It wasn’t all the pastoral delights that were making Arthur feel so cheery, though. He had just had a wonderful idea about how to cope with the terrible lonely isolation, the nightmares, the failure of all his attempts at horticulture, and the sheer futurelessness and futility of his life here on prehistoric Earth, which was that he would go mad.
So as I send the latest draft of CHERRY MONEY BABY to my editor, I’m remembering that I started writing the first draft last Labor Day, in a cafe on DeKalb Ave., listening to Goldfrapp’s Supernature album. Listening to it again, I realize those songs sort of haunt CHERRY. (There’s definitely an Alison Goldfrapp / Lady Gaga inspired character, who played a bit-part in GIRL PARTS.) I wonder if CHERRY would have its gaudy glitz without Ride a White Horse, and the opening scene was definitely influenced by the lonesomeness of Let it Take You. It’s like suddenly realizing you had an invisible co-author.
“All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” – Earnest Hemingway
“Beauty plus pity — that is the closest we can get to a definition of art.” – Vladimir Nabokov
“Writing isn’t about applause. It’s about humiliation.” – Steve Almond
“The most exquisite sensations in art are not love and loss, but humiliation and disappointment.” – Lunette Glass
The first time I knew I wanted to create some kind of art was listening to the blues. The content was miserable, but the spirit soared. The music, in its beauty, leant meaning to the sorrow, gave it sweetness and depth, made it a kind of victory rather than a loss.
Years later I’ve given up my musical aspirations, but I try to apply this same sensation to writing. Literature at its best (and the names under this heading, for me, are Nabokov, Carroll, Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Hemingway, Capote, Chekov, Pushkin, Shakespeare, Cheever, Carver, McEwan, Dahl, Fitzgerald, and Babbitt) does not create a glimmer-glammer image of the author, nor does it evoke a rough and rugged, weather-beaten soul chewing a cigar and cuffing convention. RATHER, the best writing is a last-minute, desperate communiqué from single writer to single reader: “We have both wept, have said the wrong thing, lost utterly the ones we loved, expected too much, given too little, we are ugly, we are scared, we have been the least loved and the last considered, we have given up too soon, held on too long, you and me have failed and tried and survived and yet still our souls float along, knowing there are words for what we feel, there are always words, and if we can’t find them, someone else can, and those words will find us in our corner, in our bed, in our car as we drive recklessly through the rain, toward a train we will not catch, our ticket tucked happily under a book on our bed table.”
I’m reading “Life & Times of Michael K” by Coetzee, who wrote one of my favorites, “Disgrace.” “Life” is two-hundred pages and taking me forever, which is usually a sign I’m bored. I realized that while the writing is superb, the exploration of war-torn South Africa is less about a character and more about a people, a time, and a place. Michael is representational rather than real. I sense I’m supposed to compare myself to him as a homo sapien, as opposed to a human being. Cotzee is sending me a message about humanity, rather than Michael’s own, personal desires, struggles, and dissapointments. He’s not interested in his character’s individuality, but his universality.
Which, to me, makes for one snoozer of a book. “Disgrace” managed to say something broad via the particular pains of real, particular people.
Ah, well. Character is king, I guess.
Although I do not care for the slogan “art for art’s sake” …there can be no question that what makes a work of fiction safe from larvae and rust is not its social importance but its art, only its art.
I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it.
-Raymond Chandler, opening of “The Big Sleep”
There’s been plenty said, and I won’t add to the rabble. I’m not as familiar with Mr. Updike’s oeuvre as his obit writers. Like most, I was initially enamoured of his fiction and grew more interested in his reviews as I got older.
However John Updike’s short stories are seminal, for me. The happiest I have ever been as a writer was Sophomore year of college, when I would wake up, hit the button on the one-cup coffee maker (which was then on the bed table), snooze for ten minutes, and then read from an enormous blue tome borrowed from Olin Library (and heinously overdue) – the collected short stories of John Updike. His attention to lavish detail, at times at the cost of story, resonated with me. As a fellow Massachusetts resident and Catholic high school boy, I felt he was writing not just my childhood, but my life up until that moment. Then, at 7:30, I would shower, sit down at my Smith-Corona Electric, and write a ten page short story that was, I realize now, an imitation Updike. So completely absorbed in his world was I, that reading an excerpt in theTimes of “A Sense of Shelter,” my first reaction was, “Wait, wasn’t that one of mine?”
Now, after being officially at this for four years, writing can feel a mire. People have read my work (not true back then) and I’ve lost that veneer of possibility – that maybe, just maybe, I’m a genius (a veneer which I think everyone needs in order to get started). Characters and plots are unwieldy as card houses – and just as impossible to build. Writing is a horrific balancing act, arranging fluttering memories into a structure that someone else might recognize. I’m no longer content to let them tumble to the carpet and see what funny pattern they make.
In other words, I miss pretending to be John Updike. He was the purest pleasure. But sooner or later all writers have to make a decision. Do I want to have fun or do I want to be good? Meaning and pleasure- the hope is that the height of one is pregnant in the other. In the end it’s still a game, but every good builder of card houses knows, you can’t make the Taj Mahal without learning 52 Pickup.