Demons and Clarity 30 April 2008Posted by mecca in Culture, Spirituality.
The late Raymond Carver, former student of the late John Gardner, was known as among the best short story writers of his era and a poet too. Carver suffered from alcoholism, a blight he apparently learned from his father. John Gardner suffered from the unrelenting boyhood memory of accidentally killing his younger brother in a tractor accident when working on their family farm in New York state. Both of these writers have had things to say about writing, especially Gardner, whose books I recommend (The Art of Fiction, On Being a Novelist, and Moral Fiction ). Gardner writes about writing with the demeanor and seriousness of a scholar and expert practitioner. He speaks about writer’s faith, verbal sensitivity, meta-fiction, and other important concepts that make his work stand far above the army of books on the subject.
There’s one thing in particular that he mentions as a quality common to many notable writers: a metaphorical demon that haunts them and forces them to express themselves for the sake of salvation or survival itself. This demon pursues them without yield, thus forcing them to burrow deep and bare into their personas. And the result is an authentic, unaffected understanding of themselves and what they have to say, whether their skepticisms, infidelities, graces, metamorphoses, certitude, or fluids of their past. What appeals to me about this notion of ghosts in one’s life and their spawning of creativity is the idea of life’s trials and challenges siring elusive qualities that transform a person or, at least, anneals him or her in the hero’s journey. The demons are usually watershed moments of pain or betrayal or privation or loss or something else that pulls one from mediocrity and obeisance to common norms. For those whose lives seem like one long suburban block party, don’t worry. No one alive has been untouched by adversity. What’s often missing is seeing in adversity advantage.
I’m reading again Fires, a collection of essays, poems, and stories of Raymond Carver. The slim volume has only two essays, one of them “On Writing.” He says this:
Some writers have a bunch of talent; I don’t know any writers who are without it. But a unique and exact way of looking at things, and finding the right context for expressing that way of looking, that’s something else. The World According to Garp is, of course, the marvelous world according to John Irving. There is another world according to Flannery O’Connor, and others according to William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway. There are worlds according to Cheever, Updike, Singer, Stanley Elkin, Ann Beattie, Cynthia Ozick, Donald Barthelme, Mary Robison, William Kittredge, Barry Hannah, Ursula K. LeGuin.…It’s akin to style, what I’m talking about, but it isn’t style alone. It is the writer’s particular and unmistakable signature on everything he writes. It is his world and no other. This is one of the things that distinguishes one writer from another. Not talent. There’s plenty of that around. But a writer who has some special way of looking at things, who gives artistic expression to that way of looking: that writer may be around for a time.
In the end, it is about language and soul. And language, like iron, comes from the heavens. It is a gift to humankind, undeserved — a divine-derived instrument of conveyance of ideas. How people corrupt language is another matter altogether. To learn language and its precision is a good deed. But to permit it to convey the deepest sentiment of the soul, where there’s no room except for truth, original and unmolested, then it is a page from the acts of prophecy, and prophecy has a long history of trials unlike any other.