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.