Friday, July 4, 2008

The Dark Boquet of Doubt


Gabriel García Marquez was once asked, "Does a blank piece of paper distress you as it does other writers?"

"Yes," he answered, "It's the most distressing thing I know next to claustrophobia."

I agree with García Marquez, although the terms of my distress are distinctive. Garcia Marquez sees a blank page and possibly envisions himself trapped underwater, in an iron box; when I see a blank page I envision myself standing on the minuscule summit of a mountain peak, looking out. I'm standing on my toes, and of course, I'm naked. I have no idea how I got here, no idea how I'll get down. When I look out, I see a voluminous wall of glacial white. When I look down, I see an enormous abyss, looming under my feet.

"When you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you," writes Nietzsche.

This is the blank page: the abyss that looks into you.

So I stand there, looking in, being looked in. I consider my options.

I consider leaping over the abyss. (But what if I miss the other side?)

Then I consider building a bridge across the abyss. (But what if the structure of the bridge fails?)

So I peer over the ledge. Every now and then I call out some name, a few nonsense words. The words come back to me, disembodied, like intonations from a distant, unknown twin, peering from the bottom of the abyss, and calling up. Suddenly, I want to meet this man, this alluring dopplegänger. So, finally, I jump.

Of course, if you're a writer, sooner or later you jump--you jump everyday, sometimes numerous times a day. It's scary (What the fuck is down there?) You're utterly full of doubt (What if my parachute fails?!) And you're alone out there (The only echo you hear is yourself.) So it's natural to question this situation, to doubt.

But still, you jump...

It's a long fall, fraught with the silence of swift air. You engage your chute.

You hit land.

Suddenly, you're standing again, high on a dune. There above you is the blue sky, in which two or three clouds, patterned by some crafty god to look like seashells, drift. Intoxicated by the scene, you raise you hands high and exhale deeply. A light breeze amuses your skin.

You survived! The freedom is so fresh you feel utterly overjoyed.

You're so overjoyed, in fact, you fail to see the enormous abyss, looming under your feet.


In his biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Andrew Turnbull notes that before beginning The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald re-read Joseph Conrad's preface to Nigger of the Narcissus which states that a work of art should carry its own justification in each line. Then, while writing his novel, Fitzgerald kept his ambition clear: he wanted to create, line by line, a work of art. In doing so, he later wrote, he "tread slowly & carefully at times in considerable distress."

I've been working on a novel and I must admit: I've been experiencing considerable distress. I'd like to think I am making a conscious effort, like Fitzgerald, to produce, line by line, a work of "art." But this is not my ambition. In fact, my ambition seems to oppose Fitzgerald's ambition entirely: I simply want to finish the novel, quickly.


Gabriel García Márquez speaks similarly of Fitzgerald's type distress: "At the beginning, when I was learning my craft," he says, "I wrote jubilantly, almost irresponsibly. I remember, in those days, I could easily write four, five, even ten pages of a book after I'd finished work on the newspaper...Once, I wrote a whole short-story at a single sitting…Now I'm lucky if I write a good paragraph in a whole day. With the passage of time the act of writing has become very painful."

So, is writing inherently distressful? Or, is this a burden that comes only with age, with experience? I admit, for me, writing is often quite distressful. I plod, from sentence to sentence, torturing myself over each word. And yet, still, I am doubtful.

Then there are those rare moments, those titanic instances, when I feel inhabited by the muse, utterly overwhelmed and inspired. Then, I literally gush words. I am confident!


I'm a whimsical, moody guy. I change, day to day. Carried along by my changing moods, I feel exhilarated one day, mopey the next. For example: I sit down on Friday, start writing a story. I'm full of confidence. I'm certain the story will be published. It's my best yet.

Saturday morning, I wake up, hung-over, and read my story. Suddenly I see the truth: It's actually terrible! It will never be published. I'm full of uncertainty.

What do I do?

I like what Uncle Deano says (in a letter he wrote me when I was 21):

"Allow yourself to be uncertain but don't let your uncertainty turn to despair because it can be wonderful to write when you're sad and full of the dark bouquet of doubt, but misery lends itself to silence and one must get out of bed every morning and prepare for the great celebration of one's own imagination, even if it doesn't happen that day."

So I sit down, full of doubt, and write.


I suppose this is just a ridiculously convoluted way to get to this point: You have to just sit down, full of doubt, and write. Everyday.

This is the only thing you can do. You write. You write, with wild ambition; without undue expectation. This is what writers do, obviously.

And each of us is all alone on the edge, looking down, with only one parachute: me, you, Fitzgerald,
García Marquez, Uncle Deano.

Everyone feels doubt: everyone.

I think you need to make a distinction, though.

When you're on that ledge, feeling doubtful, the doubt is something, isn't it? It's a beginning. It's a challenge. Maybe you
need that doubt. After all, certainty is for the mathematician; the technician. But writers just might need uncertainty in order to work. To me, at least, writing's not fun unless it's something to figure out, a way of figuring out something. I think you'd agree. Nobody wants to write the story already written (except, of course, Pierre Menard.)

To me, doubt is a sort of wonderful, weird fuel. I suspect it's what skydivers call adrenaline. And it's pretty much what makes every single thing in life interesting.

(Will Federer beat Nadal in the Wimbledon final? Will I like Wall-E?)

The distinction you might need to make, then, is between doubt and despair.

Do you want to write? Do you believe in writing, as a life? Do you sense the celebration, looming?
Sky-diving, after all, is fun. It's risky, too. It's not fun, though, if you're sure you're going to die each time you jump. Odds are, that won't happen.

So, if you don't like these odds, why are you standing at the edge, looking over?