Foreword | June 01, 2009
A Hundred Visions and Revisions
Several of the pieces in this issue reflect directly or indirectly on artists and their potential influence on us. Cheryl Strayed’s memoir “Munro Country” tells of her own amazement as a young writer when her model author, Alice Munro, wrote to her; the connection Strayed felt was intense and driven by deep need, yet also impersonal and tenuous. Jeffrey Condran’s story “Praha” describes the strained meeting of two men, once rivals, in Prague, in the shadow of a statue of Kafka, while Richard Dokey’s luminous mortality tale ” Zippers” is reminiscent of Hemingway’s spare style at its best.
In his essay “The Boy Murderers: What Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn Really Teach,” Andrew Levy asks whether we know Twain’s novel as well as we think we do. He sets forth convincing evidence that in Huckleberry Finn, Twain was addressing a plague of violence and bullying by children, especially boys, not unlike the rash of school shootings and other acts of child violence we’ve seen in this decade. He also describes the relationship between Twain and author George Washington Cable on a twenty-sevencity lecture tour that the two did prior to the publication ofHuckleberry Finn. Mark Twain was a performer during parts of his career, but he didn’t spring full-blown into the role of a “great entertainer.” After a grueling and partly unsuccessful tour in 1871–1872, he had stopped lecturing. Twelve years later, anxious about whether he could still do it, he talked Cable into touring with him. The four-month journey with Cable started badly. “It was ghastly! At least in the beginning,” according to Twain’s later notes on the experience. He had not yet figured out that unlike Charles Dickens, he couldn’t read his stories but had to memorize and dramatize the reading, interspersing it with conversational asides. Touring with Cable, he failed at first but then finally discovered what he was doing wrong and improved his act. Unfortunately, as Levy shows, Cable managed to inadvertently upstage him.
The practice of literature—of all the arts—can be cursed by myths of genius and perfection. The Romantic poets, who canonized the idea of genius, were also the ones who invented the concept of the writer’s block. In his interview, Benjamin Percy, author of two books of stories and The Wilding, his forthcoming novel from Graywolf Press, notes that his writing comes from hard effort and overcoming obstacles, however that can be done. A block can be all in a normal day’s work. “Sometimes you’re just feeling a bit dead—pun intended—at the keyboard, and you don’t have much energy despite the coffee you’re sucking down, and you’re looking for inspiration, so I go to the graveyard or I might go to my story file. . . .”
When speaking frankly, authors are more likely to discuss the labor of writing than visitations of genius. Recalling his editing of a collection of Paris Review author interviews, Malcolm Cowley said that he was surprised to learn that most writers have starting routines to get through the difficulty of beginning a day’s work: Hemingway sharpening twenty pencils, Willa Cather reading passages from the Bible, Thomas Wolfe taking long walks. Cowley pointed out that the “magic” of the best writing comes from routine and messy hard work. In this issue’s essay review, Michael Cohen describes the fact that for him, reading is in many ways as disorderly as writing. He plans to read certain titles, starts and stops them, shelves and then comes back to them, on occasion years later. Serious reading, like serious writing, arises not from some imaginary, stilted order but from the supple mind creating its own structure out of disarray.
Over the years this magazine has printed a number of previously unpublished letters, diaries and manuscripts by well-known writers. We’ve also published features on “fringe artists.” They have included some who are at the border of being considered serious artists and others who work in areas which are themselves considered by some to be “not quite” fine art—fields such as design, costuming, illustration and invention. These features have suggested some common facts about creativity.
One is that at some point in their careers, artists benefit from mentorship, support or partnership, which comes in many varieties. It may arise from a friendship such as the one between Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac, from family support such as Theo van Gogh’s tireless aid of his brother Vincent or Dolly Gray’s editing and business support of her husband Zane, or from circles of artists such as the American Transcendentalists or the French realists. It can also come even from a rich single inspiration, such as that which Sherwood Anderson provided for so many serious American fiction writers of the 1920s or Andy Warhol offered artists during the 1960s. It may be a brief, hot spark of aid and promotion, such as what artist and impresario Damien Hirst helped provide for fellow Young British Artists of the 1990s. In an article published in the Atlantic Monthly, Rick Moody speaks of the best kind of help for young authors as coming from mentors rather than “professors.” By this he means people who are personal, possibly eccentric and opinionated, but above all honest and not hiding behind a mask of professionalism.
Such support may be transient, yet it can be essential to success. Equally important is fearlessness or tenacity by the artist. At some point in their career every serious writer or artist must do the irresponsible thing. He or she must keep working, however improbable success may seem. In 2000, this magazine published a group of rejection letters from the publisher Alfred A. Knopf of works by authors who would later be famous. In several cases, if the submitter had read and taken seriously the readers’ reports from the august publishing house, they would have given up writing and found a more sensible profession. Vladimir Nabokov’s book Lolita was “too racy”; Jorge Luis Borges’s collection of stories was “utterly untranslatable”; a novel by Isaac Singer was “Poland and the rich Jews again.”
Moments in which an artist must choose not to give up are not confined to early career. Three years ago, TMR published a sampling of poet Robert Lowell’s letters, prior to their release by editor Saskia Hamilton. Lowell suffered from manic depression and was often suicidal. “I am a cynic, a bad man, a hopeless, a brute” he writes in one letter. On several occasions he was “clutching about desperately for something that might keep me coherent until I can get to the doctor.” Yet Lowell somehow kept the faith. When he couldn’t write, he translated Latin poetry. If he couldn’t write anything else, he wrote letters, some of which plainly arose from a fumy mental twilight. Somehow he didn’t forget that “the thing to concentrate on is the poetry itself.” In the process, he became what many still consider to be the last great American poet.
There is a third element as important as inspiration and tenacity:enjoying some aspects of the work itself. This may seem too obvious to mention, yet one of the interesting truths about writers and artists is that quite often they don’tenjoy every part of their work. Like every other occupation, it ain’t all fun, but if there are facets of the work that an artist enjoys, that can be enough to sustain one through the difficulties.
Two years ago, this magazine presented a group of unpublished letters written by Laurence Olivier to young actors. Olivier was a British performer through and through. He was not interested in method acting, which dominated the American theater at the time. When he first went to Hollywood to act in movies, playing Heathcliff in David O. Selznick’s Wuthering Heights, he disliked “the anemic little medium” of movies, which he felt didn’t allow him to act. He later remembered director William Wyler setting him straight, telling him that while movies might be more a director’s medium than an actor’s, they still were among the greatest art forms ever invented. Throughout his career it was the details and mechanics of dramaturgy that Olivier loved—so much that he was delighted to write letters to young, unknown actors describing such things as production methods, acting technique and especially makeup. “I like to appear as a chameleon,” he said. “I want the joy of dressing up. So all my career I’ve attempted to disguise myself.” For a Stratford production of Othello, he spent two hours before each performance turning himself into his vision of the Moor, and nothing gave him more enjoyment than audience members not recognizing him. Through all the struggles of his career and marriages, Olivier’s love of the techniques of theater continued to inspire him.
The poets in this issue all testify in some way to the usefulness of art. Bob Hicok’s work is full of that theme: that by naming what is difficult or even gruesome, we can avoid inaction and give ourselves a view from the hills. Kimberly Johnson is both a poet and a cantor, singing in churches and stadiums, and she equates the forging of poems with singing. Her work tries to reconcile the brutalities of the world with the desire to “forget for a moment the trenches and the grand historic sweep of hurt.” Ellen Bass’s poems describe being a caregiver, attending to the body of her elderly mother and also her own. For Bass, art teaches an honest way to surrender to what we can’t change. For these three, poetry isn’t a cure for despair but does engage the mind in new patterns of discovery, new forged connections.
Few artists suffered more career-long rejection and difficulty than New Orleans photographer Clarence John Laughlin. Kristine Somerville’s feature on him—which includes some never-before-published photographs from the Historic New Orleans Collection library—reveals that Laughlin’s struggle was partly due to his methods being both unfashionable and eccentric during his career. Although his work covers many different styles and subjects, Laughlin was interested in constructed photography and surrealism and in the connection between the mind and the subject. A committed bibliophile, he also had a lifelong habit of titling and captioning his photographs, another element of his work that was out of fashion during his career. Yet it was partly those habits and the fact that he organized his photographs that allowed his work to be both saved and rediscovered, surviving the whims and fashions of what was “in” during his lifetime.
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