Saturday, September 02, 2006

On Writing (Installment Three)


The late Raymond Carver, former student of the late John Gardner, was renowned as a great story-teller and poet. Carver suffered from alcoholism (apparently a blight he learned from his father). John Gardner suffered from the unrelenting memory of accidentally killing his younger brother in a tractor accident, when the two were youngsters working on their family farm in New York state. Both of these writers have had things to say about writing, especially Gardner, whose books I highly recommend (The Art of Fiction, On Being a Novelist, and Moral Fiction (not to mention his fiction itself, eg: The Art of Living)). Gardner, in my opinion, writes about writing with the experience, demeanor, and seriousness of a scholar and expert practitioner. He speaks about a writer’s faith, verbal sensitivity, meta-fiction, and other important concepts that make his work stand far above the army of books on the subject. There’s one thing in particular that he mentions as a quality common to many notable writers: a demon that haunts them and forces them to express themselves for the sake of salvation or pure survival. This demon pursues them without yield, possessive in fact, thus forcing their owners to borrow deep and bare into their personas, thus bequeathing an authentic, unaffected understanding of themselves and what they have to say, whether their skepticisms, infidelities, graces, metamorphoses, or fluids of their past. What appeals to me about this whole idea of ghosts in a writer’s life is the general idea of life’s trials and challenges siring elusive important qualities that transform a person or, at least, anneals him or her, in their hero’s journey. The demons are watershed moments of pain or betrayal or privation or loss or something else that brings the hero out, that pulls one from mediocrity and house-slave obeisance to common norms. For those whose lives seem like one long suburban block party, don’t worry. No one alive has been untouched by adversity. What’s often missing is seeing in adversity advantage.

I’m reading again Fires, a collection of essays, poems, and stories of Raymond Carver. The slim volume has only two essays, one of them “On Writing.” He says this:
Some writers have a bunch of talent; I don't know any writers who are without it. But a unique and exact way of looking at things, and finding the right context for expressing that way of looking, that's something else. The World According to Garp is, of course, the marvellous world according to John Irving. There is another world according to Flannery O'Connor, and others according to William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway. There are worlds according to Cheever, Updike, Singer, Stanley Elkin, Ann Beattie, Cynthia Ozick, Donald Barthelme, Mary Robison, William Kittredge, Barry Hannah, Ursula K. LeGuin.…It’s akin to style, what I’m talking about, but it isn’t style alone. It is the writer’s particular and unmistakable signature on everything he writes. It is his world and no other. This is one of the things that distinguishes one writer from another. Not talent. There’s plenty of that around. But a writer who has some special way of looking at things, who gives artistic expression to that way of looking: that writer may be around for a time.
In the end it is about language and soul. And language, like iron, comes from the heavens. It is a gift to humankind, undeserved. It is a divine-derived instrument of conveyance of ideas. How people corrupt language is another matter altogether, how they apply it to make fair-seeming what is evil and exploitive is also something else. To learn language and its precision is a good deed. But to permit it to convey the deepest sentiment of the soul, where there’s no room except for truth, original and unmolested, then it is a page from the acts of prophecy, and prophecy has a long history of trials unlike any other.


Anonymous ABD said...

as-salaam alaykum,

writing about writing. the subject never tires :) now if i can convince you to retrace the implicit argument...

i had two questions. one, are we to assume that truth resides in the soul? (how else would the authentic communication of what is inside us belong in the pages of prophecy?) two, does the different world of each great writer then suggest a different truth?

of course, your observations and carter's need not fit together. i'm just trying to understand what the thread you find in common.

it's always a pleasure visiting your blog.

9/06/2006 4:09 PM  
Anonymous Irving said...

A lovely post on writing, and I liked your comment at the end better than the rest. The truth indeed comes to us through the soul, which is that divine spark connected to the real Truth. And the truth does not vary, but diferent wirters express different aspects of it if they are good. You can always tell, because it resonates in your heart more than the language they use.

9/06/2006 4:52 PM  
Blogger fromclay said...

Thanks, Abd and Irving. All that we say about the truth is a shadow of its ultimate reality, which is The Truth, al-Haqq, which Irving nicely and consistently signs off with. So the truth "residing" in the soul is an expression that simply states that the soul, that inner "place" created originally pure and unconfused about God and the human journey, is the best receiver of truth and conveyor. What I meant to say about Carter and other writers is somewhat related, but not so discursively. It is more about "honesty," people who for some reason are able to convey what is in them with startling candor. I always respect that and hope for it. The various “worlds” of the writers may or may not be different shades of the truth, but more or less honest impressions about reality as they know it, however defective and skewed their perspectives may be. And I associate honesty with truth, even if the honesty relates to things that are normally viewed as unbecoming. There’s still something redeeming about such honesty. Soul-level composition, however rare it may be, taps into that place which we receive and intuit truth.

As for pages of prophecy, language is how God chose to reveal His guidance. He was not without options, yet He chose words, spoken and written. That alone suggests that there’s something special about language and the process of composing it. What I tried to say is that many of the great writers were truly tried in their lives, which somehow conditioned them to cut past the foam. Trial has conditioning impact. We know this. And we also know that prophets and messengers were tried with fear and loss, though what they received and what they conveyed was of a different realm altogether, which, as you know, is simply called wahy, or revelation. But still, it was language.

I don't know what it is exactly, but I've always been interested in writing as a process.

Man, did I just ramble on and on? Sorry.

9/06/2006 9:42 PM  
Blogger Andrew Wells said...


I've just started a short story blog and I wanted to get the word out. It's contemporary stuff and it's definitely got some Carver in it.



9/07/2006 11:13 AM  
Blogger fromclay said...

Meant to say "Carver" in comment above, not "Carter." Oops. And good luck, Andrew with your site.

9/07/2006 1:11 PM  
Anonymous ABD said...

pleasant rambling is always excusable :)

9/08/2006 9:57 PM  

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