Saturday, February 6, 2010

Inspiration: a dirty word

At Denis Johnson's colloquium last week at Stanford, he announced that he hasn't written in years, that he doesn't really miss it or care if he ever writes again.  This followed a reading the night before that was such a flop that some people who'd attended both events might have thought: I hope you mean it.  

He knew that the reading was a flop.  It almost seemed like he was deliberately making fun of his last published novel, a noir that seemed more like dishwater read aloud.  He stopped halfway through a scene, in mid-sentence, to say that he'd forgotten to read a key scene leading up to that one, then went back and read the skipped scene (which didn't seem all that key) before starting over from the top of the scene we'd already heard the bulk of, pausing every few sentences to Tourettishly pre-read the coming swear words (apparently he'd been told not to swear much, for the touchy donors' sakes), pausing to take a glug of water every time there was white space on the page (informing us that this was what he was doing), and rapping his knuckles on the lectern when characters in the story knocked on doors (commenting, "Did I really just do that?")  Singly, any of these tics could have been charming, and in fact he did come across as charming in a devilish way, but he was also strangely aware of the rotten performance he was delivering, yet seemingly unable to deliver anything better. 

"I should just stop and start over," he said about twenty minutes into the reading, and you could hear the audience shift in collective discomfort--nervous that he was going to read all of those "key" scenes over again, from the top.  No one wanted to hear it a second time, even if he ironed out the creases.

Maybe it feels strange to him to read from his fiction now that he's (apparently) not writing it anymore and has no forseeable plans to do so again--or so he says.  The colloquium at which he made this announcement is a regular and favorite Stanford event.  Every quarter they bring a big writer to campus, and the day after the writer's big reading, students and members of the community attend a kind of informal, lunch-hour chat where they can grill and schmooze with that visiting writer.  People were especially excited for Denis Johnson's visit.  I was too. 

Practically every fiction anthology that I know of features one of the stories from from Jesus' Son, usually "Emergency," which means that his work gets read in nearly every undergraduate creative writing class, where it inevitably inspires students to track down the slim and almost perfect novel-in-stories, which is unlike any other book really, utterly inimitable, yet impossibly tempting as a model for college students dying to write about their own experiences getting drunk and stoned and falling in love and messing it up.  (The student versions usually feature red cups and frat parties--only one of the reasons why they fail to live up to the prototype).  At the colloquium (before the big announcement) Denis Johnson answered what must be the inevitable and identical run of questions on Jesus' Son, telling the audience that the book was built of anecdotes, things he'd heard tossed around in bars, things he'd lived through when he was drinking, saying that people kept telling him that he should write those stories down, and he'd strung it all together without really knowing how the parts fit or what it meant.  There again was the self-deprecating self-awareness that had been part of his reading the night before, a kind of fuck it bravado assuring you that any flaw you might spot, he could point out first.  But I also appreciated the honesty--it seemed sincere, not a cop out--behind his admission that he isn't really sure how a lot of the stories in Jesus' Son work, or even if they work. 

Although I've read the book many times--for pleasure, and with envy, knowing I couldn't copy it if I tried, and to teach from, just like everyone else--the meaning and mechanics of some of those stories continues to elude me, which is one of the reasons I think that they're brilliant.  They can't be pinned down; they are too full of life; they wriggle out from under any attempt to nail them.  And they are so beautiful too, finding luminescence in the gutters, bringing the tragic right up against the comic like sandpaper rubbing against silk.  Some books, you find at the right moment, they intersect with who you are at that age and that time, but rereading them later, you're not entirely sure why you loved them as much as you did.  Jesus' Son is not one of those books.  It will never wind up in the bag of books destined for the used bookstore.  It won't grow dated, I don't think, just better with time.

This is why it was hard to hear his lackluster reading the night before, and then hard again to hear him confess (with that same fuck you/fuck it tone) that he's not writing anymore, and doesn't really care if he ever writes again.  Again the collective shift was audible, the discomfort palpable.  We are not used to hearing writers (especially ones as celebrated as Johnson) talk (gleefully no less) about giving it up, or giving up on it, or whatever he was saying exactly.  It had the same effect as if someone barely middle aged had announced to a room full of people that she was tired of sex, didn't miss it and didn't care if she ever had it again.  Really?  You mean that?  Don't you need it to feel alive?  The people in the audience were almost all writers or would-be-writers, from the hopeful undergraduates imitating Johnson's stories in their specially designated writing notebooks, to the peninsula professionals taking adult writing classes at Stanford in the evenings, meeting in writing groups in their precious spare time, reading how-to books on writing that invariably stress process over product and push the idea that you must put in the time, write every day even when you don't feel like it.  Perspiration over inspiration, etc...  And here was this award-winning author who has filled a shelf with his books (some better than others, but still) admitting that he's lost the inspiration, for now at least. 

I thought of a radio interview with Nick Hornby, who apparently struggled to get his first novel published, and didn't break into print until he had been writing for quite some time.  He said that a woman contacted him, complaining that her first novel was still unpublished, and asking how long she should keep at it before she gave up.  I can't give the exact quote, but he said something to the effect of: honestly, if you can ask that question, then you probably should.  He wasn't being harsh.  He meant that you should write if you feel a pressure to write, and if not then why not do something more immediately gratifying, less liable to lead to rejection?

Maybe Denis Johnson is doing something hard and necessary by "lying fallow" for a while.  Maybe there is something facile in the conventional writing book wisdom that we should all be writing, all the time, rather than waiting for inspiration.  Inspiration, these books suggest, is a cliche, an illusion, a trick of the id, that would rather be out shopping or drinking or seeing a movie, than sitting in a hard chair applying word after word to the page.  But how many Jesus' Sons is any one writer expected to have in him?  And what is that book if not inspired and inspiring?

Denis Johnson wasn't being completely honest either, when he said that he hasn't written in years.  In fact, he admitted with that same devilish glint in his eyes, he has been working around the clock on a TV show, which he described as "MASH meets In Treatment," which he said has had him up at four in the morning most days, dying to get back to the characters he is developing, to see what's going to happen to them next.  It sounds like it's coming from some kind of pressure point.  Jesus' Son was inspired by anecdotes traded by drunks at bars.  Who is to say where this might end up?


St. Andrew said...

Denis Johnson gave a similarly lackluster reading in Iowa City a few years ago, reading pieces from his (then unpublished) novel "Tree of Smoke." The audience wasn't feeling it, possibly because of the lack of enthusiasm in Johnson's voice--it was first draft, unrevised stuff and everyone could tell. He stopped halfway through the reading and asked if anyone had brought a copy of "Jesus' Son". Dozens of hands shot up. He finished off the reading with a few stories from "Jesus' Son" and everyone went home happy. Everyone, I would guess, except for Johnson.

Meggy said...

Maybe it's the combination of this post and the fact that I'm watching "Before Sunset," but I suddenly feel like I need to have a cigarette.

We tried to get Johnson to come to Michigan, but he requested more money than we had to offer; maybe it was for the best.