by Jan Greenberg
Once at a literary meeting, I heard someone ask Pulitzer Prize winning author John Cheever why he wrote. He replied without hesitation, “To try and make sense of my life.” What a great answer..
“The life we all live is amateurish and accidental,” the novelist Wallace Stegner said. “It begins in accident and proceeds by trial and error toward dubious ends. That is the law of nature. But writers will not accept what nature hands us. We have to tinker with it , trying to give it direction and meaning. At the guts of any significant fiction or memoir lies the question ‘How do we find order in an uncertain world.?’”
The poet John Ashbury, when asked, “Why do you write?” said, “Because I want to.” Flannery O’Conner said, “Because I’m good at it.”
I might add to that by answering, "Aside from the fact that I'm probably unemployable, when my writing is going well, I experience some of the most satisfying moments of my life. "
When people ask me if I had a message or a lesson to teach in my novels, I have to say no. I’m a storyteller first. Yes, I wanted my characters to walk out of a snowstorm at the end of a novel, rather than into one. But I wasn’t interested in pushing my value system onto kids. In fact, occasionally, I’m cornered at a party by someone who tells me that he has a great idea for a book, one that will teach manners or moral standards or some other worthy lesson. Right away I know that book will never make it. What young person (or older one, for that matter) wants to curl up with a book that lectures and cajoles? However in the books I write with Sandra Jordan about art, especially contemporary art, we do have a mission, and that is to open our readers up to fresh ideas, to introduce them to art of their own time, and to give them ways to enter a dialogue with new and bewildering art. At the same time, when we do a biography of an artisat, we ARE telling a story, one told through dialogue, action and sensory images, but it is based on facts, not our imaginations. We write about the choices artists, such as Christo and Jeanne-Claude or Jackson Pollock, had to make to do their work. We talk about their sometimes messy lives. Their values are revealed through their stories. It doesn’t mean we share those values. But we wouldn’t choose to write about an artist if we didn’t admire his or her art.
Lately I’ve begun to think about writing my own stories again. I miss the process that requires the writer to enter an imaginary world and metaphorically to not leave the room. It’s been fifteen years since I’ve published a novel. I’ve learned a great deal by writing biographies, by going deeply into the lives of others. Sometimes I think it’s helped me understand my own life better; at other times I think perhaps it’s helped me avoid thinking too deeply about my life. Wordsworth said good poetry is “emotion recollected in tranquility.” Experiences from long ago that might be exaggerated into fiction are no longer simmering in the back of my mind, like a pot ready to boil over. But this rich stew of memories has been seasoned with time. So while I’m in a quoting mood, let me end my thoughts for today on the subject of going back to fiction by quoting Winnie the Pooh. I think “I’ll give it a little think.”