When I was in graduate school for my MFA, I had lunch with my friend John, who was studying industrial psychology on campus. He was telling me how much he loved to write, but he had a real block because he never brought out on the page what he felt in his mind, and he just couldn’t stand the gap between the two.
I didn’t know what to say or even have a way to think about it clearly. I didn’t know yet that Iris Murdoch had already said it best: “Every book is the wreckage of a perfect idea.”
Not just a few books. All delivered. And by extension, every work of art.
That lunch stuck with me, and I heard many versions of the same thought during my office hours – a student in a swivel chair with a face of deep frustration and disappointment when the concept or premise in his mind didn’t doesn’t look as good as they had hoped when it appears on the page.
The act of writing is how I access material that I may not be familiar with easily.
But there is a very important implication worth considering which is hidden in his statement, on which it rests: if the thing on the page does not match the thing in the mind, then there must be a real thing in the spirit which is perfect and whole. What appears on the page is then only a weak and disappointing copy.
Corn East is there such a thing in mind? Is that even a thing?
Shortly after that lunch, I found myself struggling with a novel that I then drew (and later looted). I wrote a sign on a piece of printer paper with a Sharpie and stuck it above my computer that said: There is no book in your mind.
What I wanted to say to myself, and to say to John, and what I would learn in the future from Iris Murdoch was just this: there is not necessarily a picture or a story or a perfect moment that you forward to the page. I kept trying to force this novel into a shape I had envisioned for it, and it just didn’t work. Some people, of course, can work this way, must have an unusual clarity of mind that enables them to transfer exactly what is there; Nobel laureate José Saramago called his characters “pawns,” and the wonderful Rachel Cusk says she largely worked on the writing before sitting down to put the technique in place. We get to reap the rewards of this ability, but there are many more of us who find this idea totally incomprehensible, including big-name writers like Annie Dillard and Zadie Smith and Donald Barthelme, who speak very directly about the value of sitting down to write , open and empty, not knowing.
For me, the page is all I get, and the page is what turns the soup of the mind into something tangible. If there’s no book in my head, then the only way to find a book is to write it. This act of writing is how I access material that I may not be familiar with easily. We can’t read other people’s minds, and the truth is, we often can’t really read our own.
There’s something sad about that – that we can’t replicate our idea, our perfect, imaginary book in there, our brilliant ideas that look so full and glorious as we walk past the autumn leaves. But the astonishing side, the truly astonishing side, is that we could write something else, something surprising.
Small Odysseys: Selected Shorts features 35 new stories is available through Algonquin Books.