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The Six Motives of Creativity: Mary Gaitskill on Why Writers Write

The art of integrating the ego and the impulse for empathy in a dynamic call and response.

Why do writers — great writers — write? George Orwell attributed it to four universal motives. Joan Didion saw it as access to her own mind. For David Foster Wallace, it was about fun. Michael Lewis ascribes it to the necessary self-delusions of creativity. Joy Williams found in it a gateway from the darkness to the light. For Charles Bukowski, it sprang from the soul like a rocket. Italo Calvino found in writing the comfort of belonging to a collective enterprise. For Susan Orlean, it comes from immutable love.

But one of literary history’s most beautiful answers comes from Mary Gaitskill in her essay “The Wolf in the Tall Grass,” titled after Nabokov’s famous meditation on the art of storytelling and published in the 1998 anthology Why I Write: Thoughts on the Craft of Fiction (public library) — an altogether fantastic collection, featuring David Foster Wallace’s famous essay “The Nature of the Fun” and other notable reflections on writing from Ann Patchett, Elizabeth Gilbert, Rick Bass, Norman Mailer, Rick Moody, and more.

1. To satisfy a basic, fundamental need. I think all people have this need. It’s why children like to draw pictures of houses, animals, and Mom; it’s an affirmation of their presence in the corporeal world. You come into life, and life gives you everything your senses can bear: broad currents of animal feeling running alongside the particularity of thought. Sunlight, stars, colors, smells, sounds. Tender things, sweet, temperate things, harsh, freezing, hot, salty things. All the different expressions on people’s faces and in their voices. For years, everything just pours into you, and all you can do is gurgle or scream until finally one day you can sit up and hold your crayon and draw your picture and thus shout back, Yes! I hear! I see! I feel! This is what it’s like! It’s dynamic creation and pure, delighted receptivity happening on the same field, a great call and response.

Mary Gaitskill by Ben Handzo

Her second motive reflects Susan Sontag’s assertion that “a writer is someone who pays attention to the world — a writer is a professional observer.” Gaitskill continues:

2. To give form to the things we can sense but not see. You walk into the living room where your father is lying on the couch, listening to music. You are small, so he doesn’t hear or see you. His face is reacting to the music, and his expression is soft, abstract, intensely inward. It is also pained. It is an expression that you have never seen. Then he sees you and smiles, but the music still fills the room with that other expression…

Quoting Nabokov’s famous words — “Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between. That go-between, that prism, is the art of literature.” — Gaitskill reflects on that ability to give shape to the ineffable as the essence of storytelling:

Stories mimic life like certain insects mimic leaves and twigs. Stories are about all the things that might’ve, could’ve, or would’ve happened, encrowded around and giving density and shape to undeniable physical events and phenomena. They are the rich, unseen underlayer of the most ordinary moments.

Gaitskill contrasts this intense outrospection and sensitivity to the world’s unseen layers with her third reason — which coincides with Orwell’s first motive — and writes:

3. To feel important, in the simplest egotistical sense. … Strong thoughts and feelings about what you see and feel require a distinct point of view and an ego. If you are frequently told that your point of view is worthless, invalid, or crazy, your ego will get really insulted. It will sulk like a teenager hunched in her room muttering, “No one ever listens. No one cares. One day they’ll see!” To make them all see — i.e., see how important I am — was once a big part of why I wrote stories. As a motivation, it’s embarrassing, it’s base, and it smells bad, but it’s also an angry little engine that could: it will fight like hell to keep your point of view from being snatched away, or demeaned, fighting even when there’s no apparent threat.

But just as one begins to raise a skeptical eyebrow and summon Alan Watts for a counterpoint, Gaitskill herself acknowledges the existential paradox therein:

The only problem is, the more your ego fights, the smaller your point of view gets. For a while, I needed to take great pains to make myself feel safe, to the point of extreme social isolation, so I wouldn’t feel like I had to fight. The angry engine quieted down a bit, and I began to learn about other points of view.

Indeed, this impulse for empathy and for giving voice to the marginalized realities of others brings us to Gaitskill’s fourth motive:

4. To reveal and restore things that I feel might be ignored or disregarded. I was once at a coffee shop eating breakfast alone when I noticed a woman standing and talking to a table of people. She was young but prematurely aged, with badly dyed hair and lined skin. She was smiling and joking, but her body had a collapsed, defeated posture that looked deeply habitual. Her spine was curled, her head was slightly receded, and her shoulders were pulled down in a static flinch. She expressed herself loudly and crudely, but also diffidently. She talked like she was a joke. But there was something else to her, something pushing up against the defeat, a sweet, tough, humorous vitality that I could almost see running up her center. I realized that if I hadn’t looked closely, I would not have really seen this woman, that I would not have seen what was most human and lively in her. I wondered how many people saw it, or even if she herself saw it…

That kind of small, new, unrecognized thing is very tender to me, and I hate it when it gets ignored or mistaken for something ugly. I want to acknowledge and nurture it, but I usually leave it very small in the stories. I do that because I think part of the human puzzle is in the delicacy of those moments or phenomena, contrasted with the ignorance and lack of feeling we are subject to.

Gaitskill moves on to her fifth reason, echoing Oscar Wilde’s famous emphasis on receptivity and reflecting on the osmosis of reading and writing:

5. To communicate. … To read well is an act of dynamic receptivity that creates a profound sense of exchange, and I like being on both ends of it.

Illustration by Sydney Pink for ‘How to Overcome Creative Block.’ Click image for more.

Citing one of her favorite passages in literature, from Saul Bellow’s The Victim, she captures the highest potentiality of literature:

It opens life up down to the pit; when I read that, I can’t ignore how extraordinary it is to be alive.

In her sixth and final reason, Gaitskill returns to Nabokov:

6. To integrate; to love. One of Nabokov’s early novels, Laughter in the Dark, has an apparently simple, almost hackneyed plot: a foolish, wealthy middle-aged man (Albinus) falls in love with a vulgar, heartless sixteen-year-old girl (Margot). She and her lover, Rex, proceed to destroy Albinus and his family in a ruthless, ultimately grotesque fashion. On the face of it, it’s a soap opera, but what makes it extraordinary, aside from the beauty of the prose, is the author’s gift for inhabiting every energetic strain of his breathing animal creations. Rex and Margot are absolutely evil, but they are also full of fierce life, with, and supple, eel-like charm. Nabokov can step inside their cruelty and vitality almost as if it were an electrical current, then step out again and enter the much slower, cooler ambience of their poor stooge Albinus, or the person of Albinus’s bland, taffy-sweet wife, and emerge again, all in a flash. … The ability to do this requires a great understanding of and regard for life that is, I think, a kind of love.

Gaitskill concludes by reflecting on this “kind of integration [that] requires holding many disparate elements together in a fluid mosaic” in her own experience of writing, from the depths of which emerges the light of the creative impulse:

When I start writing a story, I don’t feel like I’m integrating anything; I feel like I’m marching through mud. But at least some of the time when there comes a moment when I feel I’m carrying all the elements I’ve just described and more in a big, clear bowl. It doesn’t feel like I’m containing them. It feels like I’m bringing them into being and letting them be, exactly as they are. My perplexity and upset may still be there, but they are no longer the main event. I feel sadness because much of what is in that bowl is sad. But because of that tender sadness, I also feel humility and joy and love. It’s strange because much of what I write about does not seem loving. But to write it makes me feel love.

Why I Write, while out of print, is still findable and very much worth the hunt. Complement it with its contemporary counterpart, one of 2013’s best books on writing, then revisit famous writers’ advice on writing.

BP

Why Science-Fiction Writers Are So Good at Predicting the Future

“At its core, good science fiction must rest on good science.”

“Trying to predict the future is a discouraging and hazardous occupation,” Arthur C. Clarke declared in 1964, and yet he got it astoundingly right in his own predictions, including his 1968 vision for the iPad. He wasn’t alone — Isaac Asimov predicted online education, Douglas Adams predicted ebooks, Ray Bradbury predicted that we would reach Mars (though, so far, we’ve only done so with robotic extensions of ourselves), and Jules Verne envisioned the hi-tech Nautilus “at a time when even a can-opener [was] considered an exciting new concept.” In fact, science-fiction authors have a formidable track record of predicting the future — but why?

That’s exactly what Joe Hanson of It’s Okay To Be Smart — who has previously explained the science of why we kiss and the mathematical odds of finding your soulmate — explores in this fantastic short film for PBS:

One right prediction in any one body of work would be lucky, but this many right answers can’t be luck — clearly, something sets these people apart. Many of the greatest sci-fi writers also had serious scientific training: Isaac Asimov had a Ph.D. in biochemistry, and Arthur C. Clarke had degrees in math and physics; H.G. Wells had a degree in biology…

At its core, good science fiction must rest on good science…

How far can we see into the future? Well, it depends on what we’re looking for — Isaac Asimov said that when we look at stars or galaxies or DNA, we’re looking at simple things, things that follow nice, neat rules and equations; but when we look at human history, it’s chaotic, unpredictable, our vision is limited. Science transforms the complex into the simple — that’s how we explain the chaos. Science is how we see farther, and science fiction is where we write down what we see.

Complement with this fantastic visual timeline of the future based on famous fiction and some vintage visions for the future of technology, then revisit one of H.G. Wells’s as-yet unfulfilled predictions with Edward Gorey’s illustrations for The War of the Worlds.

BP

John Updike on How to Have a Productive Daily Routine, and the Most Important Things Aspiring Writers Should Know

“In a country this large and a language even larger … there ought to be a living for somebody who cares and wants to entertain and instruct a reader.”

In 2004, shortly after winning the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, John Updike — who had also won two Pulitzer Prizes, two National Book Awards, the National Medal of Arts and the National Humanities Medal, among countless other accolades — gave an interview for the Academy of Achievement to discuss his views on writing, many of which he explored at greater depth in his superb 1996 memoir Self-Consciousness (public library), which gave us his timeless reflection on writing and death. Here are the highlights of the interview.

On his daily rhythm, adding to the stringent routines and offbeat rituals of famous writers:

Since I’ve gone through some trouble not to teach and not to have any employment, I have no reason not to go to my desk after breakfast and work there until lunch, so I work three or four hours in the morning. And it’s not all covering blank paper with beautiful phrases… I begin by answering a letter or two — there’s a lot of junk in your life as a writer, most people have junk in their lives — but I try to give about three hours to the project at hand and to move it along. There’s a danger if you don’t move it steadily that you kind of forget what it’s about, so you must keep in touch with it. . . . I’ve been maintaining this schedule since … 1957.

On doggedness:

It’s good to have a certain doggedness to your technique.

His advice to aspiring writers, including a sentiment about money that Michael Lewis would come to echo and which Muppeteer Jim Henson embodied:

Try to develop actual work habits and, even though you have a busy life, try to reserve an hour, say, or more a day to write. Very good things have been written on an hour a day. . . . So take it seriously, set a quota, try to think of communicating with some ideal reader somewhere. . . .

Don’t be contentious to call yourself a writer and then bitch about the crass publishing world that won’t run your stuff. We’re still a capitalist country and writing, as some would agree, is a capitalist enterprise… It’s not a total sin to try to make a living and court an audience.

Read what excites you… and even if you don’t imitate it, you will learn from it. . . .

Don’t try to get rich. . . . If you want to get rich, you should go into investment banking or be a certain kind of lawyer. On the other hand, I like to think that in a country this large and a language even larger, that there ought to be a living for somebody who cares and wants to entertain and instruct a reader.

Complement with more invaluable advice to aspiring writers from Ernest Hemingway, H.P. Lovecraft, Neil Gaiman, and Josh Green, then bookmark and revisit this continually updated archive of famous writers’ wisdom on the craft.

For more of Updike’s wisdom, see his meditation on why the world exists and his little-known, lovely children’s book.

BP

John Green’s Superb Advice to Aspiring Writers and Creators in the Digital Age

A vital reminder of the only good reason to put something into the world.

Advice to aspiring authors from successful ones seems to be a special meta-genre of literature, with notable contributions from Ernest Hemingway, H.P. Lovecraft, Neil Gaiman, and a running list of literary greats. But some of the best and timeliest advice ever given comes from prolific author John Green, whose most recent novel, The Fault in Our Stars, became TIME’s #1 fiction book of the year. In this erratic but infectiously charming video, Green reflects on why he loves the internet and offers some invaluable advice to aspiring writers, echoing Schopenhauer’s admonition about writing for money and recasting Faulkner’s famous contention that writers write “not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before” in timely light:

Every single day, I get emails from aspiring writers asking my advice about how to become a writer, and here is the only advice I can give: Don’t make stuff because you want to make money — it will never make you enough money. And don’t make stuff because you want to get famous — because you will never feel famous enough. Make gifts for people — and work hard on making those gifts in the hope that those people will notice and like the gifts.

Maybe they will notice how hard you worked, and maybe they won’t — and if they don’t notice, I know it’s frustrating. But, ultimately, that doesn’t change anything — because your responsibility is not to the people you’re making the gift for, but to the gift itself.

For more timeless wisdom on writing, see the collected advice of great authors, then revisit 2013’s best books on writing.

BP

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