Last week, Rick Moody was in town for a reading, part of a promotional tour for his new book, as yet unread by me, but duly added to my Amazon wish list. (The Amazon wish list has become an invaluable tool, the place where I store stuff I want to read that would otherwise sift through my sieve-like brain.)
Moody spent some of his afternoon chatting with MFA students, during which time he talked about a great many subjects.
DISCLAIMER: I am currently reading John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist, and it’s not outside the realm of possibility that a certain amount of cross-pollination has occurred in my own mind. This is by way of saying that I’m at best an imperfect filter for the ideas of either gentleman.
One thing that stuck with me from the chat was Moody’s description of his evolution as a writer. His own grad school experience (Columbia) focused on the epiphanic short story as an ideal, and emerging from this tradition, he wrote a novel he now dismisses (Garden State – unrelated to the movie of the same name). Then, midway through The Ice Storm, he arrived at the planned death scene of a major character. A new, distinct narrative voice intruded in the story. (It’s been years since I read The Ice Storm, like 11 or 12 years, but I vividly recalled this moment in the book, which he read from a library copy one of my fellow gingers had on hand.)
He characterized this moment as a major shift in his writing, a moment in which a more authentic version of himself appeared on the page. (That’s my interpretation there, not a quote or even a paraphrase—I was not taking notes.) He said that it’s only been in the last 8-10 years of his 25+ year writing career that he’s realized that the key to his process is “not thinking,” aka relying upon the unconscious mind to guide the story. Gardner’s all over this (he has a long section on the writing of Grendel that describes the trance-like state that produced a passage in the book). Dorothea Brande too wrote about this “writer’s trance,” which it is probably more accurate to describe as an artistic trance, since I’m sure painters and sculptors, etc, slip into it as well.
(The trick is conjuring it, reliably. Sometimes I get there, but more often, I’ve got conscious mind intruding. Brande has some suggestions for accessing the unconscious. And I’ve been meaning to reread My Voice Will Go With You: The Teaching Tales of Milton H. Erickson, which also has suggestions for self-hypnosis.)
I point out the way this topic recurs again and again when writers talk about writing not because I think that it’s important or even relevant to trace an originator of the phenomenon or to demonstrate a preponderance of evidence that it’s true to the process of writing. I point it out because I think that each of these writers arrived at this conclusion honestly, that is by personal experience, on their own separate artistic journeys, so to speak. Last week, I read this review of Mark McGurl’s The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing. In the review, Elif Batuman attacks a passage in which McGurl discusses a narrative technique Ken Kesey arrived at in struggling with One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest:
McGurl views these as the musings of a ‘young writer conscientiously puzzling through the classically Jamesian question of point of view … and discovering for himself how the discipline of perspectival limitation might intensify the story he wants to tell’. Although he recognises that Kesey is reinventing the wheel – a technology apparently pioneered by Henry James – McGurl treats this reinvention as the sign of a bright student. So it would be, in a schoolboy, or someone who grew up in a preliterate tribe. But there is something disturbing in the idea of a Stanford creative writing student – a college graduate pursuing an advanced degree in ‘fiction’ at a world-class university – who appears to believe that he invented intradiegetic-homodiegetic narration.
I also found the Kesey quote that preceded this section to be self-important, but what I think that Batuman fails to grasp here is that there’s a massive gulf between understanding “intradiegetic-homodiegetic narration” (CACK…what a repugnant term…in case there was any question which side of the literary scholarship/creative writing schism I occupy) and successfully applying it to one’s own fiction in an organic and truthful way. In half-hearted defense of Kesey, I must point out that he qualified his use of it when he said that “to the best of [his] knowledge,” it had never been tried before.
But the bottom line is that his literary antecedents in the technique – or his un/familiarity with those antecedents – is not relevant, really (nor is it the fault of MFA programs, in my opinion, or better-articulated opinions). He came to the technique on his own, which is the only way any artist can come to a technique and succeed. A writer who is over-reliant on technique going into a story is by definition relying on the conscious mind, a dull creature known for producing boring work, work that’s dead on the page.
The unconscious mind is the place where an artist’s private mess of influences and experiences congeals into something if not unprecedented, then singular. And, as Moody discussed, it can take years of searching, of attempts that one is no longer proud of, to arrive at a place of artistic authenticity.
As writers, we do reinvent the wheel, privately, on our own, even if legions of other craftsmen have left really good blueprints lying around to study. We pick them up and pore over them, but eventually we have to put them down and come to the blank page, on our own terms.