Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Monday, May 04, 2009

Genius in a Bottle

An email from South African writer, Colin Meier points me to his blog on a lecture by Elizabeth Gilbert, a lecture that’s entertainingly witty and food for thought in terms of content. Gilbert talks about her own experience of success and the fear of burn out that goes with it. It’s an extension of Second Album Syndrome, to some extent, I think. When your faith in a work, particularly an early work, is validated by others proclaiming it to be the dog’s bollocks, how do you deal with the fear that your One Great Work may be done and dusted, that maybe it’s all downhill from here?

With a wry self-deprecating humour that stops her from coming across as self-aggrandising, GIlbert roots the trope of the tortured artist in this, asks if maybe this is a cause for all those suicides and self-destructions. If we writers have a reputation for being alcoholic manic depressives bent on self-destruction, she suggests, maybe it’s because the current notion of “genius” places a burden of responsibility on the writer that’s too much for any psyche to handle. If your last (or even first) work was proclaimed a masterpiece, and you then find yourself utterly panicked at the prospect of forty-odd years trying to measure up to that, maybe the problem is that you’re making it about ego. Maybe the Greeks and Romans had the right idea in fobbing that responsibility off onto an outside force. To them, the artist themself wasn’t the “genius”; the “genius” or “daemon” was a tutelory spirit, an exteriorised personal muse that the writer just played scribe to. If shit went well, you could pass the credit on to them, not let fame and fortune inflate your ego. If shit went badly, you could blame your capricious daemon for being a lame-ass motherfucker, leaving you high and dry. Either way, she suggests, maybe it’s healthier to adopt that conceit, divorce yourself from the work.

Colin takes issue with much of what she has to say, and his skepticism is fair enough, but I have to admit I dont find her thesis quite so wacky; I kind of get where she’s coming from even if I’m not 100% behind all of it. When Gilbert contrasts the Classical notion of genius with the Romantic notion, is she really saying that all this turmoil is just about writers buying into a message perpetuated by modern society? When she relates this angst to the Western Enlightenment is she honestly suggesting that this cultural change is at the root of creative anxiety in general? Well, I don’t know. I think she might be overestimating the importance of Romanticism, underestimating the extent to which previous generations of artists still got serious kudos… and the neuroses that go with it. Yes, the Romantic individualism which puts the “poetic genius” on a pedestal is a fairly recent development, but acclaim is not so new. On the other hand, the aspect of celebrity might well be a bit more pronounced in media-saturated modernity.

But leaving aside the historical reality, is Gilbert right to source the angst of the artist in this idea of individual genius, and is her solution even remotely sensible in any way? Where Colin disagrees with the ideas that “(a) all artists are "tortured" and, (b) that any distance from your own work can be safe,” I’m not sure that’s exactly what she’s saying. Or at least that she’s being essentialist and absolute about it. Let’s take those two points one by one.

A. Are all writers tortured by angst? Of course not. There are a lot of different types of writer. You’ve got full time writers who depend on it for a living. You’ve got part time writers who squeeze it into their free hours. You’ve got professionals and amateurs, either of which can have a relatively driven or easygoing approach. You’ve got hacks who churn out product they don’t take seriously. You’ve got hobbyists who footer at it for the fun. You’ve got drunks and burn-outs and recluses. You’ve got contented spouses who treat it as a day job. You’ve got all manner of individual approaches. There’s no doubt many for whom it’s an unhealthily over-riding vocational compulsion with a deep personal investment, but I don’t think Gilbert is being essentialist here in assuming that stereotypical image of the (capital-A) Auteur.

I think she is interrogating the stereotype for the grain of truth in it however, and correctly identifying a reality of how it can be. And as someone who did the whole “take a decade to write your magnum opus as your fucking debut novel” thing and had it given the whole Next Big Thing treatment, I kind of identify with the particular angst she talks about — including the wry detachment with which she approaches those neurotic fears. You don’t have to take it as an absolute truth of What It Is To Be A Writer. But personally, yeah, I find Gilbert’s description all too recognisable.

B. If you have a “safe” distance from your work, does that mean your work is “safe” and that you’re therefore, as Colin puts it, “not doing it right”? OK, to be honest… well… my own personal ethos as regards writing is very much that it shouldn’t be cosy, but I think it’s wrong to apply that prescriptively, to judge others for not measuring up to my desire for writing made with “blood, sweat and tears”. Yes, I prefer writing that’s the literary equivalent of Iggy Pop carving his chest open with a broken drumstick, but I’m not going to damn another writer for providing the literary equivalent of easy listening to the market that desires it. Every book should be judged on the standards it selects for itself, many of which are entirely dependent on idiom, some of which are entirely idiosyncratic consequences of an individual aesthetic purpose. I may reserve the right to cruelly mock the pitifully unambitious, the trite and banal, but it’s each to their own at the end of the day.

More to the point, if you want to create fiction that’s challenging to write and to read, fiction that might actually hurt in some ways because it gets under your skin, the willingness to go further than is quite comfortable may be dependant on a capacity to be ruthless, to view that work with the same cold detachment one would bring to a cadaver awaiting autopsy. The more personal the material from which that fiction is constructed, the more a “safe” distance, in psychological terms, may allow the writer to really get to grips with that material. Looking at it from the other angle, exteriorising the creative daimon could be seen as an imaginative mechanism for giving it free rein to treat you — your thoughts and memories, dreams and delusions, fears and desires — as no more than cold dead meat to be dissected on its slab, reconstructed into a monstrous collage formed from the flesh of your identity. That sort of divorce of work and self may lead to a process and product that’s far from “safe” in the sense of being unchallenging, unambitious, but it might, I think, be safer in Gilbert’s terms — armouring the writer against stresses of fame and blame that are extraneous but insistent.

To try and unravel what exactly those stresses are, what exactly it is Gilbert is talking about then:

There’s a rapture that comes with the experience of writing, when the words are flowing sweet and clear, when you’re sitting there at the laptop, tapping at the keys and it’s coming out good. Even without anybody telling you, you know that you’re producing good shit here, real good shit, shit-hot shit. (Note: You may be completely wrong here, especially if you’re a novice.) There’s also the excruciating dread that comes when that flow stops, when you find yourself dragging your way through a mire of dreck, kack and just plain shite. It doesn’t matter what anybody says, you know that this crud is worthless. (Note: Again, you may be completely wrong here, especially if you’re a novice.) Anyway, both of those experiences can be good things, cause the faith is pretty useful for keeping you producing and the doubt is pretty useful for challenging you to improve the product.

If you don’t find the right balance between these two forces, however, that can be a problem. At the GSFWC, I’ve seen the beginners who’re immune to critique because they’re blinded by their own faith, and I’ve seen the beginners who can’t handle critique at all because the doubt is crippling. Some writers, I guess, carry on with those mindsets, never really learn to be objective about their work; but they get better with practice anyway, so it’s all good. There is one approach that exploits the two in opposition though, using the faith to conquer baseless doubt, using the doubt to puncture false faith. Get past the delusional flattery and carping, flense the ego’s self-validating blather (positive and negative), and you should end up with a fairly objective view of your own work. Approach it with the cool detachment you’d bring to a critique of another’s work and you should be able to judge it by the standards it selects for itself. From that point on the carrot and stick of faith and doubt both drive you onward, in a perversely, paradoxically antagonistic feedback loop. The more confident you become, the more critical you can be; the more critical you are, the more justified your confidence. This is what I’d be referring to if I talked about “finding your voice”.

Now if you carry on in this mode for a good long while and never get the break that brings your work to the public it’s aimed at, I can see where you might lose that balance — because the ego is always looking for ways to Fuck You Up. It’ll try and break out of its harness by persuading you that you’re not getting the rewards you deserve, damn it. Or it’ll crumble into a small ball of despairing conviction that you were never really worth shit after all. Actually, if you’re the type that plays the two against each other, you might occilate wildly between the two states. Add the self-medication of drink, and hey presto: the alcoholic manic depressive! The trope of the tortured artist, romanticising the “poetic sensibility”, conflating genius and madness, often presents this instability as inspirational, the very source of creativity. It’s not art that leads to anguish but the other way around. But however much we might be writing as an attempt to figurate an otherwise inarticulable awareness of our own fucked-upness (and to thereby comprehend and control it), the full reality may be less simple. Van Gogh’s paintings, which seem so archetypally inspired, which we imagine to have been painted in a frenzy of genius, were actually created in the calm periods between his extreme mood swings, not when the madness came upon him, not when it was unleashed onto the canvass, but when he had achieved some temporary respite of psychological equilibrium.

Now suppose you chart your passage successfully through the Scylla and Charybdis of obscurity, sail on without being dragged off-course into bitterness or despair. Then one day you get the Big Break. You may be better prepared by years of practice playing faith and doubt off against each other, but alternatively you may just have found a way to maintain a delicate balance of these opposing forces by pitting them against each other at high intensity, in the most strained tension. That breathtaking ambition others see in your work? Maybe the only way you could even imagine tackling your Grand Enterprise was with a confidence bordering on messianic delusion counterweighted by a criticality that damned it as the utmost folly — in short, with a psyche strung tighter than the tension between God and Lucifer if they met in a Harold Pinter play. And now? You still have Scylla on one side, Charybdis on the other, but now there’s countless other hands grasping for the wheel, dragging it this way and that unpredictably while you try to compensate without overcorrecting.

It’s hard enough to keep the ups and downs of ego in check when they’re just inside your head, even harder when it’s a chorus of voices, half revering, half reviling, when their high notes and low notes are echoing in your heart, resonating in your guts. It’s rapturous applause on the opening night, and hatchet-job reviews in the papers the next morning. What it is, of course, is ego. Ego on serious Grade A drugs, to be precise, by turns adrift in an ocean of pure bliss and screaming at the horrors coming from the corners. Glowing reviews and scathing reviews are the good trips and bad trips of the writerly success story. One moment you’re jacked up on the opiates of opinions, making love with your ego a la Ziggy Stardust, the next you’re coming down with a crash, cursing that artificial high, that goddamn lie, that adulation, that attention that’s so tempting, so damn tasty it just leaves you craving more but deeply worried just how far you’d go to get it, if you’d sell yourself for it, become a whore. It’s a double-bind. It you have the slightest bit of nous, you know that buying into the bullshit is a Bad Thing, that the path of pride leads to your Anne Rice ”You don't understand the genius that is me!!!” Amazon rant malarky. So you fight this with a stubborn insistence that you’re not all that, a wary scrutiny of your own attitude for any hints of posturing. But if you have even the slightest bit of nous, you know the flipside accusations of “pretentiousness” or “self-indulgence” are equally corrosive, need to be dismissed with resolute conviction or they’ll eat away at all the confidence your writing’s founded on. You might not actually carve "FOR REAL" in your forearm as a fuck-off to those critics a la Richey James Edwards, but that’s not too far from the attitude you need to counter the suspicions of shallow imposture you’re using to counter the praise.

This is hardly the Spanish Inquisition, relatively speaking. It’s not that we should pity the poor writer for having to suffer the torment of — ye gods — people reacting to their work. Having a little perspective goes a long way towards not imploding and Gilbert's wry humour is, I suspect, one way of regaining objectivity by seeing your own fucked-upness with a certain detachment -- irony as a way of keeping yourself sane. But not taking it all too seriously is difficult, cause you can't really deny the importance that you attach to the art itself. You don't actually want to deny the writing, pretend that it's just paltry scribblings of no import in real terms. On some level that would be a betrayal. So you’re left with the reality that on a purely practical level, the very validation the ego craves (positive and negative) may be the last thing it needs — or at least the last thing the writer needs. Under the fierce heat of the limelight, wholly unexpected levels of energy being pumped into the system, the writer who was quite functional in obscurity may suddenly find the homeostasis that their work depends on destabilising, turning into a motherfucking hurricane. When the tension becomes a paralysing double-bind, all you can do is kill of that inner Ziggy, literally or symbolically. Symbolically is, of course, a better option. Really all you're trying to do is flense the positive and negative blather of the ego, the bullshit that's about you rather than the writing. The whole daemon conceit is just a strategy for separating the two out, a mechanism for dealing with intense reactions to the work without them allowing them to affect your sense of self-worth in a way that interferes with the writing.

This is where I don’t really have a problem with her essentially figurative model of the writing process being spiritualist nonsense if you take it literally, imagining strange etheral forces sprinkling inspiration as “fairy juice”. Where Colin asks, “Are we to offer sacrifices to the Genius In The Walls when we have writer's block?” my answer is, “Maybe it’s not such a bad idea.”

I read her as talking about a figurative conceit though, a technique of deliberate pretense, an expedient suspension of disbelief -- rather than seeing daemons as literal critters, actual metaphysical muse-imps or somesuch hippy hogwash. Rather than New Age hokum I just take this all in terms of a compartmentalised psyche with Jungian archetypes and -- potentially, I reckon -- creative projects as functionally autonomous agencies. Figuration is your forte as a writer, so why not play to your strengths? A figurative conceit is not a religious belief, but neither is it simply false and thereby pointless just because it's not literally true. There's more to figuration than analogy, where articulation A, the vehicle, can be unpacked to figuration B, the tenor. It's precisely because we can't construct an accurate articulation B, because the situation is inarticulable in purely representational language, that we model it in symbolic terms, where the true/false evaluation is kind of beside the point. It's like evaluating a novel as true or false.

As an imaginative projection then, as a useful fiction, I can see how Gilbert’s conceit might work. It's not far from my own figurative conceit which views those inspiring "daemons" as fundamentally archetypal and therefore subconscious -- parts of the individual psyche -- but also as functionally autonomous and interconnected between individuals by culture -- as, to all intents and purposes, "memetic agencies" which work at the socio-cultural level. This is not to say that I believe in airy-fairy notions of spirit, but I'm willing to pretend, as an expedient fiction, that my id and your id and all the ids coded into artworks throughout our culture form an... aesthetic-behavioural system of sorts. If I don't literally believe that it's an integrated entity per se, I'm still happy to call it Dionsyus and raise a glass to it once in a while, to talk in terms of sacrificing to the gods in order to get past problems like writer's block. Symbolic action can be a way to work through the gnarly complexities of one's subconscious innards, to prod the archetypes this way and that by enacting "rituals" of commitment. If we've all got a little bit of Jack Flash inside us, sometimes you gotta torch some shit to let that firestarter out.

Mind you, this is coming from someone who thinks it's more fun to be a little bit schizoid once in a while.


Blogger Colin Meier said...

Thanks, Hal; I'm glad it caught your attention. I have to admit to some creative anxiety myself, right now - having a member of my personal pantheon deign to *notice* me in public is blushingly delightful...even if that notice is, in part, to tell me I'm not looking at things the right way. :)

12:52 am  
Blogger anna tambour said...

Al, a beaut picture of the balancing act - enterprise to ego. The path of pride you draw isn't just a path travelled by those who descend from the mountain. The path might be even more crowded by the unsuccessful "misunderstood" and "unappreciated". But without pride and arrogance, nothing worthwhile is ever done. As you know, too — that book on the mountain is to some, high-smelling trash, and to others, treasure. You need arrogance and gall to steal the time and thoughts of readers. Every writer assumes that this thievery is justified, just as every tax department steals for the public good. Without arrogance and a degree of insanity, the only books written would be how-to guides. And Chris, this point you make is spot on. "Writing is about not putting things in boxes (at least, when it's any fuckin' good) so why we all want to put writers or ways of writing in boxes is beyond me." But perhaps you don't read writers' blogs because, as I think too, reading about the act of writing is nowhere near as interesting as spending a week counting grains of rice.

As for the angst in the Act, I've found Dr Wodehouse to be a great electric-shock therapist:
"He seemed to be one of those writers, like Flaubert, who spare no pains in the quest for perfect clarity and are prepared to correct and re-correct indefinitely till their artist-souls are satisfied."
- The Small Bachelor

3:31 am  

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