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The bottomless well of ideas

When I was regularly teaching writing courses one of the questions I heard most often was: “Where do you get your ideas?” The true answer is that I get my ideas in the following places, in order of fertility:

1. The Avalon Nature Preserve, Stony Brook, Long Island.
2. In the car, driving almost anywhere.
3. In the bath.

Different people find different places stimulating, but those are mine. I never have ideas when sitting at my desk, or in the library, or when I am deliberately trying to get ideas. The process happens, mysteriously, elsewhere. In the right situation, ideas just come popping into my head from the chaotic storeroom of the subconscious.

There’s an awful lot of nonsense talked about “inspiration,” especially at writers’ conferences. We are what is in our minds. There is no mysterious treasure house of ideas waiting to bubble up into consciousness at the right moment, any more than there is a gourmet meal lurking at the back of the refrigerator if you didn’t put the ingredients in there first. What is in the brain is everything we have put there over the years, by experience and reading and reflection. That’s what we have to work with. We get out what we put in, and no more. As they used to say in the computer world, GIGO (garbage in, garbage out). You won’t write like Proust if you only read Stephen King, which I suppose is a good argument for not reading Proust. Many great writers of the past, like Melville, read almost nothing but the Bible.

If you wait to be “inspired” by an idea you may wait forever.

In theory there is no limit to the number of ideas. Georges Simenon, the French author of five hundred novels and numerous shorter works suggested in his autobiographical Notebooks that every writer has a limited lifetime stock of ideas, and must eventually run out and confront the awful choice between silence and repetition. Having written that, in the 1960s, he continued to produce new ideas and new books for twenty years until he died.

I’ll go along with Simenon. A writer has a bottomless well of ideas to draw on. If they seem to be running out it will probably pay to spend more time in the bath.

Comforting Routine

“The art of writing, like the art of love, runs all
the way from a kind of routine hard to distinguish
from piling bricks to a kind of frenzy closely related
to delirium tremens.”

H.L.Mencken

My life, like yours, is made up of routines. The day starts with NPR news on the clock radio and the serenade of hungry cats. I get to my desk at nine and work for two hours. Then I head out to the local duck pond to feed the ducks, and visit the post office, bank, supermarket and library as necessary, getting back in time for a salad lunch.

So the day goes on, and so the weeks and months go by. The details change on weekends, when I produce and host a radio music show – but that is an even more precisely timed and predictable set of tasks. On air, every second is pre-programmed.

It’s a comforting routine, and useful because it sets times for writing that, by force of long habit, I can scarcely ignore. Most writers, I suspect, have some such fixed timetable. Many famous authors were ruthless about guarding their writing time. The poet W.H.Auden would leave the dinner table at 9.30, even when he had guests, and go upstairs to write. This was “his time.” When Edith Wharton had a house full of visitors she would simply ignore them until noon every day, while she stayed in her room writing. It is the only way to get anything done.

When we travel my routine is totally disrupted, and I try to piece it together again. This struck me when we arrived at a rented villa in France one year. On the first morning after we arrived it was a sparkling sunny day, the mountains shone in the distance, and there was a pool waiting below. We had a whole new village and a new region to explore. But I caught myself plugging in the laptop at 9 a.m. At times like this you realize that your routine has become a neurosis, or a strait jacket.

It is a narrow line between routine as a useful habit and routine as a tyrant. A fixed timetable can block all kinds of delightful surprises. How many times have you said: “I can’t do that right now because….” and missed a really interesting experience because of it? Years ago a male friend of mine missed sleeping with the prettiest girl in the university because, at the moment when she happened to be available and interested in him, he was too involved in a piece of dull research. He never got a second chance, and has regretted it ever since.

One of my more neurotic routines has to do with deadlines. When I was younger and really busy they came several times a week. A talk, an essay, or a radio program script had to be produced on time, which always meant right now. My obsession was and is that writing deadlines always take precedence over everything else, just as when I was teaching class and lecture preparation took precedence over everything else.

Deadline tasks, like a class or a broadcast, are real. All other tasks seem trivial by comparison. This is a terrible habit of mind, because all kind of interesting non-deadline tasks pile up behind the deadlines, and never get done. I have files of ideas for writing projects piled up all over my study, but none of them has a deadline, except the ultimate deadline of my own mortality, which is also one that can’t be missed. None of them even gets started, let alone finished. There’s always something more immediate staring at me from the top of the pile.

Deadline-itis can be as poisonous to your work as obsessive routine. If you don’t have writing deadlines, consider the other “must do” tasks in your life, like feeding cats, or getting the car fixed. They all have the potential to block the work we really want to do, if we really want to do it. The question is: do we really want to do it?

Only Human Nature

I caught myself using the term “human nature” in an essay the other day. It was a shocking error in some ways, but I let it stand for lack of an alternative.

“Human nature” is a universal cliché. We know you can’t change it, but we also know that it is infinitely variable. Any and all unpleasant characteristics of the species are routinely dismissed as “Only human nature.”

This sort of thing drives philosophers crazy – and also sociologists, anthropologists, human biologists, psychologists, and anyone at all who has spent more than ten minutes thinking about or studying “human nature.”

Ok, I’ll drop the quotation marks, but only because they are so annoying. In ancient times nobody thought about human nature. The Greek philosophers did, as they thought about everything. For Plato human nature was a divided thing – the intellect on the one hand and the animal appetites on the other. For Aristotle human nature had a higher purpose, which is not very clear (at least to me).

The debate languished for about two thousand years, during which the church had a monopoly on the definition of human nature in the west (man was a sinful, fallen creature who could only be saved by authorized agents of the church, for a price).

This brilliant scam began to fall apart in the eighteenth century. Hobbes gave us a view of human nature as inherently vile – driven by greed and fear. Rousseau offered a different view: human nature is basically good but corrupted by Society. Locke suggested a kind of rough balance, in which human beings are rationally inclined to protect themselves and their possessions, and evolve rational systems to achieve this (e.g. liberal democracy). The modern western world has followed Locke.

Since then theories about human nature have proliferated, and this writer has neither the time nor the knowledge to chase them all down. The point is that when we talk about human nature we are always talking nonsense. Nobody has the slightest idea what it is, or whether such a thing even exists.

Yet we all have an implicit, automatic view of human nature which shines through in our writing. For some writers it’s all hatred and violence, for others it’s all love and understanding (the former group tends to have the best sales). Everything we write gives these assumptions away. Mark Twain was profoundly cynical about people, but his humor helped the medicine go down. Hemmingway was captivated by an illusion of masculinity, Virginia Woolf by an illusion of tragedy. I suppose the writers we like the best are those who share our particular view of human nature (in my case this would include Jane Austen and T.C.Boyle).

It would save us all a lot of time in the library if books could be coded according to the author’s view of human nature (“C” for cynical; “R” for romantic; “O” for optimistic; “T” for tragic, “I” for ironic, and so on). When you settle down to read in the evening it’s nice to know that you have an understanding friend for company.

Generation Gap

“As you grow old, you lose your interest in sex, your friends drift away, your children ignore you. There are many other advantages, of course, but these would seem to me to be the outstanding ones.” (Richard Needham, Toronto Globe columnist)

I was young once; I remember it distinctly. What I read and wrote then was vastly different from what I write and read now. A whole other person has taken over my brain and, unfortunately, my body. Don’t laugh – it will happen to you.

It must be January that brings this to mind – a sad, forboding month. Normally I don’t think much about age. In my head I’m about eight years old. But the dark evenings and cold mornings, bringing just a twinge or arthritis, make it harder to ignore what I like to call anno domino. (A feeble joke, but better than nothing).

For a writer, the worst thing about growing older is losing touch with the young. This can happen invisibly, as your readers age with you. It’s easier to spot the change if you are a teacher, as I was until recently. It slowly dawned on me, over a period of years, that my college age students and I were inhabiting quite different planets. Their world of music, video and teenage celebrity was a mystery to me, and my world of music, books and ideas was equally a mystery to them. The apparent collapse of the school system seems to have left them with zero knowledge of history, geography, and languages, which made it even harder for an old-fashioned teacher to bridge the gap. There’s nothing wrong with these young people. They are bright and usually interesting. But I found we were simply not communicating, which is very bad news for a teacher.

Fortunately I have long since retired from college teaching. But I continue to write, and I have an uneasy feeling that my communication skills are letting me down there also. When I pick up novels by young authors, or read their blogs, their language seems almost unintelligible to me, their preoccupations alien, and their emotional world unreadable. They have shifted into a different mode, perhaps an electronic mode. Electronics are at the center of their world. Walking through Florence last year I came upon an unusually large crowd of young people pushing through a small doorway. Was this the Massacio Museum, I wondered, or Dante’s House, or the Pitti, or the Uffizi? No, it was the Internet Café. We can’t stop progress, although I think sometimes we should try.

Well, this is nothing new. My grandmother, born in 1884, was as archaic to me as I obviously am to a modern teenager. She refused to have radio in her house because she thought the invisible waves would kill her. Without a radio she lived to be ninety-nine, so she may have had a point.

But my point is that an out of touch older writer is missing the chance to communicate with the most important people in the world – the young. It’s hard to admit this in America, because there is a sort of national pretence that we are all young forever. This is what leads so many foreigners to refer to Americans as big children. Nobody wants to turn into a curmudgeonly old person (“Too late!” I hear my friends cry).

In a very practical sense an older writer’s markets may be limited. Most magazine editors now seem to be about twenty years old, and book editors are not much older. Their outlook is not my outlook. They want to find the younger audience, not a bunch of seniors who won’t be around for long. You may remember that, a few years ago, some Hollywood studios began to bar any writers over the age of forty. The lawsuits are ongoing, but it shows the direction of the wind.

But what’s an oldie to do? Are we supposed to take up rap music and video games, so we can “relate” to the younger generations? Or are we supposed to stick with our own age group, and finally just fade gracefully away?

The General Reader

A recent biography of Beethoven was described by The New York Times reviewer as “Ideal for the general reader.”

I wondered: who is this elusive character, the general reader? He or she is obviously not identical to the “general public,” most of whom never read a book and have scarcely heard of Beethoven.

I seldom meet a general reader. All the readers I know seem very particular. There are those who read nothing but deep academic studies on a limited range of subjects, some who stick to history or biography or poetry, and others who read nothing but romances or science fiction. But there are a few, like me, who will read (or try to read) almost anything. Am I a general reader? It’s true that I did read this particular book, so I may fit the description. At first it was a slightly depressing thought.

The general reader, presumably, is someone who cannot concentrate on any one thing for long. In my long-ago schooldays this was an accusation I heard from my teachers every day. “A grasshopper mind,” was the phrase they used. Grasshoppers spend their days jumping pointlessly from place to place and making an annoying noise, so the appellation was not a compliment.

The evidence that I am a general reader is damning. A literary detective would cite the bizarre medley of books on the shelves in my study (everything from The Decline of the West to The Penguin Book of Humorous Quotations), to the even more eclectic heap of books beside my bed (thrillers, serious novels, some poetry, non-fiction books about religion and politics). The owner of this literary stew is obviously not a serious person.

Yet we are popular in the publishing world. They aim their trade list titles at us, much as politicians seek out the semi-mythical ‘swing voter.’ The result, in the end, may be rather good. The general reader may be expected to be interested in books (like Morris’s Beethoven biography) that are not highly specialized at one end of the scale, and not complete trash at the other. If we general readers make these serious but accessible books profitable, we must be doing a valuable service. Some of us try to write such books, with varying degrees of success.

Yet I can’t help thinking that the general reader is truly a creature of the nineteenth century rather than the twenty-first. The general reader needs a broad education, and above all he needs time to pick through and appreciate the vast mountain of literature. Not many people are lucky enough to have both these advantages today. We’ve become too specialized and too busy. Professional people need every spare moment just to keep up with the literature of their field.

So I have convinced myself that we general readers have a role to play. We’re not just failed intellectuals. We are the descendants of a great reading tradition. Good for us.

Commonplaces

What already seems like a lifetime ago, in a book called Writer at Work (2005 – see Books and Audio page), I suggested than one sure cure for writers’ block was always to have at least one long term project.

“Having a project can also help a writer to get going and keep going. The project can be a novel or script (although these things can be a quagmire), or simply a theme or a series. It may help to think about the kinds of things you want to write and formulate them as a long-term project – for example “all my family’s stories” or “looking back on the books that changed my life” or “the experiences and opinions of a recovering educator” – you get the idea. The great French essayist Michel de Montaigne gave this as his very best piece of advice to writers: have a project, work on it every day, and never let your mind lie fallow. It sounds more impressive in French.”

Of course I never follow my own advice. These past few weeks I found myself in a sort of existential fog. Nothing seemed worth doing, or writing about. Finally I realized that, since finishing with an essay collection and a memoir at the end of 2017, I haven’t had a real project.

Plenty of fantasy projects have drifted through my mind: writing a novel, writing some short stories, writing some huge heavy-duty serious essays for the literary magazine market. But none of these ideas had the motivating spark, so I went to the basement.

The basement is my Freudian subconscious, where I keep all the stuff I think I have forgotten. There are several filing drawers full of “ideas” – or at least files with notes and cuttings about things that interest me. One set files is for my short radio essays, a second is for my music program, and the third contains everything else. I pulled all the stuff out of the third drawer.

What I found was a heap of files – some old, some new – a full twenty-seven inches thick. I measured them. These are all ideas that I want to write about “one day.” Perhaps that day has arrived.

It was interesting but daunting to go through these papers. They contain disorganized material on every subject from the teaching of history to the belief in flying saucers, and from tourism to the curious attitudes of Americans towards sex. It is either a treasure trove or a heap of junk.

I decided to treat it as a treasure trove, and set about organizing the chaos into topics. But it was clear from the start that this explosion of ideas and prejudices was not material for a conventional book of essays. But it might be the basis for a Commonplace Book.

Who in the 21st century has heard of a Commonplace Book? They’ve been around since the 16th century, and are still regularly published under some different label. The original Commonplace Books were collections of spiritual thoughts and insights. These were commonplaces by definition. In those days any departure from orthodoxy might have very bad consequences indeed.

But, over the centuries, the term Commonplace Book took on an ironic meaning. It was still a collection of everyday observations and thoughts, but the content became more and more original, quirky, and unorthodox. In other words “commonplace” was turned on its head. The originator of this device may have been Blaise Pascal, whose Pensées (1669) are a fine example of a commonplace book that recorded the casual thoughts of an ordinary prodigy and genius.

In short, a commonplace book is an intellectual scrapbook, a collection of thoughts, opinions, and memories. One of my favorite examples is D.J.Enright’s Play Resumed. Kurt Vonnegut, in his old age, took to publishing such collections of fragments, the best of which is Man Without a Country.

There’s no doubt that I have more enough material for such a Commonplace Book, but it is hard to know where to start. For the moment I have returned all the papers to the original filing drawer to mature, like a fine wine. I still need a project, but there is no point in rushing into things.

Vanity Fair

Vanity of Vanities, saith the preacher, all is vanity.
Ecclesiastes

A lot of writers are shy. We are self-selected for shyness. Politicians, actors, and pop singers become what they are because they adore the limelight, but writers have chosen a solitary occupation. Most of us spend virtually all our working time alone, and that’s the way we like it.

But I suspect that, under a veneer of modesty, a raving egotist is struggling to get out. After all the mere act of writing, and the expectation that someone will read it, and even pay for it, can only be explained by extreme vanity.

I like to think of myself as a modest and even a shy person. What set me thinking about vanity was time spent in the basement, still clearing up the debris of a house move we made years ago. The basement always promotes philosophical reflection. It’s like the Freudian subconscious, where we hide all the things we don’t want to think about right now. Clearing the basement is a form of psychotherapy and, like any course of psychotherapy it may tell you things about yourself that you would rather not know.

What I uncovered on this expedition was a ridiculous accumulation of personal records. If I’m so modest, why do I have diaries going back to the 1950s, photographs going back to childhood, and copies of just about every letter I ever wrote or received? Why do I have several big files filled with letters of appreciation from readers, listeners and event organizers? I never keep the bad ones! There are filing cabinets filled with everything I ever wrote, including the most trivial trivia.

I have always claimed that I have no interest in writing about my own life or family, because they have been and are pretty boring. But I have actually written two memoirs, which are a kind of distillation and dramatization of the stuff in the basement. It can be nothing but vanity – an unfounded belief that my life is much more important and worth preserving than it really is.

In recent years vanity has been re-labeled as “self-esteem,” and given a more positive image. Some American children are puffed up with self-esteem like so many hydrogen balloons, so they get a real shock when they hit the cruel world outside the family. I’ve encountered college-age students who have a marvelous opinion of themselves, even though the only skills they seem to have mastered in eighteen years are sex and the operation of a smart phone.

This is obviously nothing new. In John Bunyan’s inspirational story The Pilgrim’s Progress, which first hit the bestseller lists in 1678, he tells of a town called Vanity in which self-esteem was the major industry. In Vanity, every kind of honor, title, position, pleasure and flattering self-image could be bought, at a great market, run by Beelzebub. Naturally, the place was a bigger success than The Mall of America. Everybody went to Vanity.

In the 1840s William Makepeace Thackeray used Bunyan’s fantasy to satirize the narcissism of the human race in a wonderfully entertaining novel called Vanity Fair. Now we are in the twenty-first century, and human nature still hasn’t changed. There is a glossy magazine that – in a spirit of irony or ignorance – is actually called Vanity Fair. The contents certainly live up to the title: three hundred pages of pure narcissism and self-delusion.

But back to the main point. If writers are vain by definition – if egotism is part of our job description – we just have to embrace it. Writing tends to separate us from the rest of society, but our vanity reminds us that we are exactly like everybody else.

New York, New York

Manhattan is less than fifty miles from where I live, but I go there less and less. The other day I made the trip for the first time in months, taking the Long Island Railroad train that millions of commuters love to hate.

The underground caverns of Pennsylvania Station were like a scene from a disaster movie, as usual, and I almost rushed for the street. I always take pleasure in climbing the two-dozen steps out of the station. It makes me feel good to walk up this broad, almost empty staircase, while hundreds of my fellow travelers cram on to a single narrow escalator that climbs even more slowly than I do. This stair climbing activity may be genetic in origin. My mother, at 103, became the oldest inhabitant of her retirement home, and she loved the fact that she was also the only one who could climb the stairs without help.

I always forget the impact of New York. The street outside the station hits you like an explosion. Vendors shout, the traffic roars, sirens wail constantly like a kind of ambient tinnitus, and great masses of people are walking hurriedly in all directions as if their lives depended on getting somewhere right now. For those of us who live in the suburbs it is quite a novelty to see people walking at any speed. Out here we just flop into our cars and flop out again whenever we see a supermarket.

The walkers of New York claim my entire attention – the women of course. Who cares about the men? New York has more beautiful women than any other place I’ve seen in the world. I’m not forgetting Paris and Milan. Midtown Manhattan is a cornucopia of thin, lovely women of all ages. They divide roughly into two types: those who dress with great elegance and those who (in summer) scarcely dress at all. It’s almost too much for a man of my age.

Manhattan has a million other temptations: bookstores, theaters, restaurants, bars, and stores selling mountains of clothes that are made in India for a few dollars and that reappear on the Upper East Side with price tags in the hundreds. This is the city that globalization built, and you can see it on the streets. Breasting the crowds on Fifth Avenue, like a swimmer forcing my way through heavy waves, I must have seen representatives of every nationality in the world in half an hour, from Muslim women in the full Burqa, ultra-orthodox Jews, Africans, Asians, and the whole Babel of races. It made me dizzy, and I popped into a bar where a stunning black waitress with long ringlets, a girl out of a fantasy dream, made me dizzier still.

New York is not a place for the faint of heart. Writers flock here for the history and the atmosphere, and hang out in the bar of the Algonquin Hotel hoping to meet the literary celebrities who (in theory) should be thick on the ground. I know several writers who claim that they could never live anywhere else, because it is so stimulating.

But it would be too stimulating for me. If I lived there my whole attention would be absorbed by the manic rhythms of the city. If I’m going to write at all I need to be in the half-dead wastelands of suburbia, where nothing ever happens. That’s my place.

When the train had crawled back to my home station and pulled away, and when the crossing gates had stopped clanging and flashing, there was a moment of blessed quiet. I actually heard a bird singing, and I walked home on completely empty streets. Once again I can, as the saying goes, “Hear myself think.” It may not be metropolitan and sophisticated, but here I can write.

An Existential Moment

“An intellectual is someone whose mind watches itself.”
Albert Camus

You often see someone who seems to be in a daze, staring into space. The someone may be yourself. It’s a cliché of abstraction, a formulaic Hollywood pose that is supposed to indicate: “My mind is elsewhere, I am detached from the here and now, I am in another place.”

This is usually nonsense. The apparent dreamer (yourself?) MAY be lost in thought. But it’s more likely that s/he is having an existential experience, very much in the here and now.

The other day I was waiting for a train, and idly watching a young Asian woman whose gaze was intently fixed on the station platform. She forced me to look at the platform too, which was a perfectly ordinary slab of filthy concrete covered in squashed chewing gum, and to remember all the other platforms, sidewalks, stairs, floors and parking lots I have gazed at in my lifetime.

Any object is a distorting mirror. It beams your own uneasy memories right back to you. A dirty station platform, like Proust’s infamous Madeleine, recalls all the dirty station platforms you have ever seen. And that in turn recalls all the thoughts you have ever had while gazing at a dirty station platform.

I remember the platform where I waited for the commuter train that took me to London every day in the early 1960s, and thinking: Is this all there is? Will I be standing on this wretched platform every morning forever? I remember the platforms at the Gare du Nord in Paris that were at the beginning and the end of some romantic and unromantic journeys, and a windswept platform in Amsterdam where I waited for a military transport train, and other platforms in Milan and Rome that stuck in my mind for some reason. I remember very vividly standing on the platform at Pennsylvania Station in New York, when I started commuting again in the 1980s, and thinking: Is this all there is? Will I be standing on this wretched platform every evening forever?

There’s a whole lifetime history of moments on those platforms, which were all different yet all the same – all in a way continuous as if I can walk mentally from one to another to another, right to the spot where I saw the young Asian woman yesterday. They are, in some sense, a single long platform, united by the fact that I have stared at them.

The world is indeed flat, and all connected. My local station platform is no less alien and no less disgusting than one I stood on in Calcutta. The same anonymous feet walk on all and both, going nowhere.

If you don’t have these kinds of thoughts, be thankful. I blame them on early exposure to the literary existentialists, especially Camus, Sartre, Barbusse, and Hesse. They forced me to look at the surfaces below the everyday surface, and to find extraordinary meanings in ordinary things. I think it was in The Outsider by Albert Camus (1946) that the narrator Meursault fixes his eyes on a pair of dirty braces (suspenders) worn by a café proprietor, and finds nothing in them but sheer horror. I wanted to quote the passage, but my copy of the book has vanished – somebody please correct me if I have mistaken the source.

The bottom line is that every object becomes a puzzle and a potential threat – and a potential subject. I’ve written essays about sticks picked up in the woods, dead fireworks, jars of rusty nails, writing implements, and many other everyday things. They all seem (to me) much more meaningful than they appear.

Nobody ever writes to me about these essays, or comments on them Perhaps they are too commonplace, or too peculiar. But no doubt I will keep on writing them, and blaming them on Albert Camus.

Cassandra

My parents read a London newspaper called the Daily Mirror. This was an embarrassment, because the Mirror was a tabloid and not a quality paper. It was full of bathing beauties, murder stories and sports reports, and featured huge, shouting headlines. As a snobbish teenager I refused to read it, except for one columnist who went under the nom de plume “Cassandra.” His real name was William Neil Connor.

Cassandra was an attack columnist. He said all the things that should not be said, and told all the truths that nobody wanted to hear. But he was always on the side of truth and justice, and I took him as a kind of role model. Later in life when I started writing newspaper columns myself the ghost of Cassandra was always in the back of my mind.

Somewhere along the way, but much too late, I looked up the name Cassandra. My sketchy classical education had failed to teach me that she was a Trojan princess who was punished by the god Apollo for refusing his advances. He put an unusual curse on the poor woman. She was doomed to become a prophetess whose prophecies would always be true, but would never be believed.

So it seems that I myself had been doomed without knowing it. My early fascination with that column in the Daily Mirror must have warped my brain, and I have spent half a century churning out prophecies that are always true, but never believed. I can’t quite decide whether this is funny, or tragic.