My third semester in MFA began last week and boy are my arms tired.
In his excellent memoir of craft, On Writing, Stephen King says:
You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair–the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.
I had the concept of Absolute Truth beaten out of me by my undergraduate work in comparative literature. We read Plato and then ripped him apart. We supplicated at the feet of Derrida and Lacan, embraced Nietzsche, rejected hegemonic narratives of history and humanity. If you’ve never read Plato, Derrida, Lacan, or Nietzsche and if you don’t know what the hell the word hegemonic means, suffice it to say I was taught to furiously question Authority and to reject the idea that there is any one dominant Truth. I looked at literature and the world as a celebration of murkiness.
And that idea of everything being all muddled up together is a sound one for a writer. Who would Gatsby be without his green light? How would we ever come to love Elizabeth Bennett if she didn’t also have her faults? Strong characters are complicated characters and didactic novels that wrap everything up in neat little suppositories are no good at all.
I believe that art should leave us with more questions than answers. I engage with art as if it were a conversation, not a lecture. Art should say something but leave me room to say something back.
Sometimes it’s like an argument. Other times it’s like drinking beer with a group of friends while casually picking apart the universe. And some of the best times are when it’s like sneaking out of the house under a blood moon, wandering down to the beach, and sitting with a water bottle of wine, communing with myself in that deep, witching hour way.
And here is a surprising thing: I also believe great art gets at some Truth of the human condition.
How have I gotten to this space, where a rejection of Truth and the necessary condition of Truth collide? Can they exist simultaneously?
One of my mentors in undergrad, when teaching the difference between quiddity (the whatness of something, e.g. the chairness of a chair) and haecceity (the uniqueness of something, e.g. the thatness of that chair) would sometimes bring up sex. An orgasm is an orgasm no matter who is experiencing it. But particular orgasms are beyond description and classification, are wholly unique to time and person. This, of course, is the basis of not only our ability to tell stories but to our ability to communicate through signs and symbols at all (through words, through sign language, even through images). We ignore the haecceity of experiences in favor of their quiddity in order to talk about them.
So the Truth of the human condition is the quiddity of humanness.
And allow me to take this extremely academic and jargon-heavy discussion a little bit further, if you will. I believe that when a writer pushes the limits of the haecceity, the singularity, the uniqueness of an experience, that’s when the writer hits us with Truth. It’s the difference between cliches (which have their place, to be sure) and those weirdly specific details that make you go “yes, yes I know this.” I believe we most recognize ourselves not in the generality of characters but in their idiosyncrasies and strangeness. We recognize our world not through the most abstract descriptions but in the specific. And emotion speaks to us when it is true and precise.
I think, in the quote I began with, that King is really asking us to come to the page with honesty. Making art is a little like having sex for the first time. Whether it’s angry, loving, passionate, gentle, furious, it must be done without all your clothes on. It takes a degree of trust and vulnerability.
So there’s my thoughts for the week. Write openly, be honest, because your job is to speak to the human heart. You’re dealing with Truth, here. Take it anything but lightly.