"It was imprudent of us, in the first place, to become authors. We could have become something regular, but we managed not to.
We were lucky, but we were also determined." Roy Blount Jr

"I don’t change the facts to enhance the drama. I think of it the other way round, the drama has got to fit the facts,
and it’s your job as a writer to find the shape in real life."
Hilary Mantel

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect

The title of today's commentary comes from a Todd Rundgren album. My topic doesn't really have much to do with Todd, per se, I'm simply borrowing his title. I can't resist pointing out, however, that Todd is currently fronting the band New Cars, and based on what I've heard so far, doing a fine job. It sounds like the old Cars, with Todd Rundgren singing, and sounding sort of like Ric Ocasek but not really.

Not too long ago, I was watching that much lauded, film Capote, which deserves all its many awards.
Films about writers are either a.) quite interesting, or b.) somewhat dull. Writers' lives and inspirations might be utterly fascinating, but their daily slog at the keyboard doesn't exactly make for thrilling visuals. (Barton Fink would be an exception, I suppose.)

Capote illustrated a couple of things really well for me.

1. The way some writers seem hard-wired to bust out of their familiar, comfortable niche and challenge themselves--for whatever reason. In following the murder case, Capote successfully created a new form of writing, what he called the "nonfiction novel." The implication of the film was that life and writing would never be the same for him, after reaching the pinnacle of fame he achived with In Cold Blood. Those familiar with his biography will know he was already extremely famous, and it was his subsequent social ostracism that bedeviled him as much if not more than his literary success.

If shoved up hard against a wall and forced to answer the question, "What do you like best about being a writer?" the answer comes easily. It's the opportunity, and the ability, to reinvent myself. To mix it up. To take risks--with the career, with the reputation (for the better or the worse.) To alter others' expectations, mess with their heads a little.

That's why I have more than one project going pretty much all the time. I can't just be a fiction writer. The other work might be something as simple as a letter to the editor or an 800-word opinion column, or as complex as an ambitious literary biography.

2. What Rundgren called the "ever popular tortured artist effect." It's not fun feeling tortured. I'm not wholly convinced that suffering and pain result in the greatest art. Feeling slightly unsettled is helpful, because if I'm too comfortable I'm not fully awake to that sense of challenge that I crave.

If I'm in agony, I have trouble focussing on the work. (Ask me how much writing I did when I recently suffered from the flu from hell...)

The exception: when writing through the agony is a means of escaping it. I cranked out a fair number of words in the weeks following September 11th, whereas other writers I know dried up. They wondered whether, in that horrific situation, their efforts, their calling to entertain readers, had any value. I decided that if Osama was lurking in my woods (and for more days of paranoia than I care to admit that's exactly what I thought), I needed to keep following my dreams, taking dictation from my muse, for as long as I could. Or the terrorists would win.

Does an audience want to see the artist suffer, do they really expect it, and if so, why? Why is the tortured artist such a popular and prevalent image?

I wondered this while watching Truman Capote slam back all those cocktails, and fret about the ending of his book--wholly dependent on the death of human beings, just as its beginning was dependent on that brutal murder. All I can say is, anyone who takes on such a subject is bound to be affected by it. Goes with the territory.

Perhaps I'd feel a lot more tortured as a writer if I were doing books with murders or serial killers or vampires or evil aliens.

I'm feeling really challenged right now--I prefer that word to tortured. And the challenge that a few paragraphs ago I said I crave is in itself a form of torture.

I'm nearing the end of a lengthy research phase....All along I've been writing the novel, but with plot and characters fairly well jelled now, I won't be dipping into the reference books so much. Finishing the damn book will seemingly take forever and no doubt be torturous, but in a way I can't even envision, not even with my vast stores of imagination. Every one I write is so different, and this one's more different than most because I've never tried this particular form of fiction writing before.

But let's pretend I didn't actually admit that. It can be tiresome when writers whinge and groan in public...too often. I try and keep it to a minimum around here--

however entertaining it might sometimes appear up there on the big screen.

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