“What Every Writer Wants” by John le Carré

[Excerpts]

Freedom is Forfeit

Other writers have turned themselves into institutions, gathered a following, and in a traditional gesture of frustration, formed a group whose undeclared aim is the cultivation of quality. The charms of any writers’ movement are obvious enough: weak talents hope to profit from the strong, the strong to bask in the admiration of the weak. Each hopes to generate an aura of collective talent which might elude him singly; each reinsures his work by associating it with the work of fellow members. Each can embellish his own image with doctrinal subtleties about his colleagues or (if they are not the same people) his enemies; each can protect his private endeavor by establishing criteria of taste. Writers who adopt this course in effect turn critic, becoming at once as suspect as the critic who is aspiring to be a writer.

Catching the Blurred Image

I have known very few writers, but those I have known, and whom I respect, confess at once that they have little idea where they the are going when they first set pen to paper. They have a character, perhaps two; they are in that condition of eager discomfort which passes for inspiration; all admit radical changes of destination once the journey has begun; one, to my certain knowledge, spent nine months on a novel about Kashmir, then reset the whole thing in the Scottish Highlands. I never heard of anyone making a ‘skeleton’, as we were taught at school. In the breaking and remaking, in the timing, interweaving, beginning afresh, the writer comes to discern things in his material which were not consciously in his mind when he began. This organic process, often leading to moments of extraordinary self-discovery, is of an indescribable fascination. A blurred image appears; he adds a brushstroke and another, and it is gone; but something was there, and he will not rest till he has captured it. Sometimes the yeast within a writer outlives a book he has written. I have heard of writers who read nothing but their own books; like adolescents they stand before the mirror, and still cannot fathom the exact outline of the vision before them. For the same reason, writers talk interminably about their own books, winkling out hidden meanings, super-imposing new ones, begging response from those around them. Of course a writer doing this is misunderstood: he might as well try to explain a crime or a love affair. He is also, incidentally, an unforgivable bore.

This temptation to cover the distance between himself and the reader, to study his image in the sight of those who do not know him, can be his undoing: he has begun to write to please.

A young English writer made the pertinent observation a year or two back that the talent goes into the first draft, and the art into the drafts that follow. For this reason also the writer, like any other artist, has no resting place, no crowd or movement in which he may take comfort, no judgment from outside which can replace the judgment from within. A writer makes order out of the anarchy of his heart; he submits himself to a more ruthless discipline than any critic dreamed of, and when he flirts with fame, he is taking time off from living with himself, from the search for what his world contains at its inmost point.

[from Harper’s magazine, November 1965, page 142]

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