Friday, January 4, 2008


"I believe nothing of any beauty or truth comes of a piece of writing without the author's thinking he has sinned against something -- propriety, custom, faith, privacy, tradition, political orthodoxy, historical fact, literary convention, or indeed, all the prevailing community standards together. And that the work will not be realized without the liberation that comes to the writer from his feeling of having transgressed, broken the rules, played a forbidden game -- without his understanding or even fearing his work as a possibly unforgivable transgression."
--E. L. Doctorow, "Childhood of a Writer" in Reporting the Universe (2003)

"The truth of the matter is that the creative act doesn't fulfill the ego but changes its nature. As you write you are less the person you ordinarily are -- the situation confers strength. You learn to trust what comes to you unbidden. You learn to trust the act of writing itself. An idea, an image, a voice, comes to you as a discovery, and you don't possess what you write any more than the mountain climber possesses the mountain."
--E. L. Doctorow, "First Novel" in Reporting the Universe

What I like about the first quotation is that it gives a strong sense of the transgressive audacity that comes with writing personally, with one's own voice and imagination -- not only transgressing the commonality of all those people who don't write and who can't much conceive of its use, but also transgressing against all those greats who have written with such unsurpassable authority, from the sacred texts to the near deities of the canon. And what I like about the second quotation is that it suggests that taking this task upon oneself -- writing as a creative act -- is a process of discovery, of finding or making a path in a space that all those "somethings" in the previous quotation are in no need of.

And what I like about the two quotations together is that they can be said to describe what I find to be the most transgressive aspect of writing: the transgression of one 's own ego. In the first quotation one could say that a kind of demonic or egotistical pride could be the driving point of playing a forbidden game, of sinning against custom and orthodoxy and convention and so on. This would make writing either an ego assertion or, given the metaphor of sin, a kind of pact with the devil -- a romantic, Luciferian or at least Faustian self-conception I am not unfamiliar with, its power -- should we say its temptation -- having captured the imaginations of not a few writers I admire. But the second quotation -- when Doctorow begins to move from a childhood self-conception to the more humble and humbling task of writing a first novel -- suggests that writing, conceived in less heroic terms, transgresses against "the person you ordinarily are" and is a diminishment of the self (both the public and the private self) for the sake of . . . the story, or the art, or the truth of what must be said. Which is not to say, given the mountain-climbing metaphor, that this task is low and mean. Doctorow also asserts what might be considered the hubris of fiction-making, but which is also its raison d'ĂȘtre:

"I believe so completely in fiction that I regard it as a mega-discipline, one that incorporates all others, blurs the genres, whips together fact and imagination, and at its best reasserts the authority of the single unaffiliated mind to render the world."
--"Texts That Are Sacred, Texts That Are Not" in Reporting the Universe

The key word here would seem to be "unaffiliated." Again I detect a whiff of Joyce's Stephen's non serviam -- with the possible affiliations extending beyond church, country and family into what are generally referred to as "walks of life." I think of altering Lear's line to "here you behold sheer unaffiliated man" to perhaps indicate what condition such a thing might be said to consist of, trusted home. But it seems enough for Doctorow to assert that combining all disciplines is not to belong to any one. Good enough for that amorphous creature known as "a novelist."

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