I had to laugh at Nina’s writing theory. She really wasn’t much of an author herself; she scribbled poems here and there, started perpetually unfinished short stories, and dreamed of novelty. Nor was I what you could consider as a writer, unless you count the essays and papers I occasionally wrote as a doctorate student in literature. The dreaded dissertation would probably be my greatest writing attempt yet, though inevitably all sorts of academic books (or at least one) should feasibly follow. Nina, however, was partially right.
“So, you don’t think authors have to work at writing something? That they should just sit down as soon as the Muse strikes and scribble away?”
Nina smiled and nodded. “But what about Samuel Taylor Coleridge? Didn’t he spontaneously create Kubla Khan?
‘In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea’”
Nina quoted the first lines of the poem with delight. “Didn’t he just wake up from a dream and scribble it down? Until some dolt came by and he forgot the rest of it?”
“Perhaps,” I replied, “And I think that most people believe his story, but the Romantic idea of authorship is similar to your own. They thought of it as a divine gift, like Plato’s Ion suggests, simply bursting forth without expectation. Beckford claimed that he wrote Vathek in a short, furious burst when evidence suggests that its composition was much longer and actually jointly with his friend Samuel Henley. Matthew Lewis also stated that he wrote The Monk in an incredibly small period of time, but some letters to his mother and other bits show that he didn’t just sit down one day and start writing. He toyed with the idea for a while, and maybe even started a work that resembled The Monk until he finally sat down and wrote it.”
Nina waved a hand at me, “Don’t be dragging all of your superior literary knowledge stuff in.”
“You started it.” She opened her mouth and then closed it again, twisting her mouth into a bemused half-smile. “Anyway, my point was just that sometimes authors tell stories to make their great and wonderful works seem spontaneous while in reality they had to work hard on it. The initial idea might not be so difficult, but the actual output of a story—the getting the idea down on paper—is what gives writers the most trouble. Take you, for instance,” I said winking. Nina playfully threw a napkin toward me. “Barthes, or someone like him, wrote about that problem, that writing is never what you really mean to say, since you can’t translate thoughts to words properly and certainly can’t spit them out on a printed page. All you can do is get sort of close, but then your words to another person are not perhaps your thoughts…”
“Stop! Please!” laughed Nina. “You’re getting all theoretical and learned on me.” We laughed merrily. “Why is it our conversations always descend into this academic jabbering?”
“Descend? I’m offended that you think…”
“Not descend! That’s not what I meant!” Nina panicked, but then glared at me when she saw me suppressing a smile. “Uggh, you’re so obnoxious sometimes.” We grinned at each other. Nina had been my friend and coffee-drinking buddy since I moved to a new town to attend graduate school. She was a rather well-read English teacher who was working on her ESL certification at the university. She saw me reading The Lord of the Rings while drinking a massive cup of coffee and ignoring a pile of papers to grade, struck up a conversation, and we’ve been pals ever since. Nina was one of those rare people who can teach and love it, even with all the annoying teenagers who would rather be text-messaging their classmates than reading John Donne. I liked her because she was intelligent, liked to read, but preferred to do without much of the academic mumbo-jumbo that I waded through daily, even though she could be both understand and converse in it. She kept a check on that bit of myself which tended to ooze out; she also was able to provide me an outlet from the daily drudgery of school and reading.
“Ok, so new topic,” Nina declared, “How’s Natasha?” Natasha was my five-year old niece who I was guardian for. I had taken her on when she was just three years old and her parents were no longer able to care for her properly. My parents were too old to tend a toddler, and I couldn’t bear the thought of the silent, scared little girl being shuffled from home to home. So with a declaration, I had claimed her as my charge. It was stressful with graduate school, but I haven’t looked back.
“Natasha’s a darling, as usual,” I said with a proud grin. “Kindergarten posed some challenges when they asked her to finger-paint. She very primly asked for a brush because she does not approve of slimy substances on her fingers”. We both laughed. Nina was convinced that I was bringing up Natasha to simply be another literature student, which I vehemently denied, though secretly hoped to at least inspire an avid love of reading. “I want her to grow up as an artist or a writer or at least a lover of good art, good books, and good food,” I’d stated to Nina when pressed.
“Well, speaking of Natasha, I guess it’s about time for me to head home,” I sighed to my friend.
“Okay. Talk to you later!”
I walked home, musing over our conversation. Writing, the creative impulse, the inception of art was always something that fascinated me. Maybe it was because I felt that though I could study it, I could never create it. I’d start to write—a poem, a short story, a few failed attempts at varied novels, but then I’d stop. I’d go back, re-read what I’d written and become convinced something was lacking. Writing, to me, was something that you had to strive for; it was a thing to work toward, grasp, fight with, and inevitably conquer when you eventually produced something that wasn’t half-bad. That’s my writing—not half-bad. But never good enough to been seen by anything other than friendly and familiar eyes.
But maybe Nina hit on something, that ideas do often spring like little Athenas from the Zeus-like writer, fully formed and ready to be inscribed. However, perhaps they were more often a synthesis, like Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven crossed with Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kubla Khan. Both fantastic works—but Poe was frank about the care and tedious nature of his own approach to writing, or at least is in his essay, “The Philosophy of Composition.” The idea has to emerge from somewhere. And I too have had the wonderful sensation of having an interesting idea suddenly occur to me, the force of which normally knocks me down and forces me to at least scribble a note or a few lines on a scrap piece of paper. But those ideas were never fully formed, and I always had to shape them beyond the initial inspiration, push them around with my pen until finally it resembled something respectable.
I sighed into the autumn air and looked at the trees glowing brightly in their autumn colors. A small contentment stole over me as all the poetry swirled around in my head. I loved autumn and was often inspired to write about it—the colors, the sharp tang in the air that threatened the chill of winter, but still held the possibility of pleasantries. The world was rich and full and the promise of good writings to come held out its hand to me. Okay, I thought to myself, I’ll go home and keep writing. Isn’t that what all the writers say? No matter what, you’ve got to keep writing. I may die inconspicuously with nothing published, with a stack of moldering spiral-bound notebooks, but at least I’ll have kept writing.