Monday, May 23, 2011

Excommunication

It's one of those mornings. As always, my alarm wakes me a 5:48, which gives me twelve minutes to shake the sleep out of my body, drink two glasses of water, make a cup of coffee, and sit down in front of what Henry Miller called "the machine" to write. As usual, I know what I'm supposed to write about because I have decided on a topic before going to bed. But sometimes, the words just don't come. So I quickly changed my title to "ignorance", thinking I could at least write about that, and then, when nothing came, I thought of that line from part three of Miller's Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch called "Paradise Lost" (also published as a separate novella under the title A Devil in Paradise):

"It was too wonderful a morning to surrender myself to the machine." (354)

If you're up now, at 6:26 on the twenty-third of May, 2011, in Copenhagen, you will know it is indeed a beautiful morning. But that is no excuse not to excercise your prose (if that's what your plan lays out, what your discipline requires.) But what do you do when nothing comes?

Let me admit that I've been feeling a bit sorry for myself these last few weeks. My life has been quite hectic; too many "projects", not enough time to reflect, and not enough time to write seriously about serious things.

There is a great passage in Big Sur, where Miller describes his relationship to his muse:

That voice! It was while writing the Tropic of Capricorn (in the Villa Seurat) that the real shenanigans took place. My life being rather hectic then—I was living on six levels at once—there would come dry spells lasting for weeks some times. They didn't bother me, these lulls, because I had a firm grip on the book and an inner certainty that nothing could scotch it. One day, for no accountable reason, unless it was an overdose of riotous living, the dictation commenced. Overjoyed, and also more wary this time (especially about making notes), I would go straight to the black desk which a friend had made for me, and, plugging in all the wires, together with amplifier and callbox, I would yell: "Je t'├ęcoute ... Vas-y!" (I'm listening ... go to it!)

(An aside: I have always loved that image of Miller sitting in front of typwriter "wired" into some cosmic callbox shouting for his muse to have at it.)

And how it would come! I didn't have to think up so much as a comma or a semicolon; it was all given, straight from the celestial recording room. Weary, I would beg for a break, an intermission, time enough, let's say, to go to the toilet or take a breath of fresh air on the balcony. Nothing doing! I had to take it in one fell swoop or risk the penalty: excommunication. The most that was permitted me was the time it took to swallow an aspirin. The john could wait, "it" seemed to think. So could lunch, dinner, or whatever it was I thought was so necessary or important. (128-9)

There are two things to remember. First, Miller is a novelist and a particularly romantic breed of novelist at that. Second, he is here constructing an image of himself as a writer, which we must always approach with caution. Miller is no role model for us as academic writers. But he is useful to us because he here articulates a romance that I'm sure all academic writers (myself included) sometimes indulge in, namely, the need for "inspiration"—especially, the need to wait for inspiration. And then the need to set aside trivial things like eating and, yes, going to the bathroom, in order to listen to that message from "the celestial recording room". To ignore the inspiration (to merely note it down in that little book we carry with us) would be to risk, we tell ourselves, "excommunication".

It is important to keep in mind that, even among novelists, there are less romantic images of inspiration. The most relevant here is probably Stephen King's. Yes, he grants, you need inspiration (at least at times) to write a novel, but your muse has to know where to find you. You don't go for weeks living (as Miller puts it) "riotously" and call this a "dry spell" of inspiration. Rather, no matter how beautiful the morning is, you sit down, in the same place at the same time every day, in front the machine and actually suffer through it. Have faith that the muse will strike one of these days.

For academic writers, especially, the risk of excommunication does not come from holding the muse at a distance when "the dictation commences" because, in an important sense, there is no dictation. That's not how an academic text gets written. You build them claim for claim, paragraph for paragraph. You risk being excommuicated from the source of your ideas only by breaking your discipline. By not writing though you have planned to write. And even (as I did this morning) by writing about something other than I had planned to write about. It couldn't be helped. It really is a wonderful morning.

12 comments:

Andrew Shields said...

I had a wonderful ride along the Rhine on the way to work, so I agree: it is a wonderful morning.

Thomas said...

It's always nice to be reminded that a morning, like the weather it contains, is a big thing, that it covers a large area. "Like a cloud," writes Tony Tost, "I was meant to serve a large population." We're all in this together!

Presskorn said...

I saw the Danish documentary on David Lynch yesterday. You would imagine that Lynch, with his whole transcendental meditation-thing, was into the "the celestial recording room"-theory of creativity, but actually he emphasizes doing and regular practice in creating:

"If you're not into doing, do something else."

When he said that I immediately thought of RSL. I suppose it echoes your favourite Yoda-quote. Do or do not...

Andrew Shields said...

Presskorn's comment reminds me of your point about Woody Allen as a role model: regular productivity; let others worry about brilliance.

*

I like the contrast between Miller and King here, between the supposedly "high" and the supposedly "low." And the implication that, in a certain way, King is really more of a writer than Miller was, because Miller was doing so many other things as well.

Thomas said...

Yes, there's always that troubling proximity of my ideas to the "practical zen" of New Age thinking. I'm actually quite unresolved about it these days. (Miller, for example, is quite new-agey, especially in his Big Sur book. It's pleasant company, but it isn't really my style.)

Thomas said...

@Andrew: Miller is often considered more of seer or visionary than a writer. That's certainly also the ethos he's cultivating here. A kind of mysticism. Not recommended for academic writers.

Andrew Shields said...

Is there some Pirsig floating around in your thinking? Quality as a result of discipline?

Thomas said...

Yes, very likely. Although it's one of those things I'm a bit embarrassed about. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a very flawed book, very much "of its time" and no longer very much "of ours". I like your summary of its message, and its flaws lie mainly in the many opportunties it offers for much more sublime interpretations that, ultimately, undermine us as writers. Most distressing is the equation of madness and genius, and the romantization of the struggle against "academic" "categories".

Jonathan said...

8 comments, and none from me yet; that is surprising.

The true struggle is not with the muse but with the duende. I hate it when people make zen or the duende into an undisciplined kind of thing, when they are the the opposite.

Thomas said...

Yes, it's like facile images of jazz "improvisation". But, still, what about that Miller passage? Is it a misunderstanding of the struggle?

Jonathan said...

I think passages like the Miller one are misleading to writers. You get sucked into that mentality and might make things much more difficult for yourself. Most novelists just pragmatically make a writing schedule and stick to it, just like academic writers.

Thomas said...

agreed.