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Why I Write: Joan Didion on Ego, Grammar, and the Creative Impulse

“Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write.”

Why I Write: Joan Didion on Ego, Grammar, and the Creative Impulse

The question of what propels creators, especially great creators, is the subject of eternal fascination and cultural curiosity. In “Why I Write,” originally published in the New York Times Book Review in December of 1976 and found in The Writer on Her Work, Volume 1 (public library), Joan Didion — whose indelible insight on self-respect is a must-read for all — peels the curtain on one of the most celebrated and distinctive voices of American fiction and literary journalism to reveal what it is that has compelled her to spend half a century putting pen to paper.

Portrait of Joan Didion by Mary Lloyd Estrin, 1977

Didion begins:

Of course I stole the title for this talk, from George Orwell. One reason I stole it was that I like the sound of the words: Why I Write. There you have three short unambiguous words that share a sound, and the sound they share is this:
I
I
I
In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions — with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating — but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.

She goes on to attest to the character-forming importance of living the questions and trusting that even the meaningless moments will add up to one’s becoming:

I had trouble graduating from Berkeley, not because of this inability to deal with ideas — I was majoring in English, and I could locate the house-and-garden imagery in The Portrait of a Lady as well as the next person, ‘imagery’ being by definition the kind of specific that got my attention — but simply because I had neglected to take a course in Milton. I did this. For reasons which now sound baroque I needed a degree by the end of that summer, and the English department finally agreed, if I would come down from Sacramento every Friday and talk about the cosmology of Paradise Lost, to certify me proficient in Milton. I did this. Some Fridays I took the Greyhound bus, other Fridays I caught the Southern Pacific’s City of San Francisco on the last leg of its transcontinental trip. I can no longer tell you whether Milton put the sun or the earth at the center of his universe in Paradise Lost, the central question of at least one century and a topic about which I wrote 10,000 words that summer, but I can still recall the exact rancidity of the butter in the City of San Francisco’s dining car, and the way the tinted windows on the Greyhound bus cast the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits into a grayed and obscurely sinister light. In short my attention was always on the periphery, on what I could see and taste and touch, on the butter, and the Greyhound bus. During those years I was traveling on what I knew to be a very shaky passport, forged papers: I knew that I was no legitimate resident in any world of ideas. I knew I couldn’t think. All I knew then was what I couldn’t do. All I knew then was what I wasn’t, and it took me some years to discover what I was.

Which was a writer.

By which I mean not a ‘good’ writer or a ‘bad’ writer but simply a writer, a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper. Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer. Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. Why did the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits seem sinister to me in the summer of 1956? Why have the night lights in the bevatron burned in my mind for twenty years? What is going on in these pictures in my mind?

She stresses the power of sentences as the living fabric of literature:

Grammar is a piano I play by ear, since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned. All I know about grammar is its infinite power. To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed. Many people know about camera angles now, but not so many know about sentences. The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind. The picture dictates the arrangement. The picture dictates whether this will be a sentence with or without clauses, a sentence that ends hard or a dying-fall sentence, long or short, active or passive. The picture tells you how to arrange the words and the arrangement of the words tells you, or tells me, what’s going on in the picture. Nota bene.

It tells you.
You don’t tell it.

Didion concludes with a quick shot of her signature wry wit:

Let me tell you one thing about why writers write: had I known the answer to any of these questions I would never have needed to write a novel.

For more timeless wisdom on writing, see Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 guidelines for a great story, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, Neil Gaiman’s 8 rules, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

BP

Freud on Creative Writing and Daydreaming

“The opposite of play is not what is serious but what is real.”

“Writing is a little door,” Susan Sontag wrote in her diary. “Some fantasies, like big pieces of furniture, won’t come through.” Sigmund Freud (May 6, 1856–September 23, 1939) — a key figure in the making of consumer culture, deft architect of his own myth, modern plaything — set out to peek through that door after completing his influential work the psychology of dreams. In 1908, Freud turned to the intersection of fantasies and creativity, and penned a short essay titled “Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming,” eventually republished in the anthology The Freud Reader (public library). Although his theories have been the subject of much controversy and subsequent revision, they remain a fascinating formative framework for much of the modern understanding of the psyche.

Predictably, Freud begins by tracing the subject matter to its roots in childhood, stressing, as Anaïs Nin eloquently did — herself trained in psychoanalysis — the importance of emotional investment in creative writing:

Should we not look for the first traces of imaginative activity as early as in childhood? The child’s best-loved and most intense occupation is with his play or games. Might we not say that every child at play behaves like a creative writer, in that he creates a world of his own, or, rather, rearranges the things of his world in a new way which pleases him? It would be wrong to think he does not take that world seriously; on the contrary, he takes his play very seriously and he expends large amounts of emotion on it. The opposite of play is not what is serious but what is real. In spite of all the emotion with which he cathects his world of play, the child distinguishes it quite well from reality; and he likes to link his imagined objects and situations to the tangible and visible things of the real world. This linking is all that differentiates the child’s ‘play’ from ‘phantasying.’

The creative writer does the same as the child at play. He creates a world of phantasy which he takes very seriously — that is, which he invests with large amounts of emotion — while separating it sharply from reality.

He then considers, as Henry Miller did in his famous creative routine three decades later, the time scales of the creative process:

The relation of phantasy to time is in general very important. We may say that it hovers, as it ware, between three times — the three moments of time which our ideation involves. Mental work is linked to some current impression, some provoking occasion in the present which has been able to arouse one of the subject’s major wishes. From here it harks back to a memory of an earlier experience (usually an infantile one) in which this wish was fulfilled; and now it creates a situation relating to the future which represents the fulfillment of the wish. What it thus creates is a day-dream or phantasy, which carries about it traces of its origin from the occasion which provoked it and from the memory. Thus, past, present and future are strung together, as it were, on the thread of the wish that runs through them.

‘Calypso’ by Lynda Barry
Original watercolor from my personal collection

He synthesizes the parallel between creative writing and play:

[A] piece of creative writing, like a day-dream, is a continuation of, and a substitute for, what was once the play of childhood.

He goes on to explore the secretive nature of our daydreams, suggesting that an element of shame keeps us from sharing them with others — perhaps what Jack Kerouac meant when he listed the unspeakable visions of the individual as one of his iconic beliefs and techniques for prose — and considers how the creative writer transcends that to achieve pleasure in the disclosure of these fantasies:

How the writer accomplishes this is his innermost secret; the essential ars poetica lies in the technique of overcoming the feeling of repulsion in us which is undoubtedly connected with the barriers that rise between each single ego and the others. We can guess two of the methods used by this technique. The writer softens the character of his egoistic day-dreams by altering and disguising it, and he bribes us by the purely formal — that is, aesthetic — yield of pleasure which he offers us in the presentation of his phantasies. We give the name of an incentive bonus, or a fore-pleasure, to a yield of pleasure such as this, which is offered to us so as to make possible the release of still greater pleasure arising from deeper psychical sources. In my opinion, all the aesthetic pleasure which a creative writer affords us has the character of a fore-pleasure of this kind, and our actual enjoyment of an imaginative work proceeds from a liberation of tensions in our minds. It may even be that not a little of this effect is due to the writer’s enabling us thenceforward to enjoy our own day-dreams without self-reproach or shame.

For more famous insights on writing, see Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules for a great story, 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.

BP

The Distance of the Moon: Beautiful Israeli Animated Film Based on the Italo Calvino Classic

“Ahh… we went to collect the Moon milk.”

Beloved Italian writer Italo Calvino (1923–1985) — who originated these 14 timeless definitions of what makes a classic — would’ve celebrated his 89th birthday today. To mark the occasion, here is an exquisite animated short film by Israeli children’s book author, and illustrator Shulamit Serafy, based on Calvino’s short story The Distance of the Moon.

The story itself is an absolute gem, with passage upon passage of breathtaking language emanating pure whimsy:

In reality, from the top of the ladder, standing erect on the last rung, you could just touch the Moon if you held your arms up. We had taken the measurements carefully (we didn’t yet suspect that she was moving away from us); the only thing you had to be very careful about was where you put your hands. I always chose a scale that seemed fast (we climbed up in groups of five or six at a time), then I would cling first with one hand, then with both, and immediately I would feel ladder and boat drifting away from below me, and the motion of the Moon would tear me from the Earth’s attraction. Yes, the Moon was so strong that she pulled you up; you realized this the moment you passed from one to the other: you had to swing up abruptly, with a kind of somersault, grabbing the scales, throwing your legs over your head, until your feet were on the Moon’s surface. Seen from the Earth, you looked as if you were hanging there with your head down, but for you, it was the normal position, and the only odd thing was that when you raised your eyes you saw the sea above you, glistening, with the boat and the others upside down, hanging like a bunch of grapes from the vine.

[…]

Now, you will ask me what in the world we went up on the Moon for; I’ll explain it to you. We went to collect the milk, with a big spoon and a bucket. Moon-milk was very thick, like a kind of cream cheese. It formed in the crevices between one scale and the next, through the fermentation of various bodies and substances of terrestrial origin which had flown up from the prairies and forests and lakes, as the Moon sailed over them. It was composed chiefly of vegetal juices, tadpoles, bitumen, lentils, honey, starch crystals, sturgeon eggs, molds, pollens, gelatinous matter, worms, resins, pepper, mineral salts, combustion residue. You had only to dip the spoon under the scales that covered the Moon’s scabby terrain, and you brought it out filled with that precious muck. Not in the pure state, obviously; there was a lot of refuse. In the fermentation (which took place as the Moon passed over the expanses of hot air above the deserts) not all the bodies melted; some remained stuck in it: fingernails and cartilage, bolts, sea horses, nuts and peduncles, shards of crockery, fishhooks, at times even a comb. So this paste, after it was collected, had to be refined, filtered. But that wasn’t the difficulty: the hard part was transporting it down to the Earth. This is how we did it: we hurled each spoonful into the air with both hands, using the spoon as a catapult. The cheese flew, and if we had thrown it hard enough, it stuck to the ceiling, I mean the surface of the sea. Once there, it floated, and it was easy enough to pull it into the boat. In this operation, too, my deaf cousin displayed a special gift; he had strength and a good aim; with a single, sharp throw, he could send the cheese straight into a bucket we held up to him from the boat. As for me, I occasionally misfired; the contents of the spoon would fail to overcome the Moon’s attraction and they would fall back into my eye.

Still, beneath the magical science-fiction conceit lies a universality of human emotion. The ending wistfully reminds us that, indeed, every love story is a ghost story:

My return was sweet, my home refound, but my thoughts were filled only with grief at having lost her, and my eyes gazed at the Moon, forever beyond my reach, as I sought her. And I saw her. She was there where I had left her, lying on a beach directly over our heads, and she said nothing. She was the color of the Moon; she held the harp at her side and moved one hand now and then in slow arpeggios. I could distinguish the shape of her bosom, her arms, her thighs, just as I remember them now, just as now, when the Moon has become that flat, remote circle, I still look for her as soon as the first sliver appears in the sky, and the more it waxes, the more clearly I imagine I can see her, her or something of her, but only her, in a hundred, a thousand different vistas, she who makes the Moon the Moon and, whenever she is full, sets the dogs to howling all night long, and me with them.

Complement with Calvino on writing, the two psychological types of writers, how to lower your “worryability,” and his six memos for the future.

BP

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