I realized the other day that I have a very, very bad habit. I have been subtly aware of this habit for probably almost as long as I’ve had it, and yet it’s only recently that I’ve decided to face it and do something about it. My habit is laziness, or perhaps our old friend fear, or maybe it’s just my own misunderstanding of where creativity comes from. In any case, it’s time to go public and it admit what this habit is doing to my work.
Simply stated, I’m not giving my all.
I was reading some interview material from the late (and sincerely great) John Gardner last night, and in this reading he quoted Terry Southern as saying writing must come “out of the old gut and onto the goddamn page,” and regardless of the kind of page, damned or otherwise, it was the part about the “old gut” that caught my attention. What Southern is saying, I think, is that writing, everything really, should come from the gut, the place of intuition, where truth lives. It must do this if our work is to be any good because unlike the head, which is rational and seeks to control the writing, and unlike the heart which is sentimental and strives only for cheap relief of emotion, the gut tells us “this is how it really is.” The gut holds the truth. The Truth.
Recently I have been paying some attention to my bad habit. I tend to move between the head and the heart in two particular areas – nay – I dare say in every area of my life. The two particular areas where I pay the biggest price, however, are chess and writing. In these practices my habit manifests in the following attitude. I believe that I have time to “try” something out, knowing the idea is not fully formed, kidding myself that if it fails I will learn and keep the lesson ready for when I finally decide to give my best. In this time (which has yet to arrive) I will overwhelm my opponent (in chess) and I will devastate my reader (in writing) with the force of my all.
Instead I continue to dance around, heart-and-head, sentiment and reason. No truth.
The truth in chess, as with writing, is that there are far more opportunities to make mistakes than there are to make brilliant combinations. By taking a lazy approach to either activity the potential for mistakes grows exponentially. In chess, at least, the level of ones opponent may be similar to ones own, and with errors being made on both sides of the board neither is likely to have a quick advantage, thus allowing one side recovery if the error is caught in time. But writing, with the intent of having a wide and varied audience, is like playing chess in a tournament. All levels are present and only those who are most skilled, and who pay closest attention, will approach victory.
Back to my habit. There is something inside of me that is disgustingly lazy. The dream of committing my all to any one project is far more romantic than the practical experience of doing it. When I get an idea for something I feel it in the gut. Adrenaline shoots through my chest and stomach, tickles my hips with a lusty urge to make things brilliant and sensual and alive. My heart beats faster but, at first, it doesn’t get in the way. My mind stays hazy in the dream of the initial idea, and Truth courses through my body in streams of code. I make short, cryptic notes that get at the core of the idea, and sometimes they don’t mean anything concrete, but capture some flavor, like licorice tinged matchsticks, and such a notion becomes a world. But when it comes time to write I have already committed to withholding the deeper emotion, hesitating to share the obscure and torrid realities of my greatest ideas. I take short cuts. Simplify my story. Make it all safe.
That is not writing from the gut.
I suppose this is what revision is for (though you can’t revise in chess unless you’re playing the computer). With good revision I think it’s true that the truth can sort of be put into something that isn’t true to begin with. But I don’t think this is the best practice. When Natalie G. tells us to move our hand without stopping, to do it thoughtlessly while being specific, she is talking about writing from the gut. She is giving us the recipe for getting at the truth.
I don’t know about you but I am way overdue in telling the stories that are in my gut. My head and my heart have had their time, and maybe this was a necessary step in my development as a writer. I don’t know whether Bob Dillon or E.R. Burroughs or Henry Miller ever had a time when they were stuck in the head and the heart, but I doubt it. They got right to the gut and they stayed there.
I hope from now on we can all find the courage to go beyond the consciousness of our ideas and let them loose from the source of our intuition. This means telling the truth about the things we, as human beings, try to hide. Our real thoughts and feelings about love and sex, our friends and family, our neighbors and God. It means telling the truth about ourselves. In the end it may indeed be that the page is damned. All of the evidence in a story worth sharing is there. The condemned indict themselves. But this is why fiction has value, because it illuminates life as life really is. Even in genre fiction, good genre fiction, the truth is laid out to tell us something about the hidden truths of our existence.
And it all comes from the gut. The place where Truth lives.