Can Writing Be Taught?
There was an article on this subject in the New York Times a few weeks back. The question posed was, as I understand it:
If your son or daughter came to you and declared, “I want to be a writer,” what advice would you give him or her on how to pursue this dream?
Would you suggest an academic program, the Times asked. An MFA in Creative Writing? Or would it be more productive for your aspiring artist to enroll in the College of Hard Knocks, out on the street, gaining experience in the real world?
Questions like these make me want to spit nails.
I didn’t play the piano for 10 years. A decade of slow death by greed working in the City, chasing something that never existed in the first place (security, self-worth, Don Draper, albeit a few inches shorter and a few women fewer). And only when the pain of not doing it got greater than the imagined pain of doing it did I somehow find the balls to pursue what I really wanted and had been obsessed by since the age of seven—to be a concert pianist.
Admittedly I went a little extreme—no income for five years, six hours a day of intense practice, monthly four-day long lessons with a brilliant and psychopathic teacher in Verona, a hunger for something that was so necessary it cost me my marriage, nine months in a mental hospital, most of my dignity and about 35lbs in weight. And the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is not perhaps the Disney ending I’d envisaged as I lay in bed aged 10 listening to Horowitz devouring Rachmaninov at Carnegie Hall.
My life involves endless hours of repetitive and frustrating practising, lonely hotel rooms, dodgy pianos, aggressively bitchy reviews, isolation, confusing airline reward programmes, physiotherapy, stretches of nervous boredom (counting ceiling tiles backstage as the house slowly fills up) punctuated by short moments of extreme pressure (playing 120,000 notes from memory in the right order with the right fingers, the right sound, the right pedalling while chatting about the composers and pieces and knowing there are critics, recording devices, my mum, the ghosts of the past, all there watching), and perhaps most crushingly, the realisation that I will never, ever give the perfect recital. It can only ever, with luck, hard work and a hefty dose of self-forgiveness, be “good enough.”
Yes, it’s true that any art has principles and techniques, which must be studied and mastered, as James himself testifies that he did here. But what I love about him is the passion and, even more, the madness (note the “nine months in a mental hospital.”)
You have to be crazy to do what James did, or what anybody does to get to the depths you have to get to.
How did Hemingway end his life? Or Hunter Thompson. Jimi Hendrix, Janice Joplin, Philip Seymour Hoffman. And these were geniuses, with deathless works behind them. What wall did they hit? What monster devoured them? Writing, or any art, is not some bloodless craft possessed of an academy that the neophyte can enroll in and trundle, like a sausage, down a processing line to emerge at graduation with a credential.
There’s a chapter in C.G. Jung‘s Memories, Dreams, Reflections titled “Confrontation With the Unconscious.” When I first read those words I felt the temperature of my blood nosedive to zero. They scared the crap out of me because I knew that’s what I had signed up for.
In my blackest hours I was over the edge, way over, and all I was trying to do was write my way back. I was looking for a word or a combination of words, a color, a chord, a sequence of digits that would somehow, for one moment, stop the pain. I was trying to name the pain, to take away its power over me.
This is what the battle with Resistance is really about. It’s not just getting up early or meeting your weekly quota of pages. It’s about descending into that private hell that belongs to you and you alone and confronting the beast that lives there, whatever it is. That’s why desire is everything, because only desire will make you go there. Shame won’t work; greed, lust, avarice, the pursuit of fame or money won’t work. Suffering works. Grief works. Heartbreak works. Fear of death works. Hate works.
I love an artist like James Rhodes who is willing to jump off the face of the earth. When you’re working at that level, reviews don’t count and advances don’t count. Praise in meaningless and so is damnation. And you don’t have to be superman to do it. You can be a single Mom on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. You can be a physics teacher in Topeka who writes each morning on a laptop in the front seat of his Dodge Ram pickup for forty-five minutes before school starts.
And yet. The indescribable reward of taking a bunch of ink on paper from the shelf at Chappell of Bond Street. Tubing it home, setting the score, pencil, coffee and ashtray on the piano and emerging a few days, weeks or months later able to perform something that some mad, genius, lunatic of a composer 300 years ago heard in his head while out of his mind with grief or love or syphilis. A piece of music that will always baffle the greatest minds in the world, that simply cannot be made sense of, that is still living and floating in the ether and will do so for yet more centuries to come. That is extraordinary. And I did that. I do it, to my continual astonishment, all the time.
So I’m from the Real World School. But by “real,” I don’t mean material reality. If art comes from pain (and it does), then the artist doesn’t need street-reality, blood-reality, life-reality. He can stay in his room, like Proust, and never come out. The pain that breeds great music or art needs no purchase in the real world. It’s enough just to be born. Just to be human and to really feel it.
Angels don’t produce art. Neither do beasts.
You and I do, in response to the pain of being human—without a credential and without the approval of anybody.