'Good Writing Never Soothes or Comforts': Joy Williams on Writing

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The writer of The Quick and the Dead says an author should be able to startle a reader to life.

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Joy Williams; Vintage

Why do writers write? Some of literary history's most famous and timeless answers have come from George Orwell, Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, and Charles Bukowski.

In her beautiful essay "Uncanny Singing That Comes From Certain Husks," published in the 1991 anthology Why I Write: Thoughts on the Craft of Fiction (public library), Joy Williams considers the impetus for writing with equal parts insight, irreverence, and that blend of anguishing ambivalence and convulsive conviction so characteristic of the writer's mind.

It's become fashionable these days to say that the writer writes because he is not whole, he has a wound, he writes to heal it, but who cares if the writer is not whole, of course the writer is not whole, or even particularly well. There is something unwholesome and destructive about the entire writing process. Writers are like eremites or anchorites—natural-born eremites or anchorites—who seem puzzled as to why they went up the pole or into the cave in the first place. Why am I so isolate in this strange place? Why is my sweat being sold as elixir? And how have I become so enmeshed with works, mere works, phantoms?

[...]

A writer starts out, I think, wanting to be a transfiguring agent, and ends up usually just making contact, contact with other human beings. This, unsurprisingly, is not enough. (Making contact with the self—healing the wound—is even less satisfactory.) Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough.

She considers the generative power of awareness:

The significant story possesses more awareness than the writer writing it. The significant story is always greater than the writer writing it. This is the absurdity, the disorienting truth, the question that is not even a question, this is the koan of writing.

[...]

A writer's awareness must never be inadequate. Still, it will never be adequate to the greater awareness of the work itself, the work that the writer is trying to write. The writer must not really know what he is knowing, what he is learning to know when he writes, which is more than the knowing of it. A writer loves the dark, loves it, but is always fumbling around in the light. The writer is separate from his work but that's all the writer is—what he writes. A writer must be smart but not too smart. He must be dumb enough to break himself to harness.

On complacency:

The moment a writer knows how to achieve a certain effect, the method must be abandoned. Effects repeated become false, mannered. The writer's style is his doppelgänger, an apparition that the writer must never trust to do his work for him.

Recounting critical reactions to some of her essays, Williams offers:

But a writer isn't supposed to make friends with his writing, I don't think.

On language, and the metaphor from which the essay title comes:

Language accepts the writer as its host, it feeds off the writer, it makes him a husk. There is something uncanny about good writing—uncanny the singing that comes from certain husks. The writer is never nourished by his own work, it is never satisfying to him. The work is a stranger, it shuns him a little, for the writer is really something of a fool, so engaged in his disengagement, so self-conscious, so eager to serve something greater, which is the writing. Or which could be the writing if only the writer is good enough. The work stands a little apart from the writer, it doesn't want to go down with him when he stumbles or fails to retreat. The writer must do all this alone, in secret, in drudgery, in confusion, awkwardly, one word at a time.

[...]

The good piece of writing startles the reader back into Life. The work—this Other, this other thing—this false life that is even less than the seeming of this lived life, is more than the lived life, too. It is so unreal, so precise, so unsurprising, so alarming, really. Good writing never soothes or comforts. It is no prescription, either is it diversionary, although it can and should enchant while it explodes in the reader's face. Whenever the writer writes, it's always three o'clock in the morning, it's always three or four or five o'clock in the morning in his head. Those horrid hours are the writer's days and nights when he is writing. The writer doesn't write for the reader. He doesn't write for himself, either. He writes to serve...something. Somethingness. The somethingness that is sheltered by the wings of nothingness—those exquisite, enveloping, protecting wings.

Williams ends with a direct yet wonderfully poetic answer:

Why does the writer write? The writer writes to serve—hopelessly he writes in the hope that he might serve—not himself and not others, but that great cold elemental grace which knows us.

A writer I very much admire is Don DeLillo. At an awards ceremony for him at the Folger Library several years ago, I said that he was like a great shark moving hidden in our midst, beneath the din and wreck of the moment, at apocalyptic ease in the very elements of our psyche and times that are most troublesome to us, that we most fear.

Why do I write? Because I wanna be a great shark too. Another shark. A different shark, in a different part of the ocean. The ocean is vast.

For more wisdom on the writing life, see Zadie Smith's 10 rules of writing, Kurt Vonnegut's 8 guidelines for a great story, David Ogilvy's 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller's 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac's 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck's 6 pointers, Neil Gaiman's 8 rules, Margaret Atwood's 10 practical tips, and Susan Sontag's synthesized learnings.


This post also appears on Brain Pickings, an Atlantic partner site.

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Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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