I like reading writers’ memoirs and their books on writing. I especially love a window into their creative process.
Since I first saw it, I have been gripped by this description from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird:
Often when you sit down to write, what you have in mind is an autobiographical novel about your childhood, or a play about the immigrant experience, or a history of—oh, say—say women. But this is like trying to scale a glacier. It’s hard to get your footing, and your fingertips get all red and frozen and torn up. Then your mental illnesses arrive at the desk like your sickest, most secretive relatives. And they pull up chairs in a semicircle around the computer, and they try to be quiet but you know they are there with their weird coppery breath, leering at you behind your back.
The sickest relatives with their coppery breath? Spellbinding. Amazing. I never, never, never would have said it this way, but yes, this is what is happening. How on earth did she create these images? This passage reaches right through me and touches my soul. Wow.
For other writers, my fascination lies in how different their experience is from mine. For Elizabeth Gilbert (in Big Magic), it seems creative production does not involve her mental illnesses pulling up a seat:
A creative life is an amplified life. It’s a bigger life, a happier life, an expanded life, and a hell of a lot more interesting life. Living in this manner—continually and stubbornly bringing forth the jewels that are hidden within you—is a fine art, in and of itself.
Elsewhere on this blog, I share Ann Patchett’s description of her writing process. Again, this is not my experience, but it is a beautiful explanation that I love to ponder:
I make up a novel in my head…the book makes a breeze around my head like an oversized butterfly whose wings were cut from the rose window in Notre Dame. When I can’t think of another stall, . . . I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. . . . I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. . . . [I]t’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page. . . . Dead. That’s my book. . . . People think I’m being charmingly self-deprecating, when really it is the closest thing to the truth about my writing process that I know. Only a few of us are going to be willing to break our own hearts by trading in the living beauty of imagination for the stark disappointment of words.
And recently, I read Richard Russo’s The Destiny Thief. He gives a plainspoken description of his resignation and exasperation. I do relate to this, the commitment to persist:
Fuck it. If the person I was wasn’t good enough, fine. If I harbored a basic design flaw…that disqualified me from being a good writer, as lack of speed and athleticism will disqualify you from being the Yankees’ center fielder, then so be it. But dear God I was tired of running away, tired of apologizing, tired of trying to figure out what editors and other people wanted…. It’s tempting to say, in hindsight, that I was beginning to understand that self-consciousness is the enemy of art, but in truth I was just tired of always getting in my own way.
Coppery breath, jewels, butterflies, Yankees. Back at it.
I think the best autobiographical writing gives shape, context and meaning to what might have seemed like random details of a life. A small moment is remembered and understood as a personal but universal truth. I’m troubled by the idea that writing kills the butterfly. Doesn’t writing allow us to see the butterfly as more than a large, fluttering insect?
I also did NOT like the idea of the butterfly being smashed. But that’s her truth. She gets her truth. We get ours.