By Isaac Butler
I just finished-- and by just, I mean three minutes ago-- Janet Malcolm's extraordinary The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes and in its final pages discovered what may be the truest words about writing I have ever read.
Before I pass them along to you, let me set the scene: Malcolm has just left the home of the elderly Trevor Thomas, where, with her typical mastery, she has allowed him to weave sufficient rope in their interview to hang himself three times over. The subject of their interview (a memoir he wrote of the final days of Sylvia Plath, parts of which had to be withdrawn under threat of a libel suit by Ted Hughes) is less important for now. What is important is the environment the interview takes place in, namely Thomas's cramped house, which is stuffed to the rafters with boxes upon boxes, where nearly no surfaces remain unconquered by layers of dust, and where the kitchen's range has been colonized by yet more junk.
As she reflects on her encounter with Thomas, she realizes that the house is "a kind of monstrous allegory of truth." This observation leads her to this stunning passage:
This is the way things are, the place says. This is unmediated actuality, in all its multiplicity, randomness, inconsistency, redundancy, authenticity. Before the magisterial mess of Trevor Thomas's house, the orderly houses that most of us live in seem meagre and lifeless-- as, in the same way, narratives called biographies pale and shrink in the face of the disorderly actuality that is life. The house also stirred my imagination as a metaphor for the problem or writing. Each person who sites down to write faces not a blank page but his own vastly overfilled mind. The problem is to clear out most of what is in it, to fill huge plastic garbage bags with the confused jumble of things that have accreted there over the days, months, years of being alive and taking things in through the eyes and ears and heart. The goal is to make a space where a few ideas and images and feelings may be so arranged that a reader will want to linger awhile among them, rather than to flee, as I had wanted to flee from Thomas's house. But this task of housecleaning (of narrating) is not merely arduous; it is dangerous. There is the danger of throwing the wrong things out and keeping the wrong things in; there is the danger of throwing too much out and being left with too bare a house; there is the danger of throwing everyting out. Once one starts throwing out, it may become hard to stop. It may be better not to start. It may be better to hang on to everything... lest one by left with nothing. The fear I felt in Thomas's house is a cousin of the fear felt by the writer who cannot risk beginning to write.
This passage in turn connects to an earlier one in which Malcolm claims that writer's block is actually a manifestation of abundance rather than scarcity, a moment when the writer has too much they could say to choose just one thing to write down.
Here I feel Malcolm is tapping into something very true about the process of creation. We approach our blank pages-- or, more often, the window on our screens that is open to Microsoft Word rather than twitter--and there is so much we could do that we panic before these options, just as every time I finish a book and contemplate the dozens of unread books I have lying around, I panic lest I pick the wrong one to read. As if there could be a "wrong one," as if I'm somehow risking more, as someone who reads around 50 books a year, than a week's wasted time and effort.
Of all the pieces I wrote last year, the two I think are the best are this piece, about August Wilson, and this piece, about my failing at directing First You're Born. In some senses, both were written quite quickly, perhaps three days to compose the initial drafts of each, one day each to revise, and one day each to respond to editorial suggestions. But if you include the time I spent not writing them, the time in which I agonized over what direction to take, what sentence or gesture should begin each, what register and tone they should be in, they took months. In the former's case, I had to ask for a three day extension far in advance just to relieve the pressure enough that I could start it.
In both of these cases, the "block" wasn't caused by not having enough to write about the subject (as writer's block seems to be commonly understood) but rather by having way too much to write and too many angles to explore. With August Wilson, for example, I could've written a journalistic piece about the "August Wilson Circuit," that unofficial company of black directors and actors who regularly work on his plays all over the country. I could've written a story that was far more about the Great Migration. I could've written a story that was a long interview with Ruben Santiago-Hudson and Stephen McKinley Henderson. I probably could've written 3000 words just on how transactions (both business and romantic) work in Wilson's plays. Or on his relationship to the Black Arts Movement. Or on Romare Bearden.
My Epic Comedy of Errors was a true-life story, I knew the plot and all of its details, but it was no less fraught, because there were, similarly, thousands of choices big and small to make at every turn. How self-lacerating should I be? How, tonally, should I approach G. and A.? How much blame do I apportion and how much do I take? What gets played for laughs? Perhaps most difficult for me were the intertwined questions of where should I begin? and how much of this story do I tell? for in the two years preperation and seven weeks of actual rehearsal and performance time, there were hundreds of little avenues I could've explored.
In both these cases, all these possibilities taunted me throughout, telling me you're getting it wrong, this is your shot and you're getting it wrong.
In one of her books, Anne Bogart writes that every choice is a form of violence, obliterating other choices. What she doesn't say is that until the choice is set--until the piece of writing is published or the play has opened--the ghosts of all those dead choices haunt you. And even afterwards they linger on, hoping you'll pull out Ouija board so they can tell you letter by letter why letting them live would've worked better.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons that relationships between fans and artists become so fraught. The disgruntled fan is, in some way, giving voice to the very ghosts the artist thought she had banished. The artist has a certain upper hand, they, after all, created the thing, and this gives them enormous power. But the conflict is asymmetric. The unchosen choice never has to prove that it can work. It exists instead as a perfect dream object, a reminder of all the beloved trinkets we put in the trash when we finally accepted the painful task of cleaning out all our houses.