I spend something like 98% of my writing time thinking that what I’m doing is no good or, at best, workmanlike. It’s probably been worse these days because I do a lot of it in 45-minute increments on the train, which is barely enough to upload enough information to do any of the high-level edits that need to happen. But today I spent three hours revising and extending what can’t be more than two pages of prose, and it was narcotic. I wouldn’t call it a flow state — it didn’t feel effortless — but I had a depth of concentration and grain of resolution that were just light-years better than any mental work I’ve done in a long time. I’ve been riding that high all evening. I’d post the results here, but they’re emotional scenes and key plot points and would probably make yet less sense out of context than most of the other gobbledygook I put up here, which would be an achievement.
Anyway, I suppose this is of interest to those people (of doubtful existential status, except for me) who wonder why I write. I do it because I can’t do anything else that well. I don’t often get that thrill of mastery when I do it, and it probably isn’t justified when I do — but it doesn’t really matter. John Scalzi has a sobering post, which I cannot unearth, that mentions a few best-selling novels near the turn of the century, and they ring no bells; the Oscars are likewise famous for valorizing the forgettable. The book, if it ever becomes a book, cannot be counted on to matter, although of course it will be the only thing that has a chance to matter to anyone other than me. To me, though, what’s important — not by ideology or stipulation, but by sheer ungainsayable force of impact — is the work. The lessons in balance and rhythm and image and detail. The vestibular shifts and lily-pad node-jumps in semantic space. The worm’s-eye view of language’s associative panorama, ungodly vast and yet so starkly steadily insufficient, the essence of what’s really meant when we are told that deserts, too, are full of life. The hard, gemlike flame.
Likely related: I’ve been reading Delany on his own writing, via his critical alter ego, K. Leslie Steiner (collected in THE STRAITS OF MESSINA, a “first printing O.P.” of which I purchased from Labyrinth Books in Princeton for $30, which must have been a steal for either them or me). It’s humbling — not so much the analysis, which is typically preoccupied with the dynamics of various strongly reified critical concepts that I don’t really understand, but the quotations from his fiction. It’s also exhausting, particularly “Some notes toward a reading of DHALGREN,” so today I picked up Michael Chabon on writing in general (MAPS AND LEGENDS: WRITING ALONG THE BORDERLANDS). And there I find a comment on this passage of Conan Doyle, where Holmes critiques Watson’s rendering of “A Study in Scarlet”:
Honestly, I cannot congratulate you upon it. Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science, and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner. You have attempted to tinge it with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you worked a love-story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid.
Holmes may or may not be right concerning Watson, but it’s an interesting take on Delany. He’s unbelievable with language, and better in fiction than in criticism, but the metaphysics of criticism remain the preoccupation of his fiction; that’s what he focuses on in his disguised self-analysis, and it certainly explains some of his novels’ cool and distance to assume that he wants them read primarily as reports of interactions among critical objects.
(The point, such as it is, ends here, but for context, here’s Chabon’s response to the Conan Doyle text he’s quoted:)
Some of us feel, of course, that the fifth proposition of Euclid would only be improved by a nice juicy elopement. This is a typical bit of good-humored self-mockery, with Conan Doyle displaying the sly with for which he is too rarely, even by his most ardent supporters, given credit.
(Euclid’s fifth proposition is the parallel postulate, which concerns a triangle, so there’s at least a little bit of sly wit going on.)