The Mystery We Attend

In Light in August, Faulkner wrote, “Man knows so little about his fellows. In his eyes all men or women act upon what he believes would motivate him if he were mad enough to do what that other man or woman is doing.”

We who attempt to enter the Universe by means of words have a lot of explaining to do. Here we are, suspended in air and light, in grass, in hundreds of billions of galaxies, and in each other’s tears. How do we find the words to describe all that, and also the sound of frogs and the taste of peaches?
So often what motivates us is almost impossible to understand or describe, even if we most ardently and earnestly try. Our reasons for acting or failing to act remain obscure, even – perhaps especially – to us.
So much of what makes us human defies exegesis. The high and craggy altitudes of faith and the thorny gardens of love come to mind. But so does simply dealing with life’s seeming chaos, one day at a time.

“… because here we were dealing with the pit and prune juice of poor beat life itself in the god awful streets of man.”
– Jack Kerouac

Based on Faulkner’s maxim on motivation, I believe you write, carve, paint, compose – by some means and in some matter you create – because you find yourself attending a mystery that eludes you. There is a thread of music in the night, across the lake or down the block, and you feel a need to find the source. It may take until morning; this I understand.

“Until we accept the fact that life itself is founded in mystery, we shall learn nothing.”
– Henry Miller

Doesn’t this mean that the creative process is an irrefutably mystic endeavor, that the artist is called into the desert of his/her making for a consultation with their Higher Power? I think so. I believe creativity is an act of faith, not unlike prayer, undertaken by means of solitude and submission to a process we don’t really understand. On a good day, anyway. Other times, it’s clear I’m stuck in my own despicable will. Or, as Anne Lamott puts it, “stuck in the shit again.”

So where do we go from here, from being stuck? Out into the desert, I suppose. Or up to the mountaintop, or – this is my favorite metaphor – down to the bottom of the lake. It’s hard for non-artists to understand, but it’s take a long time – falling deeper and deeper and deeper on down – to reach the creative state of mind. And all it takes (ask Samuel Taylor Coleridge) is one knock on the door to bring me popping back up to the surface, bobbing around in the flotsam, driftwood, and the rubber ducks.

“So okay – there you are in your room with the shade down and the door shut and the plug pulled out of the base of the telephone. You’ve blown up your TV and committed yourself to a thousand words a day, come hell or high water. Now comes the big question: What are you going to write about? And the equally big answer: Anything you damn well want.”
– Stephen King


Bonus Advice from Anne Enright

  1. The first 12 years are the worst.
  2. The way to write a book is to actually write a book. A pen is useful, typing is also good. Keep putting words on the page.
  3. Only bad writers think that their work is really good.
  4. Description is hard. Remember that all description is an opinion about the world. Find a place to stand.
  5. Write whatever way you like. Fiction is made of words on a page; reality is made of something else. It doesn’t matter how “real” your story is, or how “made up”: what matters is its necessity.