The following post contains misquotes and inaccuracies. I have the correct statements scattered somewhere around this office, but I don’t feel like looking them up. I’m not sorry. Deal with it.
There’s this famous scene near the midpoint of Tom Sawyer that comes to mind whenever people talk about analyzing literature. You probably know it. It’s the scene where Tom sits in the church rafters and watches his own funeral. Though everyone hates him while he’s alive, they apparently love him once he’s gone. Even Becky Thatcher, that nasty pigtailed toad, seems to miss him: she monologues about glossy semi-truths.
Tom loves every second of it, naturally. He giggles at all the post-mortem brown-nosing; he especially loves how people oh-so-easily break his life into arcs, themes, symbols, and motifs. In fact, he can’t contain himself and falls from the rafters, [literally] crashing his own funeral party.
What fascinates me about this scene is not Twain’s comment on tragedy and social gatherings (though it’s on-point); it’s Twain’s meta-literal comment on eulogizing works-in-progress. There’s a reason why Twain places that scene near the middle of the book: Tom’s story isn’t done yet. One can’t break a book into its elements without finishing it. It’s impossible. We can’t talk about literature without having read the literature.
And we can’t write literature by eulogizing it while it’s still alive. A lot of my writer friends suffer the same problem: they write with symbols, metaphors, and allegories in mind, and they forget to tell a coherent story. We get so caught up sounding “right” or “perfect” or, dare I say, “genius,” we forget to entertain our audience and ourselves. We write, erase, write, erase, write some more, erase, get angry, and throw our notepads in the trash. Sound familiar? I thought it might.
A famous feminist poet from the 70s (I forget who–I’m shooting from the hip here), described writing as childbirth. She would sit at her desk and push for hours, sweating and crying, until the entire gory mass lie bawling and wriggling on the page. The way she described it: once childbirth starts, there are no pauses, and there’s definitely no room for perfection. Perfection’s down the hall in the waiting room, smiling on the cover of a lifestyle magazine. The operating room is a messy place, full of piss, shit, blood, tears, and after birth.
I love that image, but I don’t think of my words as “alive” after they’re on the page. The actual physical writing process is my work’s life. When I finally put my pen down, it’s dead. When I pick my pen back up and begin revising, I transform from parent to coroner: I dissect it and look at each part under a light and microscope. That’s where “literature” happens: that’s where I find the hidden meanings in my repetitions; identify symbols, themes, and motifs; and develop personal and social commentaries. Then I become a mortician. I pick out the elements I want to remain present, and I highlight them, hoping you’ll appreciate how well I’ve displayed it all.
Several years ago, Ray Bradbury was giving some presentation at some college somewhere (I have it on my bookshelf; I’ll look it up later, maybe). When a literature student asked him about fascist symbols and themes and in Farenheight 451, he replied, simply, that he hated television. Yes, literature is a great place for deep, intellectual conversation, but its primary function, for most writers I know, is to simply distract and entertain. Art is not what the artist creates; it’s what the viewer sees.
Stop eulogizing the living. Let them live first.
Anywho, that’s me this week. How do you describe your writing process? Do you find yourself eulogizing the living? Does it help or hinder your work? Leave a comment in the section below.
Also published on Medium.