“… let no mournful yesterdays
disturb thy peaceful heart.”
Ellen M. Huntington Gates, “Sleep Sweet”
“Of the making of many books there is no end,
and in much study there is weariness for the flesh.”
When the glass is empty the writer searches, at times desperately, for some truth or experience to put on the page. The writer writes to make life real. It is an alchemy that turns nothing into something. Without writing, the writer is hollow, small, almost nothing.
When the glass is full the writer becomes like a god, though not so much a god of creation as one who reorders worlds that already exist. The writer recreates what he or she has known in order to say something about it. At the end of the day, it is a gratifying act.
In 1967, Gloria Steinem interviewed Truman Capote for an article that was published in McCall’s. It was a candid interview. She asked him how he would like to be described as a writer and as a person—adding “without false modesty,” just in case. Capote replied with grace and clarity.
“As a writer, that I’m a good artist, a serious craftsman; that my writing gives pleasure in itself, regardless of what I’m writing about. I spend a great deal of time with that object in mind. Because to me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music that words make.”
Early in his career, Capote was praised for the beauty of his sentences. His prose was impeccable and his writing almost alone brought him into social circumstances the likes of which he never could have dreamed as the model for Dill in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a lonely child of divorce in a small Alabama town.
But Capote flew too close to sun. In a terrific irony—the exception that proves the rule, it seems—Capote’s downfall came when he tried to write what he (thought he) knew. The serialized chapters of his long-awaited novel, Answered Prayers, hewed too closely to the real lives of his New York socialite crowd. Scandalized, Capote’s supposed friends abandoned him and he learned how far, indeed, Monroeville, Alabama, was from New York’s Upper East Side.
Capote had abandoned the “inner music” of his words for a cloying attempt that was less writing what he knew than writing what he both coveted and hated. Such is vanity.
To write is to be like a god, one of those fundamental acts of hubris that always results in a fall, whether in the Garden of Eden or Greek mythology. The “inner music” of Capotean reverie was to Franz Kafka a siren call to vanity and self-worship through the admiration of others. To his close friend and ally, Max Brod, Kafka wrote in 1922—
“Writing is a sweet and wonderful reward, but a reward for what? Last night it was as clear to me as the catechism learned in childhood that it is a reward for devil worship. This descent to the powers of darkness, the dubious embraces, and all the other things that doubtless occur down below and which we know nothing about up here when we write our stories in the sunshine. Perhaps there are other kinds of writing, this is only one I know…”
The writer was oblivious to this affliction, mindlessly scribbling away beneath a penumbra of vanity that surrounded the sun itself. Like sex, writing was at once a sensual and gratifying pact with the devil that was utterly essential to living experience—and at the same time, an act that obscured and defamed the very essence of love itself.
“It is the vanity and the hedonism, which flutter around and around either one’s own or another’s form in a ceaseless search for pleasure until in the end, by this constant repetition, a whole planetary system of vanity is created.”
Kafka’s life was filled with deep and vital relationships, with both women and men. His Madonna-whore complex notwithstanding, he knew how to connect with others, recoiling only from those women he thought of marrying. Writing was Kafka’s only salvation, the only thing that made him seem real to himself.
As a writer, however, Kafka was a failure in his own estimation. His work remains for us mainly because his close friend and literary executor, Max Brod, famously chose to ignore to Kafka’s request to destroy all the remaining manuscripts, which included his novels The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika.
Prayer, a writerly cup
The photo of the cup of tea at the beginning of this post was given to me by a friend, Maghan Lusk. She is from South Carolina. In 2008-09, she wrote a blog called “[a creative writer’s] life, uncensored.” On the blog, she wrote about writing, managing seamlessly to intersperse her own experiences with topical matter. Her writing and point of view suggested a very thoughtful person who took the time to understand why people were doing what they did, rather than judging them and tossing off opinions.
In 2009, she shut down her blog to work on her first novel, which she has now completed. Of her desk and cup she wrote—
“When I sit down to write, I make a pot of Ceylon orange pekoe (2 tbsp of loose tea, 1 tbsp of lemon curd, 1 tbsp of honey). And I warm the pot before I add the boiling water – it’s a highly methodical process. I like the color, so I always drink from a glass tea cup. The pot in the back belonged to my mom before she married my dad (27 years ago).”
Before Maghan turned the pot to the support of her writer’s craft, her mother used it to warm the water she soaked her feet with. Behind the pot, on the edge of the chest-of-drawers, is a framed poem, “Sleep Sweet,” by Ellen M. Huntington Gates.
The desk itself is piled high with the artifacts of Maghan’s life and work. In the stack of books are admired pieces, atop which sits Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, the much-celebrated novel set in Iowa, in which the Rev. John Ames writes out a family history for his young son. The Reverend’s wife calculated that all the sermons he had written across his life of preaching would come to 67,500 pages of prose, or 225 books by the Rev.’s own calculation, “which puts me up there with Augustine and Calvin for quantity.” In Robinson’s prose, Rev. Ames takes us to a place in writing so much finer and wonderful than Kafka’s, less self-involved than Capote’s, more human and more in touch with the real reasons we write—to reach out to someone else.
“For me writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn’t writing prayers, as I was often enough. You feel that you are with someone. I feel that I am with you now, whatever that can mean …”
Feeding the Wolves
There is a famous Cherokee fable that goes like this.
An elder Cherokee was teaching his grandchildren about life. He said to them, “A fight is going on inside me. It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One wolf represents fear, anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other stands for joy, peace, love, hope, sharing, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, friendship, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. This same fight is going on inside you, and inside every other person, too.”
The children thought about it for a minute and then one child asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
Capote fed both wolves, with his life and with his words. He was as destroyed by writing as he was acclaimed for it. The same thing happened to Hemingway. Kafka—and possibly Faulkner—fed the wolves with words alone, leaving their lives to become shambles of unrequited desire.
Sylvia Plath fed both wolves. She fed them with her words and her flesh. She married a man, Ted Hughes, who believed that a writer had the duty to live beyond all morality, to use his or her own life to build the experiences that would come to life in words.
To be an artist is a dangerous thing. It is a special role, a special calling that cannot be resisted. From the beginning of time—Lascaux to the Bible to Pynchon and Picasso and Joe Strummer—artists have helped us know who we are and how we live. Some of them handle the role better than others.
Notes and Credits
I owe thanks to Maghan Lusk for sharing her photos and story for this posting, as well as for insightful correspondence over issues of writing, spirituality, and living in the Deep South over the last year or so.
Capote’s interview was by Gloria Steinem, “‘Go Right Ahead and Ask Me Anything.’ (And So She Did) An Interview with Truman Capote.” McCall’s 95 (November 1967), 76-77, 148-52, 154.
Kafka from: Letter to Max Brod, July 5, 1922, in Franz Kafka, I Am a Memory Come Alive: Autobiographical Writings, ed. N Glatzer (New York: Schocken, 1974), p. 223. An interesting source for Kafka information (though not the only one I used, of course) and condominiums in Miami can be found here.
Gilead quotation: p. 19 of the Picador, 2004, edition.
The Cherokee fable of the two wolves is widely known. The version posted here was taken from a website called “First People, The Legends.” The story is the much the same in its various posting around the Web.
The photographs of books were taken by the author, on his own desk. Disclosure: I have not read Gilead, but I will do so shortly. I have not read In Cold Blood, but I saw the movie with Robert Blake a long time ago on late-night tv. I have not seen the movies of Capote’s life, neither Toby Jones’s nor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s. The copy of In Cold Blood in the photograph was found on the sidewalk in Park Slope one day. I have read much of Kafka’s writing—novels, stories, and letters, and I saw the movie.