Every human being has paid the earth to grow up. Most people don’t grow up. It’s too damn difficult. What happens is most people get older. That’s the truth of it. They honor their credit cards, they find parking spaces, they marry, they have the nerve to have children, but they don’t grow up. Not really. They get older. But to grow up costs the earth, the earth. It means you take responsibility for the time you take up, for the space you occupy. It’s serious business. And you find out what it costs us to love and to lose, to dare and to fail. And maybe even more, to succeed. What it costs, in truth. Not superficial costs—anybody can have that—I mean in truth. That’s what I write. What it really is like.
The unique thing about writers is that they write. Therefore they are pickier about words, at least on paper. But everyone “writes” in a way; that is, each person has a “story”—a personal narrative—which is constantly being replayed, revised, taken apart, and put together again. The significant points in this narrative change as a person ages—what may have been tragedy at twenty is seen as comedy or nostalgia at forty. All children “write.” (And paint, and sing.) I suppose the real question is why do so many people give it up.
Wouldn’t you rather be known as a great exponent of literature rather than as an African American writer?
It’s very important to me that my work be African American; if it assimilates into a different or larger pool, so much the better. But I shouldn’t be asked to do that. Joyce is not asked to do that. Tolstoy is not. I mean, they can all be Russian, French, Irish or Catholic, they write out of where they come from, and I do too. It just so happens that that space for me is African American; it could be Catholic, it could be Midwestern. I’m those things too, and they are all important.
Why do you think people ask, Why don’t you write something that we can understand? Do you threaten them by not writing in the typical Western, linear, chronological way?
I don’t think that they mean that. I think they mean, Are you ever going to write a book about white people? For them perhaps that’s a kind of a compliment. They’re saying, You write well enough, I would even let you write about me. They couldn’t say that to anybody else.
I mean, could I have gone up to André Gide and said, Yes, but when are you going to get serious and start writing about black people? I don’t think he would know how to answer that question. Just as I don’t. He would say, What? I will if I want to, or, Who are you? What is behind that question is, there’s the center, which is white, and then there are these regional blacks or Asians, or any sort of marginal people. That question can only be asked from the center.
Bill Moyers asked me that when-are-you-going-to-write-about question on television. I just said, Well, maybe one day … but I couldn’t say to him, you know, you can only ask that question from the center. The center of the world! I mean he’s a white male. He’s asking a marginal person when are you going to get to the center, when are you going to write about white people. I can’t say, Bill, why are you asking me that question? Or, As long as that question seems reasonable is as long as I won’t, can’t. The point is that he’s patronizing; he’s saying, You write well enough; you could come on into the center if you wanted to. You don’t have to stay out there on the margins. And I’m saying, Yeah, well, I’m gonna stay out here on the margin, and let the center look for me.
1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.
2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.
4. If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.
5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.
6. If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.
However bad life is, what’s important is to make something interesting out of it. And that has a lot to do with the physical world, with looking at stuff, snow and light and the smell of your screen door and whatever constitutes your phenomenal existence from moment to moment. How consoling—that this stuff goes on and that you can keep thinking about it and making that into something on the page.
Anne Carson explains an idea that she and Alice Munro have in common (attachment to the physical world and the details in life), from The Art of Poetry No. 88, Paris Review
In surfaces, perfection is less interesting. For instance, a page with a poem on it is less attractive than a page with a poem on it and some tea stains. Because the tea stains add a bit of history. It’s an historical attitude. After all, texts of ancient Greeks come to us in wreckage, and I admire that—the layers of time you have when looking at sheets of papyrus that were produced in the third century b.c. and then copied and then wrapped around a mummy for a couple hundred years and then discovered and put in a museum and pieced together by nine different gentlemen and put back in the museum and brought out again and photographed and put in a book. All those layers add up to more and more life.
In the beginning, I used nature as a mask for writing about private feelings. Oscar Wilde says somewhere that man is least himself when writing in his own person. But give him a mask and he will tell you the truth. This, in part, is why myths and fairy tales are so valuable to poets—they are masks.
It has to be said, perhaps with some regret, that the first thing that distinguishes a writer is that he is most alive when alone, most fully alive when alone. A tolerance for solitude isn’t anywhere near the full description of what really goes on. The most interesting things happen to you when you are alone.