Thursday, July 30, 2009

No reason to fear honesty in your writing; Henry Miller didn't, neither did Henry Wiggen

Here's something Matt's writing block suggests to me for our infrequent conversation about writing.

Listening to XM radio yesterday, I heard Graham Nash talking about the wonderful Crosby Stills Nash and Young tune “Chicago,” part of the radicalization of rock music in the 1960s. Graham Nash said he wished he had not written one particular line in the song. The line is:

“Rules and regulations/who needs them…”

Well, I kind of like the line. And in the context of the times when it was written, the line had a lot of meaning. Particularly in rock music, it was important for a song to distinguish itself as coming from outside the accepted line of thinking. In other words, it was important to demonstrate your music had not been co-opted to appear radical when, in fact, it wasn't. Nash’s tag line certainly established "Chicago" as a sentiment outside the mainstream.

Nash’s subsequent regret notwithstanding, the real question here is what writers should do retrospectively about the thoughts they've expressed, and how their fear of the future should impact what they write in the present. I heard Henry Miller speak once at the Actor's Studio in LA, and a questioner in the audience asked the great man about some of the particularly troublesome statements in his work. Miller looked out at the audience -- I'm not sure he could actually see well enough at 80-something to even see the questioner -- and said without hesitation, "I don't take back one word."

I was heartened when he didn’t capitulate. It seemed to me to be the right response. A writer should write from the heart in the context of his times. And then, a writer should live with with what he has said.

Writers can find themselves stifled by fear of what they are saying. How will their family react? How will their colleagues react? How will society react? What will the critics say? These voices are antithetical to creativity.

Because, you see, when a writer -- even in fiction -- expresses something, he is revealing himself; revealing who he is, what he thinks. And, the fear of revealing this is probably destructive to the creative process. His work will suffer if he censors himself in fear of how others will see him based on what he writes. Or, on the other hand, he can be seduced by the idea of writing something which will make him seem like a wonderful person to know.

The writer can strive to show his better self and suppress his worst self. The effort, either way, will not be honest.

Henry Miller certainly did not succumb to either seduction. Perhaps that's why his work still resonates as original today.

As Matt showed us so well, the process of writing is damned fragile.

-- Lofflin, posting again by voice


  1. Printing this out, sticking it on my wall. I took my blog down last week because I couldn’t handle the explaining and the damage it was causing to certain relationships. Yeah, what I was writing was making things harder on me, personally. I suppose I should have been flattered that my posts were being read and taken somewhat seriously – but some entries had gotten a little personal and it wasn't worth it to me to be talking about those situations, not the actual writing. I never apologized, though, which was part of the problem (or maybe it wasn’t).
    I write quite a bit on the fly, typing with my thumbs on my BlackBerry – stepping into a corner at a bar or concert to capture an image – or scribbling in a notebook while listening to the radio in the Bass Pro Shop parking lot on my lunch hour. If anyone could see me writing in those moments, the material might lose some substance. You can see why it might be easy for me to not give any serious thought to the stuff I’m writing just to be writing. Readers, especially if they know you, want to know HOW you think as opposed to merely recognizing that you DO think. They want to know what you meant … because you took the time to write it down.
    Since I took the blog down and posted a message about its absence, my traffic in July has skyrocketed. The numbers are so inflated, I am still not entirely sure I’ve been reading the statistics right since I launched the site in spring 2008. The blog will be going back up soon, though, as a result of this post. Sometimes you need wisdom or a kick in the ass from a source you respect. And, coincidentally, someone I never knew was following my work asked me about my site this morning. She’s gorgeous … someone I haven’t offended yet. There is still time. And, I know just how to do it.

  2. People change, people say things they regret later. It takes honesty like that of Graham Nash to admit that. It's everyone's prerogative to be honest with themselves, change their minds and learn from that. God bless Graham Nash - and all the rest of us!

  3. Oh, by the way - when Gogol had a change of heart he was able to say he regretted having written some of his works. Does anyone sneeze at Gogol? If anyone sneezes at the new improved Nash, that's their problem.