When I asked Richard Bausch, author of Before, During, After, to discuss a favorite literary passage, he turned to Shakespeare—as, surprisingly, no one yet had for this series. Bausch feels that a brief passage from A Midsummer Night’s Dream—Theseus’s mediation on the “the poet’s pen”—is one of the canniest things ever written about writing, the creative process, and the value of literature. We discussed how these six lines provide him with comfort during the long, arduous process of completing stories and novels, why his books strive to channel “felt experience” and nothing more, and why the secret to good writing is rewriting—over and over again.
Before, During, After begins as an unlikely love story: A talented young woman falls in love with a significantly older Episcopalian priest. In September 2001, shortly before their wedding, Natasha hears the news about the World Trade Center while relaxing on a Jamaican coast. Distraught, she commits a small act of betrayal that leads to brutal, tragic events. As Bausch maps his character’s suffering in relation to the nation’s, the novel explores how trauma starkly divides individual lives—and entire cultures—into “then” and “now.”
Richard Bausch is the author of 12 novels and eight books of story collections. His stories, anthologized in The Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories, have appeared in magazines like The New Yorker, Harper’s, and Esquire. A portion of his “Letter to a Young Writer” was the subject of a “By Heart” piece with Andre Dubus III. Winner of the Pen/Malamud award, he teaches writing at Chapman University in Orange, California. Bausch spoke to me by email and phone.
Richard Bausch: I think there’s a reason that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is probably Shakespeare’s most popular play. There are so many reasons to love it—one being that, towards the end, you get to see Shakespeare, the greatest writer who ever lived, writing badly on purpose. When Bottom and his cohorts put on their version of Pyramus and Thisbe at the end, it’s just so fantastically awful. Shakespeare’s version of a hack stage production is badder than even a truly bad writer could do.
My favorite part of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, though, comes from something Theseus says to Hippolyta in the beginning of Act V. It’s a lovely passage about madmen, lovers and poets, and what he says about poets, for me, captures what the soul of poetry is.
The poet's eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
This is one of my favorite passages in Shakespeare because it’s so damn modern. It could have been written yesterday, this morning, even with the “doth glance.” I just love the line “and gives to airy nothing / a local habitation and a name,” which is so gorgeous that it makes me feel his actual presence, as if I’d just been sitting with him. There’s something so loving about it: This is the greatest writer and poet of all time expressing the thing he knows to be most true about the art form he's creating—out of airy nothing. He’s describing how writing helps you discover things you had no notion that you knew. “Imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown,” he says, and our pens turn those forms to readable shapes. Writing takes on the unknown, the nameless, the silent, and gives them utterance.
This is what we’re really about, I think. Writers aren’t really producing life itself on the page. Instead, we’re giving airy nothing a local habitation and a name. It’s all about experience—being highly attuned to “what it feels like to be on the planet Earth,” as James Dickey used to say. And then speaking that feeling truly. The literary goal for me has always been to deliver the strongest sense of felt life. The truth to be found in fiction, for me, is the truth of experience. And if you can be true enough to that, then what you write will be true whenever anybody comes across it. That’s why, even though this line from Shakespeare was written 400 years ago, it’s just as true now as it was then.
For me, literature is about experience more than philosophy or politics or anything else. I think the reason despots have feared writers is that a good writer is delivering the truth of experience—bad politics hurts people on a personal level, and writers, good writers, tell the truth of it; so they’re dangerous to tyrants. (Though in America, of course, no writer is considered dangerous unless he has a gun.) You don't approach your writing with the hope that it will make the word a better place. Eudora Welty spoke of how unfair it is that good intentions just aren't enough to make a work of art. Good intentions will never allow you to write a clarinet concerto, or a song, or a good story, either. It’s just about so much more than the simple will to build a better society, or any of that stuff. I’m wary, actually, of artists who think they’re in the business of making better human beings. I think that a writer who is attempting to improve human beings is a despot before he ever picks up the pen. Instead, the eternal task for those who create is nothing more than this: to deal in human experience and try to be truthful about it through language. That’s what we do, and all we can do, and when we do it well, it’s huge. Nothing could be more important in terms of art and expression.