July 21st, 2009


The Breaking of the Vessels

I was watching the author of Eat, Pray, Love talk about writing on YouTube the other day. About demystifying writing, to be specific. It was great--right up until she ran full-speed into the wall of the most mystifying of writerly myths, one that sends me up the wall and around the block, only to come back and shred my copy of The Republic. (I keep copies around for cathartic shredding. You'd be surprised how many obnoxious ideas got their start in that book.) Because this is not only a horribly pernicious idea about writers, it's also one of the oldest--Socrates got in on this idea way back in the goat-shearing, oil-smearing day.

Allow me to paraphrase.

Writers are vessels. They simply open up and let the muse flooooow through them, the divine spirit of Art reaches down and works the writer like a puppet, making words out of nothing, shimmering gossamer out of rough mortal matter. The job of the writer herself is mainly to be an empty conduit, ready to be filled like a fire-hose at any time with white-hot, spurting fonts of Literature.

Sounds like a pretty sweet gig. 

I mean, seriously, how much more work could I get done if all I had to do was lie back and think of Athens basically just hold still while a cherubic demi-god sticks her hand down my throat and works me like Kermit? That would be so awesome! Why go to college or hell, even learn to read? No need, my good sir! Just point me to the nearest type-a-writer!

But it doesn't work like that. It really, really doesn't. Oh, sometimes it feels like it does. When things are really going and the connection between your brain and your fingers is on fire and everything is just flowing and the world in your head is just opening up on the page so perfectly...but the point is it only feels that way. And usually, you have to throw out half the stuff that felt amazing while you were writing it. It's a metaphor--any action performed well can touch that zen of perfect union between mind and body and work and the present moment. But no one talks about how accountants are vessels for the true, concentrated spirit of math. (The other side of that is, of course, that it often feels as though you have no control over it, that it can come and go as it pleases. That's still just your brain, kids. Some days it works, some days it doesn't.)

The fact is, writing is a lot of hard work. Even "automatic writing" (another phrase I hate) is a lot of work. Whether the muse shows up or not, you have to sit at that computer. And it doesn't always, or even often, feel like pure zen creamy goodness. Before you even get to that computer, you have to think long and hard about what book you're writing, follow plotlines in your head, create characters, design plots, research endlessly. And before that, it helps to get an education in something interesting so you can write about something other than writing.

But despite its absurdity, this is a myth about writers that persists, over thousands of years. That metaphor for what it feels like when the writing is going well has been turned into what a lot of people--including, apparently, writers, who ought to know what a metaphor is--think about the writing process. (Incidentally, Plato was a failed playwright, and I have to think there is some bitterness that comes out in his treatment of poets as empty-headed baubles for gods to play with. Would that he had had a successful play!)

The most pernicious thing about this myth is it implies the author does not own what he or she creates. The muse did it. The author just took dictation. Authorial intent is all but dead in critical circles anyway. This effacing of the authorial self is bizarre and laughable on its face--of course the author did it. They planned it all out. Miss Eat, Pray, Love planned it all out, however she wants to talk about her vessel-ness. An author is not empty, they are not driven by embodied characters to write things they would not otherwise write. These are metaphors for brain processes--but talking about them as literal realities makes us all look a little flighty and a little crazy. And indirectly leads to the awesome I'm-an-artist-and-I-can-drink-all-day-and-fuck-whoever-I-like-because-I'm-an-artist-and-I-need-to-court-my-muse. Vomit.

Maybe I'm extra-sensitive because women have been viewed and treated as empty vessels by various folk for just about all of ever. Maybe I just hate Plato and hearing his twaddle spouted by people who have a vested interest in mystifying writing so that they can sit on high on the lecture circuit and talk about higher powers. Because the other subtle implication of the vessel argument is an awful Calvinist creeping notion. Only some of us are chosen by muses and demigods and Literature. The rest of you can work as hard as you like, but all your work is nothing next to a Truly Chosen Artist who has been Touched by the Divine. It's classist and upsetting and it's what underlies this whole stupid line of thought. Some of us are chosen. Some of us are not. Aristocrats don't work, but are rarified spirits. Plebes work themselves to death and yet can never be so wonderful as a prince on his throne.

Well, no. Sorry. Keep selling your Platonist screed. I'm not buying. I've never bought it, even when people called The Labyrinth automatic writing and insisted that I must not have thought about it at all since I wrote it so fast. No. It was hard fucking work and I nearly collapsed from it. It is possible to work hard very very fast. It doesn't mean that I had a secret hook-in to the red-light district of the collective unconscious. It doesn't mean anyone does. We all just write what we know how to write and hope it means something to someone else. No one has a magic writing wand. No one has an underpaid, statuesque muse without a union to do the work for them. (Ever notice how muses are always female? Inspiring is women's work.)

I also think there is a certain amount of distancing that some authors want. The author of Eat, Pray, Love can dismiss her success as the work of a vessel under the weight of a higher power and it means she doesn't have to listen to criticism, or take responsibility for the unrealistic economic model for good living she set up, or do anything but be a special snowflake that was chosen by a glittery, kindly, oddly enough very economically savvy goddessy thing. It's so much easier to do publicity that way, you know? So much easier to write the next book if you just believe the work is already done for you.

And that's the thing. It isn't easy. It shouldn't be. It's scary and hard and it takes forever. Own that, for fuck's sake. flex your bicep and say: hell yes, I wrote that book. Not my characters. Not my muse. Me. Every verb, every article. I've got the carpal tunnel to prove it.

Writers aren't fragile Mina Harkers, occasionally filled up with Dracula's literary fluids. We're Rosie the Riveters. We always have to roll up our sleeves and do the damn work.

Now, if I could be a vessel for the glimmering, diaphanous spirit of True Copyediting, that would be awesome.
  • Current Mood
    worried growly