The following essay ran in The Washington Post on August 5, 2001 as part of Book World’s series on “The Writing Life.”
People always want to know when and where you write. As if there’s a secret methodology to be followed. It has never seemed to me to matter to the work — which is the writer’s “essential gesture” (I quote Roland Barthes), the hand held out for society to grasp — whether the creator writes at noon or midnight, in a cork-lined room as Proust did or a shed as Amoz Oz did in his early days.
Perhaps the questioner is more than just curious, yearning for a jealously kept prescription on how to be a writer. There is none. Writing is the one “profession” for which there is no professional training: “Creative” writing courses can teach the aspirant only to look at her or his writing critically, not how to create. The only school for a writer is the library — reading, reading. A journey through realms of how far, wide and deep writing can venture in the endless perspectives of human life. Learning from other writers’ perceptions that you have to find your way to yours, at the urge of the most powerful sense of yourself — creativity. Apart from that, you’re on your own.
Ours is the most solitary of occupations; the only comparison I can think of is the keeper of a lighthouse. But the analogy mustn’t go too far; we do not cast the beam of light that will save the individual, or the world, from coming to grief on the rocks.
Another standard inquiry put to fiction writers: What is your message? Milan Kundera has provided the response: “A novel searches and poses questions. . . . The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything. It does not prescribe or proscribe answers.” We have the right and the obligation of honesty to imply moral judgments we know that people have, as exemplified in our fictional characters, because — I paraphrase Goethe — wherever the writer thrusts a hand deep into society, the world, something of the truth will come up. The writer stands before what has been dredged to light just as the reader will; what either makes of it will be individual moral judgment: her or his, the writer’s or reader’s, self-message.
That is the low-wattage beam I would claim for my own writings cast from my lighthouse, and for those of the great writers who have illuminated my life. For me, writing has been and is an exploration of life. That is why my novels and stories are what I call open-ended: I’ve taken up an invention of human beings at some point in their lives, and set them down again living at some other point. My novel written in the 1980s, “July’s People,” ends with a central character, a woman, wading through a shallow river, running from a situation. To what? I am often asked. The answer is I don’t know.
The only clues I have, and pass on for the reader in the text of the novel, are the social and historical context, the conflicting threats and pressures, personal and aleatory, of a time and place that would make up her options — what she could or might attempt next. The sole conclusion was one that I myself could come to, after I had re-read the novel (for a writer becomes a reader when the publisher’s proofs arrive): Crossing through the water was some kind of baptism into a new situation, new life, however uncertain, hazardous, even unimaginable in the light of how she had lived thus far.
One can’t even say that an individual death is the end of a story. What about the consequences the absence is going to have for others?
What about the aftermath of a political and societal conflict apparently resolved, in a novel whose final page leaves the men and women, the country, the cities, the children born to these, at that point? Again, the reader has the narrative and text that have gone before, to waken his or her own awareness, his or her own questioning of self and society.
If the writer does not provide answers, is he or she absolved from the ordinary human responsibility of engagement with society (apart from the “essential gesture,” extended through literature)?
Does the writer serve the raison d’etre that every human being must decide for the self, by asserting the exploration of the word as the end and not the means of the writer’s being? “Words became my dwelling place.” The great Mexican poet and writer Octavio Paz wrote this; but in his superb life’s work, on his intellectual journey, he invaded that place. He also wrote, “I learnt that politics is not only action but participation, it is not a matter of changing men but accompanying them, being one of them.” The reason-to-be was a bringing together of the dwelling place of the artist and the clamorous world that surrounded it.
The great Günter Grass told me: “My professional life, my writing, all the things that interest me, have taught me that I cannot freely choose my subjects. For the most part, my subjects were assigned to me by German history, by the war that was criminally started and conducted, and by the never-ending consequences of that era. Thus my books are fatally linked to these subjects, and I am not the only one who has had this experience.”
He certainly is not the only one.
In Europe, the United States, Latin America, China, Japan, Africa — where in the world could this not be so? None of us can “choose our subjects” free of the contexts that contain our lives, shape our thoughts, influence every aspect of our existence. (Even the fantasy of space fiction is an alternative to the known, the writer’s imaginative reaction to it.) Could Philip Roth erase the tattoo of the Nazi camps from under the skin of his characters? Can Israeli writers, Palestinian writers, now “choose” not to feel the tragic conflict between their people burning the dwelling place of words? Could Kenzaburo Oe create characters that do not bear the gene of consciousness implanted by Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Could Czeslaw Milosz, living through revolution and exile, not have to ask himself in his poem “Dedication,” “What is poetry, which does not save/ Nations or people?” Could Chinua Achebe’s characters not have in their bloodstream the strain of a civil war in Nigeria? In Africa, the experiences of colonialism, its apogee, apartheid, post-colonialism and new-nation conflicts have been a powerful collective consciousness in African writers, black and white. And the increasing interconsciousness, the realization that what happens somewhere in the world is just one manifestation of what is happening subliminally, everywhere — the epic of emigration, immigration, the world-wanderings of new refugees and exiles, political and economic, for example — is a fatal linkage. Not “fatal” in the deathly sense, but in that of inescapable awareness in the writer.
However, when a country has come through long conflict and its resolution, its writers are assumed to have lost their “subject.” We in South Africa are challenged — top of the list in journalists’ interviews — “So what are you going to write about now that apartheid has gone?”
Apartheid was a plan of social engineering, and its novels, stories, poetry and plays were an exploration of how people thought and lived, their ultimate humanity out of reach of extinction. Life did not end with apartheid; it began, from that human base. “The new situation must bring new subjects” — Czech writer Ivan Klima wrote this, in exile, and out of the breakup of his country. In South Africa there is not breakup and its violent consequences, but rather a difficult and extraordinary bringing together of what was divided. The new subjects, some wonderful, some dismaying, have scarcely had time to choose us.
“What do we know/ But that we face/ One another in this place” — William Butler Yeats. That is surely the subject that in the dwelling place of words, everywhere, chooses the writer.