How It Isby Alex Keegan
The Internet Writing Journal, October 2004
When Saul Bellow's "A Silver Dish" opens, Woody Selbst is sixty, has just lost his father, and he is alone listening to the sounds of Sunday church bells. He reflects not only on the recent death of his father, but on all sorts of "deaths" and a world-wide obsession with death (his too, of course), finishing the first paragraph:
"We know what goes daily through the whole of the human community, like a global death peristalsis."
At the end of the story we are a little back in time, to the scene of the death in hospital, a death which reiterates what Woody's father was all about, being his own man, recognizing his core, and not denying it.
When he was ready to make his move, he made it -- always on his own terms. And always, always, something up his sleeve. That was how he was.
In my internet writing group, Boot Camp Keegan, an ongoing thread began with the following post (from Vanessa Gebbie) quoting something from The Writer's Handbook. "Writing is much easier than spending a lot of time in the therapist's chair. Cheaper, too. Authors get to parade their neuroses in public disguised as a story. If we are lucky, we get paid for doing it. And we get applause as well." As Kurt Vonnegut said: "Writers get to treat their mental illnesses every day."
The thread progressed and I took a great interest. Is writing serious fiction only about angst? Are we merely self-treating our mental aches? If we were happy, would that stop us writing deep stuff?
I took interest because my life followed the Graham Greene edict that the greatest gift a writer could have is a miserable childhood. Me, writer, me lousy childhood: gambling-drinking, smoking father, debt-ridden mother, broken home, placed in care, fostered, bullied, ran away, join military at 15, court martialled at 21. OK, with you so far. So it's linked?
My answer, at best, is only "possibly." The quotes continued:
"Writing fiction -- and poetry -- is a bit like dreaming. You can find out what is troubling you on a deeper level. That one's writing goes out and touches someone else on that level -- though differently -- is one of the pieces of magic that attends to art."
So, I thought does my writing seek to discover what troubles me at a deeper level? Does it? Really? Or does it seek to articulate that which I know but find difficult to express? Or is it that when we seek the articulation we are looking for the source of some itch so that it might be treated, just as Freudian analysis seeks out the "real" problem so the conscious can help the unconscious? If Greene was right, why then does so little of my writing actually deal with my childhood? Why does so much more deal with the havoc I have wreaked, the troubles I have bestowed since I became a man and gave up childish things?
But I speak of choosing joy as though it were truly a matter of choice. For some people it is not. For some, agony oils the writing machine. But is it the agony? As I age I become more and more convinced it is not "the agony." I'm not even sure that agony is the correct term. The more "agony" life piles on me, writer, the more excited I get, thinking, "material," and then the question that arises is why is this material? Why do we always think it's the pain-filled, the horrible dilemmas, the betrayals, the sudden loss, murder, torture, obsession and hate that is the true grinding material of literature? Why do I so abhor magazines that publish fictional guidelines requesting happy endings? Why does the darkest ending, the one that makes me ache, also lift me up so that for seconds I think I understand what it is to be human?
That quote: So - if you find that writing with pain is part of your writing process, I will not try to talk you out of it. After all, who am I to argue when Susan Sontag proclaims, "You have to sink down to a level of hopelessness and desperation to find the book you want to write." Or when Fran Lebowitz complains, "I just write when fear overtakes me." Or when Georges Simenon confesses, "Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness."
In the thread, Paul asked "Are writers only concerned with asking questions, rather than finding answers?" and Van replied that she saw writing more as a case of laying bare, and that we touch readers by managing to say or show something which they identify with but perhaps had never quite articulated. My response: "In human thought, Paul, it isn't answers that's the problem, but discovering the real question. You get 'answers' but if you find the fundamental question, you find the fundamental answer sitting alongside." No I don't come from L.A., and I hate answers like that, but bear with me for a few more new-age reachings.
Having written that, I realized that the non-answer contained one of my answers, why I write, what I need from life, what writing gives me.
My academic background is psychology. I mentioned Freud earlier, and we all know about ideas like suppressed memory, the conscious versus unconscious, about "Freudian slips" revealing something a little closer to out true feelings.
What I said in a hurry above, I realize I meant that I'm not looking for answers at all. I just want to phrase the questions better. I realize I'm not looking for solutions. Instead I want to be able to deal with the real problems and not a smokescreen. No, not even "deal with" necessarily, but just to get closer to truths.
If I read about a man tortured -- he is besotted with his secretary. He's trying to balance one drive telling him to run away against another "drive," a set of learned rules, loyalty, kindness, faithfulness, love for his kids. OK, that's fine, and we are still in the land of cliché, but what if the writer manages to tell me that it is not merely a tug-of-war, a see-saw, but that this aging man simply wants to feel alive?
What if the distraction, the affair, is not just an affair, not just a symptom of a mid-life crisis, or a Clintonian confession, "I did it because I could." What if the skilled writer gets me to the idea that loyalty is death, that faithfulness is suicide? What if he touches me and shows me, "Hey, the T-Shirt has it right, bro, Life's a Bitch and then you die."
In "A Silver Dish" Bellow brilliantly explores a man who from a superficial perspective is a louse. Maybe from a deeper perspective he's still a louse but it doesn't follow that a louse can never care, or can never have a great insight. Saul Bellow goes there, and it's this "there" (and how we get to there) that fascinates me. Can we simply decide to lay bare? Can we get to the heart, the keystone, the nub, because we want to, can we just tell it like it is because we decide it's a good idea? Is it possible for an author, for a man, a woman to merely 'decide' to understand the inner workings, the raw, naked truth?
I have taken issue with those authors like Flannery O'Connor who say or said, "I write to discover what I think." I've been known to get angry and raise my voice (expletives deleted) arguing that it's simply not true, you don't write beautifully if you don't know where you're going. I still believe this.
OK, I know the trotted out answers. Genius A "discovers" during that first draft, then "having discovered" proceeds to create great art. Yeah, right. But choosing "a wooden leg" was total chance, was it? Choosing to set a fishing trip on Christmas Day was random, was it? I think these geniuses are telling porky-pies; lies.
Why is it in our best fiction we are surprised by ourselves and yet we are not surprised? What is, after all, an "ah-hah moment"? When we get an ah-hah moment, that delicious, "yes, that's it!" we reach an answer we already knew. When the story suddenly comes together, when the last third rushes up from the underground, we knew it was there. We felt it, sensed it. We just had to trick it to the surface.
In previous articles I've mentioned an idea put forward by Dorothea Brande, that when we see something that "tweaks" us it's because it connects at some primitive level, connects with a deep, important memory, spotlights or highlights some deeply-held belief.
Freudian analysts believe they can seek out those aches, tensions, confusions that make us our complex adult selves. As a serious writer, I think, "Oh, please God, don't! I need to be a mess of confusions and impossibilities!"
I've mentioned Gabriel Marquez too, how he says finding the opening is at least 50% of the work in a novel or a story, that once the setting and voice comes to him, the story just falls before him.
I go with GM. I believe the voice, when it starts to come is driven by that core question, that clarification that articulation whether or not we can state it. I believe that we become better writers (after we have learned craft to the point of being able to forget it) when we stop trying to be conscious and start trying to express our inner selves.
No, this isn't "new age," nor is it woolly. I believe that those of us who want to write meaningfully, do so because we want to understand. Let's be honest, which would we rather have, one public hit where others understood where we were coming from, or a hundred stories where each one brought us towards an inner light, ours, an understanding of our own existence, our why?
It excites me, excites me when from merely trying to find myself I reach out momentarily and touch someone else. It excites me when Lawrence Sargeant Hall so perfectly encapsulates my drives, or when Saul Bellow manages to show me that I can still feel love for my father who was selfish, or my mother who left us and condemned me to years of care. They were people just as messed up as me.
When stories come to me, swelling up from inside, demanding; when I find that opening (always the opening) the nearest description to the emotion is all-encompassing love, obsessive, deep, amazing, driving, a thing that contorts everything else to fit the focus.
But I'm beginning to realize that it's a very subtle game I play with those parts of me that need to express but are scared they may be voiceless, or that they will "choke" and sputter inanities.
My story "Ballistics" begins with an accident in media res but held in the moment. A child about to lose her eye -- it moves into some argument about genes and environment and the sins of the father, the idea that much of what happens all of what happens is predestined. But then (to me) the story gets down to the heart of things, the narrator and Ruth (and how he could not help but fall in love with Ruth -- we are back to ballistics and free will -- and that a side-effect of that was the accident) but then at the end, the point for me is that the daughter, the daughter has moved so far. She goes from innocent victim and disfigured, without understanding, changed (with all her ballistic life before and since the accident), until at the end she gets a glimpse of the deep humanity in her father, his hopelessness, deep truths, his and her ballistic inevitabilities. So I may have set out (apparently) trying to deal with the loss of the eye, how a father deals with his anger accidentally injuring his child, then I seemed to go into some kind of self-justification, explaining the horrific odds against something like that happening (and then looking at the child's later life as ballistically impelled) but really, really, was I not actually after that kitchen-moment when the man's daughter, just for a second sees the world, not with her as central, but manages to see her father as human, her father as a man, an ordinary, weak man?
In Hall's "The Ledge" we have a simple story, a man, two boys go hunting out at sea on Christmas Day and are stranded and drown. On first pass the story is almost "too simple", then it grows and we sense the meaning of the story, the deep ache that men will go out to battle and sometimes die. Good stuff.
But it's then that two more things filter through. The man lives. This is where he wants to be, at the edge, dying is part of his living. When he faces death there is no drama, no histrionics. He is a seaman and the sea has won. End. Better stuff. But then we realize that there is a wife's point of view, too, that maybe, maybe she had sometimes ached for a softer, less fearful life, a softer, landlocked husband, away from danger her man needed. Or was it that ultimately that was where she wanted to be too.
Stories that resonate often go towards a truth, a decent truth, but they either reflect a greater, harder-to-reach truth, or they slide in, sometimes quietly understated, slow-burning truth, the real point. This is why I spoke in the thread -- it's not about answers, but about clarity. This is what I am, this is what we are, this, simply, is the truth of what the world is.
In "A Silver Dish" of course we have a great narrative, a wonderful story, the no-good hustling Pop, the son diverted from a life in the church and then the businessman dealing with the dying and then the death of his father, a once huge figure. All this is Nobel excellence but what elevates the story for me is how things move, like our thoughts move. Is this Pop's story, or Woody's? Is it ultimately about how to live, and how to die? Or is it Woody finally acknowledging that his father was true to his inner spirit, that he was "of this earth," visceral, emotional, crude and not spiritual, and that he knew his son was the same so steered him away from the church in his own lumpen, ham-fisted, cut-the-bullshit way? Or is it, as the ending suggests, that Woody finally "gets it." that Pop never bent in the wind. He simply was his own man.
When he was ready to make his move, he made it -- always on his own terms. And always, always, something up his sleeve. That was how he was.
British Crime and Literary Fiction Author Alex Keegan is publisher and editor of the British literary magazine, Seventh Quark. He is
creator of the five Caz Flood novels: Cuckoo (Headline Books, St. Martin's Press), Vulture,
Kingfisher, Razorbill (Headline Books) and A Wild Justice (Piatkus Books)
which all feature feisty female private investigator Catherine "Caz" Flood. Cuckoo was published in the U.S. by St Martin's Press, and
was nominated for an Anthony Award as best first novel.
His prize-winning short stories have been featured in numerous publications including Mystery and Manners, BBC Radio 4, Blue Moon Review, Southern Ocean Review, and The Atlantic. He is a Contributing Editor for The Internet Writing Journal. His blog can be found here.