Saturday, June 11, 2011


"A psychological wound is helpful, if it can be kept in partial control, to keep the novelist driven." John Gardner, On Becoming A Novelist.

 Does a writer need tragedy or loss as a motivation for doing his or her work? Is some sort of "wound" required in the life of the artist? We encounter this idea about creative people so often that it has the status of being
a cliché.  For example, in On Becoming A Novelist, John Gardner writes:
            "Some fatal childhood accident for which one feels responsible and can never fully forgive oneself; a sense that one never quite earned one's parents' love; shame about one's origins---belligerent defensive guilt about one's race or country upbringing or the physical handicaps of one's parents---or embarrassment about one's own physical appearance: all these are promising signs. It may or may not be true that happy, well-adjusted children can become great novelists, but insofar as guilt or shame bend the soul inward they are likely, under the right conditions (neither too little discomfort nor too much), to serve the writer's project."
 With great sadness we understand why Gardner began the above paragraph with the example of a "fatal childhood accident for which one feels responsible and can never fully forgive oneself." When he was 11-years-old, he was given the chore of returning a cultipacker to his parents' farm from a neighbor's place. His 6-year-old brother Gilbert rode on the drawbar that linked the cultipacker to the tractor young JG was driving. Gilbert was killed when the tractor ran out of gas, the engine stopped with a jerk and he was thrown to the ground in front of the cultipacker, which rolled over him. This terrible event haunted Gardner all his life, and he writes movingly about it in his short story "Redemption." His parents always insisted that he was not the cause of Gilbert's death, but JG apparently did not entirely believe that. The tragedy followed him through life. There were times when he would be driving and the entire awful tableau would appear before his eyes again, right there superimposed on the windshield, and he would have to pull over to the side of the road until it passed.

 I know---and you know, too---a great many stories about writers and artists, past and present, that contain some form of childhood trauma. An emptiness or scars or a wound so deep that the writer can only find consolation for his (or her) grief and suffering through the act of creating. While I don't have in my own life a single, painful event that was defining like JG's, I believe I understand what is common (and positive) throughout all the examples he presents: namely, that in order to create it is helpful if a person feels in some sense that he or she is a social outsider. The outsider is driven to question everything in the enveloping social world, to adopt a critical stance in the face of those things familiar and commonly accepted, to sometimes or often feel himself "at a distance" from things and, most important of all, to carefully---sometimes obsessively---observe the behavior of others, which he can then describe in a work of fiction with detail and nuance.

 At first glance, Gardner's thesis is compelling. (And it seems of a piece with William Gass's statement that, "I need hate to heat my art.") I can think of many examples to support it, from James Baldwin and Jean-Paul Sartre who felt they were physically ugly to the missing or absent fathers in the lives of August Wilson and Ralph Ellison, which literary scholars have identified as wounds that fueled their writing. But something feels slightly wrong with this picture. We need to examine it more closely.

 In every example that Gardner gives, the writer is looking at himself through the eyes of others. He is defining his identity not simply by a loss or tragedy that took place, but on the basis of what others think about it. He is not free. He is enslaved to their judgments, and one gets the feeling that he (or she) creates in order to change the real or imagined opinions of others about who and what he is. Indeed, the creative work that springs from the artist's wound and insecurity may well be a desperate bid for love. The protagonist Allan Jackson in my story "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" faces a dilemma similar to this. He hungers to heal his family's racial and individual wounds through magic (art). In other words, he is attached to those wounds and also to his "identity" as a sorcerer, two ego-driven things that he eventually must learn to "let go"; put another way, he must discover a new, different relationship with himself and his talent.

 To a very large degree, then, Gardner is describing a form of neurosis. Notice how he says in a parenthetical aside that guilt or shame must involve "neither too little discomfort nor too much." Well, we know---and sadly---what happens to the writer or artist when there is "too much"  guilt, shame, and discomfort. Or when he fails to keep his wounds under "partial control." Between or during periods of creativity, he or she may blunt that discomfort with drugs, alcohol, sexual adventures (and sometimes all three at once), or some other form of self-destructive addiction. One cannot help but feel that this description of the writer's wound as the basis for creativity is touching only on the surface of the malaise and not penetrating to its roots.

 It is the wound, Gardner says, that makes the writer "driven." And there, my friends, resides the problem. This kind of writer knows no peace. Only a chronic, free-floating sense of "discomfort." Unlike Gardner, I, being a Buddhist, don't see "identity" as any sort of enduring substance or essence. (And I greatly value shanti, or peace.) Our past is gone and can never be recovered---except through memory, which itself is a phenomenon that imaginatively plays with and reshapes over time our prior experiences. Furthermore, a Buddhist knows better than to shape his sense of self (when, in fact, there is no self) on the basis of other people's opinions. Long ago, you may have done something that made you feel guilt or shame, but you are no longer that person here and now.

 So I find myself taking the position that, yes, "happy, well-adjusted children" or adults can create great art, especially if they have a spiritual practice that keeps them on an even keel. Guilt and shame are not the only experiences that "bend the soul inward." Therefore, writers need not be attached to either their "wound" or the work it gives rise to. Instead, their work can spring from an abiding peace and feeling of thanksgiving, like these E-Channel posts; from the joy to be found in living mindfully and exercising their hard-won skills because doing so feels so danged good (and doesn't involve anyone else), the way world-class athletes feel when they are relaxed or at play; and from the inexhaustible pleasures of the ever mysterious creative process.           

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