Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Accoutrements of Writing

Last night, as I watched Capote for maybe the fifth time, I realized the reason I find the movie so good: its attention to detail, specifically the accoutrements of writing, reflects the crispness of Capote's prose. Watching Capote is similar to reading In Cold Blood, but there's more than just the obvious connections. There are the sounds, the smells, and the sights of writing in beautiful, romanticized angles and edges, the typewriter, the paper, the pen, the cigarette: The sound of Capote's typewriter, amplified by the echo of his Brooklyn Heights apartment, makes my fingers ache. The film makes me want to write, even if it's just to copy long segments of the novel into my computer, to hear that sound, that most satisfying sound of words.

When I was young, I kept a diary (I still do), and made frivolous lists of everything (I still do). I have always kept an agenda and been very particular about my writing utensils (my favorite are the uniball vision micro tips in black). I have all the obsessive quirks and qualities, then, at least in that regard, of a writer. But for some reason, I can't quite get it off the ground. For a long time I thought to be a writer meant to write fiction. It wasn't until much later in life that I discovered non-fiction, and In Cold Blood, the book that changed writing forever. Now that I work in publishing, it's amazing to see the course non-fiction has taken, its popularity and its flexibility. I think of someone like Didion: the strong, muscularity of her prose, its sinewy nature, as if every word, every sentence, every structure has a purpose: there is nothing superfluous.

It's no surprise that Didion's method is to write, write, write, and then retype everything from the previous day before she begins again, to get herself back into the mood of the piece. The rhythm of Didion is all very deliberate. Read Slouching Towards Bethlehem. There is no word out of place.

And then of course there's my lady, Sylvia Plath, who was so dedicated to her poetry that she bled and agonized over every idea, every draft. If she began something and didn't like it, she simply began anew, took a different angle. Ted Hughes said in the introduction to her Pulitzer Prize winning Collected Poems that, "she never scrapped any of her efforts." Look at her drafts in the Lilly Library at Indiana University or at Smith College in Boston. The edits and adjustments are miraculous, even insane. Like the sketchbook of a painter, you can see the masterpiece taking shape. Sylvia's notebooks are filled with fragments and words: even when she was too sick (food poisoning) or too ill (depression) to write in full sentences she still kept a notebook. Her reflections on the Brontë estate are quizzically illuminating, and you can see the poem "Wuthering Heights" take shape before she even knew she would write it.

So why the block? Why the struggle? I don't know. I love writing this blog and I'd love to write more, but it's difficult to find the time. Ultimately, the sound of my own voice feels small or incoherent compared to these masters of criticism, non-fiction, and poetry. The sheer confidence of a writer like Janet Malcolm astounds me: the brute force of her intellect is enough to level any illusions of grandeur. I wonder if I have the ego of a writer: am I intelligent enough? I did not go to an Ivy League school. There are still important writers I've never even heard of. By taking on another subject (i.e. by being a writer of criticism or non-fiction) one asserts an expertise, a knowledge on that subject, or at least a curiosity that somehow surpasses the curiosity of others. A writer friend once said to me, "I am writing this piece about [blank], and I have to pretend like I'm smart. It's exhausting."

But the romance of literature gets me every time. Even the simpleness of reading can be the most satisfying of activities: the weight of the book in your hands, the way the paper feels, the typeset, the dedication, the jacket, the edition: are you an under-liner? a dog-ear-er? are your books pristine? Are they dirty and mangled? Why do you read? Do you own books or do you go to the library? While you write, do you smoke? Do you drink coffee or alcohol (or both?) Do you write with a computer? A typewriter? Pen and paper? Pencil and paper? What kind of paper? Do you listen to music? Do you need complete silence? Do you write indoors alone, outdoors, or in a crowded coffee shop? Do you have an office, a desk, or do you write on your bed, lying down (Capote), sitting up, standing (Woolf)?

George Plimpton founded The Paris Review and the Writers at Work series in hopes of answering some of these questions, as if decoding the meaning of the accoutrements, the habits of the world's greatest writers would somehow unlock the secret to their genius. Maybe he has something there. Or maybe I'm just a sucker for any profession with a dedication to its flair and accessories. For me, the literary life is a series of endless questions. While working through the mire, the gleam of the white page and the cheerful, encouraging sound of the keys is oftentimes the gateway to creation.


Mary-Laure said...

Love this post.
Sylvia Plath is someone I adore. I have all her books, tapes of her reading her poetry, pictures, bios, lit. criticism about her work, her diaries, her letters home... You MUST read Ted Hughes' Letters, published a few months ago by Faber & Faber. It's an extraordinary read.

The picture of Joan Didion is GORGEOUS - as is she. I really love her essays, especially the book about California (Where I was from - ?)

Are you sure Smith College is in Boston? I remember stopping by there on my way from Middlebury to NYC and it was in the middle of er... somewhere. Plus I've lived in Cambridge and if Smith had been across the river I think I would have known about it...
I need to check.

Confession: I write. Poetry and short stories. I'm BLOCKED right now and have been for months. Sometimes I wonder if I'll ever write again. And I shiver.

Snobber said...

ML, thank you so much for reading! xo. You are quite right, Smith is actually in Northampton, Mass., which is two hours outside of Boston, so forgive me for the error. SP is my literary-mother, I turn to her diaries and poetry for daily inspiration.

I have read TH's letters, actually, as I work for the US branch of Faber, and we're also publishing them :) But thank you for the recommendation!

Well, almost all of Didion's work is about CA, namely Slouching Towards Bethlehem and then there's also The White Album.

You write! Sometimes I think it's intimidation that keeps us from writing. Or self-censorship. If you just get something down on the page and try not to judge yourself too harshly, I think you're bound to progress. Keep it up!

m said...

i loved this. i am inordinately fond of the sound of a typewriter.

The Year in Pictures said...

Discovered your blog via your Sartorialist comment and wanted to say how much I like the writing, ideas, and picture selection!

Mary-Laure said...

Dilettantsia, in a recent post you mentioned you loved the Louise Bourgeois show so I thought you'd like to see her good old face on my blog today...

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Bookhouse said...

I'll stop lurking and actually post something I suppose (actually, just been busy and meaning to post and having to wait until friday night to find the time to make it count, but you work for the same company as I do, so I'm just preaching to the choir).

I agree with Mary-Laure, this is a great post. It's great writing, so you have that.

I'm always moving away from what I write. I can't sit at a coffee shop with the notebook, writing out scenes for a novel and be reading a novel at the same time. I have to have essays, or poetry, or essays about poetry (Hugo's Triggering Town). When I write poetry, its graphic novels. Eventually reading another form makes me want to write that form, and so I circle my own ideas like a vulture.

I used to type. My first novel was typed between the hours of 1PM and 4Pm over the summer of 2002 in my dad's basement in Rochester. I worked nights at Fedex, came home, slept, and then wrote. One advisor, one friend, and 2 years later, longhand took over. It's the Didion model for 4 years now, capturing the best of both worlds. The fire in the first, hurried scribbling, then the chiseling edit of typing that first draft from those ink soaked pages.

If anything keeps me from writing is it shame. I think I should be further along; I remind myself I was going to be published 3, 4, 5 years ago. That's what cripples me. Eventually I remind myself I have no shame, I can't afford to have it and I don't have the time for it. To me that is the price of not going to an ivy league school- that I have to work, spend hours applying for jobs, pay my bills, stress out over money- and I have to remember I am a damn fool for thinking a poor boy from rural NY could be a novelist or a poet, but the fool doesn't worry about shame, he dares where the angels fear.

You build yourself up with stuff like that, use it to gird yourself. Type up the good bits that keep you going and tape them to your wall so that you force yourself to remember.

Bookhouse said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Snobber said...


thanks for reading and thanks for your thorough response! It sounds like you've got the routine down better than any of us. I like the idea of getting away from whatever it is one is trying to write. Maybe I spend too much time around nonfiction?

Stop it. Poor boys from New York can totally be writers. And I'm upset that I wrote that about Ivy League schools. Fuck that. It might get your foot in the door but honestly I think, in New York, it helps to have a unique experience (i.e. non Ivy League). Please don't let that get you down.

Thanks for reading, always--and for God's sake, keep writing.


Bookhouse said...


Don't worry, I don't take myself too seriously. That'd be unhealthy. I have to relearn the routine every so often, but I can usually manage to find something like this to get me back in the game,

"...it is good to be several floors up
in the dead of night
wondering whether or not you are any good
and the only decision you can make is that you did it.”

A little Frank O'Hara, or anyone else who tells you to stare at the mirror and see the world beyond it.

And you are right, the unique path is the key, it just takes the effort of seeing it before you can walk it.

In the meantime, the pen is to the pad.


maitresse said...

This is a wonderful post indeed, the kind where you want to take the writer out for coffee and talk about it for hours!

I know exactly what you mean, about feeling like your voice is small compared with such giants as Capote and Didion and Plath-- the only thing I've found that gives me confidence is reading wonderful writers, and letting their language seep into my unconscious.

Walter Benjamin has a list of Do's for writers which I keep taped up in my kitchen. I'm sure you know them, but here's precept number 4: "IV. Avoid haphazard writing materials. A pedantic adherence to certain papers, pens, inks is beneficial. No luxury, but an abundance of these utensils is indispensable." So you rock those black micro uniballs. I personally prefer the Pilot Precise V7 Rolling Ball, with a fine (not extra fine) nib :)