Thursday, April 3, 2014

In her novel The Death of the Heart, Elizabeth Bowen writes:
"Nothing arrives on paper as it started, and so much arrives that never started at all. To write is always to rave a little--even if one did once know what one meant. . . . There are ways and ways of trumping a thing up: one gets more discriminating, not necessarily more honest. . . . 
"Style is the thing that's always a bit phony, and at the same time you cannot write without style."
As an extract, this passage looks as if it might be genuine and thoughtful commentary on writing, yet in the context of the novel Bowen places the remarks in the mouth of one of her more dislikable characters: a cold fish named St. Quentin Miller, who is a very successful novelist but also a shallow cosmopolitan aesthete who would do anything to avoid opening his inner self to another human being. His opposite is Bowen's principal character, a 16-year-old innocent named Portia Quayne, whose vulnerability, ignorance, and acuity embarrass and disturb nearly every adult in the novel, eventually pushing them into betrayal and moral disfigurement.

Portia is an immensely sympathetic character, witness to the corruption and weakness of the so-called civilized society around her. St. Quentin, on the other hand, is a gossip and a fake. Yet like him, Bowen is a novelist who is preternaturally concerned with style. Her prose, in certain of her works, is so mannered as to "look like affectation" (in the words of critic Hermione Lee). So it's possible that St. Quentin's comments about style are, to some extent, Bowen's own self-examination--a portrait of what she sees, or fears to see, in herself.

For the comments are not wrong. "To write is always to rave a little." This is what my sons mean when they complain, "Mom, you exaggerate everything." This is what my husband means when he complains about the way I "self-mythologize" in my writing. "Style is the thing that's always a bit phony, and at the same time you cannot write without style."

The great writers always do more. They are terribly, excruciatingly vulnerable--they never lose what Portia has: a tragic naivete about the world. Their emotions are always raw; they are forever adolescent in their intensities. But that's not enough for a great writer; that's not close to being enough. They have to write, and they have to work with the truth that "nothing arrives on paper as it started." To write is to deaden the original impetus for writing, but at the same time the act allows the writer to begin to fashion replications and variations of that original impetus, which have the potential to become intensities in their own right. "There are ways and ways of trumping a thing up." Dickinson was skilled at such trumping up. So was Whitman. So was Shakespeare. At the same time they balanced the equivalent truth, that "one gets more discriminating, not necessarily more honest." This is one explanation for why writing becomes progressively more difficult as one get better at writing.


Anonymous said...

A metaphor is already a lie; so's a simile. Language itself is a work around.

You'll never express the terror, anguish, love, enlightenment that you experience. If you could, few people would want to experience its intensity. The gut wrenching emotion becomes a lie, a story, which points at the gut wrenching emotion. Of course, to some readers the lie may evoke something even more intense than the original.

I remember reading about some authors where the characters and situation take on a life of their own and the writer, like some sort of channeler, lets the pen move like the planchette on a ouija board, powerless to insert her own will: working at the behest of the Muse.

No experience with that, but there are moments when playing music where the mechanical nature of the task disappears and the interpretation seems to spring from the body as Athena from the head of Zeus.

Dawn Potter said...

I don't really have any experience with that channeling situation either. I have written poems that needed very little revision, but I never felt as if I were possessed in any seance-like way. I agree with you: playing music can get me closer to that sense of channeling; but as a creative act, performance is quite different from composition, at least in my own case.

Anonymous said...

Yes, and the difference, perhaps, lies in the art forms themselves. Live performance of music is "in the moment" and you can be thinking of chords and sequences or you can simply go with the idea in your mind. It is more immediate, in any case.

Writing is more like painting. You have to keep the entire picture in mind as you work.