When I was about 16 I read You Can’t Go Home Again by Thomas Wolfe. The protagonist, George Webber, is a writer whose working method, if you can call it that, is to become seized with intense bouts of inspiration that have him writing for many hours on end, or maybe days on end. He doesn’t eat, he doesn’t sleep; he just writes himself into a weakened, delirious state. He turns himself into a kind of invalid, but in the process puts out a tremendous number of manuscript pages.
Even at the time, I marveled that someone could write this way. It seemed to be productive and (self-)destructive at the same time. Years later, I remember reading William Styron’s description of his own writing method: one paragraph a day, no more, no less. Evidently there is a great range of ways in which writers approach the actual process of writing.
My own approach is much closer to Styron’s than it is to Wolfe’s—although not as consistent! My nature is such that I cannot focus on any task, much less a creative one, for any length of time at a stretch. After a time—not a very long time, either—my mind starts to wander to other things, or my eyes just glaze over. For much my life, feeling ashamed of this weakness, I have tried to force myself to keep producing. But it’s not much use.
One issue is that, although I identify myself as a writer, it’s not all I do. I have other identities. Along with Writer, I have the identities Student and Thinker within me, and these also makes claims on my time. Indeed, they make bigger claims that Writer does. It is the Student in me that reads, highlighter in hand, from several books each afternoon, and then types those highlights into Word documents the following morning. It is the Thinker in me that composes other Word documents recording my thoughts about various ideas, or, as lately, about my reading: I have been writing my thoughts in response to reading the Iliad of Homer, seeking to find what that epic means to me. That document currently runs to 61 pages in Word, although many of those pages are extracts from other books that I have pasted in as reference material. The actual reflective notes run about 12 pages, but that number is growing steadily, for I have been working on it every day.
Will those notes ever become something I can publish, something that will transform the notes from the work of Thinker into that of Writer? Who knows? I don’t know where it will take me; indeed, therein lies much of the pleasure in doing it. I would like to think so, for it seems like a good thing to share my thoughts, such as they are, with anyone who might be interested, and with the relative ease of producing self-published e-books, why not? It may come down to how coherent and complete these thoughts turn out to be.
And I have a history of wandering from one thing to another; for I follow my passion. I will leave off a notes document I’m working on to pursue something else. It’s exactly the same way that I read. I often don’t finish a book in one continuous process of reading it on consecutive days. I usually have several books on the go at once, and read from a few of them each day, following my interest of the moment. At some point I’ll realize that I haven’t read from a book for 4 months, and I’ll shelve it again, unfinished. I may very well go back to it, either in a few months, or 16 years later. With renewed interest in the subject, I read with passion again, highlighting away. But, depending on the book, I might not finish it this time either; it might find itself getting neglected again, and then being reshelved. Till next time, book.
My various writing projects and notes documents suffer a similar fate. I have to be working on something that interests me and that I find fun. That’s where the energy, the zeal, comes from to push forward. I love the feeling of opening up a document and thinking, “Oh boy, I get to do this now!” Then it’s not work, it’s a treat. But it means I can’t stick with one thing. Like a restless Casanova, I have to tip my hat to the latest girl, and move on to the next one.
With an approach like this, how can I be writing an epic like The Age of Pisces? That remains to be seen. Sometimes I have pushed at it and forced myself, going against the grain of my nature. But in the main I have found inspiration as I go along, and find renewed passion in it. Its size, its novelty, and its depth offer me plenty of challenges and things to think about. I have not got bored of it. I take this ever-fresh quality, my ever-renewed enthusiasm, as a sign that the Muse is indeed helping me.
Maybe this is just a writer’s fancy. But when I think of how easily I can become tired and bored of other projects—the various wrecks and unfinished hulks that line the wandering course of my life as a creator—it seems like a miracle that my passion for Pisces burbles fresh from its secret spring. And if I can talk about a miracle, then why not talk about the divine Muse who is its source?
Is the Muse a metaphor or a person? Luckily, that’s not a question I have to answer. It’s certainly more fun and exciting to think of her as a person, and we’ve just seen that “fun and exciting” is what floats my boat.
I have long thought that my hedonism has been a major hindrance to my achieving much in life. But my nature is what it is, and if the Muse has seen fit to choose me for the execution of this epic, then who am I to question? It may be that my shifting, dilettante-like approach to things is just what’s needed for this unique project, and for my unique oeuvre, whatever that turns out to be. In some way that I still can’t see, I’m just the man for the job.
Anyway, I’m the man doing it. Wish me luck.