One of the common themes I have written about here is our culture’s insistence that stories have a happy end. In the first post I wrote on the subject, The Happy End vs. The Noble End, I used the example of Brokeback Mountain as one of the few examples of a popular story with a tragic ending.
Heath Ledger’s taciturn character Ennis Del Mar never does reveal the great love of his life to anyone. Only he and the audience know what happened between him and Jack Twist and what it meant to him. A character like Ennis Del Mar is a stand in for all of the people whose struggles we will never know.
Brokeback Mountain illustrates something important about tragedies. They usually have a third main character– the society that surrounds the characters. If Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist had ridden into the sunset together, it might have made us happier as an audience. Everyone could leave the theater reassured that there may have been problems along the way but in the end, people get what they deserve in life. It would not have been a powerful story that made us ask questions about society. Sometimes only tragedy can make that point.
The author of the original short story on which the film was based, Annie Proulx, agrees. She recently told the Paris Review that she is so frustrated with people trying to rewrite the story with a happy end that she wishes she had never written the story.
[T]he problem has come since the film. So many people have completely misunderstood the story. I think it’s important to leave spaces in a story for readers to fill in from their own experience, but unfortunately the audience that “Brokeback” reached most strongly have powerful fantasy lives. And one of the reasons we keep the gates locked here is that a lot of men have decided that the story should have had a happy ending. They can’t bear the way it ends — they just can’t stand it. So they rewrite the story, including all kinds of boyfriends and new lovers and so forth after Jack is killed. And it just drives me wild.
They can’t understand that the story isn’t about Jack and Ennis. It’s about homophobia; it’s about a social situation; it’s about a place and a particular mindset and morality. They just don’t get it. I can’t tell you how many of these things have been sent to me as though they’re expecting me to say, Oh great, if only I’d had the sense to write it that way.
A fair-minded person reading the personal parts of De Profundis naturally wonders what the other guy has to say about it all. Lord Alfred Douglas, it turns out, had a lot to say. He wrote a series of autobiographical works that all, in one way or another, responded to De Profundis. He also engaged in a heated battle with Wilde’s literary executor Robert Ross over ownership and interpretation of the document. After reading Douglas’s account of the feud with Ross, a fair-minded person has to wonder, once again, what the other guy has to say about it. So I read biographies of Ross.
Some time ago, probably after the release of my second novel, I wrote a post called Published Writers in Pain about the phenomenon of post-publication depression. Today I came across another quote on the subject from a 1985 Washington Post interview with John Fowles.
After you finish [writing a book], you are intensely depressed. It doesn’t much matter whether the reviews are good or not. You feel empty, a field lying fallow, and you must let it stay fallow for a while. You love a book when it’s being written. You are so close to it. You’re the only person who knows it and it’s still full of potential. You know you can improve it. Then, suddenly, there’s the dreadful day when you have the printed proof texts. You get a feeling of ‘That’s it. This is the final thing and I shan’t have the chance to change it.’ It’s a feeling of death, really.
If you don’t already, I recommend following Lit Hub. Today they featured an interview with Dani Shapiro in which the author muses on whether or not she would have written her memoir if she’d had the instant gratification of social media at the time.
Most interesting to me was her theory on the origin of powerful writing:
Dani Shapiro: “Adrienne Rich once said that it is that which is under the pressure of concealment that explodes into poetry. So if you’re on Twitter and Facebook and sharing there, there’s no pressure of concealment. And I think good memoir comes out of that place, it comes out of it can’t be said, it can’t be said, it can’t be said, so now I want to try to say it.”
Adrienne Rich’s observation struck me as another version of Oscar Wilde’s famous aphorism “Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth.”
Does the pressure of concealment fuel all art? Probably not, but it can be a powerful engine.
“Make some sacrifice for your art and you will be repaid but ask of art to sacrifice herself for you and a bitter disappointment may come to you.”-Oscar Wilde
Wilde wrote this to an aspiring author in a letter discovered in 2013. Like a lot of Wilde’s observations, I suspect this one is more artistic than true. It contains, I notice, a rare Wildean hedge “disappointment may come to you” rather than “will come to you.” That disappointment will come if you ask art to sacrifice herself for you is not the part that I doubt. It is the assertion that if you make some sacrifice for your art you will be repaid. On this, interestingly, Wilde does not hedge.
Yet there is no guarantee that your artistic efforts will be rewarded in any meaningful way. Make some sacrifice for your art and your art will be created. That is the only real promise you can make about art.
I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit as I have finally delivered the last corrections on Oscar’s Ghost, a book that I worked harder on than anything I have ever written, and which will be released by Amberely Publishing in August. I would like to believe that Oscar was right and the effort will have been worth it. I guess we will soon find out.
As a professional writer, I am exposed to more than my fair share of literary journals, blogs and writers writing about writing. There is one common refrain that I find bothers me more and more as I continue in this profession. It is the idealization of “writer” as an identity. I encountered it today in the comments on Jaime Clark’s article on Literary Hub “Why I Quit Being a Writer.” Clark wrote about what he calls the “dissipation of (his) literary ambition.” Clark no longer feels driven to write novels, although apparently still feels driven enough to write an article or two.
When I was in college, I majored in theater, and had the notion that I was to be an actress. My drive for that career dissipated to the point that my current, introverted, self can’t imagine wanting to go on stage. What was once a drive is now the memory of a drive. People’s goals do change. There were a number of commenters, however, who replied with variants on “once a writer, always a writer.” “You are a writer whether you have anything to say or not.”
Well, no. Not really.
There are aspects of this point of view that are true. There are people who have an aptitude and desire to write and who will prioritize that above common sense things like earning a living wage. Sometimes a writer finds herself in a dry spell or in one of the almost constant career crises and needs a bit of encouragement to continue. What annoys me about the rhetoric of the writer as a (glorified) type of being is that it obscures the most important thing that a professional writer does– work. If you are a “writer” whether you write or not then what exactly does being a writer mean?
Years ago, I had what was to me an epiphany. After reading all of those books about finding your muse, books which called themselves guides to “creativity,” it dawned on me that the main aspect of the word “creativity” is “creation.” It is not “idea having” or “inspiration.” Those are part of the process, as are fallow periods, and churning out material that may not ever be used in its initial form. But to be creative is to create. Creating a literary work, whether a poem or a novel or a biography, is much more than being a special kind of person who has an artistic temperament and great ideas. It means revising. It means editing. It means being open to criticism. It means seeing the work through to publication. It means, in short, doing the work.
There are two problems I see with the blurring of creativity and inspiration and the notion of the writer as a personality type. The first is that it persuades a lot of people that their rough drafts and diaries do not need to be changed at all to be considered art. The second is that it devalues the work that professional writers do by making it somehow equivalent to those rough drafts and diaries. No wonder no one wants to pay those noble creatures who go about naturally churning out sonnets.
The book on Gill had been my first full-length biography. I began it in a state of naivety, imagining my only loyalty lay with Gill himself and the truth relating to the bizarre contradictions of this single human life. What I had not been prepared for was the fact that in searching out the truth, especially the truth of a near contemporary, you impinge on other interconnected lives as well, stirring emotions, resurrecting memories. In the dangerous complexities of writing a biography, the book on Gill was my baptism of fire.-Fiona MacCarthy, The Guardian