This spring a friend of mine invited me to shoot a round of "sporting clays." It was like golf, he said, but with shotguns. I've been familiar with guns since childhood, though I don't esteem myself much of a marksman. I figured it would be good for a walk in the park.
In fact, the game involved a progress along a series of a dozen or so shooting stands. At each of these, orange ceramic flying discs (about the size of coffee saucers) were fired into the air, angled to mimic the flight of different birds. The discs came from all directions and seemed to move extremely fast. I had very small hope of hitting even one of these things, I thought, but I watched my companion carefully, so that maybe at least I wouldn't look stupid. As if his gun barrel was a pencil, he drew a line across the moving target, through and past—then bang, the quick acrid tang of burnt gunpowder, and the orange disc burst into splinters that scattered through the pellet-raked trunks of the surrounding trees.
Expectations very low, I shouldered my rented twenty-gauge, and shouted for the target to be released. Pull--that's the code word. Without a thought, I swept the barrel across the flying disc and pulled the trigger. To my total amazement, the target shattered in the air.
It got more complicated as we went on. The skeets were launched in pairs, or one directly after the other, or crisscrossing from two different launchers. They'd be coming at you or going away. I hit . . . well, not all that many, but a respectable number for a first time out. By jingo, I thought, I might actually be good at this.
So I tried it again, a couple of weeks later, with the same companion. I felt the benefit of a certain experience. I felt like I knew what I was doing, and tried to do it consciously. Couldn't hit a damn thing all day. Shot after shot punched nothing but holes in the empty air, while the orange skeets sailed blithely past, unfractured, sometimes shattering themselves against a tree.
"Looks like you're thinking about it too much," my friend finally observed.
It was like that, too, with my first shots at writing short stories. They tended to be aimed at lofty ideas, and to travel well behind their targets.
"Where do you get your ideas from?" may be the dumbest and deadliest question a professional writer can be asked. A sure sign that the interview, Q & A session, or whatever, is headed for a nosedive. And yet, one does get asked this with some regularity, so I have prepared the following snappy reply: My ideas are dictated to me by demons.
This answer has the effect (usually) of changing the subject pretty quickly. I assume the audience registers it as no more than a dodge, a jokey evasion. Which in a way it is. On the other hand, I actually do believe it.
Inspiration is hard to talk about. Most artists and writers can't talk about it without drifting away into pseudo-mystical hogwash. Or brainwash, even, for many writers who try to discuss the matter end up sounding like they're proselytizing for some kind of cult. And yet, certainly, a story without inspiration is no good of a story at all.
In the middle of that dismal second day of skeet-shooting, something different happened. It was a hard one, a double simultaneously fired fast and low, fired from two different launchers so as to cross in midair. Forget about it. So I did. I just looked and pulled the trigger--once, twice--and watched amazed as both the saucers broke. Not so much as a thought had gone into it. Like all I had to do was hit the targets with my eyes.
What you see is not always what you get. My first desire to write stories was created by the experience of reading them: the pleasure of the experience the stories reproduced and of the way they moved me, at a subliminal level, toward their meaning. I had learned to enjoy reading quality stuff. It's easier to consume than it is to produce. Masterpiece fiction, as George Garrett would tell a fiction workshop to which I belonged, can be too limited a diet for beginning writers . . . because it's so flawlessly, so seamlessly achieved that you can't for the life of you figure out how it was done.
I left school for what would have been the first semester of my sophomore year of college and went back to Tennessee to try to write short stories. By day I worked (ironically enough) in the warehouse of a book distributor. By night I wrote, or practiced the banjo. Probably playing the instrument was as useful in the long term as what I was writing then, but it would be years before I figured that out. The stories were so conscientiously constructed that they ticked through every movement. Each of them strained so hard after its intended point that it missed it altogether.
In high school I had been drawn to the stories of Flannery O'Connor, for the hard-edged simplicity of her style and the way in which she could invest the rather ordinary events of her plots with meaning. Hers was fiction at the masterpiece level, but it helped that she'd left blueprints to a few of her artifacts, in the collection of "occasional prose" called Mystery and Manners. About the composition of the story "Good Country People" she had this to say:
I wouldn't want you to think that in that story I sat down and said, 'I am now going to write a story about a Ph.D. with a wooden leg, using the wooden leg as a symbol for another kind of affliction.' I doubt myself if many writers know what they are going to do when they start out. When I started writing that story, I didn't know there was going to be a Ph.D. with a wooden leg in it. I merely found myself one morning writing a description of two women that I knew something about, and before I realized it, I had equipped one of them with a daughter with a wooden leg. As the story progressed, I brought in the Bible salesman, but I had no idea what I was going to do with him. I didn't know he was going to steal that wooden leg until ten or twelve lines before he did it, but when I found out that this was what was going to happen, I realized that it was inevitable. This is a story that produces a shock for the reader, and I think one reason for this is that it produced a shock for the writer.
Now despite the fact that this story came about in this seemingly mindless fashion, it is a story that almost no rewriting was done on. It is a story that was under control throughout the writing of it, and it might be asked how this kind of control comes about, since it is not entirely conscious.
All the secrets I know about writing fiction are contained in this passage. Of course (like anyone else) I had to live through them for a considerable time before I knew them well enough to act on them--to act, as O'Connor puts it, in a "seemingly mindless fashion." And weirdly enough, playing musical instruments or studying martial arts (something else I took up at around the same time) were just as pertinent to the whole enterprise as the practice of writing itself.
At the end of my last year of high school, I'd made my first attempt to write a serious grown-up short story. The piece had the advantage of an external, arbitrary form, which was derived from painting. It was nearly plotless, imagistic, and depicted in its central segment the death of an old man. This center was balanced on either side by images of the deaths of a peacock and a bull. I called it "Triptych." The high-school draft had the disadvantage of being written in a ventriloquistic imitation of Ernest Hemingway's prose style. That term I took off from college I went back and rewrote it, somewhat less conspicuously, in the manner of Flannery O'Connor. It was a patchwork thing, but that last jolt was enough to make it sit up on the table and start stretching its clumsily sutured limbs. After its fashion, it lived. "Triptych" was sufficiently viable, in fact, to become my first published story and to make it into my first collection (thus bypassing a lot of other stories I wrote later, but tossed). But, even at its highest point of evolution, it was a work of craft, not inspiration--a put-together thing.
It was another couple of years before I actually managed to hit one on the wing. I devoted most of my junior year of college to writing an utterly awful novella. The conceit was to crosscut the wanderings of a contemporary car thief with a tale of the Oglala war-chief Crazy Horse. The project was overplanned and top-heavy with sophomoric philosophy and it evolved into the sort of disaster that this combination of ingredients would lead one to expect.
I dogged my way through it anyway. I even made myself believe it was good. But shortly before it was done, I cracked. What set it off was something small: an image, out of real life, of a blind student in the food hall, locating the comestibles on his tray by touch. With that, a voice talking about it, and the first few scraps of phrasing. I had the notion in the afternoon, began to write that night, and by next morning the story was complete in its final form; a black-humorous disquisition on the class system displayed by the university's food service organization, told by a narrator in the midst of a quasi-comic nervous breakdown.
For the first time I had brought one in alive.
During this same period I was learning Tae Kwon Do, and with others in what was then called the Princeton Karate Club, competing in small tournaments in the area. Our big event of every season was a tournament with West Point. Innocent of any natural athletic ability whatsoever, I had through persistence acquired some skill in the movements. In the ring I had no sense of rhythm or harmony, and my calculations of what was going on were inevitably completed too late, but because I was excitable and aggressive enough, I could still sometimes be dangerous. I went into a West Point tournament with a bruised bone on the outer edge of my right foot. In the first awkward clash that dime-sized spot got hit again. The flash of pure pain dropped me to the floor. The sensation was so brilliant that it didn't even register as either pain or pleasure; it was a blinding, searing, white light. I was tripping for a good few seconds there, washed in the flood of endorphins, while my teammates swirled around me, wondering if maybe I'd broken a bone. In fact I was in no way impaired and when I got up I won the rest of my three matches, without knowing how I'd done it, without any awareness that I was doing anything at all.
I wrote a failed novel as a senior in college, and dragged its carcass around for two years, thinking it might be resuscitated. One night, I reread it all the way through and finally decided to let it drop. At once a sudden flood of new ideas poured over me. A situation: a guy who claimed to have a talking rock, and some other characters, still shadowy, who mocked and refused to believe him. I picked up a pen and began writing just about as fast as I could move my hand. My impression was that the stylus never stopped moving--there was not a single pause for reflection. When the story was finished I thought maybe two hours had passed and wondered why my neighbors were starting their cars. I stuck my head out the door and saw full daylight. I'd worked an eight-hour session without knowing it, but the story was done.
Unlike my earlier brush with inspiration, this one didn't draw directly from my own experience. I was familiar with the setting (Washington Square Park in New York City), but the characters and the plot were invented out of the whole cloth--in "this seemingly mindless fashion." I had not thought of any of it before that night and yet somehow it was complete in its final form the next morning, in need of no more than a light feather-dusting.
How was something like this possible? How could I get it to happen again . . . ?
There was enough energy and potential in that story and its characters that over the next year I could spin it out into what became my first published novel. That was a very different sort of writing experience than my first attempt at the long form, all hard work and laborious craftsmanship--with little in common with that first thrilling dance with the dæmon which had produced the story. But the story lay at the heart of the novel and provided it with a pulse.
About six months into this novel project, I had another unexpected burst of inspiration that generated a very nice little story (I called it "Monkey Park"), apparently out of nowhere. I realized that it would probably happen again . . . and again, even though, much as I might want to, I couldn't consciously make it happen. And in fact it has continued to happen, unpredictably but with reasonable regularity, during the twenty-odd years since. Those moments tend to come when they are most desperately needed, like oases appearing in the desert. When the effort of rolling the stone of a novel farther uphill seems too much to bear for even one more day, the sudden, quasi-magical appearance of a short story can make me feel a lot better about the whole situation. When my daughter was an infant, writing time had become so precious that my best efforts of that period were a couple of ten-page stories squeezed off in a single short sitting. And so it goes, or comes and goes, and always as if a bolt out of the blue.
Various explanations of this phenomenon are possible:
1. I am insane. Well, let's say "temporarily insane"--at the moment inspiration strikes with the amount of force deployed in these intermittent episodes, and perhaps even during the time when the inspiration is executed. In fact there is a good deal of literature that supports the idea that many writers and artists enjoy a mild version of bipolar disorder (a.k.a. manic-depression) and that flights of inspiration (often resulting in the artist's best work) occur in a manic state. I have no problem with this diagnosis, so long as no one tries to lock me up. This kind of constructive mania is a good thing! (. . . so long as the rebound depression isn't too severe . . .) In fact I'm not sure exactly where I'd be without it.
2. The flash of inspiration is the result of unconscious mental process--more precisely, the sudden coming to consciousness of something that's been unconsciously percolating for a much longer time beforehand. Since the sudden inspirational surge tends to come to me in the middle of arduous labor on some long novel or other, the repression model from depth psychology offers an attractive explanation. The fleeting ideas for stories that appear in those circumstances have to be brushed aside, because I am supposed to be concentrating on the novel . . . and of course the story ideas are all the more seductive because of their forbidden flavor. Forbidden by the artistic superego, the story idea is mashed down into the unconscious level, and processed there until it's just about done, at which point it thrusts its way up into the light, often in something very close to its final form. There's a tremendous release of pressure, sort of like what you get by lancing a boil, and then . . . back to work on the novel.
How can you secretly compose a whole story without even knowing you're doing it? Analogies from other arts help some. The whole point of musicians endlessly practicing scales is to bring the response of their hands to the reflexive level. During performance (and especially improvisation) the skill acquired through repetition is deployed as if automatically, so that the true note is played at the same instant it presents itself to the inner ear--with no delay for conscious thought. Same situation in most athletic endeavors, but especially fighting. If you analyze your opponent's movement consciously--well, looks like he's fixing to do this, so I guess I probably better do that--your response will inevitably come too late. Instead, you have to cultivate that "simple, mindless fashion" of reaction. The analysis has to be completed and the response launched at a preconscious level; that is, you have to hit the target without thinking about how you're going to aim at it.
In storytelling, the unconscious involves what Flannery O'Connor (quoting herself from Jacques Maritain) calls "the habit of art," which in my case is a kind of grandiose term for a hyperactive fantasy life filtered through long-practiced craftsmanship. The unconscious communicates well with consciousness in a sort of light trance state. The state can be reached through hypnosis or meditation or various other forms of deliberate induction. My theory is that most writers, often as not without knowing it, have figured out some way to get there when they write. It's in the light trance state that the story material formed in the unconscious can come out most fluently onto the page.
I did an experiment with this recently, under more controlled conditions than normal. I've been taking a weekly Tai Chi class, about three hours long. In the middle of it everyone is required to do about a half-hour-long meditation. Meditation in this pure form is not really my thing and the first couple of times I had to do it I was attacked by a severe case of monkey-mind. Finally I thought I would try to treat it as an exercise in creative self-hypnosis. I had just the seed of a story idea: a situation and a voice. The story would be told by a crow who was the actual subject of Edgar Allan Poe's famous poem, "The Raven." That was all I started with. During the meditation, the key linkage of images appeared in my mind: marble, crystal ball, eyeball, the sphere of the earth seen marble-sized from a long distance away in black space. The story was destined to be part of a group whose titles are all drawn from pieces of music, and during this same half hour I recognized that the emerging image pattern could be expressed in the title of a Suzanne Vega song, "Small Blue Thing." That much was enough. All I had to do was pull on that string of related ideas and the rest of the story came out with it; I completed it in the next couple of days.
3. The stuff actually is dictated to me by demons. Inspiration, if you break it down, would mean the putting-in of spirit. If you change the spelling of demon to dæmon, it loses its pejorative, devilish connotation, and means instead creative demi-urge.
That early inspired story about the talking rock, in the process of evolving into a novel, started me researching spirit-possession cults, because one of the characters was a practioner of Puerto Rican santería. I also read a lot about Haitian Vodou, and this research became one of several threads that led me to begin writing stories about Haiti and also to travel there. Vodou observance, in its ceremonial practice, involves the displacement of the individual personality--a god, espri or spirit, appears in the vacated space in the believer's head. Belief in this possibility is very widespread, and a great many Haitians who don't practice the religion formally still experience the influence of spirits as motivators of their actions and their speech. Surrounded as I've been by such a very strong belief, I have even had a few such experiences myself . . . in which the self, as individual actor, goes into abeyance, and something else seems to speak and act through me. I am no longer I, but have become, temporarily, a simple conduit for an outside force. Such experiences are not always positive, but when they are, they provide quite a strong catharsis. And the feeling, both during and afterward, is quite similar to the feeling I get from writing one of those stories which seems to arise from pure and foreign inspiration.
If you are a writer you may believe that the story you write is simply and completely an artifact built out of words, constructed entirely by your own will and skill. But where's the life in that? You may instead believe that the story is animated by a rapport with something outside itself: a truth, or a spirit, existing in the world outside its maker. I lean more and more toward the latter view.
Oh well . . . see item one, above.
There is, however, one more dodge out of the insanity diagnosis. Around the same time my whole way of thinking began to be really affected by my visits to Haiti, I happened to read a short story in The New Yorker, about the terrible culture shock its protagonist suffered on returning to the United States after a couple of years with the Peace Corps. I felt an instant sympathy with this character. He was a few steps ahead of me in grappling with the same sorts of questions. One of the things he had figured out was that generally while in the First World, the unconscious is inside the person, subjective and contained, in Africa it's outside--part of external reality.
Big difference there. Though actually, it's all in the way you think about it. Dostoevsky, in most of his major work, exploited this same psychological border. Was Ivan Karamazov really visited by the Devil or was it all a hallucination produced by his "brain fever"? You can write it off to brain fever if it makes you feel better about it, but when you boil it down there's not much difference: what we experience subjectively is the only reality we can reach.
So . . . back more or less where I started. My work is dictated to me by dæmons. Best explanation I can offer. Indeed it is the one I prefer. Of course, if I sat around waiting to be touched by the inspirational angel, and did no work until that happened, I would have done something less than a quarter of the finished writing I actually have.
Norman Mailer said somewhere that the only real difference between a novice writer and an experienced writer is the ability to work on a bad day. If a good day is a day of inspiration of the kind I've described here, then I'd have to admit that most days are bad ones. I labor with the skills I've acquired over time, drawing on the glow of some inspiration that occurred at some point (often a distant one) in the past. And I do wait and hope for the next flash to come.
Can't make it happen though. You cannot force inspiration to come . . . or at least, not with muscular effort. There are ways, however, to create in yourself a state of receptivity, a hospitable environment that invites the dæmon. Haitian Vodouisants understand this principle very well; most of their rituals express it. The thing expressed is a willingness to allow your individual conscious ego to be displaced by the spirit. With this kind of literal inspiration the spirit acts through you, like a current passing through a wire. When I think in these terms I can get myself to believe that every story I write already exists out there in a bright, electric cloud of potentiality, and that it uses me only as a conduit to bring itself into being.
In the courtship of their dæmons, writers engage in all sorts of magical behavior. Usually there're a couple of ritual gestures that have to be enacted before beginning work for the day, sometimes a long obsessive string of them. Yes, I do this kind of thing myself. But the most important propitiary ritual is the practice of the craft as such--the dullish work you have to keep doing on your majority of bad and uninspired days. As with any other art, practice is what prepares you for performance--seeming drudgery of scales or calisthenics. Practice enough, and whenever the spirit does move you, you will be ready to respond. Then you have only to point your pencil, look, and you've already hit the target.