Humour: A quirky take on how writers write
Coleridge used opium. Hemingway alcohol. Dickens did it standing up. Virginia Woolf needed a room of her own. It’s always interesting to read about how writers get their writing done. From the aesthetes with their quills and parchments to the sticklers with their 2,000 words per day, writers are an endlessly fascinating species, endlessly fascinated by their own selves. In fact, I’m only seconds away from slipping in a personal reference.
Taking it personally
This personal reference issue is a sticky topic. T. S. Eliot’s Impersonality Theory, the edict that all young Eng. Lit. undergrads are chastised with, forbids the poet from entering the poem. “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.”
IMHO, Thomas Stearns was being needlessly stern. Any Freudian will point out that there is no escaping personality. The confessional poets like Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and John Berryman, with all their gut-spilling, soul-baring, heart-pouring creations, remind us that revealing oneself in one’s writing, minus the obscure allusions and elaborate subterfuge, can be deeply rewarding.
I’ve spent the last few years ploughing through Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series. The six autobiographical novels, originally published in Norwegian, plot the progress of the author as he tries to put together the six novels, moving back and forth in his own life. From the death of his alcoholic father to a failed marriage, parenthood to evolving friendships, the Scandinavian author mines his life for material like no writer I know. Understandably, he’s antagonised plenty of people who’ve felt cannibalised by him. The books are impressive, though the microscopic approach to details often makes for difficult reading.
Life supports Art
I recently read a quote from bestselling author Stephen King’s book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft that’s made me think about the whole “an artist needs his/her space” line of thought. The prolific writer is known for his unwavering focus on minutiae in long and absorbing thrillers. In the quote I read, he describes his struggle with alcohol in a period of his life when he pushed everyone away for the sake of his writing. The big work desk in the centre of his room was the centre of his existence.
It took him a while to realise that this was a strategy that could only end in disaster. And so out went the statement desk and writerly decrees. He invited his family into his workspace – quite literally – working with the noise, the pizza crumbs, the TV and the chatter. And the writing flowed like never before. “Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.” That’s the lesson he learnt, and I’m inclined to use it whenever I see an artist who launches into a “this is what I need to create” outburst.
Nothing motivates like deadlines
Like fitness seekers who buy the shoes and download the apps, writers too motivate themselves with their fancy diaries and writing software. A few months ago, I took off for the verdant hills of Uttarakhand, hoping to “get some writing done”. In my book, the phrase is code for procrastination, daydreaming and loitering. Whenever I plan “to get some writing done”, I suddenly discover the cupboard needs cleaning, my cooking skills need practice, the torn shirt needs mending and a long-lost friendship revisiting. I read everything in sight, watch all the movies playing and socialise like a person just out of Vipassana. It’s in the middle of a highway, on the sidelines of a gathering or on a dark day given to migraine that “the writing” actually happens, generally motivated by a deadline.
A few months ago, Twitter cracked itself up over acclaimed author Jonathan Franzen’s Ten rules for novelists. These included the gem: “It’s doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.” Writers can be pretentious and insufferable, but it’s particularly annoying when they’re prescriptive. If it’s not about muses or writer’s block, there’s all that spiel about “style”. Eccentric geniuses and troubled artists are a tired cliché. I, for one, like my writers to be regular people who wear clean shirts and conduct coherent and polite conversations, and not just about themselves.
From HT Brunch, February 24, 2019
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