Thursday, March 6, 2008

Guest in Progress: Richard Goodman

One thing I like about the writing world is how small it is: if I meet a writer, it rarely takes long to figure out who we might know in common and where we both might have been (“I was at VCCA* too! Which studio did you work in? Oh, I was in there during my first stay; didn’t you love watching the cows out the window?”). For allegedly anti-social people, most writers I know love to connect.

And now we can connect through the internet, too. Richard Goodman is one such virtual connection. I read his piece about his favorite collections of letters on my friend C.M. Mayo’s blog, Madam Mayo, and was so taken that I asked if I could run it on this blog (here). They were kind enough to allow me to do so.

Then Richard and I struck up a correspondence (through email, sadly, not real letters!) and I asked him if he might share with us some thoughts about his new book about creative writing, as I’m a total writing book groupie. In this process, yes, we discovered that we have both had residencies at VCCA and that, yes, we have even another mutual acquaintance beyond C.M. Mayo.

To make sure to really drill in how small this world is, I discovered that my husband has a copy—in hardcover!— of Richard’s memoir, French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France, on our bookshelf! Steve is still away on his fatigue-inspiring business trip, but when he gets back, I’ll ask him about Richard’s book. I’m pretty confident that it will be highly positive assessment: possession-wise, my husband is an absolute minimalist and thinks NOTHING of tossing out books (!!) he didn’t totally love. So this book being on his shelf means it’s something special. I’m looking forward to reading French Dirt soon…the only question is, is that before or after I check out Richard’s new book about writing?

How Did I Have the Nerve to Write a Book About Writing?

Whatever gave me the gall, the chutzpah, the moxie, to write a book about writing? Yet another book about writing? Now that I ask that question, I start to wonder myself. Luckily, I didn’t think that much about it while I was doing it or I’m sure I would have stopped myself cold. And maybe that’s one of the best lessons about anything you do in writing: don’t think about it too much. I know that’s the worst thing you can do when you play baseball. As soon as you start thinking about how you’re going to catch a fly ball, that ball inevitably lands on the grass next to you.

I guess the best answer to this question is that I was obsessed. Completely obsessed. Now, normally that word carries with it a sense of the irrational. But in art I believe it’s quite the opposite. W.S. Merwin once said that artists pray to be obsessed by something, and I think he’s right. When you are obsessed, you must get to your writing table, to your project. There is a sense of urgency you can’t deny. It draws you and rules over you, and you are not unhappy to be in its thrall. What this always means to me when it happens—and it happens all too, too infrequently—is that I have tapped into some deep essential core of me. And I don’t believe I can find a more legitimate substantiation for what I’m doing.

From this obsession and its source come passion, and energy, and belief, and confidence. Give me these four, and I’ll move mountains. The first essay in the book that I wrote is the second one in the book, “In Search of the Exact Word.” It's inspired by Gustave Flaubert's relentless search for le mot juste, the exact word, and it takes off from there. I just loved writing it. It allowed me to use all those passage from books I'd been hoarding for years like a literary packrat. All the essays in the book are passion-fueled, I believe. "The Music of Prose" is another chapter. It's about how the best prose is musical—like poetry. Each writer makes his or her own music on the page. Some people call it style. The rhythms and cadences certain writers choose give their prose a unique sound. With some, it's so evident you can almost hum their work. So, the essay talks about that, and about how you, the writer, might become a better verbal composer. I've also got a chapter called "The Secret Strength of Words," about etymology. The title is from a Milan Kundera quote in which he says that a word's etymology gives it a secret strength and "floods the word with another light and gives it a broader meaning." There are seven more chapters, about different aspects of words and writing.

What did all this obsession tell me? I think it told me—and tells any writer—that you can be writing about the craziest thing, but it doesn’t matter. Birds, oysters, rats—or syntax. When you’re obsessed, you don’t worry if it’s the right or the wrong thing to do, you just write.

I think with nonfiction especially, it’s an interesting exercise to reduce your book to three or four sentences, as if you were trying to describe it to a stranger. When I think about The Soul of Creative Writing that way, I describe it as a love letter to the English language. Which I guess brings me to the second, not unrelated answer to the question of why. My book professes its love for the English language—openly, fully, ardently. I guess you could say I shout it from the tallest mountain, though I did my best to make the writing nuanced and graceful and not bellowing. The reader will have to judge whether I succeeded or not. But the fact is that there is a sense of “It is the east, and Juliet is the sun” to the book. It’s a pretty undisguised Valentine. I know a lot less than many other very capable men and women about writing and literature. In terms of the deep particulars of writing—syntax, rhetoric, and so on—my knowledge is woefully thin, thin as ice in late April. But like the poor peasant who goes after milady’s hand, blind to his low station, fueled by his ardor, so I went ahead wrote my book.

Actually, I wrote the first chapter because I had to give a lecture. I was starting to teach at Spalding University’s Brief Residency MFA in Writing Program, and I wanted my debut lecture to be good. Or even better. I remember I was at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts for a few weeks, and I couldn’t have been luckier to have that solitude and unfettered time to work. As soon as I had my topic—and I have to thank M. Gustave Flaubert for that—I was off and running. I couldn’t wait to get to my study every day, armed with reference books and journals I had kept through the years.

Now, I don’t want to be flip and say I could have written this book when I was nineteen. I think there had to be other things going here, too. The Soul of Creative Writing draws on years of reading and writing. It draws on so many moments of reading when I said to myself, “That’s so good!” and noted it either in a journal, underlined it, or tucked it away in my cerebellum somewhere. I couldn’t have written the book without my larder, however ill-stocked, of other authors’ words. But in the end it was my obsession that led me—dragged me—through the ten chapters of this book, one by one, and said, don’t look back, just look ahead. Do it. And that’s the answer I’ll give you when you ask me how did I have the nerve to write a book about writing. ~~Richard Goodman

About: Richard Goodman is the author of The Soul of Creative Writing and French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France. He has written for the New York Times, Harvard Review, Creative Nonfiction, Saveur, Vanity Fair, Commonweal, Ascent, Louisville Review and the Michigan Quarterly Review. He teaches creative nonfiction at Spalding University's Brief Residency MFA in Writing program. Please see his web site for more information.

* VCCA = Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, a magical place where artists and writers GET WORK DONE in a beautiful, arts-conducive environment. I urge every working writer to apply for a residency! See the web site for details.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.