I’ve been reading bits, blogs, and books on writing again. Thanks in part to a vacation I picked up my journal again – for more than cursory entries – and gave it a serious working out. Another part I owe some thanks to is Jeff, an online buddy over at My Nasty Romance (MNR). I took a book on vacation with me called The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing by Richard Hugo. While reading The Triggering Town, I also ran across one of Jeff’s posts concerning the “Journey” known as writing… To turn this into a nice trifecta (though I won’t necessarily give places), The American Spectator (TAS) had an article entitled Look at Me by James Bowman. Though the Am Spec article wasn’t specifically about writers, it included them in the pantheon of creative riffraff who seem not to be concerned with freedom of expression:
Our concerns lie instead with that more recently discovered but, if anything, even more highly valued freedom, the freedom to be attended to by the world at large. You will of course tell me that there is no such freedom in reality, and you will be right. I have said so myself in this space (“The Shock Is Over,” TAS, May 2008) in the course of noticing how Saskia Olde Wolbers, one of the army of mostly unattended-to artists in our heavily overpopulated “creative” world, has referred mournfully to “the meaninglessness of being unobserved.” Since then, our national crisis of inattention has only grown more acute. Now it’s not just those ever-growing numbers of obscure artists, poets, actors, and other such riffraff that the wider world is neglecting, but the once enormously popular news media, with their delightful fables and fantasies of American public life (TAS October 2009).
Bowman’s entire article is definitely worth the read, especially as it relates to the fantasies and self-indulgence of our current crop of “creative types” who seem to conflate the notion of art with publicity. He notes “It’s hard to tell whether this assimilation of art to publicity has percolated down from the high to the popular culture or risen up, like sap, from the popular to the high. But there’s hardly any difference between the two now anyway” (TAS October 2009). That’s a sad finding.
I like to write, especially poetry – guess I’m part of the riffraff. On the other hand, Jeff over at MNR wrote a post that tells a short story of conversion. In his and Joseph Campbell’s words:
I’ve heard it before. Writing is a journey. Work on your craft. Feel the story. Stock your toolbox. Create characters so real they tell the story themselves. Melt your heart down in a small lead bowl and pour it onto the paper like molten soul and then the world will ache at your truthy tellings…
It all sounded like hippie crap to me. Writing was an intellectual pursuit. It had plot, characters, and theme. Cross those three streams and, like in Ghostbusters, you could achieve anything. Well, like most things I encounter in my life, I was wrong. Writing is, indeed, a journey in more ways than one.
First, it is a hero’s journey in the classic sense. Joseph Campbell summarized the hero’s journey, or monomyth, thusly: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man” (MNR 20091024).
Jeff goes on to include the journey of self-realization in his conversion story, but worries that writing might be a tad (maybe even irresponsibly) self-indulgent. Makes me mindful of Robert Heinlein’s only half jesting notion that “Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards.” What immediately captures me in Jeff’s commentary is Campbell’s notion of the hero’s journey. The reason is that it is a repeated theme in both art history and art criticism… if one steps back several decades. There was a difference between personal notoriety and art worthy of notice. Bowman put it like this:
All art needs heroes. In modernist art, the artist was the hero on account of his art. Now he’s a hero if he can just figure out how to get his art noticed. That’s the whole point of conceptual art, which has little or no content qua art (in the old sense of something beautifully wrought) apart from the concept that promises to get it talked about (TAS October 2009).
Finally, the third part of this trifecta is Richard Hugo, though not my favorite poet, he is one of my favorite teachers. Ever. In The Triggering Town, his chapter called “Stray Thoughts on Roethke and Teaching” has a few things to say that tie in here:
Roethke used to mumble: “Jesus, you don’t want to say that.” And you didn’t but you hadn’t yet become ruthless enough to create. You still felt some deep moral obligation to “reality” and “truth,” and of course it wasn’t moral obligation at all but fear of yourself and your inner life.
Despite Roethke’s love of verbal play, he could generate little enthusiasm for what passes as experimentation and should more properly be called fucking around. Real experimentation is involved in every good poem because the poet searches for ways to unlock his imagination through trial and error. Quest for a self is fundamental to poetry. What passes for experimentation is often an elaborate method of avoiding one’s feelings at all costs (Hugo, 1979).
I sometimes think it’s a matter of figuring out that reality isn’t necessarily what is real. Jeff put it like this: “…you let the words come out from under your fake self – the self the world knows – and you put it all out on paper as ugly as it was born. It’s slippery with nasty juices, vulgar, and raw as a rug burn. And most of all, it’s real” (MNR 20091024). In Jeff’s worries about irresponsible self-indulgence and Bowman’s charges of art as publicity (getting noticed) there is, I believe, a commonality of interest and intent. Bowman, after sarcastically ripping up Julie & Julia and to a lesser extent the author, he concludes his article:
Hooray for Julie! Who could wish her less successful, less rich, less famous, or played in the movie by anyone less adorable than Amy Adams? But I’d prefer to rent the video of With a Friend Like Harry…, a French film of 2000 by the German-born Dominik Moll, about a poet whose comatose genius is shocked back into life by the discovery that his long-disregarded juvenile oeuvre has found an audience solely on its dubious merits and not on account of his mastery of publicity or compelling personal story. True, it is an audience of one, and that one a criminal madman, but for any real artist that ought to be enough (TAS October 2009).
That isn’t a far jump to Jeff’s closing paragraph concerning self-indulgence: “I would suppose the answer is that it’s self-indulgent, yes. But not irresponsibly so since if even one person feels a kinship by reading the story, I’ve bestowed a boon” (MNR 20091024). Whether the boon is poetry or prose or both, it will have been a shame to fail to shout in the shower those most primitive sounds we make when alone in those reckless moments that trigger our hearts to sing sentences – which maybe only the person in the shower will ever hear. Like Hugo, I hope your “truth conforms to the music” and we meet to hear it.