THE ONE AND ONLY AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL WRITER
“…a book is the product of a different self from the self we manifest in our habits, our social life, in our vices…it is the secretions of one’s innermost self, written in solitude and for oneself alone that one gives to the public. What one bestows on private life—in conversation…or in those drawing-room essays that are scarcely more than conversation in print—is the product of a quite superficial self, not of the innermost self which one can only recover by putting aside the world and the self that frequents the world.” – Marcel Proust, Against Sainte-Beuve
All writing is autobiographical: that’s been tossed around so many times in countless iterations, one can’t help hearing it as cliché, but a cliché diminished—something from the dustbin of history. The above quotation should unsettle in times like these when the “self” has transmogrified, the ego now granted an on-line persona to go with the public and private one. While pursuing these questions of autobiography, David Attwell’s recent fine and slim “biography” of J.M. Coetzee (J.M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing) is much reliant on the notebooks Coetzee kept during composition of his novels. According to Attwell, the type of “autobiographical” writing Coetzee practiced is tied to the latter’s citing T.S. Eliot and Roland Barthes as forebears in the journals: “…for all three, impersonality is not what it seems. It is not a simple repudiation of self in the name of art; on the contrary, it involves an instantiation of self, followed by an erasure that leaves traces of the self behind”—a furtherance of Proust’s keen vision. William Gaddis used highly autobiographical material to construct what he called a “compositional self,” to answer to the aesthetic and technical problems he encountered during writing. In a 1985 interview with Publishers Weekly, he said the self endures “the real work…the thought and the rewriting and the crossing-out and the attempt to get it right.”
These quotations I throw about are to be taken together like a cornucopia. They each answer the pettiness of people critically calling out an author for “just writing about herself” and yet also forwards the “writer as magician.” So much of that mystique has been quelled by the “everyone is a writer” zeitgeist, and especially the legions of bloggers and the self-published legions, who think just because their sentences have been posted on the infinity of the internet with many “shares” and “likes,” or printed on post-industrial paper they are successful scribblers.
Who is this different or innermost self? Can he or she coexist with the superficial self who is often now required to sell the book, primarily through the internet and social media, giving endless interviews and explanations of the motive to write—a most incriminating, even pedestrian, act these days. By rights, the innermost self is the precious cargo serious writers carry with them. This self is the being or the mode that needs to be switched into or turned on to create the singing that is creation. In different hours, composition is a stropping of the razor to pierce the light, but this slog is a relief for the superficial mind. Here is the time never showing in the cracks of the face but in the gnosis, spread, and harmony of sentences. In the final pages of V.S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival, he describes his path to this innermost self: “The story had become more personal: my journey, the writer’s journey, the writer defined by his writing discoveries, his ways of seeing, rather then by his personal adventures…” This blends into Eliot’s thinking in “Tradition and Individual Talent”: “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion. It is not an expression of personality, but an escape from personality…What happens [to the poet] is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something more valuable. The progress of an artist is an continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” It is impossible to demonstrate why one writes, but short of hoisting a book award, it is probably this act of extinction.
So all writing is autobiographical, but in much different ways. Naipaul used his travels and the material garnered for those acclaimed travel books in third world countries to instruct the narratives of his three violent masterpieces written in the seventies, each set in Africa: In a Free State, Guerillas, and A Bend in the River. He begins to use his journals in his fiction with In a Free State and then freely becomes a character, but not in a meta way, in The Enigma of Arrival and A Way in the World. Of Coetzee’s novels, from his second one, 1977’s In the Heart of the Country until 1999’s Disgrace (seven books), some are set in very distant times: two in the late 1800’s, one in the early 1900’s, and one in the 1600’s, with three having female first-person narrators. Though two of the main characters are professors, the other five are very distinct: a housewife, an elderly magistrate, a simpleton with a deformity, a female castaway, and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Gaddis uses alter-egos in the guise of failing artists in each book, with all four set in places he lived.
This talk merges into the holy grail of questions aimed at a writer: Where do you get your ideas? Probably no answer should be kept more private, especially during the work itself. Many greats, when asked, simply lie. Writing is unique in that the words are the art—they already say something. A William Gaddis character, speaking for his author, extrapolated further, as he wondered what people wanted from the man that they didn’t get from his work. Many writers today are unapprehensive to name the source or sources and explain, through reason, why they have made up what they have. It makes good copy but it pushes the act of creativity into the numbing squalor of chic algorithm. Perhaps the most famous American example of this is William Faulkner contending The Sound and the Fury “began with a picture of a little girl with muddy drawers, climbing a tree to look in the parlor window with her brothers who didn’t have the courage to climb the tree.” Probably not a lie, though Faulkner was famous for them, yet it’s a remark that doesn’t help countenance the act any better—“Remarks are not literature,” Gertrude Stein averred.
There’s no doubt many long games of the imagination sprout from such saucy triggering visitations, but between the event and the finished product is a tortuous time that can’t be recapitulated in any fashion. The real answer to the idea question is months and years of sitting and scratching things out, about as sexy as working on an assembly line at the factory, the hands as essentially effectual as the mind. And here is where this ghostly innermost self is created. Where do you get your ideas? “The only ones that matter in the end come as I write. If I didn’t debunk and revise those first ideas, they’d be meaningless.” To this end, in one of his few published articles, Stanley Kubrick wrote:
I don’t think that writers or painters or film makers function because they have something they particularly want to say. They have something that they feel. And they like the art form: they like words, or the smell of paint, or celluloid and photographic images and working with actors. I don’t think that any genuine artist has ever been orientated by some didactic point of view, even if he thought he was.
The innermost self is rarely if ever full of didacticism or superficiality. Unless it is to rebuke that nasty drawing-room essay self (social media self) which Proust galvanized to make a world out of, which we, in our times, flipped into a franchise.