We’ve all heard someone say that the right book appears at the right time. That sounds mystical, as if there were a benevolent deity planning every detail our lives, which I think the Holocaust disproves. But it may be that the Taoist notion of simply paying attention to the universe, and let’s say ‘using the current’ (rather than the horrible cliché ‘going with the flow’) comes closer to what happens. In any case, I was very low, partly because I couldn’t write—at least I wasn’t writing anything worth a damn. Then by happenstance I came across Carol Bly’s Beyond the Workshop, a book I’ve owned for years, I believe, but had never read. And lo, it was exactly the book I needed.
I should say first that it purports to be a book for creative nonfiction writers, but almost everything Bly says applies to fiction too (and I daresay poetry as well.) I should add that it appears to be intended mainly for teachers of creative writing, which I used to be, but although I see how useful it would be for anyone who teaches, it’s also valuable for someone who simply writes, particularly if they are stuck or re-evaluating, as I was.
Bly is not afraid to give her own very strong opinions. She criticises many writing teachers for being lazy, or simply unskilled—she doesn’t blame most of them for that, if they’ve been given assistantships before they’re ready—and she argues that most American students are badly under-read, and too committed to being pleasant and neutral in the classroom. She also disapproves of peer responses. However, her main arguments are that writing has an ethical dimension, i.e. that the best writers are working not merely to describe the world, but to change it, to make people more aware of the injustices and cruelties and plain stupidities of human behaviour. She thinks that craft is over-emphasized in most writing workshops, and content is under-valued. She thinks that there is an important part of the writing process that is usually neglected, the middle part between inspiration (and composition of the first draft) and revision (the completion of the final one.) That middle part involves a deep psychological enquiry by the writer into herself or himself, to make sure that their deepest concerns have really been addressed.
Such a short summary doesn’t do her ideas justice, of course, but I found this liberating. I realised I had been looking for a story, as if one might descend upon me out of the air, like some archangel with his annunciation, whereas what I needed to do was focus more clearly on my philosophy (which, Bly thinks, all writers should have.) That’s not to say, as I understand it, that your story should be didactic, a kind of essay in fancy dress; but that the story should grow organically (and indeed subconsciously) out of one’s philosophical and ethical concerns. In other words, the best stories come not out of the shimmering world of sensory images, but out of our inner worlds. Bly discusses developmental psychology, which she is knowledgeable about, relating it to ideas about how writers develop by authors like Schiller and Orwell. According to this theory, many people, and some writers, are stuck in stage one, which is driven by practical and physical desires: for good food, drink, comfort, sex, and so on. A great deal of junk culture—most of Hollywood, it seems to me—is frozen at this stage. The characters are driven by greed, lust, revenge: primitive instincts. Obviously thoughtful art can be made out of this, but Hollywood mostly prefers to keep things superficial. Next comes the aesthetic stage, and many writers, including very successful and skilful ones (she mentions Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and Borges) do not go beyond this. They reject the idea that writing might have a political or ethical dimension. The final stage is awareness of the suffering of others and the desire to alleviate it, to protest and to rectify.
Just a few weeks ago I moderated a panel on politics and the short story at the International Short Story Conference in Lisbon—and yet, despite my conscious espousal of the idea that all writing must have this dimension, I believe that after getting home, I fell into an earlier, one might almost say an atavistic stage, the physical and practical stage. So strong is our culture of hedonism and mindless materialism that it is easy to revert to a childish, feckless mode of storytelling, one designed merely to pass the time, to amuse and to reassure. (By the way, neither Bly nor I am against genuine humour. What I deplore is the silly kind, which is also often cruel—as in those detestable Adam Sandler movies, for example.)
Not everyone will like Bly’s book—she is too forthright, in an age that likes its truths to be sugar-coated—but it is a truly humanistic one, in that she thinks people come to writing classes and retreats not necessarily to learn how to write, but in protest against the junk culture, because they are hoping to find meaning in their lives. And she finds that a brave and noble aim. So do I. In a world in which philosophy as a formal discipline is hardly studied any more, perhaps the writing class is one of the last refuges of philosophical thought, and writing may be the best way people not trained as philosophers have to find out what they think and develop a coherent philosophy of life. In short, know thyself, and then change the world. Not a bad aim.
A good story or novel isn’t just beautiful: it makes meaning.
You learn what you think and believe as you write, provided you go deep enough.
Now all I have to do is put into practice.