Why She Writes by Jayne Anne Phillips

by jayne anne phillips

The judge for our 2001 literary awards program was Jayne Anne Phillips. To read about Jayne Anne, spin on by the main SFWP site or visit her webpage.

This story originally appeared in “Why I Write”; edited by Will Blythe.

The Short Answer

I don’t know why, and I hope I never find out.

Guild Membership, Or Working the Hole

I admit I’m given to magical thinking (as though thinking should he anything else), and I would never actually demand of myself an answer to the question. What do I know about myself? Enough to know very little. I wouldn’t claim, as a celebrated writer once did, that “whatever is good about me is in the writing, all the rest is shit.” The same writer was asked if he had any friends or intimates who weren’t writers. “Why would I want to?” he responded — a response I understand and quietly applaud. I think of literary writers as members of a guild of outcasts, a species, through time, of the gifted handicapped, regardless of their success. You see, there really is no success — in terms of the writer, as opposed to the work. For the writer, the work is never what you thought it would be, or what you hoped. Sometimes it’s better; if the writing is any good, it struggles free of you, and the feeling of being inside it just as it moves away is so brief; a sensual visitation, the brush of His hand. You, on the other hand, are never free, or off the hook, it is never done, writing is a process, book to book, finished piece to abandoned fragment, dream to compulsion, every failure linked to its luminous twin star. Ah, the hook with its gleaming prong, the abyss with its deep, narrow slit, its dark that plummets forever! There is the divided consciousness, the sense of leading a double life, depending on how “normal” the writer appears to be, or tries to appear to be. People have said to me, “You wrote that? You look too normal.” You should look different, is the implication, you should have four arms or glow in the dark, so we can tell you from the rest of us at a glance and not be fooled. Writers drive cars, hold jobs off and on, raise children, climb mountains, and take out the garbage, but very few have retirement plans. Retirement from what? Thinking? Being? We try to handle our habit (William Burroughs: “I was working the hole with the sailor and we did not do bad”). We go off the rails and lose the job or screw up our relationships, then we pull it together; patch it up, but all the time, while we apologize, castigate ourselves, resolve to do better, the process of writing goes on, the secret reserve is honed and moving, moving toward writing, into writing, until death cancels all.

Double Life, Then and Now

Maybe back then, the expatriates in the cafes of Paris, Jack Kerouac when he was off with the boys instead of living with his mother, Colette with her diaries and lovers, Katherine Anne bedecked in emeralds, maybe they were writers all the time, every minute, the interior life was the life. That’s like the writer turned inside out, for all the world to see — not a pretty prospect, and not so brave, finally. Much harder to wear the white dress and smuggle notes through the hedge, live on the slim word delivered through the mails from a like mind, drive the carpool, and much riskier, too, because writing might vanish altogether. Writing, never truly fastened up by props, always threatens to flicker out, like the one flame that keeps you breathing, guttered in the draft. Yet writing will not desist. There is no question of stopping. You can be like Rimbaud and stop actually writing the words, but you can’t stop wanting to write, needing to; you can’t stop leaning toward language. And frankly, if you do stop, nothing will mean anything ever again, and you’ll watch all you love, everything you’ve ever wanted to save, all you need to invent, do a long, slow fade. You must try: commit to the magical, the invisible, while life itself keeps going, doing one thing while you save yourself for another — the writing. So you stand there with one foot in the pit, in the black hole that sucks its own energy into an alternate dimension. Light is inside it, far inside, blinding light. The light starts as glimmer, like phosphorescence on a fly’s wings, and bent color, like the bronzy reflections in an oily puddle, and gets brighter, bigger, hotter. You zip on the asbestos suit, deep inside the black slit, and walk through flames. It’s not about personality or strength or weakness; the writer may require a cork-lined room, fall down drunk daily, or be a perfectly lovely person. It’s about writing. The instant the protection of language falls away, there is the odor of singed hair. Fall back! Fall back! And begin a renewed approach. We’re in control of our rituals. We’re in control of a repetition of discipline, of sitting in the chair. When something works, it may feel I like the strike of lightning or a solar storm, but it’s never a sustained climate. The writer can’t make it happen, or make it happen again. Deep into a poem, a story, a novel, through practice and the honing of instinct, the writer can begin to follow the work, descend with it, a brain in a diving bell, breathing through a tube.

Open Veins

Despite membership in the guild of outcasts, writers do, by quirk of fate or sex or addiction or parenthood, become intimate with others, with those who don’t originate from the planet of words and language. Other things do happen, but we don’t know what they are until we write about them, or think about them in words, or remember them in phrases. Experience, more real than words, vanishes. Intimacy is transitory, but its effect lasts as long as consciousness regards it. Words float memory, awaken desire; words do pull people in, even demanding, haunting words, because language is, finally, a matter of survival. Mama. I want Yes. No. Stop. Go. And more. Human beings can’t live without the illusion of meaning, the apprehension of confluence, the endless debate concerning the fault in the stars or in ourselves. The writer is just the messenger, the moving target. People love turning their backs on writers, as they will, repeatedly, turn their backs on themselves. Inside culture, the writer is the talking self. Through history, the writing that lasts is the whisper of conscience, and history regards individual voices in various ways at various times according to the dictates of fashion, whimsy, values, politics. The guild of outcasts is essentially a medieval guild existing in a continual Dark Age, shaman/monks, witch/nuns, working in isolation, playing with fire. When the first illuminated manuscripts were created, few people could read. Now that people are bombarded with image and information and the World Wide Web is an open vein, few people can read. Reading with sustained attention, reading for understanding, reading to cut through random meaninglessness — such reading becomes a subversive act. We’re not talking detective books, romance, cookbooks, or self-help. We’re talking about the books writers read to feel themselves among allies, to feed themselves, to reach across time and distance, to hope.

Nature and Nurture

The writer is, first, genetically predisposed to write, and second, born into a constellation that nurtures her. That constellation is composed of fixed stars that move through time in concert with one another: the mother, the father, the brothers, the sisters, whoever comprises one’s primal family, one’s first universe. Whether present or absent, the father and mother first function as magnetic poles, polar opposites, counterparts, North Star, the tip of the Southern Cross. That universe is characterized by relationship and history: the unresolved childhood dilemmas of the mother and father, the passion and/or lonely distance between them, the dashed expectations that may find new life in relationship to the child of the union, the child who takes the place of the counterpart, the child who becomes the parent, the child who becomes the confidant, the child who becomes . . . there are endless variations. But the child who evolves into a writer is the child in the process of becoming, who moves into position, who receives the bad and the good, who notices, who listens, who remembers, who saves, and he or she first does so for the sake of the loved one, the giant who shines such light and casts such shadow. Recognition is burden arid blessing: the child is recognized as special, presented with truths or secrets, told stories. Promises are spoken or simply evolve. The writer is not the child who is ignored, or the one simply indulged. More often, the writer is one to whom much is given or entrusted, verbally or spiritually, the one of whom much is expected, the one with whom a bond beyond death is forged. The child is amply influenced, chameleon-like, perhaps, able to leap points of view in a single bound, possessed of a permeable identity. The die is cast. If the child survives, is educated, encounters teachers in books and schools, in streets, on corners, he or she begins to write, becomes an outlaw early on. The giant who first embraced the child may stand back aghast. The writer’s first affinity is not to a loyalty, a tradition, a morality, a religion, but to life itself, and to its representation in language. Nothing is taboo. The writer will go anywhere, say anything to get it said; in fact, the writer is bent on doing so. The writer is bent.

Tortured and Tantalized

Ego enters in, but writing is far too hard and solitary to be sustained by ego. The writer is compelled to write. The writer writes for love: for lost love, perhaps. The writer lives in spiritual debt to the someone or something who needed saving, who first passed on the talisman — language, the gold key in the palm of meaning. Writers of literature don’t write for gain or attention or praise, though they’ll take all that when they can get it. There are exceptions, but even “successful” writers, when their incomes are averaged out over a working lifetime, do well to make a postman’s salary, without the benefits. There are teaching salaries, but teaching shoots writing in the head. Sometimes the writer lives on afterward, blinking to say what he wants. But it’s like when you stop smoking: the writer quits teaching, and the lungs pick up in ten weeks, the brain relearns its functions. The writer is an autonomic nervous system, a heart that won’t stop pumping. The writer dreams selectively, more attentive to the conversation going on behind him than to the one in which he is engaged. The writer is probably ADD; she values her deficits and often leads with them. The writer is a good mom; he feeds the baby and then forgets where he left it. She’s a stalwart soldier; her weapon is in good repair, but she keeps mixing up borders, crossing into occupied territory. They both cook for the troops. They take in strays, recognize wandering souls. Good Buddhists, they ring the bell when it’s time to sit. Their practice involves silence, focus, white space, waiting. Alone yet postcoital, associatively drenched, they arrange small, two-dimensional symbols in endless combinations. The avatar is inside the word; there will be an audience soon. Awake, asleep, in every moment of being, the writer stands at the gate. The gate may open. The gate may not. Regardless, the writer can see straight through it.

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