(My friends, so pleased to be able to share the following guest post generously provided by A.R. Williams, owner and sole proprietor of the very fine blog, Entropy: The Other Constant … enjoy!)
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
Not so long ago, there was an internet tempest in a teacup over a divorce lawyer who created a hot/crazy chart as a satirical teaching tool to help other men sort the women they were dating into one-night-stands, dating potentials, and wife material. Redheads were all lumped into the “no go zone” of crazy. Of course I thought that I belonged down there in unicorn territory, being a solid 8 and reasonably sane. This turned into a conversation with a friend of mine, who rightly pointed out that the writer thing raised my crazy quotient considerably. Even if I dyed my hair brown, I’ll never make it into the unicorn zone.
I couldn’t argue. I wanted to, but what grounds did I have? I make implausible stuff up, I think obsessively about creating amazing stories, I agonize over characters and plot choices, I careen wildly between thinking I know what I’m doing and the conviction that I’ll never be good enough. And I do it of my own volition. For not much by way of a tangible reward, at least none thus far.
At the very least, this isn’t normal behavior.
The crazy artist thing is an overused cliche. Poor Van Gogh is at least as well known for slicing off his own ear as he is for Starry Night. Every time someone wants to talk about art and crazy, out comes Van Gogh and his severed ear again. The truth is, there are all kinds of crazy. Climbing Mount Everest is madness too. Does that make the climber crazy, or just the climb?
Because I still want to argue that it isn’t exactly that writers are crazy, it is that writing is madness. A madness filled with grace.
We write. Rejections from agents and publishers. Still we write. Thousands of words sliced from the manuscript and discarded because one thing you hadn’t thought of yet occurs to you and changes everything. And we write. Ideas get plucked out of the ether and someone else gets to the story first. We write. Writer’s block. Still we write. That writer over there is better. We write. Real jobs and commutes that leave little time for any more than laundry and groceries. And we give up sleep so we can write. An audience you can count on two hands. Yet we write.
There’s no explanation for it. It isn’t self-dismemberment crazy, it’s the kind of madness typified by behavior that lacks an obvious antecedent or a clear reward. Writers are, for the most part, harmless. We hoard words and observations, constantly both there and not there, participating in and watching life concurrently, a little late on the response when asked a question in a meeting because we were somewhere else. Writing. Fixing other people’s sentences for impact, sketching characters, thinking through that imagined scene to get to the mystery even we haven’t sorted out yet.
There’s some crazy involved. Of course there is. You’d have to be just a little off to think of Persephone as a means to sooth our ancestor’s fear over a permanent winter. Unicorns, Frankenstein, Dracula, the Faerie Queen… Just like I’d never in a million years come up with the idea to make and then eat Foie Gras, normal people could go forever and never come up with the story of Prometheus.
We’re just not right.
And the “not right” thing shows up in the relationship to the work. Every word can feel like you’re both the eagle and Prometheus: the predator digging around in the hot muck of entrails for the next word, the body feeling the sharp claws wrapped around the appendix as that knife-like beak goes searching for exactly the right bit of liver to follow the last one. And yet we do it. Perhaps cursed by the gods for some infraction on their dignity in a past life.
“Have I gone mad? I’m afraid so, but let me tell you something,
the best people usually are.”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
I called it a madness filled with grace a few paragraphs ago. What grace is in this thing that owns me, where not writing is just as difficult as writing?
I don’t know.
Perhaps it is that storytelling is the first thing that made our ancestors different from the other animals around them. Lions eat and drink and copulate. They do not lie around after the fact with a belly full of wildebeest and create new worlds out of words. They don’t create Alice in Wonderland to delight the object of their inappropriate affection. That’s the purview of humanity. Before there were accountants and lawyers, there were storytellers. As far as age-old professions go, I would wager only only the prostitutes can claim a similar history.
We’re human. We need stories. We need to tell stories. It’s what we do.
And then you get it right. It all comes pouring out: the thing you mean to say in the most economical arrangement of nouns and verbs imaginable, both evocative and open-ended at the same time. Specific to the thing you want to say, but with enough room in it for the whole world. There’s no feeling in the world that is as deliciously satisfying, at least not in the same way.
Like climbing Mount Everest, writing is the hardest thing you’ll ever do. But the words are like photographs. You take them out and finger them later with a profound sense of peace, like you can travel back in time and comfort your then-self with assurances that there will be a time after. Like your then-self can travel forward to the moment you’re in now to remind you that you are exactly where you need to be. Equally, you can imagine your words doing the same, traveling around the world, bobbing into the future with comfort and companionship for people whose name you’ll never know.
And therein lies the grace. It is in the connections: to your self, to those fire-lit cave-dwellers with their fanciful explanations for comets and seasons, to the worlds you create out of nothing, to someone halfway around the world who needs to hear that one thing only you can say, and to the future. Seriously, how many of us have called Jane Austen a friend, centuries after she put pen to paper?
Or maybe it is just that God/ess is a storyteller, and writing is the part of us that connects to the breath that gave us life.
And so a secret kiss
Brings madness with the bliss
–Tom Waits, Alice
- For more on writing — The Craft: Author Interviews at Call of the Siren