The ideal conditions for me to write have been emotional equilibrium and a quiet, private place to work. They say happiness writes white – meaning if one is too satisfied with life, too comfortable, then the tensions that give rise to writing just don’t exist – and I think that may be true, but life is such that periods of blissful calm are rare and fleeting, so I’ve found that being too happy to work hasn’t been much of a problem. The other end of the spectrum has been more of a challenge, and I’m always amazed at people who can produce work when they are in very bad states. For me, a little grit – the kind that comes with everyday living – but not so much that it’s debilitating. I think I have to feel relatively safe in my inner life in order to take risks in my work, as well to be able to just sit alone in a room all day with my own thoughts, which is what a writer’s work day largely consists of. Sometimes I wish this weren’t the case, because when we’re at our most raw, our most off-balance – when we’re mourning a loss, for instance, and the grief is overwhelming – we have access to psychological and emotional states that are kind of sealed off to us when things are running smoothly. Depression can be solipsitic, whereas deep grief can engender empathy and porousness to the lives and suffering of others, and to the world’s woes generally. To be able to write from within that state, and to depict – with real immediacy – your characters experiencing it, can be powerful. But it’s difficult to do, and you can’t possibly wish deep grief upon yourself – or at least I wouldn’t; the trade-off wouldn’t be worth it. So the thing is to conjure those extreme states while you yourself are feeling grounded enough to actually sit down alone at your desk for the day and write.
In a way, I almost resist the moment when I get some distance on my distress, that first moment of: Oh, that’s an interesting thought – I should write that down. It’s the return to the working life, which is great, of course, but after 25 years of that sort of translation of inner and outer experience, there’s also the feeling of: Oh, here we go again. Perhaps that’s the upside of being swamped by grief – one is fully in life, in a way that, as a writer, one often isn’t. Writers tend to be at a remove, noting, notating, reshaping, narrativizing. To have a break from that remove – even if the reason for the break is painful – is somehow reassuring. One isn’t just a note-taker; one is part of the human race, the stream of life, after all.
At the same time, the unconscious plays a fascinating role, which is why I don’t think we should over-direct things as writers. Often I’ve begun writing something, not sure what the narrative line is and just jotting down fragments, and found that the fragments begin to link up with each other. There are connections between the things I’m thinking about and taking note of that I’m not (yet) consciously aware of – but there are reasons I’m alighting on those particular details or anecdotes or people, and those reasons will become clear if I trust in the process. It’s associative, and the connections that begin to appear often surprise me. The role of the unconscious is also why I tell my students never to insert symbols in their work – the unconscious has its own way of generating symbols, and consciously creating them will be excessive and result in some heavy-handed prose.