Starting this week I’ll interview fiction authors I admire about their writing habits. I’ve become fascinated in the last several years by the process and psychology of writing. As Ernest Hemingway once observed, “There is no rule on how to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly; sometimes it’s like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.”
Some writers produce a set number of words every day. Hemingway and Graham Greene are said to have adopted this strategy. Others work more sporadically. In letters Elizabeth Bishop bemoaned her procrastination and writer’s block, but she still managed to compose some of the greatest English-language poems of the 20th Century, including “One Art.”
The degree to which an author’s own experiences make their way into his or her writing also varies. Sometimes real life is mined directly; other times the writer claims autobiographical details haven’t filtered in at all. Most writers acknowledge some spill-over from life to the page. Many are reluctant to talk about the details. John Barth’s work often refers directly to the processes of writing and reading, drawing the reader’s attention to the artificial nature of both.
Politics and religion obsess some writers — Atwood and Saramago, for instance. Irish novelist Iris Murdoch, on the other hand, once told a Times reviewer, “I don’t think a novel should be a committed statement of political and social criticism…. They should aim at being beautiful…. Art holds a mirror to nature, and I think it’s a very difficult thing to do.”
The narrator of Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence says:
To my mind the most interesting thing about art is the personality of the artist; and if that is singular, I am willing to excuse a thousand faults… The artist, painter, poet, or musician, by his decoration, sublime or beautiful, satisfies the aesthetic sense; but that is akin to the sexual instinct, and shares its barbarity: he lays before you also the greater gift of himself. To pursue his secret has something of the fascination of a detective story. It is a riddle which shares with the universe the merit of having no answer.
While it is folly to assert that the personality of the artist is more important than the work of art itself — I believe the art is paramount — there is some truth to these observations. Personality and writing are tangled together so that every aspect of the writer’s life, from the writing and revision process to the geographical location in which a given story is tackled, will affect the work in some way. Sometimes a novel maps directly onto an author’s life. Other times the connections seem tenuous and are nearly ineffable.
Learning of a writer’s methods and preoccupations makes me feel I’m that much closer to solving the puzzle of inspiration, not only in the case of that one writer, but in the world. After all, as Anita Brookner has said, “Great writers are the saints for the godless.”