Recently I was answering questions in an e-mail magazine interview, and came to this one: “What do you hope to accomplish with your books?” I stopped typing. I stopped moving. Quite possibly I was legally deceased for two or three seconds. There’s a Zen saying I learned in seminary as ‘Unask the question.’ My mind was spinning: I found popcorn, the lyrics to 300 Leonard Cohen songs, and the number of our post office box in Mooreland. Other than that? A deep disquiet. I considered writing, “The question is the answer,” because, right? Buddhists get by with that all the time; or maybe inventing a different personality, Sybil-like, who could just take over while I napped. She would glance down a lot, maybe even do a little toe-scuffing gesture that could be considered coquettish, the sort of thing I’d eat my own flesh before doing. She would say things like, “I just write because I have to,” and “You know, I’m learning like everybody else, trying to do my best,” or perhaps, “I just want to spread a little joy around, give back.” I realized I’d end up showing Miss Toe-Scuffer the back of my smacking hand, so I returned to the near-death state and hovered there for twenty minutes or so.
The question is too large, for one thing, and it’s absurdly complicated and personal, and while it’s seemingly an inquiry into language, words run terrified from it like a massive herd of lemmings who’ve overpopulated their garden. Turn to an auditorium filled with a bunch of words and tell them you want to employ them to explain something both conceptual and concerning themselves, and they become as shy and wary of human beings as those monkey-guinea-pig-toy-poodle things with the buggy eyes, you know, those things that live in a rainforest somewhere. If you’ve never seen one, my point is well made.
What do I hope to accomplish with my books? Eventually the words looked all squiggly. What are the possible answers?
1. I want to bring about world peace and guarantee universal wheelchair access.
2. I want to be incredibly famous so that everyone will love me, and the love will fill this gaping chasm in my soul; so famous I eventually feel as if I’m being hunted, and in desperation drink anti-freeze, because dogs do it so it must taste good.
3. I’ve found that it’s best if I invest my ego in everything I do and also in other people. Like, it’s a really good idea to attach my ego to my children and make sure they know everything they do is actually a reflection of me. And I’ve put A LOT of my Ego Bucks into fashion, because the only thing standing between me and a locked ward are those Christian Laboutins AND your envy of them. And then it occurred to me: I could write books and every review would be about Me, and the reaction of each reader would be a reaction to Me, and I would have fans who would dream they WERE Me, and then my Ego would be truly happy.
4. Because I’m smarter than everyone else in the world, and everyone who ever lived, and other books are stupid written by stupids and I owe it to my genius and to the world to finally produce Greatness.
5. I’m pretty sure that if you have a book in print, you never die. That would be a HUGE relief to me, because I have issues around mortality. My own, I mean.
6. Do you know how much Danielle Steele is worth??
7. I hope to accomplish vicious revenge against mine enemies. Smoting.
The list above could also be seen as a condensed version of Dante’s seven circles of Author Hell. We are blessed with the capacity to make Hell out of anything, anywhere, and all it takes narcissism, desperation, and wrong-headedness, none of which are in short supply. Try it, it’s a very flexible recipe. How to make a marriage Hell? Narcissism, desperation, and wrong-headedness. How to damage your children? What does it take to become a political analyst on Fox news? How do I squander my talents, lose the ability to imagine other people exist, and create unhappiness everywhere I go?
What do I hope to accomplish with my books?!? I couldn’t even parse the question. I also lost the ability to understand why I was so confused. Eventually, I settled for the most basic candor. “I hope to find the right word, and follow it by the right word, from the beginning to the end.” Yes, I know it sounds as if it were written by a collie. I finished the interview and sent it off and it came and went somewhere and made not a dent in anything – all that worry had been misplaced.
Why, then, did I continue to think about it right up to this moment? Sometimes I thought the problem with the question was semantic: take out ‘accomplish.’ Writing a book is an accomplishment in and of itself, if that’s the sort of thing you’re looking for. The question was phrased such that I imagined my books going out into the world and doing something, like qualifying for one of those obscure Norwegian sports in the winter Olympics. Maybe one of them would join a boy band, and another could buy a bar in the Florida Keys. Then I decided it was the pronoun “I.” I don’t have anything to do with this, the books are themselves, discrete. They aren’t about me, there is no “I” in them. I would argue that even the two memoirs aren’t about me: they are studies in a particular way of crafting memoir.
I have shelves of books on writing, everything from Eudora Welty to Stephen King to James Woods. William Stafford titled his book on crafting poetry, Writing The Australian Crawl; so charming, that man. As well as I can recall, not one of those books is anguished. Some are extremely practical and useful (William Zinsser, King). Many make suggestions like, “Write in the same place at the same time every day. Your body will learn that it’s Writing Time if you develop this habit.” “Learn to craft the perfect query letter, then tailor it to each agent by studying his or her client list.” Eventually it hit me: everyone talks about writing as if it were something we do, whereas I put it in the category of Being. We’ve discussed the question Kat’s history teacher proposed: How are we to live? The question in the interview should have been, “How are we to live as writers?” [Note: The question came to me while I was sitting on the floor in the living room, going through the shelves of literary criticism and writer’s guides, and I actually tipped my head back and looked at the ceiling, the way actors do, or people lying in bed trying to make a hard decision, and I feel its my duty to tell you that while the tendency is deeply ingrained in our race, there is nothing to be learned from a ceiling. Seriously. Flat, plaster, usually white, not a clue up there to any quandary.]
Most books about writing are anguish free, but I’ve been worried about it so deeply and for so long I am near to collapsing with the vapours. It’s a blessing to have a strong, definitive sense of vocation; mine is absolute, fixed as if with an entymologist’s straight pin. But just as there is Right Living, there is Right Working. You can be successful in any field with Wrong Working – in fact, the Wrongest are probably doubly rewarded. Recently a doctor said to me, “I’m sending you to Dr. X. He’s an asshole, but he’s the best. Well, all neurologists are assholes but he’s exceptionally so.” Shakespeare wrote, in Henry VI 2, in response to tyranny, the first thing we are to do is “kill all the lawyers.” And that was late in the 16th century, when the Earth had not yet been declared a planet and we still spoke in a strange series of gutteral plosions and clicks.
There’s a theological practice adopted from the Hindus, now used as a way of thinking about lots of things, which is sometimes referred to as Radical Negativity. If I’m stuck and can’t discern what action would be pleasing to Shiva, I reverse the process of discernment and make a list of the things I know for certain would not be pleasing to Shiva. It’s a canny, graceful way of organizing abstractions. I had nowhere to begin on how to Work Rightly, let alone what I hoped to accomplish with my books. (Even now, I type the sentence and it fills me with anxiety.) So I decided to make a list of Negativities.
Ways I Have Seen It Done Wrong:
1. I am introduced to you at a conference and you are an asshole.
2. Same conference: we are speaking, even though I’ve become aware that you need to be in a 12-step Assoholic program stat, and I am only continuing to be gracious to you because I know that you will someday die, and you see over my shoulder a more important person. You say, “Excuse me, I need to catch up with Gary before cocktails.”
3. Your novels are self-consciously modeled on the length and conventions of the three-act screenplay, and you say to people, “When it’s optioned, it won’t need ten rewrites – it’s ready to go.” You take a drink of rose, which has made an inexplicable reappearance. “I’m going to have Binky bargain for me to have sole screen-writing credit.”
4. You have an idea for a book or a short story and as you’re working on it, you realize it it has failed, and rather than accepting that, you bend the prose to fit your outline, and you call this ‘making it work.’
5. You refuse to be edited, because if the sentence hadn’t been perfect, you wouldn’t have put it there.
6. You never imagine the effect a scene or a plot twist or some too-vivid sex will have on your audience. You never think of an audience at all, because no one is real but you, and every cruel aesthetic decision you make is called ‘art.’
7. You lie. Your characters are a lie, and your dialogue is a lie, and your forced and premeditated sentimentality is treasonous.
8. You will write anything, any time, for any publication that pays well, because you are a professional.
9. No amount of success or praise or fanmail or adulation is enough. You despise your life, you hate sitting at your desk, you refuse to read any author who has won literary prizes, you begin to plot your upcoming books based on what’s selling. What’s selling is Havana, let’s say. You don’t go to Havana, you don’t learn anything but the most basic information, you have no interest in the political landscape, you’ve never met a single person from Havana. It doesn’t matter, you just prop up detritus – a doll your dog mangled, say – where you intend a woman to stand. It makes no difference because there is no woman, no Havana, no language, you are venal and you sense it for just a moment, then turn and write an abusive letter to your editor for ruining your career.
But there is a deeper negative, something more radical than just Wrong Working. In truth, the you considering this does not want Selfhood to enter a single line of your work. You don’t want your name to be larger than the title, because the book has nothing to do with your name. Author photographs fill you with a shame you’ve never felt before. You’re told that the business has changed and you are now as much a product as what you hold in your hands, and so you’re asked to help develop a marketing plan: who do you know, where can you network. You pass an executive editor in the hallway and he’s on his way somewhere but shouts, “Love the new book!” even though everyone knows he hasn’t read it, won’t read it. Your Soul now dwells in a Society where that lie is reflexive, expected, and will have no consequences. It’s just some more Death Chatter, the staccato language of commerce and ambition and a nearly daily necessity to speak of your love of literature while scheming for a 5-second spot on morning television; in short, as Prufrock said, you are afraid. No one in this building cares about Eliot, or poetry at all, for that matter, because it’s a black hole, and if you wandered through every floor and asked every person, desperation marring your delivery, why Prufrock asks if he dares to eat a peach, not one would know it’s because in ancient Chinese lore, when the Great Dragon drags the sun up every day at dawn, a handsome man who never ages sets off walking with his basket containing the peaches of immortality.
Our is not an earnest or sincere age; vulnerability isn’t encouraged, and no one is guided by a devout religious belief. There are still churchgoers, but their attendance is disconnected from the old motivation: the deep longing for the mysterium tremendum, a belief in the sacred and in the places the sacred waits for you. No one is possessed by the puzzle of Jesus of Nazareth – who is losing sleep over a word so overused and ironic it’s one of the lost or damaged signifiers wandering the trash heaps, looking for its signified? The thought of the man doesn’t shake you in the slightest. You don’t remember, if you ever knew, why his tendency toward inversion matters more than any other story in the world. He spoke in parables, big deal. There are books out now where the text is written in a circle on one page and the next page is blank; not cost-efficient but everyone needs something to believe in, even if it’s just that the empty page is significant and meaningful and they get it, they do. Almost. The non-practicing Jews will be a big audience; they’re reliable buyers.
I genuinely hate to say this, because it will sound imbecilic and you might have heard that I am not unfamiliar with imbecility. How am I to write? I am to write as if it were the measure given to me by the God of my Unbelief, or the Spirit of Truth, as revelation, which never ceased but is ongoing. I am to listen for guidance, as if in prayer. In Self-Reliance, Emerson writes, “Prayer that craves a particular commodity, anything less than all good, is vicious. Prayer is the contemplation of life from the highest point of view. It is the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul. It is the spirit of God pronouncing his works good. But prayer as a means to effect a private end is meanness and theft.” Who ARE those people, the ones who got the idea that they could say some words and make God find their car keys? Little spinning centers of the universe with God as a magic butler. Emerson is right: it is vicious.
I am to write as a person who is paying very close attention, not only to my own surroundings but to the patterns of the visible world, so that any reader might see him or herself and remember, as a kind man said to me recently, “We’se all in this together, honey.” I can’t forget, even for a moment, that I have to let the book be what it is, or else it will come out lumpy and gooey in the middle. I often stumble, considering the nature of prose, about whether it should serve as an amplification of beauty, or goodness; if that is a form of integrity. It isn’t – it’s a form of dishonesty. Redemption is appropriate when it is, but loss is elemental, and there is a shadow world we ignore at our peril. Jung and Hillman speak so fluently about nightmares and archetypal patterns, much the way Hoosiers discuss the weather. It’s just the facts, sir, the electrical storm that sets the barn aflame, and so are feelings of horror or deep revulsion at what we see in our inmost darkness. I have periodically worried about the horror novel coming out in a couple years, as if I betrayed people who trusted me to stay in Mooreland, or to stick with sermons and cast-off objects. Better that I should just tell you: I’ll follow the course where I’m led. I don’t care what’s selling: this prayer does not crave commodity.
There is the mysterium tremendum; there are the Mysteries; there is the mysterious. One is the source of Kant’s definition of the sublime: beauty that leads to terror. The next are the wonders in our cultural narrative, acts that defy understanding or explanation. And there is this physical world about which we are naturally curious. In The Art of Fiction Henry James said, “A writer is one on whom nothing is lost.” That’s who I hope to be. A fellow novelist asked me recently if I was bitter that IODINE came and went unnoticed and unsung, was not nominated for any prizes, etc. He said, “Does it make you crazy that you manage something like this and nobody pays attention?” I answered, in complete honesty, “God no. I don’t care about things like that. I care about one thing, which is getting it right.”
So for weeks now I’ve been turning this over and over, and all the ways I try to express my desire to do my work as purely and selflessly as possible, the more smug and asinine I sound. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of you just hauled off and smacked me. But I feel better after the reading I’ve been doing over the past two days. There’s a recent paperback collection of Thomas Merton’s journal entries on writing, called Echoing Silence. I already knew what a painful topic writing was for him early in his years as a monk. At the time he decided not only to join the priesthood, but to become a contemplative, he was a writing student under the tutelage of Mark Van Doren. He had, even as a young man, a singular and bright talent. As he aged his books became artifacts of stunning beauty. When he entered the monastery he did so as a young man with ideals so lofty and a religious belief so pervasive he was desperate to rid of himself of anything profane. He would no longer write, he declared, because the desire to do so was actually an attempt to assuage one’s base ambitions and to engage in ceaseless self-idolatry. If he were to write, he would be writing for himself (bad) and the world (wicked). Reading the early journal entries is visceral; his need to overcome all worldliness, all selfhood, and become one with the mystical love of God was so great he seemed nearly panicked. Anyone who knows Merton knows the fortuitous thing that happened in the midst of what I imagine as a bonfire out in the courtyard, where he’s throwing his Harry Potter books with great force, and . . . there go his AC/DC records, like Frisbees. The abbot insisted that Merton’s first task would be to write his autobiography, and that the form his morning meditation would take, every morning, was writing. What a bright and intuitive man the abbot must have been, because what Merton wrote was the classic Seven Story Mountain. He opened the floodgates of a great, brave man and a formidable talent. Merton went on to write 60 books, countless essays and reviews. He was the Trappist/social activist/bald version of Joyce Carol Oates.
I tell you about that book because as much as I worry about living up to the honor of the task before me, and how not to violate it or the source from which it comes, I laughed out loud when I read how my anxiety compared to his. To the very end of his life he was pursuing a form of writing that expressed and magnified God’s love for the world – he sought to be pure to the very end. He recounts a scene in Greenwich Village, where he was walking with his friend Lax. Lax asks him:
“What do you want to be, anyway?”
I could not say, “I want to be Thomas Merton the well-known writer of those book reviews in the back pages of the Times Book Review,” or “Thomas Merton the assistant instructor of Freshman English at the New Life Social Institute for Progress and Culture,” so I put the thing on the spiritual plane, where I knew it belonged and said:
“I don’t know; I guess what I want is to be a good Catholic.”
“What do you mean, a good Catholic?”
The explanation I gave was lame enough, and expressed my confusion, and betrayed how little I had really thought about it at all.
Lax did not accept it.
“What you should say” – he told me – “what you should say is that you want to be a saint.”
Oh, I laughed and laughed. I thought I was in a crisis of conscience because someone asked me what I hoped to accomplish with my books. I was terrified I might find a lazy or greedy or disengenous person, even though I know perfectly well that my motives have always been to do whatever I found my vocation to be with not just technical skill, but with discipline and humility and a refusal to give up until I had answered whatever I was being summoned to do. From now on, problem solved: I hope to be a saint.
My sister is, at this moment, laughing so hard she has done herself an injury. I HOPE YOU DO, ARSE, BECAUSE I’M A SAINT AND I SAY SO!