By A.M. Homes '85
Must-read writing by Sarah Lawrence alumnae/i, faculty and students. This issue: A new essay by fiction-writer A.M. Homes ’85 that brings our look at creativity back to where it all starts: with the creator.
When I say I am a writer, the question most often asked is—whom do you write for? Those asking seem to be thinking magazine, newspaper, back of the cereal box. It doesn’t occur to them that among us lurk men and women who work from the imagination, who call castle-building, wool-gathering, ruminative reverie a day’s work. That said, whom do we write for: agent, editor, critic, you the reader or—perhaps even better yet—the mysterious and mythical muse?
We write because we are compelled to write—we have no choice. If we don’t write, we feel ill: Flu-like symptoms appear within hours and can progress to a dangerous creeping paralysis—writer’s block.
Writing is an attempt to make contact. Not only do we write to relieve ourselves of some invisible pressure, we write to be known—not in the People magazine sense of the word, but rather profoundly understood. The contradiction is that to do this we withdraw, we spend years alone typing, we go inside ourselves in order to write our way out. Dredging out souls, we offer ourselves up, each time peeling the layers back further and further. A writer friend jokes that when she writes a book, she exposes herself as much as possible and then passes the finished product around like amateur porno photographs asking, “What do you think of me this time?”
To be able to call fiction writing one’s work is to have the best job in the world. One is able to crawl through a series of subjects as journalist, scientist, actor, psychologist, ventriloquist. To travel through time and pull from the ether that which never was, to create out of type characters that are believable, to use language to move, transport, titillate, inspire, entertain, is to be like a mental magician—all that while wearing pajamas and not brushing our hair. The page is generous, it is forgiving, it is blank. Like the analyst’s couch—it accepts, it listens.
How does one write? The creative process was brilliantly described by turn-of-the-century mathematician and philosopher Henri Poincaré as having four stages: a period of hard/fruitless labor, an incubation period during which the unconscious mind gets to work, a moment of illumination or inspiration in which the new/original work is done, and a process of verification (more exacting in mathematics than literature.)
Books are no longer published—they are launched. And like great ships of long ago, they are sent off by nervous civilians who stand on shore watching—waving to the captain/author—waiting to see if they will either float or take on water, sinking immemorably to the bottom of the remainder bin.
And while talent can’t be taught, creativity can be inspired. The classic Greek definition of a muse is a female of divine proportion, whose sole purpose is to inspire great art in a man. The modern writer creates for that most perfect person, the ideal reader, the person who always understands you, knows you more deeply than you know yourself - in essence, we write for the dog. There are people who pass through our lives, people we fall in love with, who ignite us to be the better versions of ourselves, ones who make us smarter, funnier, more creative. Though at best it might be considered an unhealthy or co-dependent relationship, we write to get the muse's attention - to win the muse and hopefully the Pulitzer Prize. Writing is a romance, a seduction; the author creates tension to lure the reader in, testing the reader to see how far her or she is willing to go, what the limits of believability are, what the limits of the writer's powers are.
In addition to personal muses, there are industry muses; I’ve often had incredibly illuminating talks with my agent before and during the writing of a book—conversations which cracked the subject matter open, which had me scribbling on tablecloths desperate to document the moment of epiphany. And then there is the editor: As a child I read numerous biographies which charted the relationships of authors to various Maxwell Perkins types—father figures who would make a loan, send an author off for a year abroad, evidence concern for the writer’s well-being, who didn’t sweat the due date, the advance already paid, etc.
There are still plenty of wonderful editors, but their job has shifted from artistic hand-holding to the trafficking of the manuscript through the production process. And while many remain lovers of craft, appreciative of the finely honed sentence and the play of language, today’s author, much like a can of soup, needs to be established as a brand, a marketable entity. Books are no longer published—they are launched. And like great ships of long ago, they are sent off by nervous civilians who stand on shore watching—waving to the captain/author—waiting to see if they will either float or take on water, sinking immemorably to the bottom of the remainder bin.
That said, unfortunately the writer/muse relationship is also not what it used to be. I recently e-mailed my muse, asking if she’d like to sign up again for a new book. She said yes. I wrote back saying that before I could agree to take her on again, we’d have to discuss the fee—it needed to increase. There seemed to be some confusion. I thought she should be paying me for the privilege of being my muse and conversely she thought she should be paid for her musing. Needless to say, work on my new book has stalled, pending resolution of the Muse issue. (Just kidding!)
A.M. Homes ’85 is the author of, most recently, the collection of short stories Things You Should Know (HarperCollins).