A hand writes on a sheet of notebook paper.
The author watches.
The author watches the hand – his hand? – as it scrawls in that familiar handwriting, words upon words, line after line, staining fingertips blacker and blacker with ink.
He sees the deep wrinkles of the knuckles, the vein that snakes across the bridge of his tendons, the mottled marks of age. He wonders how this hand can write so effortlessly, steadily, each movement a masterpiece of economy, until the page is full and a fresh one begun. What guides this hand so perfectly in its motion? He is doing nothing; he is merely sitting, watching a performance he has set into motion, like the first cause in a Deist universe.
The author sees what the hand has written, and it is good.
I don’t know where this image comes from.
I believe it’s from The Uses of Literature by Italo Calvino, but I read it many years ago and the details have gone foggy.
As a description of the writing process, it’s extraordinary. I get it instantly.
I’ve watched my hand do the very same thing:
Write, without any help from me.
The image calls into question traditional concepts of authorship, where the conscious mind of the artist creates every deliberate detail.
Ever since Derrida called us to look outside the margins, we writers can no longer claim full conscious ownership of everything we write. There is too much unconscious going on, too much subtext, too much excluded by the belief systems that govern how we see the world. The details we don’t write are often the ones that speak the loudest.
Most novelists will tell you that the favorite part of their job is when their story begins to take on a life of its own. Characters do things that are unexpected; they pull the story in new directions. The novelist wakes up each morning excited to find out what is going to happen. So much for the myth of control. The editor is the one who controls the story; the writer is the one who lets the story tell itself through her (or him).
So can we honestly say, then, that we own the words we write? Is it really possible to stake a claim on a story, burning the brand of copyright deep upon its flanks?
Or do the words we write own us?
Perhaps our stories use us as a vessel. Perhaps they linger in the ether, seeking a suitably open mind through which to channel their message. Perhaps they’re just memes, as Richard Dawkins would say, that seek only to replicate themselves through as many authorial hands as possible.
I think the latter is most likely.
This notion of the author as a vessel is ancient. It’s most obvious in the practice of what’s called “channeling” or “automatic writing.”
Channeling is when a person opens him- or herself up to receiving messages from the spirit world. While in a trance-like state, the person’s hand may be guided to write down a message.
The experience is different for every person. Some people hear an ethereal voice in their mind and transcribe the voice’s message onto paper. Others are in such a deep trance state that they write without being conscious of the act, awakening afterwards with no recollection of what just happened.
One of the most recent popular examples of channeled writing is Neale Donald Walsch’s Conversations with God (1995). Walsch sat down one day with a notebook and wrote an angry letter to God, asking Him all sorts of hard questions about why his life had turned out the way it did. To his surprise, God answered him back.
If it’s possible for the spirit world to rely messages through us, why not go further and say that ALL writing flows through us from Jung’s Collective Unconscious? After all, there isn’t a story that hasn’t been told before, or a thought that hasn’t been thought before. Nothing is new under the sun, right?
So perhaps what makes a good writer is receptivity, the ability to turn off the conscious mind and let it flow.
I read once that a writer must wear two hats: a writer’s hat and an editor’s hat.
When the writer is wearing the writer’s hat, she shouldn’t think too much about what she’s writing. She should just go with it and let thoughts flow onto the page. Her goal should be to remove any blocks that stand between her and her topic.
That’s a fun hat to wear. You can wear it drunk (Hemingway) or stoned (Kerouac).
When she’s done, it’s time to put on the editor’s hat. The editor has the power to un-write. The editor looks over the raw mess that the writer has produced and tries to make sense of it all. The editor takes away irrelevant bits, cleans up messy sentences, inserts better paragraph breaks and headings, and shapes the whole thing into something consumable by the general public.
The secret to being a great writer is to never try to jam on both hats at the same time.
If you’re writing, don’t waste your time worrying if what you wrote is good enough or clear enough or relevant. When your work is in progress, don’t try to edit it. Often, it won’t be until you’re totally done that you’ll understand what the piece was about.
If you’re editing, be ruthless. Don’t let a writer’s sentimentality keep you attached to certain images or scenes if they don’t serve the purpose of the larger story. You’re charged with throwing out about half of what was written. Even the best writers produce an awful lot of crap. What makes them great is that they aren’t afraid to sift out the chaff from the wheat.
To me, this metaphor of wearing “two hats” resolves perfectly the question of authorship.
The writer channels messages from deep in her subconscious, or connects to the collective unconscious to create stories that are rich in unintentional meaning.
The editor consciously shapes that raw material into a deliberate, precise final draft, much like Michelangelo sculpting David from the vision he saw in a slab of stone.
If you’re writing, trust in your hands a bit more. Try to sit back, relax, and let your fingers do the work for you. They know more than you think.
Once you’re finished, it’s time for you to take control and shape the words you’ve just produced into some sort of order. At this stage, your hands know to respect their master, the brain.
And go read The Uses of Literature by Italo Calvino, for goodness sake, and let me know what’s in it!