blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1



Going Out Into the Crazy:
Some Thoughts About Real Writing and Real Reading

In much the way that a minister will build a sermon upon a selected biblical text, I am today going to deliver what might be called a secular sermon or meditation on a sentence by Edgar Allan Poe from his essay "Peter Snook"—not the actual sentence, mind you, but an inaccurate version I quoted to Erin Pope, one of my students, the other day while we were discussing the way writing is written. I'll tell you what Poe actually wrote a bit later, but here is the sentence as I misquoted it at the time: "To originate is carefully, patiently, and lovingly to combine." I would like to use that newly minted (or recombined) Poe sentence to talk to you a bit this morning about the mysterious process of writing, reading, and the creation of meaning by writing and reading.

As I remember it, when I was an undergraduate at Roanoke College and a student in Professor Matthew M. Wise's course, English 44: Shakespeare's Comedies, I made a discovery. It was a discovery that I found very useful at the time as a device for getting through that difficult course unscathed, but I did not really come to understand its implications and larger meaning until maybe twenty years later—which I suspect is about the time it takes to figure out what you actually learned in college apart from what you thought you learned. Or maybe I was just a slow study. But, be that as it may, I thought that I would talk about that discovery today and use it to discuss briefly why some of us write what Vladimir Nabokov would call "real writing," or to use a somewhat less aggressive term, imaginative literature, and why all of us should read it with the same care, patience and love with which it was written.

You'd think that by now, after two or three millennia of poems and plays and stories and, more recently, novels and movies, there would be no need to talk or even think about the value of imaginative writing. But, after having spent some forty years as a college teacher—starting with my first teaching job here at Roanoke College in the summer of 1961 when I was all of twenty-three years old—and having during those decades heard many of my colleagues from other disciplines (I won't say less imaginative disciplines, just other disciplines) reveal that they really have no idea how or why imaginative writing comes to be written or read or, especially, understood, I know that such a discussion is not only valuable but probably even necessary.

But first, about my discovery:

We read nineteen Shakespeare plays that semester, some, in my case, I'll confess, a bit more hurriedly than others. I remember casting about for something fresh to say in a paper on Measure for Measure and, apparently finding nothing in my head at all worthy, going to the library to seek inspiration from the scholarly books there. I did manage to find in a little green-bound volume of essays on Shakespeare an essay interpreting the play skillfully and with great assurance by someone whose name the ensuing years have happily hidden from me. I was smart enough even then to realize that meekly repeating and supporting this scholar's reading was not going to do the job. I needed a new and fresh approach to the play, one that I seemed to be unable to find on my own and one that I couldn't find merely by looting the stacks of the library.

It was then that I made my discovery: I realized that by quoting an essential passage from the scholar's reading of the play and then arguing with that passage, presenting a new reading exactly the opposite of his, I would have my fresh approach. I read and reread the play, scoured it for evidence to show that my reverse reading was a better reading than the scholar's, convinced myself with growing enthusiasm that I was right, that mine was a completely "new and dynamic" reading of the play.

[I should tell you here that I found the words "new" and "dynamic" describing that paper in the back of my old notebook for that class in one of a number of embarrassingly cocky notes I appear to have passed across the aisle in class to my friend, Lou Kennamer Barnett. The only good thing about that little exhibition of bad classroom behavior is that I chose my cohort in crime well, for Louise Barnett is today one of the jewels in Roanoke College's crown, a Professor of English at Rutgers University and the author of five important and well-received scholarly books in literature and cultural studies, most notably Touched by Fire: The Life, Death, and Mythic Afterlife of George Armstrong Custer, which was published by Henry Holt in 1996.]

But to get back to my discovery: for my immediate purposes, it worked perfectly. I wrote the paper, I got a good grade on it (my memory prompts me to believe that surely it was an A, although the actual grade is as happily hidden from me in the same thick haze of history as that scholar's name), and I had actually managed to discover on my own an old student's trick that has gotten many a fledgling scholar through college and graduate school and on into a long and honored academic career. After that breakthrough, I used my new technique for writing papers more than once with great success. In fact, I am using it in this very lecture.

What I also discovered that day in the Roanoke College library, although it took me years to figure it out, is the very thing about imaginative literature and the study of imaginative literature that has caused and continues to cause so many of my esteemed faculty colleagues so much trouble with what I and my fellow writers and scholars of literature do. Without my having to dig through the stacks of the college library to find that scholarly essay and, in order to find my paper, through the much more disorderly stacks of manuscripts and old papers in the detritus of my cluttered cellar, I can tell you right now that, despite our complete disagreement about Measure for Measure, that anonymous Shakespeare scholar and I were probably both saying something valuable and meaningful about the play (despite my prose style which in those days was less than felicitous). We both read the same words in the same order and, despite the baseness of my motivation, we both probably studied those words with care and patience and love. We both organized our thoughts and made our compelling cases, and despite the contradictory nature of those cases, each of us was probably as "right" about the meaning of the play as the other.

Now, granted that Shakespeare, given the chance to examine both our readings (and God grant that Will is safe in heaven and won't have to do so, for surely only in hell would a writer have to read all the critical discussions of his or her work, and there probably over and over forever) . . . anyway, if Shakespeare did have the opportunity to read those essays, he might well say that one is the superior reading, closer to his intention anyway, but I'm willing to say that Shakespeare's own reading of his own play might not really be better than mine or my unknown scholar's. Authors don't have the last word or even necessarily the best word about their own work, and they certainly don't have the absolutely final word; they are allowed only certain limited privileges in the reading of their own work when they are alive and fewer when they're dead.

And that's the point, what I'm getting at, the thing that frustrates my puzzled colleagues and leads them to doubt the value of what "real writers" do and also what "real readers" do. Unlike certain textbooks in other fields of intellectual endeavor, there are no answers in the back of the book in imaginative texts and no possibility that there could be any. At best, there is an introduction and a set of notes giving one scholar's reading of the work in hand, perhaps one that pretends to be the final and definitive answer to the question of the meaning of the text but one that really isn't. And yet, even the author of the play (or story or poem or novel) might well learn something and even a great deal from that introduction and those notes.

[Allow me a brief aside concerning detective stories and novels: These works actually do have answers in the back. Hercule Poirot or one of his hundreds of compatriots actually tells the reader whodunit and how he knows that his answer is correct. Many of my colleagues who cannot bring themselves to read the work of "real writers" read detective stories with gusto and enthusiasm and seem to be completely satisfied with the solutions offered at the end. If they actually thought about the best of their detective novels rather than just checked their deductions against the answers in the back, they might agree with Nora Charles in Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man when, after hearing her husband Nick explain whodunit and how he knew, she says, "That may be . . . but it's all pretty unsatisfactory." But I don't want to spoil their sole literary pleasure, so I'll leave them to their answers and get back to my lecture.]

When confronted with my claim that a "real writer" doesn't know everything that's going on in his or her work, my frustrated colleagues cry, "How can that be?" They either refuse to believe me and remain sure that there must be a right and absolutely correct meaning to every piece of imaginative writing, or, gnashing their teeth, claim that I have just proven the silliness of what I have spent my life doing. How, they say, can we take seriously and learn anything from a piece of writing in which even the author doesn't know what's going on?

Before I answer them and, by so doing, confound these Elders of the Temple of Academe, let me offer you a simple piece of evidence that "real writers" don't entirely know what is going on in the piece that they are writing or have written, and that that is as it should be, and is, in fact, at the heart of the enterprise.

Anyone who has participated in a creative writing class with first-rate student writers (as I've been doing regularly for the last thirty-eight years) has often seen the look of shock and bafflement and wonderment on the face of a writer who hears another member of the class reveal the hidden wonders and complexities of his or her poem or story (wonders and complexities that our startled author had no idea were there). It happens all the time. The story or poem seems to have a life of its own, makes connections within and without itself that amaze its author, has depths that only reveal themselves to its author as its "real readers" begin to report in.

[To ease the confusion of my worried colleagues and their ilk, to say nothing of keeping the secrets of our craft and sullen art away from those who have neither eyes to see nor ears to hear, I tell my students when one of those moments of startling truth occurs in the outside world beyond the safe confines of our classroom to nod calmly and say, "Why, thank you. I'm glad you noticed."]

It is this open status of imaginative literary works (of "real writing") that gives my colleagues such pause and that at the same time makes the reading and writing of those stories and poems and plays and novels so exciting and so valuable. A work of imaginative literature is not a finished report of an experience or thought process that is certifiably correct or incorrect (with those answers in the back of the book); it is rather an experience itself, one shaped in figurative and rhythmical language to be sure, but an actual experience nonetheless. It is not an account of meaning that has already been arrived at by whatever logical or experimental process; it is rather an engine for the generation of meaning, a vital field from which meaning may arise in the minds of its readers. The artist is not, like Bruno Anthony, the murderous madman in Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, someone who knows "all the answers," but is rather someone who scarcely knows where he or she is going, but one who trusts the exciting process of imaginative creation and one who knows when he or she gets there.

The basic misconception that causes people to distrust and underestimate both the writing and the reading of imaginative literature is the widely shared belief that the creative process is either an essentially irrational one resulting in emotional effusions without ideational content or that it is an essentially rational one in which a writer sets out to illustrate a theme and logically constructs a set of words which will lead each and every reader to the discovery of that very theme. Writers ("real writers" among them) have unfortunately on occasion lent themselves to one or the other of these mistaken ideas in an effort to mollify those who think them silly at best and mad at worst. Edgar Poe's "Philosophy of Composition," which purports to explain how he wrote "The Raven" in much the way that one would build a tool shed, rings absolutely false to anyone who has ever written a real poem. On the other hand, William Faulkner's claim that he found The Sound and the Fury in the single image of a little girl with muddy drawers who has climbed a tree to look into a window rings absolutely true. I am willing to bet you that Poe found his way into "The Raven" by a process of discovery as emotionally and aesthetically grounded as he claimed it was calculatedly rational, much in the way that carefully, patiently, and lovingly Faulkner explored, through the exercise of his craft, the powerful and puzzling quality of that initial image as far as it would allow him to go. In neither case was the process purely rational or purely irrational but a combinative fusion of the two; and in neither case can the resulting piece of writing be said to have an answer or even a set of answers that can be tidily printed in the back of the book.

As Vladimir Nabokov once put it: ". . . the real writer, the fellow who sends planets spinning and models a man asleep and eagerly tampers with the sleeper's rib, that kind of author has no given values at his disposal: he must create them himself."

The act of imaginative writing (and the act of imaginative reading) is, I assure you, at one and the same time, rational, irrational, intuitive, exploratory, exciting, enlightening, seldom comforting, often dangerous, always adventurous, and absolutely nuts. It makes you leap up from your chair, ruffling your hair, a divine frenzy whirling in your eyes, and it possesses you of an extraordinary calm that is beyond mere understanding.

Does all that sound really crazy?

I'll grant you that it would certainly seem to offer some pretty good ammunition to my frustrated colleagues. The poet Julia Johnson and I have long called the process of real writing "going out into the crazy," a going out into a place where the normal rules of perception and understanding don't apply in order to find and bring back a new way of seeing and saying. And I'll admit right here and now that there is an almost frightening similarity between the way an imaginative writer's mind works and the delusional workings of a crazy person's mind. I don't mean deadly madmen like Hitchcock's Bruno Anthony or the narrator of Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart," maniacs who believe that they really do know all the answers or hear "all things in the heaven and in the earth," but rather those relatively harmless souls who obsessively see patterns in the clouds and compulsively read messages in the paths of squirrels across the sanatorium lawn, inscrutable patterns and mysterious messages that "perhaps appertain to eternity alone."

The similarity rests not in delusional behavior but rather in the way both creative, imaginative thought and the kind of madness I'm speaking of are conjunctive in nature rather than disjunctive in the manner of analytical thought. In other words, poets and madmen join things together into patterns, recombine the "things and thoughts of Time" (those words are Poe's again) into new shapes and forms, or, as Nabokov put it, create a world that is "recombined in its very atoms, not merely in its visible and superficial parts." Paranoiacs and conspiracy theorists do this all the time: recombine the data of existence into a new and menacing form; just think of the elaborate mental constructs attempting to explain the truth of the Kennedy assassination or the attack of September Eleventh. The difference between the poets and the madmen is, of course, that poets understand the complex and mysterious relationship between their recombinations and the world from which those combinations grew and to which they return, while madmen, who "know all the answers," allow their recombinations to replace the real world.

To rational, analytical thinkers, in any case, the behavior of both poets and madmen seems suspiciously similar. Analytical thought is by its very nature disjunctive. That is, it disassembles any given whole into its component parts and attempts to gain an understanding of the whole by a close examination and categorization of those parts. Remember Sir Francis Bacon's Renaissance contention that, once our scientific instruments were developed sufficiently for us to see both the tiniest and largest things in the material world, we would then know all things, we would then have all the answers at the back of the book of life. Much of our scientific thought today (but not all of it, as chaos physicists remind us every day) is still based on that contention, even though, the better our instruments get, the further away we seem to get from the "basic building blocks of matter" or the edges of the cosmos. I might add that Bacon's assertion that we would know all things sounds to me suspiciously like Hitchcock's Bruno Anthony. I am even willing to say that it may well be that analytical, disjunctive thinking is even more akin to that of murderous madmen than the conjunctive recombinations of imaginative creative thinking are to the harmless obsessions of pattern finders.

In any case, the two kinds of thought are radically different, and my only real complaint is that in our schools and colleges and universities there is today, as there has been in years past, an attempt to privilege disjunctive thought at the expense of conjunctive thought. Just think about the way that during budget crunches arts programs are always the first to go. That kind of behavior is the direct result of the privileging of disjunctive over conjunctive thought, of analytical over creative thought, and, to get back to my subject, of the writing of expository prose over "real writing," the writing of imaginative literature. I find this privileging of one mode of thinking over the other particularly dangerous and short-sighted because, to repeat myself, imaginative writing gives us an experience quite unlike that of expository or analytical writing, gives us (to use Emerson's distinction in a somewhat different context) the impulse and opportunity to think instead of reporting to us the results of thought.

If, as I claim, "going out into the crazy" is a valuable and necessary activity for "real writers" in order to write their fables, fabulations, and prophetic sonnets, then how, my skeptical colleagues might ask, does it work? If it is not delusional, where does that little girl in the muddy pants or that stately raven at the door come from? And how do they transform themselves into complicated novels and runic rhymes?

As is the case when some well-meaning person asks me, "Where do you get your inspiration?" my first impulse would be to say, with a shrug of the shoulders, "You've got me." I do not know all the answers, certainly about the sources of imaginative writing. Nor does anyone else, though many have offered suggestions. Inspiration seems to be a gift, but whether it is, as the ancients thought, the gift of a muse, or, as the book of James says, "from above . . . from the Father of lights," or, as Sigmund Freud thought, from the sublimated yearnings of the unconscious, or, as Carl Jung thought, from the collective unconscious of humankind, or, as some contemporary literary theorists think, from the culture in which the writing is written, or from the random firing of brain synapses, or from echoes of the bicameral brain, or . . . or . . . or . . . we could go on for hours just listing these suggestions.

Let's just say that inspiration is a mysterious gift that, in the hands of a "real writer," in the deliberate and conscious exercise of craft is carefully, patiently, and lovingly developed into as complete an expression of that inspired moment as the writer is able to manage. While not averse to the promptings of logic or analysis, the "real writer" accepts the gift, opens herself or himself to that inspiration, and allows the whole mind (right and left brain alike) to recombine the world "in its very atoms." The result is a creation, that, like the larger creation (or just call it the real world, if you prefer), is complex, engaging, frightening, ambiguous, beautiful, baffling, threatening, consoling, runic, and ultimately richly and meaningfully satisfying. Rhyme and meter and the essentially rhythmical nature of all "real writing," whether in poetry or fiction, may be nothing more or less than an expression of the meaningful order inherent in the cluttered Babel of language, or perhaps the meaningful order inherent in the chaos of reality itself (what William James called the "humming-buzzing confusion" of experience).

How, then, does one read this kind of writing, be a "real reader"? The answer to that question is simple enough, if a bit demanding. One should read a piece of imaginative literature with the same care, patience, and love with which it was written—and if you read attentively, a poem or story or novel will teach you very quickly with exactly what level of care, patience, and love it was written. It's up to us to respond in kind. Sometimes we do just want to read lazily, to read a book that will be exactly like the last book we read, one that makes no demands, in just the way that sometimes we wish just to hang out, to goof off, to kill time and take a chance, as Henry Thoreau warned us we might, on injuring eternity. But if we want to grow, to discover who we are and who we might become, to enter new ground with the intensity and determination of arctic explorers, ready to plant our flags at the pole, then we should read real writing as closely and carefully and excitedly as we would read the inscrutable leaves the Cumaean Sibyl might once have placed out for us at the door to her cave.

We must be very careful while reading in this real way not to fall into the trap of self-delusion, of allowing ourselves to think that any reading is as good as any other no matter how carelessly or impatiently or cynically it was done, of over-interpretation, of reading our own fears and desires into the work at hand—the kind of reading, I might add, since I've been talking about the crazy, that led to the murderous madness of Charlie Manson and Mark David Chapman, who read their own twisted desires into "Helter Skelter" and The Catcher in the Rye instead of generating new meaning carefully, patiently, and lovingly from what was actually there to be found.

And we must be careful not to bring all the answers with us in a more ordinary way to the reading of the work. Not only is "real writing" misused by sociologists and anthropologists, historians and psychologists, who discover in its pages too often only confirmation for ideas and understandings that were already in place before they opened the book, but, even worse to my mind, are the misuses of writing by literary "theorists" who, for the moment, seem to have taken over my discipline in English departments across the land. Their malfeasance seems the greater to me because they have the professional obligation to examine "real writing" to see what they (and we) might learn from it, rather than examining it through the pre-fabricated grids of their chosen theories. Each time a piece of "real writing" is explained (rather than explored) by means of Marxist theory, psychoanalytical theory, feminist theory, hermeneutic theory, structuralist theory, poststructuralist theory, queer theory, postcolonialist theory, or whatever theory, the chance for a reader to go out into the crazy and find whatever new way of seeing and understanding might be there is cruelly diminished. I would rather that all readers (and certainly all professional readers) follow William James's advice to Gertrude Stein upon her graduation from Radcliffe to "keep an open mind."

In other words, don't be afraid, either as writers or as readers, to go out into the crazy, to be open to the gifts of the imagination and to works of imaginative literature and experience them with an open mind and with care and patience and love, and the reward, I promise you, will be great.

Now, in all fairness, here at the conclusion of my sermon, I've got to confess to you what Edgar Poe actually said. He said, "To originate, is carefully, patiently, and understandingly to combine." Not lovingly, but understandingly. I could try to argue my way out of this one, but I'm going to accept my mis-memory as a gift from my muse or my imagination and insist that, although love may not be all you need, any "real writer" or "real reader" does need love to bring the poem or story or novel or play to life. You should both write and read with a lover's intensity and close attention, else you've turned what could have been a great and generative love affair into a mere flirtation, lots of fun but going nowhere. So I urge you to understandingly accept my error as a new recombination of Poe's sentence, and I urge you with an evangelical preacher's insistence to go out into the crazy as writers and readers and find there, carefully, patiently, understandingly, and lovingly, contradictory and ambiguous and confusing answers to life's questions, vital discoveries that will generate new meanings and add real meaning to our puzzling and perplexing lives.  

R. H. W. Dillards's "Going Out Into the Crazy: Some Thoughts About Real Writing and Real Reading" was presented as the Jordan lecture at his alma mater, Roanoke College, on March 21, 2002.

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