February 21, 2013

A good story somehow continues in a shimmer of possibility.

I came across a link to a Tobias Wolff interview from 2003 in the Paris Review on Alec Soth's Little Brown Mushroom blog, where he pondered out loud whether the phrase "a shimmer of possibility," the name of the notable book and body of work by Paul Graham, was originally a Wolff line. That line comes from Wolff's description of the success of Anton Chekhov stories, where he says, "A good story somehow continues in a shimmer of possibility.

Whether Wolff is or isn't the source, I'm so glad I found this interview. There are so many parts of it that resonate with me, even though he is speaking as a writer and me, reading, as an aspiring maker of a whole multitude of things (having achieved nowhere near the experience or accolade or repertoire of work that he has). His thoughts about the practice and lifetime of writing, about expectations around what leads you to your best work, of trying to classify or being classified by the things you're making, of returning to the same subjects again and again, about patience, about storytelling, about memory, about grace—are ever thoughtful and self-reflective. I've excerpted a few of my favorite bits below, but really, if you don't read the whole thing, I can honestly say: you're missing out.

On not talking about what he is working on:

Writers are superstitious. I don’t mean knock on wood, throw salt over the shoulder—let me try to explain. I began this whole writing enterprise with the idea that you go to work in the morning like a banker, then the work gets done. John Cheever used to tell how when he was a young man, living in New York with his wife, Mary, he’d put on his suit and hat every morning and get in the elevator with the other married men in his apartment building. These guys would all get out in the lobby but Cheever’d keep going down into the basement, where the super had let him set up a card table. It was so hot down there he had to strip to his underwear. So he’d sit in his boxers and write all morning, and at lunchtime he’d put his suit back on and take the elevator up with the other husbands—men used to come home for lunch in those days—and then he’d go back to the basement in his suit and strip down for the afternoon’s work. This was an important idea for me—that an artist was someone who worked, not some special being exempt from the claims of ordinary life. 
But I have also learned that you can be patient and diligent and sometimes it just doesn’t strike sparks. After a while you begin to understand that writing well is not a promised reward for being virtuous. No, every time you do it you’re stepping off into darkness and hoping for some light. You can be faithful, work hard, not waste your talents in drink, and still not have it happen. That’s what makes writers nervous—the sense of the thing being given, day by day. You might have been writing good stories for years, then for some reason the stories aren’t so good. Anything that seems able to jinx you, to invite trouble, writers avoid. And one of the things that writers very quickly learn to avoid is talking their work away. Talking about your work hardens it prematurely, and weakens the charge. You need to keep a fluid sense of the work in hand—it has to be able to change almost without your being aware that it’s changing.
On what his writing day is like:
You have to be alone a lot, you have to be rather sedentary, you have to be a creature of routine, you have to fetishize your solitude, and you have to become very, very selfish about your time.
 On spending time in Rome, for no reason in particular:
...it’s good for a while to be dropped through the bottom, to be a little helpless, to have to scramble to make do, because as you get older, you do less and less of that, and it’s good for you, it takes the rust off.
On the value of showing your work to others:
I guess the point is, as you go on in this life you become aware of the folly of thinking you did something all by yourself. We’re held up by others all along the way. 
On getting advice, giving advice, and being patient:
Writers often give advice they don’t follow to the letter themselves. And so I tend to receive their commandments warily. I don’t have a lot of advice to give. The one thing I would say to a young writer who wanted counsel is to be patient. Time, which is your enemy in almost everything in this life, is your friend in writing. It is. If you can relax into time, not fight it, not fret at its passing, you will become better. You probably won’t be very good at the beginning, but you will become better, and eventually you may actually become good.  
On being a nomad, and then "settling."
I had an idea of myself as someone free and unencumbered, and virtuous for being so. Of course, one cannot live like this— I can’t, anyway. And in fact, I find that all the best things in my life have come about precisely through the things that hold me in place: family, work, routine, everything that contradicts my old idea of the good life. For years I lived mostly out of a backpack, traveling light and living cheap, often bestowing my mendicant presence on my brother, Geoffrey, and his wife, Priscilla, on my patient friends. But, you know, it seems as time goes on that the deepest good for me as man and writer is to be found in ordinary life. It’s the gravity of daily obligations and habit, the connections you have to your friends and your work, your family, your place— even the compromises that are required of you to get through this life. The compromises don’t diminish us, they humanize us—it’s the people who won’t, or who think they don’t, who end up monsters in this world. I’m not talking about dishonesty, I’m talking about having some give, sometimes letting go of things that you aren’t inclined to let go of, that you may even have attached the name of principle to, to justify your fear of bending. 
On fiction being interpreted as autobiographical:
Writers, to my way of thinking, are no more free in their choices than most people. Our material chooses us; certain things engage us, certain things do not. Certain subjects call me out and I feel like my feet are on the ground when I’m writing about them and no doubt this has led here and there to apparent repetitions and correspondences that may be deceptive in that they lead the reader to assume an autobiographical basis for the work. 
On the perception of the need for danger, experience, travel, adventure to make good work:
Experience is about seeing what’s around you, not going different places and putting yourself in danger—it’s about being attentive, seeing how things work, what they add up to.
On what it is about writers that enables them to stand back and be bystanders to situations:
We live by stories. It’s the principle by which we organize our experience and thus derive our sense of who we are. We’re in an unceasing flow of time and events and people, and to make sense of what goes past, we put a beginning and an end to a certain thing, and we leave things out and we heighten other things, and in that way we break the unbroken flow into stories, because that’s the only way we can give it significance. And that’s why people will never agree that a friend’s or relative’s memoir is accurate. We have left things out without even realizing it, and heightened other things, but to our friend the missing moment was paramount and the heightened moment of no importance at all.
On the idea that a subject can no longer be written about:
There’s no story that’s used up. People say things like, There are really only seven stories. Well, no. There’re as many stories as there are ways to imagine stories, and there are an infinite number of ways to imagine stories, and for them to be brand-new after you’ve done it.
On whether writing is a socially responsible way to spend one's life:
I think of it this way. I was changed by literature, not by cautionary or exhortatory literature, but by the truth as I found it in literature. I recognize the world in a different way because of it, and I continue to be influenced in that way by it. Opened up, made more alert, and called to a greater truthfulness in my own accounting of things, not just in my writing, in my life as well. It did that for me, and does that for me, and no one touched by it in this way should have any doubt of its necessity. Yet we writers do doubt, constantly. It’s one of the conditions of our employment. Poor us. Poor us because lucky us—we have the leisure to devil ourselves with questions like this. 
On what he responds to in writing, regardless of the writer's belief system:
I respond to something gracious in the writer. That doesn’t mean nice, or kind, or consoling, though it can have that effect. It has to do with a certain courage and verve and even sense of play in facing things as they are. If there’s no grace to be found in things as they are, then you’ll have to find it in things as they aren’t, and you know what Yeats wrote about that: “We had fed the heart on fantasies, / The heart’s grown brutal from the fare.”