Susan Sontag on Writing
“There is a great deal that either has to be given up or be taken away from you if you are going to succeed in writing a body of work.”
By Maria Popova
The newly released volume of Susan Sontag’s diaries, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 (public library), from whence Sontag’s thoughtful meditations on censorship and aphorisms came, is an absolute treasure trove of rare insight into one of the greatest minds in modern history. Among the tome’s greatest gifts are Sontag’s thoughts on the art, craft, and ideology of writing.
Unlike more prescriptive takes, like previously examined advice by Kurt Vonnegut, John Steinbeck, and David Ogilvy, Sontag’s reflections are rather meditative — sometimes turned inward, with introspective curiosity, and other times outward, with a lens on the broader literary landscape — yet remarkably rich in cultural observation and universal wisdom on the writing process, somewhere between Henry Miller’s creative routine, Jack Kerouac’s beliefs and techniques, George Orwell’s four motives for writing, and E. B. White’s vision for the responsibility of the writer.
Gathered here are the most compelling and profound of Sontag’s thoughts on writing, arranged chronologically and each marked with the date of the respective diary entry.
I have a wider range as a human being than as a writer. (With some writers, it’s the opposite.) Only a fraction of me is available to be turned into art.
Words have their own firmness. The word on the page may not reveal (may conceal) the flabbiness of the mind that conceived it. > All thoughts are upgrades — get more clarity, definition, authority, by being in print — that is, detached from the person who thinks them.
A potential fraud — at least potential — in all writing.
Writing is a little door. Some fantasies, like big pieces of furniture, won’t come through.
If only I could feel about sex as I do about writing! That I’m the vehicle, the medium, the instrument of some force beyond myself.
Science fiction —
Popular mythology for contemporary negative imagination about the impersonal
Greatest subject: self seeking to transcend itself (Middlemarch, War and Peace)
Looking for self-transcendence (or metamorphosis) — the cloud of unknowing that allows perfect expressiveness (a secular myth for this)
(undated loose sheets, 1965)
Kafka the last story-teller in ‘serious’ literature. Nobody has known where to go from there (except imitate him)
(undated loose sheets, 1965)
John Dewey — ‘The ultimate function of literature is to appreciate the world, sometimes indignantly, sometimes sorrowfully, but best of all to praise when it is luckily possible.’
I think I am ready to learn how to write. Think with words, not with ideas.
‘Writing is only a substitute [sic] for living.’ — Florence Nightingale
French, unlike English: a language that tends to break when you bend it.
A writer, like an athlete, must ‘train’ every day. What did I do today to keep in ‘form’?
In ‘life,’ I don’t want to be reduced to my work. In ‘work,’ I don’t want to be reduced to my life.
My work is too austere
My life is a brutal anecdote
The only story that seems worth writing is a cry, a shot, a scream. A story should break the reader’s heart
The story must strike a nerve — in me. My heart should start pounding when I hear the first line in my head. I start trembling at the risk.
I’m now writing out of rage — and I feel a kind of Nietzschean elation. It’s tonic. I roar with laughter. I want to denounce everybody, tell everybody off. I go to my typewriter as I might go to my machine gun. But I’m safe. I don’t have to face the consequences of ‘real’ aggressivity. I’m sending out colis piégés [‘booby-trapped packages‘] to the world.
The solution to a problem — a story that you are unable to finish — is the problem. It isn’t as if the problem is one thing and the solution something else. The problem, properly understood = the solution. Instead of trying to hide or efface what limits the story, capitalize on that very limitation. State it, rail against it.
Talking like touching
Writing like punching somebody
To be a great writer:
know everything about adjectives and punctuation (rhythm)
have moral intelligence — which creates true authority in a writer
‘Idea’ as method of instant transport away from direct experience, carrying a tiny suitcase.
‘Idea’ as a means of miniaturizing experience, rendering it portable. Someone who regularly has ideas is — by definition — homeless.
Intellectual is a refugee from experience. In Diaspora.
What’s wrong with direct experience? Why would one ever want to flee it, by transforming it — into a brick?
Weakness of American poetry — it’s anti-intellectual. Great poetry has ideas.
Not only must I summon the courage to be a bad writer — I must dare to be truly unhappy. Desperate. And not save myself, short-circuit the despair.
By refusing to be as unhappy as I truly am, I deprive myself of subjects. I’ve nothing to write about. Every topic burns.
The function of writing is to explode one’s subject — transform it into something else. (Writing is a series of transformations.)
Writing means converting one’s liabilities (limitations) into advantages. For example, I don’t love what I’m writing. Okay, then — that’s also a way to write, a way that can produce interesting results.
‘All art aspires to the condition of music’ — this utterly nihilistic statement rests at the foundation of every moving camera style in the history of the medium. But it is a cliché, a 19th c[entury] cliché, less an aesthetic than a projection of an exhausted state of mind, less a world view than a world weariness, less a statement of vital forms than an expression of sterile decadence. There is quite another pov [point of view] about what ‘all art aspires to’ — that was Goethe’s, who put the primary art, the most aristocratic one, + the one art that cannot be made by the plebes but only gaped at w[ith] awe, + that art is architecture. Really great directors have this sense of architecture in their work — always expressive of immense line of energy, unstable + vital conduits of force.
One can never be alone enough to write. To see better.
Two kinds of writers. Those who think this life is all there is, and want to describe everything: the fall, the battle, the accouchement, the horse-race. That is, Tolstoy. And those who think this life is a kind of testing-ground (for what we don’t know — to see how much pleasure + pain we can bear or what pleasure + pain are?) and want to describe only the essentials. That is, Dostoyevsky. The two alternatives. How can one write like T. after D.? The task is to be as good as D. — as serious spiritually, + then go on from there.
Only thing that counts are ideas. Behind ideas are [moral] principles. Either one is serious or one is not. Must be prepared to make sacrifices. I’m not a liberal.
When there is no censorship the writer has no importance.
So it’s not so simple to be against censorship.
Imagination: — having many voices in one’s head. The freedom for that.
Language as a found object
Last novelist to be influenced by, knowledgeable about science was [Aldous] Huxley
One reason [there are] no more novels — There are no exciting theories of relation of society to self (soc[iological], historical, philosophical)
Not SO — no one is doing it, that’s all
(undated, March 1979)
There is a great deal that either has to be given up or be taken away from you if you are going to succeed in writing a body of work
(undated, March 1979)
To write one must wear blinkers. I’ve lost my blinkers.
Don’t be afraid to be concise!
A failure of nerve. About writing. (And about my life — but never mind.) I must write myself out of it.
If I am not able to write because I’m afraid of being a bad writer, then I must be a bad writer. At least I’ll be writing.
Then something else will happen. It always does.
I must write every day. Anything. Everything. Carry a notebook with me at all times, etc.
I read my bad reviews. I want to go to the bottom of it — this failure of nerve
The writer does not have to write. She must imagine that she must. A great book: no one is addressed, it counts as cultural surplus, it comes from the will.
Ordinary language is an accretion of lies. The language of literature must be, therefore, the language of transgression, a rupture of individual systems, a shattering of psychic oppression. The only function of literature lies in the uncovering of the self in history.
The love of books. My library is an archive of longings.
Making lists of words, to thicken my active vocabulary. To have puny, not just little, hoax, not just trick, mortifying, not just embarrassing, bogus, not just fake.
I could make a story out of puny, hoax, mortifying, bogus. They are a story.
As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh is a revelatory read in its entirety, full of Sontag’s abiding insight into literature, love, and life. Complement this particular aspect with her advice to aspiring writers.
Published July 25, 2012