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.