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.