The Urge to Write

My wife called my attention to Elena Ferrante’s weekly column in The Guardian.  (That tells you something about our respective political leanings: she, being more liberal, is a frequent visitor to The Guardian, while I read The Telegraph.)

Elena Ferrante is one of my wife’s favourite writers; she, too, is Italian and has written the Neapolitan Novels, a four-volume work about two perceptive and intelligent girls from Naples.  The real identity of Elena Ferrante – a pseudonym – has been the subject of intense debate and speculation.

In her column on May 12, Ms Ferrante wrote: “If you feel the need to write, you absolutely should write. Don’t trust those who say: I’m telling you for your own good, don’t waste time on that. The art of discouraging with kind words is among the most widely practised. Nor should you believe those who say: you’re young, you lack experience, wait. We shouldn’t put off writing until we’ve lived enough, read sufficiently, have a desk of our own in a room of our own with a garden overlooking the sea, have been through intense experiences, live in a stimulating city, retreat to a mountain hut, have had children, have traveled extensively.

“Publishing, yes: that can certainly be put off; in fact, one can decide not to publish at all. But writing should in no case be postponed to an “after”. When writing is our way of being in the world, it continuously asserts itself over the countless other aspects of life: love, study, a job. It insists even when there’s no paper and pen or anything, because we’re worshipers of the written word and our minds dictate sentences even in the absence of tools with which to set them down. Writing, in short, is always there, urgent, and distances even the people we love, even our children who ask us to play.

“The sense of guilt arrives afterwards, when we’re done. If it arises before that, if we can’t repress it – if, in other words, the responsibilities of affection prevail – well, maybe that’s a sign that writing doesn’t have sufficient power, that our vocation is fragile and that, fortunately (yes, fortunately), on the human plane we are better than artists, most of whom are so full of themselves, so egocentric.

“But be careful: we have to refrain from taking our barren, proud, cruel creative deliriums for a mark of quality. The yearning to give written form to the world isn’t a guarantee of good literature. Writing, even when we have a strong vocation, doesn’t necessarily produce memorable work.

“Oh, one can be successful, of course, transforming the fury of writing into a lucrative job. But one can never contain writing within a professional framework, complete with résumé, salary, bonuses. Success and the bit of prestige that comes with it prove nothing, especially if one’s literary ambitions are high. We remain dissatisfied and, successful or not, the writing will continue to remind us that it’s a tool with which one can extract much more than we have been able to. The exercise lasts obsessively, desperately, all our lives. And if others say to us, it’s enough now, you’ve given all you could give, we don’t trust that, we shouldn’t trust it. Until our last breath, we’ll torment ourselves with the suspicion that, just at the moment when we seem to have won, we have lost.”

Many of Ms Ferrante’s comments resonate with me.  When I started writing my first novel, Fishing in Foreign Seas, I wasn’t planning to write a novel.  I thought it would be interesting to write down a Sicilian romance, bits of which I dreamt.  But, I couldn’t stop.  It became a whole story that was crying to be told.  Since then, I have learned a great deal about the craft of writing, which is much more that having a lovely story and good English language skills.  (I’ve mentioned these skills in earlier posts.)  Suffice it to say that gaining skills does nothing to extinguish the longing to write – if anything, the longing becomes a craving,

Ms Ferrante says, “Our minds dictate sentences even in the absence of tools with which to set them down.”  How true!  I find myself lying in bed thinking about how to resolve a character’s particular dilemma, when, suddenly, a near perfect piece of language will come to mind, and my task, hours later, becomes the recreation of that piece.

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