2 Apr 2014

Why I Write

Why I Write 


Joan Didion

      “Of course I stole the title for this talk, from George Orwell. One reason I stole it was that I like the sound of the words: Why I Write. There you have three short unambiguous words that share a sound, and the sound they share is this: 




      In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions—with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating—but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.

(Joan Didion at her home in the 70s)

      I had trouble graduating from Berkeley, not because of this inability to deal with ideas—I was majoring in English, and I could locate the house-and-garden imagery in The Portrait of a Lady as well as the next person, “imagery” being by definition the kind of specific that got my attention—but simply because I had neglected to take a course in Milton. I did this. For reasons which now sound baroque I needed a degree by the end of that summer, and the English department finally agreed, if I would come down from Sacramento every Friday and talk about the cosmology of Paradise Lost, to certify me proficient in Milton. I did this. Some Fridays I took the Greyhound bus, other Fridays I caught the Southern Pacific’s City of San Francisco on the last leg of its transcontinental trip. 

(Greyhound bus in San Francisco during the 50s, 
when Didion was at Berkeley)

      I can no longer tell you whether Milton put the sun or the earth at the center of his universe in Paradise Lost, the central question of at least one century and a topic about which I wrote 10,000 words that summer, but I can still recall the exact rancidity of the butter in the City of San Francisco’s dining car, and the way the tinted windows on the Greyhound bus cast the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits into a grayed and obscurely sinister light. In short my attention was always on the periphery, on what I could see and taste and touch, on the butter, and the Greyhound bus. During those years I was traveling on what I knew to be a very shaky passport, forged papers: I knew that I was no legitimate resident in any world of ideas. I knew I couldn’t think. All I knew then was what I couldn’t do. All I knew then was what I wasn’t, and it took me some years to discover what I was.

Which was a writer.

(Young Joan Didion in Cisco)

      By which I mean not a “good” writer or a “bad” writer but simply a writer, a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper. Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer. Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. Why did the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits seem sinister to me in the summer of 1956? Why have the night lights in the bevatron burned in my mind for twenty years? What is going on in these pictures in my mind?

When I talk about pictures in my mind I am talking, quite specifically, about images that shimmer around the edges. There used to be an illustration in every elementary psychology book showing a cat drawn by a patient in varying stages of schizophrenia. This cat had a shimmer around it. You could see the molecular structure breaking down at the very edges of the cat: the cat became the background and the background the cat, everything interacting, exchanging ions. 

(Portraits of cats painted by Louis Wain, who suffered from schizophrenia, 
show the progression of his illness)

      People on hallucinogens describe the same perception of objects. I’m not a schizophrenic, nor do I take hallucinogens, but certain images do shimmer for me. Look hard enough, and you can’t miss the shimmer. It’s there. You can’t think too much about these pictures that shimmer. You just lie low and let them develop. You stay quiet. You don’t talk to many people and you keep your nervous system from shorting out and you try to locate the cat in the shimmer, the grammar in the picture.

Just as I meant “shimmer” literally I mean “grammar” literally. Grammar is a piano I play by ear, since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned. All I know about grammar is its infinite power. To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed. Many people know about camera angles now, but not so many know about sentences. The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind. The picture dictates the arrangement. The picture dictates whether this will be a sentence with or without clauses, a sentence that ends hard or a dying-fall sentence, long or short, active or passive. The picture tells you how to arrange the words and the arrangement of the words tells you, or tells me, what’s going on in the picture. Nota bene.

It tells you.

You don’t tell it.

      Let me show you what I mean by pictures in the mind. I began Play It as It Lays just as I have begun each of my novels, with no notion of “character” or “plot” or even “incident.” I had only two pictures in my mind, more about which later, and a technical intention, which was to write a novel so elliptical and fast that it would be over before you noticed it, a novel so fast that it would scarcely exist on the page at all. About the picture: the first was of white space. Empty space. This was clearly the picture that dictated the narrative intention of the book—a book in which anything that happened would happen off the page, a “white” book to which the reader would have to bring his or her own bad dreams—and yet this picture told me no “story,” suggested no situation.
 The second picture did. This second picture was of something actually witnessed. A young woman with long hair and a short white halter walks through the casino at the Riviera in Las Vegas at one in the morning. 

      She crosses the casino alone and picks up a house telephone. I watch her because I have heard her paged, and recognize her name: she is a minor actress I see around Los Angeles from time to time, in places like Jax and once in a gynecologist’s office in the Beverly Hills Clinic, but have never met. I know nothing about her. Who is paging her? Why is she here to be paged? How exactly did she come to this? It was precisely this moment in Las Vegas that made Play It as It Lays begin to tell itself to me, but the moment appears in the novel only obliquely, in a chapter which begins:

“Maria made a list of things she would never do. She would never: walk through the Sands or Caesar’s alone after midnight. She would never: ball at a party, do S-M unless she wanted to, borrow furs from Abe Lipsey, deal. She would never: carry a Yorkshire in Beverly Hills.”

That is the beginning of the chapter and that is also the end of the chapter, which may suggest what I meant by “white space.”

      I recall having a number of pictures in my mind when I began the novel I just finished, A Book of Common Prayer. As a matter of fact one of these pictures was of that bevatron I mentioned, although I would be hard put to tell you a story in which nuclear energy figures. Another was a newspaper photograph of a hijacked 707 burning on the desert in the Middle East. Another was the night view from a room in which I once spent a week with paratyphoid, a hotel room on the Colombian coast. My husband and I seemed to be on the Colombian coast representing the United States of America at a film festival (I recall invoking the name “Jack Valenti” a lot, as if its reiteration could make me well), and it was a bad place to have fever, not only because my indisposition offended our hosts but because every night in this hotel the generator failed. The lights went out. The elevator stopped. My husband would go to the event of the evening and make excuses for me and I would stay alone in this hotel room, in the dark. 

      I remember standing at the window trying to call Bogotá (the telephone seemed to work on the same principle as the generator) and watching the night wind come up and wondering what I was doing eleven degrees off the equator with a fever of 103. The view from that window definitely figures in A Book of Common Prayer, as does the burning 707, and yet none of these pictures told me the story I needed.

      The picture that did, the picture that shimmered and made these other images coalesce, was the Panama airport at 6 A.M. I was in this airport only once, on a plane to Bogotá that stopped for an hour to refuel, but the way it looked that morning remained superimposed on everything I saw until the day I finished A Book of Common Prayer. I lived in that airport for several years. I can still feel the hot air when I step off the plane, can see the heat already rising off the tarmac at 6 A.M. I can feel my skirt damp and wrinkled on my legs. I can feel the asphalt stick to my sandals. I remember the big tail of a Pan American plane floating motionless down at the end of the tarmac. I remember the sound of a slot machine in the waiting room. I could tell you that I remember a particular woman in the airport, an American woman, a norteamericana, a think norteamericana about forty who wore a big square emerald in lieu of a wedding ring, but there was no such woman there.

      I put this woman in the airport later. I made this woman up, just as I later made up a country to put the airport in, and a family to run the country. This woman in the airport is neither catching a plane nor meeting one. She is ordering tea in the airport coffee shop. In fact she is not simply “ordering” tea but insisting that the water be boiled, in front of her, for twenty minutes. Why is this woman in this airport? Why is she going nowhere, where has she been? Where did she get that big emerald? What derangement, or disassociation, makes her believe that her will to see the water boiled can possibly prevail?

      “She had been going to one airport or another for four months, one could see it, looking at the visas on her passport. All those airports where Charlotte Douglas’s passport had been stamped would have looked alike. Sometimes the sign on the tower would say “Bienvenidos” and sometimes the sign on the tower would say “Bienvenue,” some places were wet and hot and others dry and hot, but at each of these airports the pastel concrete walls would rust and stain and the swamp off the runway would be littered with the fuselages of cannibalized Fairchild F-227’s and the water would need boiling.

“I knew why Charlotte went to the airport even if Victor did not.

“I knew about airports.”

      These lines appear about halfway through A Book of Common Prayer, but I wrote them during the second week I worked on the book, long before I had any idea where Charlotte Douglas had been or why she went to airports. Until I wrote these lines I had no character called “Victor” in mind: the necessity for mentioning a name, and the name “Victor,” occurred to me as I wrote the sentence. I knew why Charlotte went to the airport sounded incomplete. I knew why Charlotte went to the airport even if Victor did not carried a little more narrative drive. Most important of all, until I wrote these lines I did not know who “I” was, who was telling the story. I had intended until then that the “I” be no more than the voice of the author, a nineteenth-century omniscient narrator.
 But there it was:

I knew why Charlotte went to the airport even if Victor did not.

I knew about airports.”

(Joan Didion with her Corvette, 1972)

      This “I” was the voice of no author in my house. This “I” was someone who not only knew why Charlotte went to the airport but also knew someone called “Victor.” Who was Victor? Who was this narrator? Why was this narrator telling me this story? Let me tell you one thing about why writers write: had I known the answer to any of these questions I would never have needed to write a novel.

— Joan Didion's essay 'Why I Write' on the New York Times Book Review, 5 December 1976.

For my Birthday my cousin has sent me  an “special gift”. I don’t know how he got this, probably from some of the guys he met when he was studying in San Francisco, who introduced him to Joan Didion’s work, but he has sent me a printed copy of this article from hers. When I read it I understood why he’s chosen it. The last time we had a long Skype conversation he asked me how was my writing going. "Not very well", was the answer. I’m stucked with my novel, the one I’ve been writing for years now. I did some short stories in the past, some of them got published, but the novel is still there, unfinished. I think I’m having the first-time novelist syndrome. One of my literature teachers used to tell me that first novels are the most difficult ‘cause young writers want to put all their ideas into a single piece. It’s like with filmmaking, like you don’t know where to cut, ‘cause everything is important to you. And there is also the problem with university... that takes all your time. Graduating it’s getting difficult for me, same as did for Didion. So when I read this, I realized that she went through the same things I’m experiencing now. And what she wrote about writing, and the pictures she had in mind, I think it’s one of the most moving and truthful ways of describing this passion. So this has been one of the best presents I’ve had, and I wanted to share some passages of the article with you, ‘cause I’m sure some of you would also find it inspiring. 

Regarding inspiration, when I read this, I thought about writers that also inspire me, so here they are   one fictional, a character from a film that I love —, with their wisdom and advices

Everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, 
and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” 

— Sylvia Plath

- Hello, you remember me - Dean Moriarty? I’ve come to ask you to show me how to write.

- Hell, man, you’ve got to stick to it with the energy of a benny addict.” 

— Jack Kerouac, On the Road

“Writing is something that you don't know how to do. 
You sit down and it's something that happens, or it may not happen.

If it doesn't come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don't do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don't do it.

unless it comes out of
your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder,
don't do it.
unless the sun inside you is
burning your gut,
don't do it.

when it is truly time,
and if you have been chosen,
it will do it by
itself and it will keep on doing it
until you die or it dies in you.

there is no other way.

and there never was.

— Charles Bukowski

"A woman who writes feels too much, 
those trances and portents! 
As if cycles and children and islands 
weren't enough; as if mourners and gossips 
and vegetables were never enough. 
She thinks she can warn the stars. 
A writer is essentially a spy. 
Dear love, I am that girl."

— Anne Sexton, The Black Art

She was a playwright and won a Braverman
Grant of fifty-thousand dollars in the ninth grade.

— Margot Tenenbaum, character from Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums

(F. Scott Fitzgerald with wife Zelda Sayre)

You don't write because you want to say something, 
you write because you have something to say.

All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.

Writers aren’t people exactly. Or, if they’re any good, 
they’re a whole lot of people trying so hard to be one person. 

— F. Scott Fitzgerald

“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”

— Oscar Wilde

(Anna Mouglalis and Lorànt Deutsch as Beauvoir and Sartre 
in the TV movie Les amants du Flore)

“When I was a child, when I was an adolescent, books saved me from despair: 
that convinced me that culture was the highest of values.” 

— Simone de Beauvoir

“The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind 
or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, 
indifferent, paring his fingernails.” 

— James Joyce

(Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf in The Hours)

“The way to rock oneself back into writing is this. First gentle exercise in the air. Second the reading of good literature. It is a mistake to think that literature can be produced from the raw. One must get out of life... one must become externalised; very, very concentrated, all at one point, not having to draw upon the scattered parts of one's character, living in the brain.” 

Virginia Woolf, A Writer's Diary

Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. 
But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.” 

― J. D. Salinger

(Screenwriter Marla Hanson
and the Generation X's writers: Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis)

“No one is drawn to writing about being happy or feelings of joy.” 

― Bret Easton Ellis

“Writers, like elephants, have long, vicious memories. 
There are things I wish I could forget.” 

― William S. Burroughs

“No it is not easy to write. It is as hard as breaking rocks. 
Sparks and splinters fly like shattered steel.  

I ask myself: is every story that has ever been written in this world, 
a story of suffering and affliction?” 

― Clarice Lispector, The Hour of the Star

Writing is a solitary business. It takes over your life.
 In some sense, a writer has no life of his own. 
Even when he’s there, he’s not really there.”

― Paul Auster

“Skill alone cannot teach or produce a great short story, which condenses the obsession of the creature; it is a hallucinatory presence manifest from the first sentence to fascinate the reader, to make him lose contact with the dull reality that surrounds him, submerging him in another that is more intense and compelling.”

― Julio Cortázar

(Ginsberg in front of a picture of Arthur Rimbaud in a room 
of the Beat Hotel, Paris, December 1956, photo by Harold Chapman)

“I really would like to stop working forever–never work again, never do anything like the kind of work I’m doing now–and do nothing but write poetry and have leisure to spend the day outdoors and go to museums and see friends. And I’d like to keep living with someone and explore relationships that way. And cultivate my perceptions, cultivate the visionary thing in me. Just a literary and quiet city-hermit existence.

Follow your inner moonlight; don't hide the madness.” 

― Allen Ginsberg

“Write hard and clear about what hurts.” 

― Ernest Hemingway

 Young writers on Bucharest University roof.

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.

Nothing matters but the writing. 
There has been nothing else worthwhile... a stain upon the silence.

― Samuel Beckett

“I shall live badly if I do not write.

Writing is a question of finding a certain rhythm. I compare it to the rhythms of jazz. 
Much of the time life is a sort of rhythmic progression of three characters.

― Françoise Sagan

(Arthur Miller with wife Marilyn Monroe)

“The very impulse to write springs from an inner chaos crying 
for order - for meaning.

The best work that anybody ever writes is the work 
that is on the verge of embarrassing him, always.”

― Arthur Miller



Hélène Heath said...

Wow, such a great, thorough post. I love the introspective quality and the beautiful references.

xx Hélène

Alex Withrow said...

Wow, Mara, this post is incredible. Such an expansive, well-researched read. I loved all of those quotes from authors. Very inspiring and truthful. Also really appreciated that my favorite author, Bret Easton Ellis, got a mention. I love that man's prose.

GREAT work!

Katy said...

Such an inspiring post with so many wonderful quotes and insightful input. I'm adding them to my collection of writerly things. :D

Laura Sánchez said...

Descubrir a escritoras como Joan Didion siempre es algo que consigue alegrarme el día, pues me veo reflejada en sus propias reflexiones. Nunca había oído hablar de ella, pero no puedo dejar de sentirme identificada con la explicación de por qué escribe, en especial con estas declaraciones: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear”.

También me ha parecido fascinante la percepción de los objetos (ya sea bajo los efectos de cualquier sustancia o en la fría sobriedad). De alguna manera siento que la literatura logra cambiar el entorno, los escenarios y cada ínfimo detalle presente. Es curioso como simples palabras pueden ser moldeadas a placer y cambiar nuestra propia percepción del presente en el que nos encontramos. Como muy bien dice Didion, una sencilla alteración del orden en las frases ya logra retocar la propia descripción del objeto.

Gracias a vuestro blog consigo siempre adentrarme un poco mejor en el enrevesado mundo de la literatura y del cine.

Un beso muy fuerte, bonita

Bi. said...

Antes yo tenía un blog. Pero el año pasado me lo pasé en Dinamarca, livin' la vida Erasmus, sort of, y no volví a escribir ni una letra.

Cuando os empecé a leer (al principio sólo a Mara) tenía diecinueve años, y desde entonces he descubierto millones de autores y películas, maneras distintas de hacer arte y generaciones que no te enseñan en el colegio (a los beat, recuerdo, le dedicaban una página en el libro de Literatura Universal, y nuestra profesora se la saltó sin dar explicaciones).

Ahora, después de haberme inspirado tantas veces a leer durante estos años, me dais con este post el empuje que necesitaba para escribir de nuevo.


Eleonor ♥ said...

Me fascina tu blog en serio, es fabuloso te sigo sin duda espero la siguiente actualización <3

ATF said...

sa veritat que no conec l'obra de la Didion però m'ha encantat la recolecció de quotes que has triat, sobretot la de la sylvia plath (com ador ara a aquesta autora i això que no vaig lleguir res d'ella fins l'any passat), i molt d'acord amb que has de tenir el que has de tenir per poder escriure, al igual que ho diu el bukowski. també he adorat la del Salinger, la del Bret Easton Ellis i Burroughs, i ador massa la del Ernest Hemingway. crec que moltes d'aquestes frases les he posat al tumblr perque són <3