, and I never really got over it.

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