The summer I was 13 I took a writing class, and something the teacher said has stuck with me ever since. She said that writing is the loss of what you want to say, and as I got older and kept writing, trying to turn the images and ideas and snippets of dialogue that float through my brain into prose, I have learned how absolutely right she was. Though it’s possible to come close to the ideal, what’s impossible is to capture it entirely; what’s left is an approximation, a best shot, an also-ran. Nobody else is the wiser, of course, because how can they know the perfect thing that was in your mind before you ruined it by trying to write it down? Over time, it’s okay to like your work, to forget the ideal that you were striving for in the first place, to see honesty where you once only saw falsehood. This is probably a necessary step; without it, it’d be impossible to keep writing at all.
Since I have this attitude toward writing, it was with great interest that I read Zadie Smith’s essay “Fail Better” that appeared recently in the Guardian. (Or chunks of it, rather, since it’s pretty long and lost me in places.) Smith’s essay touches on what it takes to make a writer great, and argues that beyond the skill at craftsmanship that good writing takes, it also requires the personal element of the writer’s own truth to give it that necessary X-Factor needed to push something above the fray. I had problems with this notion right away; I’m not such a big fan of personal truth in writing (whatever that means, anyway), though I do believe in the importance of honesty. I think there’s a big difference between the two things, though this might be an issue of my own definitions and my problem could just come down to a quibble over words. I guess what I mean is that truth, this thing that colors the writer’s work, has become so watered down by our postmodern inability to believe in any absolutes, and therefore makes us all unimpeachable authorities on our personal experience. While I believe that there’s room to be unimpeachable authorities on our personal experience, I hope that anything I create is bigger than my personal truth, as grand or mediocre as it may be, because once it’s shared with other people I lose control over it anyway. Honesty, on the other hand, means that the creation is true, whether or not it has anything to do with the truth. This is, to my thinking, what fiction is all about — making stuff up and being honest about it. Perhaps at this point, I should say that I’ve never been a fan of “write what you know” because I prefer to crawl into unfamiliar spaces and make them as real as I can.
Like I said, though, my argument with Smith’s use of the word “truth” might just be a problem with the word itself and not so much with Smith’s point, because sometimes I’m too argumentative to move beyond my own argumentativeness. Smith writes, “Style is a writer’s way of telling the truth. Literary success or failure, by this measure, depends not only on the refinement of words on a page, but in the refinement of a consciousness, what Aristotle called the education of the emotions.” Does honest writing, the kind that — for lack of a better word — rings true, really depend on some kind of an emotional intelligence? I’ll have to think about it more, but I’m inclined to believe that it has more to do with a sharp observational skill and an intelligence of human behavior, personality of the writer be damned. But maybe these two things are really the same and I’m just tangled in semantics.
In any case, Smith gets to the famous essay by T.S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (this was actually once the seed for an October Earth question). Eliot’s much-argued point:
“The business of the poet is not to find new emotions, but to use the ordinary ones and, in working them up into poetry, to express feelings which are not in actual emotions at all. And emotions which he has never experienced will serve his turn as well as those familiar to him. Consequently, we must believe that ’emotion recollected in tranquility’ is an inexact formula . . . Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.”
Apparently, I’m inclined to agree with Eliot, which, despite my love of “Prufrock” kind of bothers me. It’s not that I don’t think that writers don’t sneak themselves into their work, but I also believe that at some point, if there’s any maturity to be had as an artist, it’s important to move beyond ourselves into something broader. Otherwise, no matter how well we craft our sentences into paragraphs or our lines into stanzas, don’t we just kind of remain stuck at that “angst-filled teenager scribbling in the margins” phase? It’s an important phase; it gets many of us going, but it shouldn’t be the end. At least I don’t think so. Obviously. Because that’s what I’ve been going on about for some time now.
Anyway, it’s an interesting essay with all kinds of things to think about contained within, and it may be one of the only things I’ve ever really read by Zadie Smith. I do believe that writing is an approximation, but in the end, I think this has more to do with the shortcomings of language and our inability to manipulate it fully than it does with not being able to get to the truth. But then, maybe that’s why I’m not writing any novels, I don’t know.