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Demons and Clarity 30 April 2008

Posted 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.



1. ABD - 1 May 2008

thank you for this. i’m trying to understand the writing process better, and time and again i’m reminded of the importance of authenticity. it leads me to wonder, though, about the difference between an honest story and an honest, well-told story. to take just once sentence from your own script:

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.

spawning, siring and anneals are not ordinary words. they are deliberately chosen and have their own effect. is this not an addition of craft to the straightforward process of “telling it like it is”?

2. Ibrahim A. - 1 May 2008

When you take away “process” from writing, then you’re doing good. Technique is utterly feeble and annoying when that’s all you notice in reading a piece, or if it’s the main thing you notice. The words you mentioned in my entry are not so “not ordinary,” but I do understand your point. They are, rather, precise, and I’m not rounding the bases blowing kisses as I say that. Precision saves words. That’s not technique really; it’s law, almost sharia.

Anyone on this site can offer great advice on writing: Baraka, Omer, Anna, yourself, and Sa’ila (when her hidden identity is finally told). As of today, summer vacation began for me. The semester’s over. I left the building and felt like running with my arms up in the air. Had it not been for this dignity thing, I would have done so. But I just drove away with my arm surfing out the car window, feeling 12 years old again.

3. Ibrahim A. - 1 May 2008

One more thing: read great (or very good) writing. Get the annual anthologies of selected essays, travel pieces, and short stories. Again, without fail, read the effective writers of our day. I say this because it’s necessary. I’m not kidding.

4. Maliha - 2 May 2008

I am delurking to protest…why can’t we “blow kisses” and “round bases”? Writing with such military precision sounds too stifling…

Enjoy your summer!

5. meghan rose - 4 May 2008

Assalaamu aleykum,
Beautiful post, reminders, ideas. I read “The Art of Writing” for a class a couple of years ago and really enjoyed it.

6. UmmFarouq - 4 May 2008

Br. Ibrahim
Congrats on making it to summer.

Who would you recommend (author-wise) to read for tips on concision, precision? I try to de-fluff my writing but find it most challenging.

Couldn’t you give an online workshop or something, for those of us stuck over here in the M.East?

7. Ibrahim A. - 4 May 2008

Thanks, Umm Farouq. There are good books, like Gardner’s I mentioned above and, of course, Strunk and White, that I recommend. Just to be clear, precision only means that the words that eventually make the final cut really should have purpose. This spares the piece of author’s infatuations with clever turns of phrases that “sound good” but really don’t push forward the piece. We all leave stuff that’s not really needed and the readers tend to be forgiving. But when that dominates, then the writing is not successful. Don’t be afraid to take out what you actually like.

No online. Don’t like them. The Middle East traditionally is about precision, no waste tolerated. It’s part of the climes and requirements of good living. So you’re in a good place. Open the window and breathe it in.

Thanks, Meghan. I heard good things about “The Art of Writing.”

Maliha, “military”?

8. VARANGALI - 4 May 2008

Salam Ibrahim, Umm Farouq,

With permission, I wanted to add my favorite piece on writing well: George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language.”

9. Maliha - 9 May 2008

Your comment on precision and how it’s Shariah/law…didn’t sit well with me. I was thinking of how sometimes we maybe able to bend words to make a point…but if the end goal is still coming closer/magnifying/celebrating truth or reality…then I think we agree (?)

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