On going feral — and being surprised — while writing

When I met a friend to see a show last fall, I turned up disheveled and withdrawn, with only seven of my fingernails painted, and I tripped on the stairs as we were descending to our seats. He caught my arm before I could plummet. “What’s going on with you, Maud?” he said.

“I’ve become feral,” I told him. “I’m writing like a madwoman.”

Apart from putting in my time at work, it was my first outing in more than a month. Just maneuvering through the crowds and lights in Times Square without scratching out anyone’s eyes was a feat.

Lately I’ve slipped into a similar phase, so I was amused on the train yesterday morning to read these comments from William Maxwell’s 1955 speech, “The Writer as Illusionist,” collected in the Library of America’s forthcoming William Maxwell: Early Novels and Stories.

As a result of too long and too intense concentration, the novelist sooner or later begins to act peculiarly. During the genesis of his book, particularly, he talks to himself in the street; he smiles knowingly at animals and birds; he offers Adam the apple, for Eve, and with a half involuntary movement of his right arm imitates the writhing of the snake that nobody knows about yet. He spends the greater part of the days of his creation in his bathrobe and slippers, unshaven, his hair uncombed, drinking water to clear his brain, and hardly distinguishable from an inmate in an asylum.

At the core of Maxwell’s speech is the idea that “Writers — narrative writers — are people who perform tricks.” The writer, says Maxwell, “has everything in common with the vaudeville magician except this:”

The writer must be taken in by his own tricks. Otherwise, the audience will begin to yawn and snicker. Having practiced more or less incessantly for five, ten, fifteen, or twenty years, knowing that the trunk has a false bottom and the opera hat a false top, with the white doves in a cage ready to be handed to him from the wings and his clothing full of unusual deep pockets containing odd playing cards and colored scarves knotted together and not knotted together and the American flag, he must begin by pleasing himself. His mouth must be the first mouth that drops open in surprise, in wonder, as (presto chango!) this character’s heartache is dragged squirming from his inside coat pocket, and that character’s future has become his past while he’s not looking.

I think Maxwell’s right — or at least I find that my own writing only comes alive when I’m completely open to my characters’ needs and possibilities. As I read the speech, I thought of Rupert Thomson, who has cited Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow as a book he continually re-reads for inspiration, and who told me “The pleasure — and the pain — [of writing a novel] is precisely in not knowing [where it will lead].”

See also Kate Christensen’s remarks (i.e., “I don’t want to know what happens in advance, have zero interest in making my characters do my preconceived bidding”).


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