Thursday, October 4, 2012

Not Insane Enough

Per Mark Helprin, in the Wall Street Journal:

Should you be insane enough to want to make a living in this cultural climate by writing fiction that is neither politicized, confessional, nihilistic, sexualized, sensationalist, nor crafted with the vocabulary and syntax of Dick and Jane, here are some suggestions.

I am NOT insane enough, but his next paragraph stings:

Never write in a café, especially in Europe. Ever since Hemingway, this has been the literary equivalent of what in mountain climbing is called the "tech weenie" (that is, someone who cannot get a foot off the ground but is weighed down with $10,000's worth of equipment). Literary skill, much less greatness, cannot be had with a pose, and exhibitionism extorts the price of failure. Also, have pity on the weary Parisians who have wanted only a citron pressé but have been unable to find a café where every single seat is not occupied by an American publicly carrying on a torrid affair with his moleskin.

I don't write in moleskin journals, but I have sat with coffee and water in a Parisian cafe writing away, describing my adventures of the day--and paying for it, too, Mr. Helprin (the cafes charge more for sitting at a table, inside or outside, than if you just stand at the bar--which is where most of the Parisians drinking citron presses congregate). Once, in L'Elephant du Nil in the Marais, a gentleman asked me about some things to see in the Marais while his wife used the WC. I told him about the Place de Vosges, the Carnavalet Museum, BHV, and Rue Rosiers. He complimented me on my English! So I think crazy American writers are not the only ones scribbling away in Parisian cafes.

Helprin does give some more useful advice:

In short, a pen (somehow) helps you think and feel. And although once you find a pen you like you'll probably stick with it the way an addict sticks with heroin, it can be anything from a Mont Blanc to a Bic. The same for paper. There are beautiful, smooth, heavy papers, but great works have been written on ration cards, legal pads and the kind of cheap paper they sell in developing countries—grayish white, almost furry, with flecks of brown and black that probably came from lizards and bats that jumped into the paper makers' vats.

Your most important tools will be your honesty, labor, courage, practice, luck and utter concentration. Inspiration can be magnificent. Handel wrote his "Messiah" cooped up in his room for two weeks. No one saw him, and his meals were allegedly slipped under the door. (Either it was a very strange door or he survived on fruit leather and matzah.) Then again, Voltaire—"On Sunday I was seized by inspiration"—wrote "Phèdre" in six days flat, a play that made his audiences weep not from emotion but because they had to sit through it.

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