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Letters from Proxima Thule

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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.

But no one talks about how accountants are vessels for the true, concentrated spirit of math.

That because the vessels for the true, concentrated spirit of math are statisticians. Accountants are contaminated by money.

I was going to say something very much like this. :)

the glimmering, diaphanous spirit of True Copyediting

tee hee!

I felt this way only once my entire writing life: when I wrote Desires of Houses. But even I know that it was illusory and it was actually me writing the story.

Crosspost permission, please lady?

I love how you rant. :D

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.

Beautifully said.

THANK YOU for writing this! I know in my heart that I should be a writer, but I have been waiting around for that damn muse to nail me between the eyes. time for me to stop waiting and get to work!

This. I spent a couple of years in that elusive "brain-hands connection on fire" state, and so I thought it was supposed to be that easy. I mean, some of my best work from that period was hastily written in less than an hour, my brain working furiously while my wrists tried to catch up.

Lately, I've been doubting myself a lot because a) I still hear my brainweasels echoing my family and saying that writing is not a Paying Career, and therefore not really viable, and b) I keep (as you say) "waiting around for that damn muse to nail me between the eyes." I get half-murmured ideas in the back of my headm and I dutifully note them down, but I wait for the "real" inspiration. <rolls eyes at self>

AngelVixen :-)

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?

This might be the sexiest thing that you've ever said.

Anyway, I have a muse. Its name is caffeine.

Ever notice how muses are always female? Inspiring is women's work.

And tricksters are always male, albeit somewhat more likely to be ambiguous in that state than other mythical figures.

(My muse is male...but again, rather ambiguously so. Hmm.)

Heh, I have heard much of this from you before, but it makes me love you all over again, seeing it now.

Thank you for this. I really get tired of hearing, "Awwwww, my muse did it all, I had no control over it," from some writers. It's insulting to writers and readers, alike. I agree with you that it downplays all the hard work that goes into writing a book, a play, a short story or a poem. I've tried to read the author you're discussing, but I just can't. Not to take anything away from people who enjoy her book and her work, but she's just not for me.

I am perhaps very naive, but is the not-naming of Elizabeth Gilbert throughout this deliberate in a point-making way? Or is it just ironic happenstance?

I'm going to have to watch the video again, because I remember deeply loving it, and yet I agree with everything you say here, so we clearly took different things from it.

Naw, I just couldn't remember her surname and didn't want to call her Liz or anything and couldn't be bothered to look it up. It's famous enough I didn't think it would be a problem.

I like the video...until she starts talking about vessels.

Damn. Bravo.

I've had the fire-flowing-from-my-fingertips high often enough, but it never feels free or fairy-given. If anything, I get the creeping feeling afterward that I've expended some peculiar energy at an ill-advised rate, and should maybe go eat some apple sauce and watch Mythbusters and recharge the brain juice in case my magic scribblings are shit when I read them tomorrow.

Hmm. Interesting. I agree with this, but there's still a little part of my mind that's going "well it can't come from NOWHERE, can it?" I think I'd prefer to think that maybe there is a sort of universal spirit of awesome (or the collective unconscious, whatever) that might give us little dribs and drabs of ideas once in a while. However, an idea is just that. It isn't a story, it isn't a novel. It's a tiny little thing that you have to do a lot of work with to get it into any kind of shape for viewing by other people. And you certainly can't wait around all day expecting the ideas to just come.

Most of my best ideas have come to me when I'm talking to my best friend about them. I sit there and go "well here's the basic premise but I'm not sure what to do in this section - oh wait I just had a great idea what to do there, awesome." Logically I know that just the talking it out helped the idea become more focused, but since it happens more often with her than anyone else, I like to think she's a kind of creative catalyst for me (among other things, naturally). I don't consider her a muse, just someone who helps me along on the path more than others do.

I guess I'm also thinking about what it feels like when I'm on stage, which is a similar feeling to how I feel when I'm writing well. That sort of "oh yes this is exactly how it should go" feeling. The difference being that when I'm on stage, that feeling only comes when I'm incredibly prepared, have a strong connection to the meaning behind what I'm singing and have every metaphorical duck in the row. It doesn't happen if I only have the piece half memorized, or if I'm distracted because I'm worrying about something else. I could go out and tell people all about how I feel when I perform, and they might get the idea that anyone could go onstage and sing and do it well without that much effort, because sometimes I forget to mention the part about all the hard work and practicing and such. I'm sure some authors also do this, as an oversight (I won't speak for the specific author you're talking about because obviously I didn't see the interview). And then others are just idiots.

I think that we underestimate the human imagination. It doesn't come from nowhere. It comes from us.

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Well said and I agree!! It *is* work to write... but I'd rather do it than anything else, even if it means sitting in front of the computer for hours chewing off all my nails, brainstorming during every waking moment, locking myself alone in my room to finish a chapter, or researching till 1am...

I do occasionally feel like the story writes itself in my very first draft, as I hardly ever have all the details down in the beginning. So I just write, and things happen when I get to the next point, things I had not pre-meditated. ;) However, I often have to clean up those happenings in the second draft, and anyway, the characters and situations and environment were all put there by me before these un-planned happenings. I like to think they are the natural result of all the other story elements coming together. Does that make any sense?

I'm new to your journal, btw, attracted like a moth to the flame by the LJ Spotlight. ;) I'm filling up my flist with novelists because I'm currently working on my own, and I need to keep up with others doing the same thing to keep that fire under my ass nice and hot. :D

Your books look awesome and intriquing, I'm definitely going to check them out. And nice to meet you!

I use the 'trust the story' line a lot, and I know it is a lie, ascribing a much higher value to my subconscious than it has in the whole proceeding of writing. I believe we all pluck our stories from within the sum of our life experiences. They are gifts to us. The writing of them, however, is work, and the more you work the better you get at it. We are both effete artists and sweat drenched artisans.

There may well be a novel in everyone, and that - as they say - is exactly where it should remain.