all and any typos are probably mine...
Singleness (Susan Sontag)
WHO'S YOUR FAVOURITE WRITER? an interviewer asked me many years ago. --Just one? --Uh-huh. --Then it's easy. Shakespeare, of course. --Oh, I would never have thought you'd say Shakespeare! --For heaven's sake, why? --Well, you've never written anything about Shakespeare.
So I'm supposed to be what I write? No more? No less? But every writer knows this isn't so.
I write what I can: that is, what's given to me and what seems worth writing, by me. I care passionately about many things that don't get into my fiction and essays. They don't because what's in my head seems to me to lack originality (I never thought I had anything compelling to say about Shakespeare), or because I haven't yet found the necessary inner freedom to write about them. My books aren't me - all of me. And in some ways I am less than them. The better ones are more intelligent, more talented, than I am; anyway, different. The "I" who writes is a transformation - a specialising and upgrading, according to certain literary goals and loyalties - of the "I" who lives. It feels true only in a trivial sense to say I make my books. What I really feel is that they are made, through me, by literature; and I'm their (literature's) servant.
The me through whom the books make their way has other yearnings, too, other duties. For instance: as me, I believe in right action. But, for the writer, it's far more complicated. Literature is not about doing the right thing - though it is about expressiveness (language) at a noble level and wisdom (inclusiveness, empathy, truthfulness, moral seriousness). And my books are not a means of discovering or expressing who I am; I've never fancied the ideology of writing as therapy or self-expression.
There is a deeper reason why the books are not me. My life has always felt like a becoming, and still does. But the books are finished. They liberate me to do, be, feel, aspire to something else - I'm a fierce learner. I've moved on. Sometimes I feel I'm in flight from the books, and the twaddle they generate. Sometimes the momentum is more pleasurable. I enjoy beginning again. The beginner's mind is best.
It's the beginner's mind I embrace and permit myself now, when I'm very far from being a beginning writer. When I began publishing thirty years ago, I entertained a simpler version of the figment that there were two people around here: I and a writer of the same name. Admiration - no, veneration - for a host of books had brought me to my vocation, on my knees. So, naturally, I was scared that I wasn't talented enough, worthy enough. How then did I find the courage to launch my frail vessel into literature's wide waters? Through a sense of two-ness that expressed, and enforced, my awareness of the gap between my own gifts and the standards I wished to honour in my work.
In fact, I never called what I did "my" work, but "the" work. By extension, there was that one, the one who had dared to become a writer. And I, the one with the standards, who happily made sacrifices to keep her going, though I didn't think all that much of what she wrote.
Going on as a writer didn't allay this dissatisfaction, not for a very long time; it only upped the ante. (And I think I was right to be dissatisfied.) In my "Sontag and I" game, the disavowals were for real. Oppressed by as well as reluctantly proud of this lengthening mini-shelf of work signed by Susan Sontag, pained to distinguish myself (I was a seeker) from her (she had merely found), I flinched at everything written about her, the praise as much as the pans. My one perennial form of self-flattery: I know better than anyone what she is about, and nobody is as severe a judge of her work as I am myself.
Every writer - after a certain point, when one's labours have resulted in a body of work - experiences himself or herself as both Dr. Frankenstein and the monster. For while harbouring a secret sharer is probably not often the fantasy of a beginning writer, the conceit is bound to appeal to a writer who has gone on. And on. A persona now: enduring, and trying to ignore, the nibblings of alienation from the earlier work which time, and more work, are bound to worsen. It also playfully affirms he dismaying disparity between the inside (the ecstasy and arduousness of writing) and the outside (that congeries of misunderstandings and stereotypes that make up one's reputation or fame). I'm not that image (in the minds of other people), it declares. And, with more poignancy: don't punish me for being what you call successful. I've got this onerous charge, this work-obsessed, ambitious writer who bears the same name as I do. I'm just me, accompanying, administering, tending to that one, so she can get some work done.
Then, more specifically, this doubling of the self puts a winsome sheen on the abandonment of self required to make literature, which invariably incurs the stigma of selfishness in "real" life. To write, as Kafka said, you can never be alone enough. But the people you love tend not to appreciate your need to be solitary, to turn you back on them. You have to fend off the others to get your work done. And to appease them - that issue is especially keen if the writer is a woman. Don't be mad, or jealous. I can't help it. You see, she writes.
Yeats said one must choose between life and the work. No. And yes. One result of lavishing a good part of your one and only life on your books is that you come to feel that, as a person, you are faking it. I remember my merriment when, many years ago, I first came across Borges's elegy to himself, the most delicate account ever given of a Writer's humility. (I envied him the slyness of his humility.)
Rereading it now, I still grin. But I'm not so prone to make use of that balm to writers' self-consciousness which Borges's fable so charmingly evokes.
Far from needing the consolation of a certain ironic distance from myself (the earlier distance wasn't ironic at all), I've slowly evolved in the opposite direction and at last come to feel that the writer is me: not my double, or familiar, or shadow playmate, or creation. (It's because I got to that point - it took almost thirty years - that I was finally able to write a book I really like: The Volcano Lover.) Now I think there's no escaping the burden of singleness. There's a difference between me and my books. But there's only one person here. That is scarier. Lonelier. Liberating.
ow. typed in about 5 minutes. i'm good ;)
anyway, what she's saying (in the middle, anyway) is that a writer has two personas - himself/herself, and the writer. essentially, oneself and one's muse, to put it in artistic terms. and it took the lecturer a good ten minutes to try and explain this concept (in terms of self and other, to put the post-modern stance on it) before people even vaguely understood, while i was sitting there, nodding, going "yup..."
anyone else having trouble with the concept? anyone else like me sitting there understanding completely that a writer is not just a single person, but a combination of itself and its ideas? that the writer and the written don't necessarily coincide, and that it can be a real effort to get back out of that writing position?