Sunday, March 18, 2007

You Ought to Have Your Head Examined, Part II

I promised (or threatened) to have more to say on this topic. Here 'tis.

Idiot Savant

Novelist John Lescroart says that to get through the first-draft stages of a book, he has to put on his ‘genius hat’ and believe that everything he’s writing is brilliant, that his prose is imperishable and the novel at hand will be not only the best book he’s ever written, but perhaps the best book anyone’s ever written.

At a party the night before the publication of Main Street, Sinclair Lewis was introduced to HL Mencken and George Jean Nathan, and informed them, with drunken imperiousness, that he was “the best writer in this here goddamn country.” Hey, if you don’t believe in yourself, why should anyone else?

Lescroart of the 'genius hat' goes on to say that after he finishes his first draft, he puts on his ‘idiot hat,’ and reads his own works with the deeply held belief that the writer is an utter moron. The words are wrong, the scenes are flat, the plot turns are ridiculous. The best book ever written turn out to be the worst ever typed out. (Luckily, Lescroart observes, it’s just a draft, so once you have noted everything that is stupid about the work, you can sit down and fix it.)

At the other end of the spectrum from Sinclair Lewis’s bravado, on the day before the publication of The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to his editor Maxwell Perkins: “I am overcome with fear and forebodings…In fact, all my confidence is gone.”

Some, like Lescroart, zip through the first draft with wicked enthusiasm and save our critical arrows for the rewrite. Others (I fall into this category) have a continual tug of war going as we move down the page, flipping back and forth from writer to editor in a wracking state of tension. Some have both the creator and the scoffer shouting in their ears at the same time, resulting in paralysis on the page.

Moderation gets you nowhere. However you handle the problem, both of these personalities need free rein if you are to write anything readable. And that's crazy.

So Why Aren’t We Locked Up?

Many writers have been. The trick is to, insofar as possible, stay crazy on the page, but behave as though you are sane the rest of the day.

James Joyce had noticed similarities between the bizarre statements of his schizophrenic daughter Lucia and the ‘night language’ he was creating for Finnegans Wake, and he asked Carl Jung if perhaps Lucia wasn’t mad at all, but simply drawing from the same wellspring.

Jung acknowledged the connection, but explained that Joyce was diving, while Lucia was drowning.

Just make sure you come up for air every so often.


Neil said...

Hi, David.

Thanks for your comment yesterday, --the most sense spoken and the above post adds more to it.

It's funny, I'm much happier when in 'genius' mode, brimming with the confidence of naivete--but how to retain that ignorance throughout an entire draft? That is my stumbling block.

David Isaak said...

It does pose a problem. In the days of yore, writers like Burgess. Simenon, and Kerouac solved it by eating amphetamines before sitting down at the keyboard, but that isn't really healthy or practical, is it? (Or are we missing a sure thing here?)