The trouble with writing, continued

Cunningham (Credit: David Shankbone)

I quite like what Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours, had to say in The New York Times on Sunday about writing.

All writing is in effect translation, he opined, whether literally (as when a text is translated into a foreign language) or metaphorically, as when the writer attempts to translate his vision into actual words on a page. The vision is always perfect and large and elegant. The translation is necessarily just a shadow of the vision (like the shadows in Plato’s famous cave).

Writing as automatic frustration

This makes writing a gut-wrenching activity. As Cunningham says,

You have, for months or years, been walking around with the idea of a novel in your mind, and in your mind it’s transcendent, it’s brilliantly comic and howlingly tragic, it contains everything you know, and everything you can imagine, about human life on the planet earth. It is vast and mysterious and awe-inspiring. It is a cathedral made of fire. But even if the book in question turns out fairly well, it’s never the book that you’d hoped to write. It’s smaller than the book you’d hoped to write. It is an object, a collection of sentences, and it does not remotely resemble a cathedral made of fire. It feels, in short, like a rather inept translation of a mythical great work…

A novel, any novel, if it’s any good, is not only a slightly disappointing translation of the novelist’s grandest intentions, it is also the most finished draft he could come up with before he collapsed from exhaustion….

The importance of authority (ie, voice)

With authority (Credit: Jenny Mealing)

Cunningham also gets into a topic I’ve called voice on this blog. He calls it

that most fundamental but elusive of all writerly qualities: authority. As writers we must, from our very opening sentence, speak with authority to our readers. It’s a little like waltzing with a new partner for the first time. Anyone who is able to waltz, or fox-trot, or tango, or perform any sort of dance that requires physical contact with a responsive partner, knows that there is a first moment, on the dance floor, when you assess, automatically, whether the new partner in question can dance at all — and if he or she can in fact dance, how well. You know almost instantly whether you have a novice on your hands, and that if you do, you’ll have to do a fair amount of work just to keep things moving. Authority is a rather mysterious quality, and it’s almost impossible to parse it for its components…

The relationship with readers

This is another topic I’ve pondered here before (most recently when I decided to “shrink” this blog). What exactly is the ideal, and the actual, relationship between a writer and his readers?

Young writers like to say (pretend?) that they are “writing for themselves”. Cunningham answers:

I tell them that I understand — that I go home every night, make an elaborate cake and eat it all by myself. By which I mean that cakes, and books, are meant to be presented to others. And further, that books (unlike cakes) are deep, elaborate interactions between writers and readers… I remind them, as well, that no one wants to read their stories. There are a lot of other stories out there, and … we, as readers, are busy. We have large and difficult lives. We have, variously, jobs to do, spouses and children to attend to, errands to run, friends to see; we need to keep up with current events; we have gophers in our gardens; we are taking extension courses in French or wine tasting or art appreciation; we are looking for evidence that our lovers are cheating on us; we are wondering why in the world we agreed to have 40 people over on Saturday night; we are worried about money and global warming; we are TiVo-ing five or six of our favorite TV shows. What the writer is saying, essentially, is this: Make room in all that for this. Stop what you’re doing and read this. It had better be apparent, from the opening line, that we’re offering readers something worth their while.

“Helen” and the closing tube doors

Quite a while ago, I told you about a mental habit I use to overcome writer’s block and return to my natural voice. I call it the “closing-tube-door-method“.

Cunningham seems to have a version of it, too. In his case, he pictures an actual reader he knows named Helen on the other side of (to use my method) the closing tube doors:

I began to think of myself as trying to write a book that would matter to Helen. And, I have to tell you, it changed my writing. … Writing a book for Helen, or for someone like Helen, is a manageable goal.

Phaedrus, again

And Cunningham seems to have rediscovered the fundamental flaw in the written word per sethe same flaw that Socrates first pointed out to Phaedrus.

One of the more remarkable aspects of writing and publishing is that no two readers ever read the same book. We will all feel differently about a movie or a play or a painting or a song, but we have all undeniably seen or heard the same movie, play, painting or song. They are physical entities. … WRITING, however, does not exist without an active, consenting reader. Writing requires a different level of participation. Words on paper are abstractions, and everyone who reads words on paper brings to them a different set of associations and images….

Socrates concluded that it was better to talk, and refused to write a single word. His student Plato decided to write anyway. So has every writer since, down to Cunningham and you and me.

34 thoughts on “The trouble with writing, continued

  1. And often a writer cannot decide between several versions of a sentence. Apparently, that’s what happened to the scribe tasked with formulating the email subscription invitation.

    The solution? Simply keep several different versions. So now every time the reader reloads the page, a different version shows up.

    The follow-up comment line is always the same:

    Notify me of follow-up comments via email.

    Yet per reload, the subscription invitation randomly toggles between these five:

    Notify me of site updates
    Notify me of new posts via email.
    Subscribe by email to this site
    Subscribe to this site by email
    Send me site updates

    Note that the period is missing in four out of the five.

    • Interesting. So there’s a 6th version, only visible to the purveyor of the blog. Does it have a period?

      In other words, is that one period you placed inside the quotes there to conclude your entire sentence, or is it two periods superimposed, one that concludes your sentence, and one that concludes the quote which is part of your sentence?

      So if one places a sentence that specifically does not have a period in quotes at the end of a longer sentence, should the period of the mother-sentence go inside or outside the quotes? I suppose it should go outside, for otherwise the reader wouldn’t be able to tell whether the quoted sentence itself ends in a period or not.

    • Good point. To preclude medical ambiguity, we should substitute full stop for period, as well as introduce the terms double-dot and semi-double-dot.

      And yes, what if at the end of a sentence we quote a full-stopless sentence and wish to use italics instead of quotes for the quoted part while still clearly indicating its full-stopless? Would we have to insert a space between the final word and the quoted sentence and the full-stop which ends the mother-sentence? Using italics, Andreas’s sentence would read thus:

      <em.I’m trying it by reloading my own page here, and my button always says Click to receive new posts by email.

      Aside from the final period problem, I just realized I’d need italics slanted at a greater angle than regular italics so as to do italics within italics.

      This is all very complicated.

    • The problem arises whether or not the inserted space should be in italics. That is something I have frequently spent hours puzzling over. Not, I may say, until now, in these circumstances.

      The quotes-within-quotes complication may be solved either by succumbing to French practice, as foreshadowed in the first sentence of your comment October 7, 2010, 1:45 am, or by toggling between romans and italics. I am not entirely sure whether toggling would sometimes give rise to ambiguity. It would only do so, I guess, if you are one of those who reads a paragraph from the middle outwards.

      It makes me feel dreadful among these other readers who obviously know all the answers, but choose not to tell us.

    • I just read an article in The Economist online titled Silly name, silly company, silly product? which discusses

      the tiresome habit of companies giving themselves and their products novelty names that contain unnecessary punctuation, bogus foreign accents and diacriticals, random use of capitals or lower-case letters, and so on.

      I could not resist leaving the following comment:

      For added verve, I’d suggest renaming The Economist “ThEconomist”.

      Once again, my main problem in composing this comment was the placement of the period (“full-stop”). Technically, at the end of a sentence, the period goes inside (i.e., to the left of) the final closing quote.

      However, since the article deals, among other things, with punctuation as potentially annoying and unnecessary parts of company names and products, putting the period inside the quotes may have given the unintended impression that my suggestion included making the period a part of the new name.

      I suppose that for the very same reason I shouldn’t have used quotation marks (the reader may now get the mistaken impression I wanted the quotes to be part of the name), but even had I used italics in lieu of quotes, placing the period right after the final t of ThEconomist without inserting an extra space would have left the reader wondering whether the period was meant to be part of my suggestion or not.

      I conclude that what’s desperately needed in this world is a new punctuation mark called the double-period, which is basically two periods superimposed upon each other, i.e., a period twice the size of a regular period, to index that it not only concludes the sentence itself but also the concluding segment of the sentence (such as a quote) in case the concluding segment needs its own period, for instance if I had suggested that The Economist should be renamed ThEconomist. as opposed to ThEconomist . (For clarity, I had to insert a space before the concluding period, lest I’d come across like some demented performer singing I say tomato and you say tomato and pronouncing tomato the same way both times.)

    • I agree wholeheartedly with everything you say, and find your solutions acceptable; note that I use no comparative, since a proposal is either acceptable or not acceptable . You will be pleased to see that I have extended the use of the double-period to cover a situation like that in the previous sentence, where I favoured the use of brackets but was left with a dilemma as to the placement of the full stop.

      You will support my campaign for the abolition of the apostrophe, I’m sure. The savings will enable the introduction of a double-period when combined with the renaming to ThEconomist: The upper-case E signifies phonetic elongation.

      As a stop-gap, while fresh dies are being cast, could not a colon be used, followed by upper case, as just demonstrated?

  2. Wow! It’s like tuning or sympathetic resonance in physics. If you capture the right frequency, the bells go off, the cells awaken, attention is aroused, an opening appears. If not, no connection, no relationship. Andreas, you’ve got my attention!

    • Glad I got your attention, Arthur. Now I have to get myself googling “sympathetic resonance” to learn what that is.

      (That happens a lot here on the HB. ;))

  3. I hated Debussy’s music but did not know why. One fine day I had to make a presentation on Debussy to a study group. I found out that the guy, besides being a woman exploiter, was writing music for himself and to stunt other musicians. He even composed a piano piece that required to play a note in the middle of the keyboard while both hands were at the opposite ends of it. He alone could play that note using his very long nose.
    Since then I have known why I hate Debussy’s music.
    Would it apply towriters?

  4. Bruno Schultz (Cinnamon Shops) actually did write his stories for one specific reader, I recall. He wrote letters to her and included the stories in his letters, piece by piece. Sort of a serial novel for one person.

  5. If I may add to the previous…I did try the trick of writing to someone, but being a novice writer it is hard for me to keep all my ideas separate…I tend to try and put all the ideas in one short blog post, which, when I read it in the end makes it a bit fussy….so my contribution would be the question…what to do in order to keep the topic on a straight line?

    P.S. I also think that Debussy was a show-off

    • No, no, far from being bad, he certainly was good and aware of his quality but then used it in a way that was just to show it off, in that “look what I can do” way.

    • “The Girl With the Flaxen Hair” is the opposite of “look what I can do” (such a beautiful piece). Art Tatum’s “Tiger Rag” is more “look what I can do”:

      Although to me, there’s no crime in technical mastery. So when a writer–take David Foster Wallace for example–writes a huge, complex work like Infinite Jest, he’s not just writing complexity for the sake of complexity–it has a purpose. The trick is figuring out whether it’s complex for good reason. I think I’ve read it on this blog somewhere that genius makes things simple, but not too simple. Likewise Tatum’s “Tiger Rag” exemplifies musical genius: every note he plays has a purpose. Musicians can go through every note in a work like that and see how it fits in, because there is a method to the madness.

      Having said that, perhaps I’m just a biased jazz fan who’s read too much Ken Burns.

    • Yup, Tiger Rag seems like a good example. In fact, a large percentage of Jazz is at risk of being included. Somebody once said to me: “The problem with Jazz is that noone in the room is having as much fun as the guy improvizing.”

      (Thanks, guys, for introducing me to both pieces.)

  6. I greatly sympathize with Cunningham’s notion of writing as “translation.” It’s a perfect metaphor for (at least) two reasons:

    First off, it captures the difficulty of taking what is essentially an experience, a feeling, an understanding within a foreign context, and trying to make it concrete, into something that another human being coming from a(n often radically) different context can understand.

    Second, it highlights the fact that there is always a translator. There is always someone who stands before you and defines the language through which you experience a text, or the world of a text. By far, my least favorite genre of fiction is mimetic realism, because there seems to me an implicit assumption within the genre that objectivity is possible, that these words and this view of the world is somehow Right and isn’t a construction made by a person who comes from a particular heritage, in a particular time, from a particular social class, and with a particular agenda.

    One of my favorite (if not my absolute favorite) authors is David Foster Wallace. He explains his take on the writer/reader relationship in this interview this way (The link is actually page three of the interview; something screwy happened with the website and I couldn’t go to the first page):

    I guess a big part of serious fiction’s purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves. Since an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering, part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience, more like a sort of “generalization” of suffering. Does this make sense? We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside….

    Look, if the contemporary condition is hopelessly shitty, insipid, materialistic, emotionally retarded, sadomasochistic, and stupid, then I (or any writer) can get away with slapping together stories with characters who are stupid, vapid, emotionally retarded, which is easy, because these sorts of characters require no development. With descriptions that are simply lists of brand-name consumer products. Where stupid people say insipid stuff to each other. If what’s always distinguished bad writing … is also a description of today’s world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world…. Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it….

    Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being. If you operate, which most of us do, from the premise that there are things about the contemporary U.S. that make it distinctively hard to be a real human being, then maybe half of fiction’s job is to dramatize what it is that makes it tough. The other half is to dramatize the fact that we still “are” human beings, now. Or can be.

    OK, I’ll stop quoting … but I could read his words all day. David Foster Wallace changed my life. After reading his fiction and interviews like this, I knew I had to rewrite every word I’d ever written. And I thank him for it.

    • Great quote. (And btw, that’s the first time I’ve ever seen the block-quote format inside a comment. How did you do that?)

      He clearly starts always from a position of suffering (the root word of passion, Leidenschaft, etc) and sees writing as a way to be less alone in this condition. Grave but possibly true.

      In this passage below, he seems to be (had he not died before it was published) attacking Franzen’s “Freedom”. (That, at least, is how I read the Atlantic’s review of it.)

      “…if the contemporary condition is hopelessly shitty, insipid, materialistic, emotionally retarded, sadomasochistic, and stupid, then I (or any writer) can get away with slapping together stories with characters who are stupid, vapid, emotionally retarded, which is easy, because these sorts of characters require no development. With descriptions that are simply lists of brand-name consumer products. Where stupid people say insipid stuff to each other….”

  7. Type “blockquote” in-between those thingies, and then close it with . It was an experiment, actually, cuz I’d noticed other simple html commands work in the comments, and I figured I could screw up one comment and it wouldn’t be the end of the world … but then it worked! Yay!

    Yeah, David Foster Wallace “start[ing] always from a position of suffering” is a really good way of putting it. He was diagnosed with depression and, of course, committed suicide … loneliness, a striving to connect, is something you can continually find in his fiction. It tickles me that you mention Franzen, because he was DFW’s best friend in the second half of his life. He even came to the above conclusion about the purpose and function of literature after an hours-long conversation with Franzen in a parking lot. I’ve never read a word of Franzen’s in my life, but I figure it’s inevitable because I hear his name all the time. I wonder how DFW would have felt about “Freedom”….

    I “discovered” DFW while I was in China, mere months after his death, and he was a revelation. Being so far away, my only connection with America was through the internet, and I was just … appalled, really disgusted, with the way people treated each other on the internet, using any opportunity to tear each other down. Then I started reading about DFW’s views on the writer/reader relationship, how it takes an investment on both sides to work, that writers have to really give themselves, open themselves up to communion with a reader, and that readers have to meet them halfway, can’t quit when things get tough, can’t sit back and wait to be entertained and pandered to … it was really what I needed.

    Then I found The Hannibal Blog, where every idea is pondered and treated with respect … you’re something of a revelation yourself, Andreas…. 🙂

  8. Ha ha ha … WordPress made the symbols you use to denote html commands invisible. They’re the little … what the hell are they called … the Greater-than and Less-than symbols. Type “blockquote” (in-between those symbols), close with “/blockquote” (again, in-between the symbols).

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