Anaïs Nin on Writing, the Future of the Novel, and How Keeping a Diary Enhances Creativity: Wisdom from a Rare 1947 Chapbookby Maria Popova
“It is in the moments of emotional crisis that human beings reveal themselves most accurately.”
In December of 1946, Anaïs Nin was invited to give a lecture on writing at Dartmouth, which received an overwhelming response. The following summer, after receiving countless requests, Nin adapted the talk in chapbook titled On Writing, which she printed at her own Gremor Press — the small publishing house Nin founded in 1942 out of disillusionment with mainstream publishing, which led her to teach herself letterpress and self-publish a handful of elegant manually typeset books with gorgeous engravings by her husband.
On Writing, in which Nin considers the future of the novel and reflects on what keeping her famous diaries since the age of eleven taught her about writing, was published in a limited edition of 1,000 copies, 750 of which were for sale. Only a few are known to survive. I was fortunate enough to hunt down one of them — here is its gist, for our shared enrichment.
Nin, with insight at once incredibly timely and subtly heartbreaking in our age of mass-produced commercial fiction coexisting with bold independent experimentation with the form, begins by considering the evolving role of the modern novelist:
In the presence of a collective neurosis it is all the more essential for the novelist not to share with the neurotic this paralyzing fear of nature which has been the cause of so much sterility in life and in the writing of today.
While we refuse to organize the confusions within us we will never have an objective understanding of what is happening outside.
We will not be able to relate to it, to choose sides, to evaluate historically, and consequently we will be incapacitated for action.
Today a novelist’s preoccupation with inner psychological distortions does not stem from a morbid love of illness but from a knowledge that this is the theme of our new reality.
Like the modern physicist the novelist of today should face the fact that this new psychological reality can be explored and dealt with only under the conditions of tremendously high atmospheric pressures, temperatures and speed, as well as in terms of new time-space dimensions for which the old containers represented by the traditional forms and conventions of the novel are completely inadequate and inappropriate.
That is why James Joyce shattered the old form of the novel and let his writing erupt in a veritable flow of associations.
Most novels today are inadequate because they reflect not our experience, but people’s fear of experience. They portray all the evasions.
Nin reiterates her conviction that emotionality is essential to creativity:
In order to take action full maturity in experience is required. Novels which contribute to our emotional atrophy only deepen our blindness.
And nothing that we do not discover emotionally will have the power to alter our vision.
The constant evasion of emotional experience has created an immaturity which turns all experience into traumatic shocks from which the human being derives no strength or development, but neurosis.
It was while writing a Diary that I discovered how to capture the living moments.
Keeping a Diary all my life helped me to discover some basic elements essential to the vitality of writing.
When I speak of the relationship between my diary and writing I do not intend to generalize as to the value of keeping a diary, or to advise anyone to do so, but merely to extract from this habit certain discoveries which can be easily transposed to other kinds of writing.
Of these the most important is naturalness and spontaneity. These elements sprung, I observed, from my freedom of selection: in the Diary I only wrote of what interested me genuinely, what I felt most strongly at the moment, and I found this fervor, this enthusiasm produced a vividness which often withered in the formal work. Improvisation, free association, obedience to mood, impulse, bought forth countless images, portraits, descriptions, impressionistic sketches, symphonic experiments, from which I could dip at any time for material.
The Diary dealing always with the immediate present, the warm, the near, being written at white heat, developed a love of the living moment, of the immediate emotional reaction to experience, which revealed the power of recreation to lie in the sensibilities rather than in memory or critical intellectual perception.
The Diary, creating a vast tapestry, a web, exposing constantly the relation between past and present, weaving meticulously the invisible interaction, noting the repetitions of themes, developed in the sense of the totality of personality, this tale without beginning or end which encloses all things, and relates all things, as a strong antidote to the unrelatedness, incoherence and disintegration of the modern man. I could follow the inevitable pattern and obtain a large, panoramic view of character.
This personal relationship to all things, which is condemned as subjective, limiting, I found to be the core of individuality, personality, and originality. The idea that subjectivity is an impasse is as false as the idea that objectivity leads to a larger form of life.
A deep personal relationship reaches far beyond the personal into the general. Again it is a matter of depths.
But her greatest insight from the Diary has less to do with writing and more to do with human nature:
It is in the moments of emotional crisis that human beings reveal themselves most accurately. … The heightened moments … are the moments of revelation. It is the moment when the real self rises to the surface, shatters its false roles, erupts and assumes reality and identity. The fiery moments of passionate experience are the moments of wholeness and totality of the personality.
The new dimension in character and reality requires a fusion of two extremes which have been handled separately, on the one side by poets, and on the other by the so called realists.
Another learning from her diary experience captures the same idea Ray Bradbury articulated in arguing that ideation should flow uninhibited from the intuitive mind, and the intellect-as-editor should only come later. Nin considers the discipline this requires:
To achieve perfection in writing while retaining naturalness it was important to write a great deal, to write fluently, as the pianist practices the piano, rather than to correct constantly one page until it withers. To write continuously, to try over and over again to capture a certain mood, a certain experience. Intensive correcting may lead to monotony, to working on dead matter, whereas continuing to write and to write until perfection is achieved through repetition is a way to elude this monotony, to avoid performing an autopsy. Sheer playing of scales, practice, repetition — then by the time one is ready to write a story or a novel a great deal of natural distillation and softing has been accomplished.
Indeed, Nin considers the inner censor that so often stands in the way of this flow to be the gravest peril of writing, one that the diary taught her to bypass:
There is another great danger for the writer, perhaps the greatest one of all: his consciousness of the multiple taboos society has imposed on literature, and his inner censor. … It is surprising how well one writes if one thinks no one will read [the writing].
This honesty, this absence of posturing, is a most fecund source of material. The writer’s task is to overthrow the taboos rather than accept them.
In elaborating on this, Nin adds to history’s most profound definitions of art:
Naked truth is unbearable to most, and art is our most effective means of overcoming human resistance to truth. The writer has the same role as the surgeon and his handling of anaesthesia is as important as his skill with the knife.
Human beings, in their resistance to truth, erect fortresses and some of these fortresses can only be demolished by the dynamic power of the symbol, which reaches the emotions directly.
Reflecting on the power of ancient stories and fairy tales, Nin returns to the critical role of sensuality in art, once again asserting that emotion and logic coexist — but only if the artist or writer is able to fully inhabit his or her own emotionality, thus understanding its underlying patterns:
In the human unconscious itself there is an indigenous structure and if we are able to detect and grasp it we have the plot, the form and style of the novel of the future.
In this apparently chaotic world of the unconscious there is an inevitability as logical, as coherent, as final as any to be found in classical drama.
In this new dimension of character the form is created by the meaning, it is born of the theme. It is created very much as the earth itself is created, by a series of inner convulsions and eruptions, dictated by inner geological tensions.
It is an organic development.
Concluding with an example of her own creative process — an anecdote about how a sudden memory of a sight at a concert she had heard in Paris years earlier inspired a key section in her novel Ladders to Fire — Nin speaks to the importance of unconscious processing in how creativity works and remarks:
How creative the unconscious can be if one allows it to work spontaneously.
For more wisdom on the written word, see this omnibus of 50+ famous authors’ advice on writing, including Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 keys to the power of the written word, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.
Complement with Nin’s timeless wisdom from her now-published diaries, including her reflections on the meaning of life, how inviting the unfamiliar helps us live more richly, Paris vs. New York, why emotional excess is essential to creativity, and how our objects define us