Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Writer Meets Writer

Stories about exchanges or encounters between writers are often fascinating. They can illuminate strongly held but contrasting views on life, art, creativity, political engagement and on and on.  At the moment, I'm reading Glenn Frankel's excellent new book called Shooting Midnight Cowboy, about the making of the 1969 film, and in it, Frankel provides a good deal of information about the life of James Leo Herlihy, the novelist who wrote the book on which the film is based. 

Well before he wrote Midnight Cowboy, when he was a college student in the late 1940s, Herlihy met the writer Anais Nin, still obscure herself then but known in certain literary circles. Nin was 44, a good twenty-four years older than Herlihy, and with her reputation and charisma, he was thrilled to develop a friendship with her and to discuss writing.  Frankel describes a conversation they had that I found interesting:

Nin asked him what kind of writer he wanted to be. He cited Upon Sinclair's politically radical, muckraking novel The Jungle as a model.  He wanted to 'write  a book about how cruel we are to one another, a book that tells that in such a way that the whole world will cry.'

And what about you? he asked her in return.  Her answer stunned him: "I want to contribute to the world one fulfilled person -- myself."

For Herlihy, as Frankel describes it, this talk apparently set off in him a "life-long doublemindedness".  In his words, "There was a part of me that wanted to do something for the world, and part of me that wanted to understand what it meant to be a fulfilled individual."

Not that both aren't possible and not that writing about topical social issues and problems can't bring internal fulfillment.  For many writers, clearly, it does.  But what this writer meets writer encounter does get at is the tension that often plays out between a writer's need and desire to engage with the world and make statements about its evils and injustices and cruelties and what might be a pull towards a more inner-directed writing that addresses the writer's internal needs, the tensions within the writer's imagination. 

Both approaches in isolation or ovemphasized have their dangers. On the one hand, with the "I want to make a statement approach", you can get didacticism or a too heavy moralism or just obviousness about a topic.  On the other hand, with the "let me fulfill myself approach", you run the risk of navel-gazing and becoming so wrapped up in your creation and what it means to you that connection with the reader suffers. At worst, you lose the reader.  Fusing the two approaches, if that's a goal, is a challenge, but when that's achieved, the reader can feel it. The writer then has written about something meaningful to themselves and relevant to the world at large.  That writer has found a form he or she enjoyed creating, that brought pleasure to make. The ardor and pleasure behind the book comes across to the reader who gets into a narrative they find that they want to follow.  That doesn't mean the narrative has to be easy for the reader -- there's nothing wrong with making a reader work a little when dealing with a story -- and it doesn't have to be in any particular genre. But however this challenge is handled, the writer has to, as the saying goes, make his or her obsessions the reader's own, whether those obsessions are focused primarily on the outside world and its topical issues or the writer's internal world, which may have much weirdness in it. 

Herlihy and Nin. Writer meets writer, and an interesting contrast of views takes place.  More of these kinds of encounters I come across, if they're interesting enough, I'll post to talk about.


No comments: