What Do We Really Want To Know About a Writer?

Six Tuscan Poets for What Do We Really Want to Know About a Writer?

Who would have guessed—certainly not me—that the most popular blog post I’ve written so far would be the July 24, 2014 post called “The Five Best Questions To Ask a Writer.” I have to wonder—besides MFA writing students, bookstore owners, and media interviewers—what audience accounts for all those clicks?

In the sixteenth century, an Italian artist and historian Giorgio Vasari wrote an unprecedented book, an encyclopedia really, called The Lives of the Most Exceptional Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, from Cimabue to Our Times, comprised of more than a hundred biographies of famous artists.Bloom & Genius for What Do We Really Want to Know About a Writer? Four centuries later, the irrepressible scholar and critic Harold Bloom created the 800-page compendium Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds. During the intervening centuries there have been thousands of biographies written about artists and writers. The general public seems ever more curious about the lives and minds of our creative folk. The question is why?

Wallace and Lipsky for What Do We Really Want to Know About a WriterI recently saw the 2014 movie The End of the Tour based on David Lipsky’s book, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, an account of his riveting experience as a journalist spending five days interviewing David Foster Wallace for Rolling Stone during Wallace’s 1996 book tour for Infinite Jest.

What struck me after seeing the film, aside from the fine acting of Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg, and the evocative cinematography of Wallace’s lair and the blunt horizontals of the Midwestern landscape, was that there were almost no scenes of Wallace actually writing, no real glimpses of his mucking around with language and story-telling. What we get instead is personality writ large on the screen—Wallace’s amiable, introverted, giant genius and Lipsky’s mish-mash of little brother adoration and envy.

Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel for What Do We Really Want to Know About a Writer

Of course I’m simplifying a more nuanced plot, but this is my question: as a culture do we relish a voyeuristic intimacy with our artists more than with their created works? (Imagine how the reclusive Dostoevsky, Dickinson, or Proust would have felt about this.) Is the current fascination with writers’ lives akin to another era’s curiosity about the lives of saints? How are writers important to our culture? Are their lives exemplary in ways worth studying? Or prophetic in some way? Do we want to know how they got to be who they are? Do we inquire because we really want to ask ourselves, “Could I become a writer too?”

These questions interest me even though I am one of them—a writer by profession and temperament. Writing is a lonely business, and I have to admit I find great satisfaction in reading this passage from Orlando by one of our true writing geniuses, Virginia Woolf:

Anyone moderately familiar with the rigours of composition will not need to be told the story in detail; how he wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in; was in ecstasy; in despair; had his good nights and bad mornings; snatched at ideas and lost them; saw his book plain before him and it vanished;Virginia Woolf in What Do We Really Want to Know About a Writer acted his people’s parts as he ate; mouthed them as he walked; now cried; now laughed; vacillated between this style and that; now preferred the heroic and pompous; next the plain and simple; now the vales of Tempe; then the fields of Kent or Cornwall; and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.

I’ve been thinking about what I’d like to ask myself if I were interviewing Dale M. Kushner, author. Self-inquiry is an essential aspect of being a writer since self-knowledge is the basis of empathy and understanding others.

Here are my questions:

  1. Are there any early experiences that encouraged you to become a writer and a story-teller?
    Yes. See my previous blog post, “My Jewish Question, My Father.”
  2. Were books accessible to you as a child? Were you encouraged to read? What were your favorite books?
    Yes and Yes. I liked to read in private in my bed or in a corner in the library. I did not like to read at school, especially if I had to read out loud to a class. My favorite books as a child were a book of Chinese fairy tales, Little Women and The Diary of Anne Frank.
  3. Are there aspects of craft that engage you more than others?
    I love language. I love the sensual quality of words. I make sense out of the world through images and the percussive rhythms and           resonances of words. I can feel a satisfyingly written sentence vibrate in my body. It takes me forever to write a novel because I might     spend hours searching for le mot juste.
  4. What props are most necessary for you to write?
    My lightbox in the winter. A bag of raw almonds. My tartan plaid flannel bathrobe. And Maisie, my Golden Retriever pup.

Readers of my “Five Best Questions To Ask a Writer” post may notice that these are slightly different than those listed there. So now you have nine.

Watch Charlie Rose’s 1997 interview with David Foster Wallace

Dinner with friends

Dinner settings for Sappho Woolf_600x315


Writers are often asked where they get their ideas, and that’s a good damn question. As far as I can tell, memory, imagination, dreams, bits of history, overheard conversations, observations, and popular culture combine in unpredictable ways to fuel a story. The past is always awake telling us where we’ve been and what we’ve known. The future alights in reverie or dreams, at the blurred edges of our vision, offering glimpses of what might be possible. Imagination bundles up rag-tags of this and that and pushes them into consciousness where a whole new thing takes form. None of this is analyzed by the writer, certainly not this writer: when the muse arrives with a full suitcase, I welcome her like a queen.

But here’s my latest answer to that perennial question of where a writer’s ideas come from — they come from the brilliant minds of others! On that note, when recently asked by a friend what writers I’d invite to a dinner party, the following list popped into my head. And what a list! Can you imagine what a vibrant, eclectic, and profound conversation might ensue?

Jane Goodall
Virginia Woolf
Muriel Spark
Marie-Louise von Franz
Toni Morrison

All women — at least this time around.
Two poets. Three novelists. One primatologist/anthropologist. One Jungian archetypal psychologist.
One Greek. Two Brits. One Scot. One Kashmiri. One Swiss. One American.

It would take pages and pages to adequately praise the work of each of these brilliant women, but one thing they have in common is their uncommon courage as writers and thinkers. Each has changed the way I see and think about the world, each has astonishing stories to tell.

LalleshwariThe fourteenth-century mystic poet Lalleshwari, also known as Lal Ded, lived at a time when Shaivism, Sufism, Buddhism, and Hinduism were alive and entwined in a rich amalgam of religions merging in Asia. I’m told that though she was ridiculed and taunted, Lalla, lit by divine inspiration, danced naked through the Kashmiri valley singing her ecstatic poems. Here is her voice, translated by Coleman Barks.

I didn’t trust it for a moment,
but I drank it anyway,
the wine of my own poetry.

It gave me the daring to take hold
of the darkness and tear it down
and cut it into little pieces.

Jane Goodall. I reach for one of her books when I need to remind myself to honor my instincts and rekindle my sense of wonder. When doubt (something I’m examining a lot these days) blunts my energy for taking a step forward, I reach for Jane — a role model for me of a writer who has documented the courage and passion necessary for her work.

jane-goodall-615Among other esteemed achievements, Jane Goodall is credited with changing how scientists study animals in their natural habitats. In 1960, without any formal training or advanced education, she left England to study wild chimpanzees at the Gombe project in Tanzania under the tutelage of the famous anthropologist, Louis Leakey. In her own words, she was then “a naïve young English girl,” but one who’d always held a fascination with wild life. Now, decades and many books later, she’s an international treasure. Here’s one of my favorite passages from her book Through a Window.

There are many windows through which we can look out into the world, searching for meaning. There are those opened up by science, their panes polished by a succession of brilliant, penetrating minds. Through these we can see ever further, ever more clearly, into areas that once lay beyond human knowledge. Gazing through such a window I have, over the years, learned much about chimpanzee behavior and their place in the nature of things. And this in turn, has helped us to understand a little better some aspects of human behavior, our own place in nature.

But there are other windows; windows that have been unshuttered by the logic of philosophers; windows through which the mystics seek their visions of truth; windows from which the leaders of the great religions have peered as they search for purpose not only in the wondrous beauty of the world, but also in its darkness and ugliness. Most of us, when we ponder on the mystery of our existence, peer through but one of these windows onto the world. And even that one is often misted over by the breath of our finite humanity. We clear a tiny peephole and stare through. No wonder we are confused by the tiny fraction of a whole that we see. It is, after all, like trying to comprehend the panorama of the desert or the sea through a rolled-up newspaper.

Marie Louis von Franz with JungMarie-Louise von Franz is probably the least recognizable name on my list. Like her mentor and colleague, the depth psychologist Carl Jung, Ms. Von Franz can be credited with helping modern thinkers understand the psychological and symbolic dimension of fairy tales. At my imaginary dinner party, Marie-Louise turns first to Sappho and then to Toni Morrison and asks each their favorite fairy tale. Are you a Cinderella? Rapunzel? A bewitched crow? she might inquire. Can you imagine the lively conversation that would follow? Most of us are driven by the unconscious myths we carry about ourselves, and these motifs, these archetypes (the orphan, the seducer, the wise old man) with which we identify shape our lives. Think about it! What fairy tales haunt your mind?

Space prevents me from quoting more than two writers who’ve inspired me to speak the truth and given me faith in my own process. But to circle back to my specific choices, I see now that these invited guests share certain qualities that in turn reflect my own biases and interests. They are observers, rebels, pioneers, seekers, original thinkers, and I think also, each is in her own way, sassy and determined.

May you too find nourishment in their books, and may you too be awakened to new wonders. Here’s a place to start.

Sappho                                Sappho: a new translation Mary Barnard
Jane Goodall                        Through A Window
Virginia Woolf                       Moments of Being
Lalla                                    Naked Song, translated by Coleman Barks
Toni Morrison                       Beloved
Marie-Louis von Franz           Shadow and Evil in Fairytales
Muriel Spark                         The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Woolf Morrison Spark_600x428