Which Is To Be Master?

Humpty Dumpty

Apparently, I am the cleaning lady of writers.

I was asked recently to join a forum at Goodreads discussing the whys and wherefores, maybe even the hows of writing. I admire and respect the forum leader, author Sharman Russell who writes award-winning nature and citizen science non-fiction as well as gloriously imaginative historic fiction, so I joined the group out of amity, without knowing what I’d have to offer.

Soon others initiated a community dialogue. What struck me most about the commentaries was that there was an excitement, a palpable energy to what was being said about the act of writing. There was reverence, even love.

And then I entered the fray. Me, the killjoy. I told the others I don’t seem to have the excitement they have about writing. I don’t know when it was that it became less of a metaphysical or spiritual or even consciously self-expressive activity for me. I suffered more than three decades of rejection before enjoying a measure of success. (It’s all about luck. Out of seven rejected novels, only one was truly bad. The rest were pretty good!) Somewhere along the way, writing became an occupation I neither reveled in nor approached mystically.

Too much rejection will do that.

Once a dear friend of mine replied when I was complaining of working too hard, “But your writing is not your work! It’s your passion!” I was offended although because I love her, I kept my mouth shut. It may be that my characters are full of passion for persons and ideas, but the me who writes them regards them with a colder eye. I don’t think of my writing as a passion at all. Writing is simply what I do, what I can not help doing. A compulsion, if you will. Often as much curse as blessing.

As author Peter Riva said in the forum, the pleasure is in the work. I agree there. It’s my conviction though that’s only because our minds need something to do. Minds wither without work. Souls, if you want to go there, do too. Simple as that. After all, is writing any different from many kinds of labor? You get up in the morning, you do it, applying your best energies, and hope for the best. You change direction, consider market, reject market when you have to, embrace it whenever you can. Sometimes you burn out. All forms of work require a degree of creativity when done well.

I’ve never felt a character possess me, or step away from me, or motivate itself, although my mind sometimes surprises me with a direction I hadn’t consciously anticipated. I’ve never understood what authors mean when they speak of characters who take over their work. That pose resembles schizophrenia to me. Or at the very least, recalls Lewis Carroll. Remember this exchange?

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’                                                                                                                               ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

I prefer to be master.

Of all the arts, I find writing most like music. When I’m intensely focused on my words, it’s their rhythm that most enthralls me, I think. I’m told by a friend/reader who is a professional musician that my prose has a distinct cadence, something involving triads. I haven’t a clue what that means to my process, or even if it’s true, but ever since he said it, I try to chop up my internal series of threes, just to be ornery, I guess. They crop up often. And ornery or not, I let many go rather than butcher them.

So, perhaps being self contradictory here, I believe there is an unconscious element in writing, unconscious in the Jungian sense. It may be neurotic, I don’t know, but it’s part of the pleasure and part of the compulsion both. Regardless, it’s the conscious shaping of that element that makes the work sing. Otherwise, it’s cacophony. It’s vital that the creator never lose control of the work, or the sound is like an orchestra playing on its own without a conductor. Banal, unshaped, unruly, dull.

I don’t think about why I write anymore. Or even how. Like everybody else who gets up and goes to work, I have a job to do. I get up. I do it. It gets done. Sometimes it’s a pleasure. Sometimes it’s drudgery. It’s work.

And work is good. Work is healthy. It doesn’t have to be anything else

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