If you've ever thought maybe you had a book in you, six terrific novelists are here to tell you about the art, the craft, the isolation, the listening, the mysterious energy, and the sheer termite-like determination that go into making a world out of words.
O: What's the best thing about being a writer?
Mary Gaitskill: The best thing about writing is being able to clearly express things in a way you can't express in conversation. This is especially true if you are socially awkward and a little inarticulate, which I was when I first started to write seriously (at age 23) and is still how I occasionally feel. In countless conversations I have had, someone has said something and I have had several responses at once, sometimes responses that were nonverbal, coming to me in confused masses of feeling, images, and half-formed thoughts that I could not refine into words until, say, sometime the next day. Anything I did say would feel partial to me and often sounded just plain dumb.
Writing is in some way being able to sit down the next day and go through everything you wanted to say, finding the right words, giving shape to the images, and linking them to feelings and thoughts. It isn't exactly like a social conversation because you aren't giving information in the usual sense of the word or flirting or persuading anyone of anything or proving a point; it's more that you are revealing something whole in the form of a character, a city, a moment, an image seen in a flash out of a character's eyes. It's being able to take something whole and fiercely alive that exists inside you in some unknowable combination of thought, feeling, physicality, and spirit, and to then store it like a genie in tense, tiny black symbols on a calm white page. If the wrong reader comes across the words, they will remain just words. But for the right readers, your vision blooms off the page and is absorbed into their minds like smoke, where it will re-form, whole and alive, fully adapted to its new environment. It is a deeply satisfying feeling.
Jeffrey Eugenides: The best thing is also the worst thing. It's that, no matter how long you've been at it, you always start from scratch. Henry James said, "We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art." Unless you're the kind of writer who works with a template, where the narrative strategies remain more or less constant and the job consists of filling in the boxes with new material, then what you have to do, with each new book, is discover all these things anew. Your material determines your narrative strategy and your tone of voice rather than the other way around. You change from book to book. You begin always knowing nothing. You remain forever an amateur, a first-timer. Sure, you might cobble together something akin to a methodology after a while, a working method, a sense of pacing yourself through the seasons. But that's about it in terms of the pleasures and wisdom of the veteran.
What makes this worst thing also the best thing has to do with the agelessness of aspiration. When you're always starting out, always trying to learn to do what you don't know how to do, you remain close to the place (college dorm room, Prague café) where you first set pen to paper. You remain in touch with that crazy, dreamy kid who spent so much time in the library. You persist in being impractical, idealistic, naive, and brave. Your body ages, but your imagination remains young, and on your deathbed, if you're lucky, you might be prideful enough to say to yourself, "I'm finally getting the hang of this."
O: Besides talent, what are the particular human qualities it takes to be a novelist?
John Edgar Wideman: Novelists must learn the skill of listening, practice listening as discipline and discovery. The best novelists hear their subjects, and their writing bears witness to a conversation with presences real as a friend, an enemy, a stone in a shoe, a sword poised over the writer's head, a person or place unrecoverable yet never quite absent. Which is not to say writers are necessarily nuts. Cervantes, unlike his creation Don Quixote, could distinguish windmills from dragons. Most of the time, anyway.
To hear a subject requires a novelist to develop an acute aural consciousness. Special muscles must be honed for listening not only to what other people say but for tuning in and gauging the immense silence in which speech, action, and time resonate. Good writers learn to understand they inhabit a world full of unheard music—music analogous to the dense, unfathomable welter of sensations animating creatures like dogs, birds, and fish, whose biological makeup enables them to experience perceptions outside human reach. Echoes, traces of this separate, elusive, overarching music, infiltrate and saturate the best fiction, dancing around the edges of characters and ideas. Based upon the singularity of what they discipline themselves to hear of this mix, individual writers generate a signature prose rhythm that plays inside the reader's head. A kind of ground-noise, barely rising above silence, though close enough to the threshold of audibility so you know when it's there, know when it's missing. Music less intrusive, more subtle than a Hollywood soundtrack but equally as informative and supportive of a story's narrative flow.
Part of the pleasure, the instruction, of reading a novelist who achieves the gift/burden of hearing a subject is learning to listen to the writer's act of listening. Attentiveness doubled. Give and take. Call and response. In Duke Ellington's sense, the prose swings. The matter communicated literally moves a reader's body and mind. We share what a story's talking about, feel the tangible presence of the many, many things it embodies.
Walter Kirn: At the beginning of a novel, a writer needs confidence, but after that what's required is persistence. These traits sound similar. They aren't. Confidence is what politicians, seducers, and currency speculators have, but persistence is a quality found in termites. It's the blind drive to keep on working that persists after confidence breaks down.
This breakdown usually happens in chapter five or so, but sometimes it comes as early as chapter two. The book's characters have been introduced by then and given a world to live in, creating atmosphere. The challenges they face have been described and made to seem monumental, creating tension. Finally, the novelist's friends and family have been pushed away, creating loneliness. Now what? The mind is powerless to answer, leaving the nerves and glands to do the job, assisted at times by caffeine and other substances.
But such chemical helpers only help so much. The mysterious energy required to turn silence into words and roll those words perpetually uphill originates deep within the soul—so deep that its sources resist analysis. Novelists who pretend to understand what keeps them scribbling are really just guessing. A profound, unmet childish need to be acknowledged? Maybe. It hardly matters, though. The termite that asks itself why it keeps chewing risks becoming sluggish and inefficient, as does the writer who grows self-conscious in the middle of chapter five. Stopping to think is fine for characters, but not for their creators.
They have to work.
Susanna Moore: We writers are very interested in, if not obsessed with, the idea of what is true. (Ivy-Compton Burnett wrote: "It is not true that people have nothing to fear if they speak the truth. They have everything to fear. That is the reason for falsehood.")
It is a commonplace that autobiography is particularly vulnerable to untruth, whereas it is said that fiction never lies. Facts may be altered and reordered. Facts may be used to conceal the truth. In fiction the opposite is true. The artist must lie in order to tell the truth. Every word a writer writes has as its purpose a function of truth in that it is a choice—each word eliminates an endless number of possibilities. Style itself is a manifestation of what is true, a heightening of meaning, if we take for truth something more delicate, more fascinating than the not telling of a lie. There are, of course, endless layers of truth; style is one way to get to the heart of the matter. The seemingly untrue—the illogical, the absurd, the magical—are not exceptions to this. (Words themselves may be ambiguous, even mysterious, but not ambiguously so.) Illusions, fantasies, deceptions, fevers—these things are possible in a writer, even desired, all in the service of what is true.
Joshua Ferris: It takes no particular human quality for one to become a novelist save this: the ability to endure long stretches of time at one's desk. Not even that: Short bursts of intense time at one's desk will do. You don't even need an actual desk. You can be at a desk on the subway. You can be at a desk in the bathroom stalls. Wherever you give yourself over again to sustained meditation. Sustained meditation, specifically on your preoccupations, obsessions, overriding curiosities. Preoccupations and curiosities you believe best served not by the casual anecdote, the emotive e-mail, the journal entry, or the autobiographical essay, but through the variegated freedom that comes from making people out of words. People and planes landing on tarmacs and lost tourists at nightfall in a land of casual murder. Words spoken in a voice you search for and hold like water in your hand. A voice lost and recaptured over and over during your hours at your desk. A voice once borrowed from a chorus of voices you like best, now distilled from that chorus and distilled and distilled down to your specific range and harmony. A range and harmony that coalesce with your preoccupations and curiosities into a story of people made with words inhabiting a world inimitably yours. The people and the tarmacs and the tourists anxious to find their hotel in the dark. Inimitably yours because you shaped them hour after hour, at your desk. Their conflict, their destiny, in your inimitable voice, confronting the vagaries of your imagined world. Will they survive? The two hooded figures are approaching. The moon-dark beach is endless. What they would do to be home right now. What they would do to be at your desk, determining the fate of their world.
Printed from Oprah.com on Friday, December 6, 2013
© 2012 Harpo Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.