The Miracle of Writing

A Midsummer Night's Dream got it right, Richard Bausch says: Authors must find a way to turn nothing into something.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Claire Messud, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

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.

After all, language is the thing that distinguishes us as a species, over all the others. Other creatures love their young, raise them, and nurture them. All animals seek warmth when it’s cold. But we’re the only ones with literature. You’re never going to see two monkeys talking about another one that’s been dead a hundred years. Or even just gossiping or telling jokes about another one down the road. But we do it every day. Though we take it totally for granted, it's the most amazing thing about us—and literature is the best expression of that miracle. Shakespeare can write something like this passage, and somebody 400 years later can feel moved by it. It goes far beyond that: I mean, think about Homer. When Shakespeare references Homer, he’s talking about what was even then, in his own time, ancient writing. In that sense, in our evolution, Shakespeare’s our contemporary. The best writing always remains contemporary.

It’s easy to say “write truthfully about experience.” But how to actually do it? The only way I’ve ever known is to try it, over and over again, until I can’t think of another way, or a clearer way. I write each draft, each scene, over and over again until I can’t think of a better way forward. My novel Hello to the Cannibals was almost 1,000 pages in manuscript—the exact count was 967. But I wrote it five separate times. There are scenes and chapters I wrote dozens of times, more, too many to count. And it isn’t the way people sometimes paint it—it’s not like you’re at your desk, tearing your hair. It’s just: I’ve got to do it again. This is what I’m doing today. And you do it.

The impulse, of course, is try to be faithful to what you initially had in mind—but the process, instead, calls for you to let go of all of your opinions, and all the things you think you think. You’ve got to go on down, as Robert Penn Warren used to say, into the cave. (James Dickey used to call it “the cave of making.”) You enter the cave of making without any opinions, without any preconceived notions, and tell the story as clearly as you can. You must not bend your characters according to some idea you have about how they ought to behave; you’re just letting them be themselves, whatever that is. If you do that, and you’re faithful to it, you’ve got a shot at writing something true. This is the only way it works for me.

Other people can have other ideas about this, of course. There are plenty of people who wouldn’t say this, who are writing really good stuff. John Irving will tell you that he never begins a novel until he knows everything about it. He conceives the story, he makes up the characters, he thinks everything through, and arranges it, and then he sits down and writes it. He’s written really good books, and they’re very true-feeling.

But for me, I’m going through—I’m taking a path. And I don’t have any more knowledge about what’s ahead than, say, somebody in a car with their headlights on. You can’t see beyond the fan of the headlights, and you just keep going until the road takes you wherever it’s taking you. I think it was Charles Baxter that expressed it that way. But in any case, whatever gets it done, I guess, is how a writer needs to work. And for me, that’s what gets it done: to sit down, try to be clear, and let go of everything you think you know.

Each time through, you get a little bit smarter about it. You’re educating yourself as to what this particular novel or story is. I think that’s why some people say “I feel like I have to learn how to do it every time I do it.” Because that’s in fact what’s going on. Gotta learn how to write this one. Each book has its secrets, and it takes its time letting you know what they are. Your job is to keep the faith. You sit down and concentrate on doing the work. Did I work today? If the answer is yes, no other questions. If you’re working, it’s always going well. If you are working, even when it feels like shit, and every single line seems to come as if it was burned into your forehead, you’re still working. So it’s going well.

It must become a part of your daily habit that you spend those two hours messing around with it. By the time it’s over, there are parts of it you’ve done two, three dozen times. They start to please you after a while because you’re getting better every time through it.

That’s the other thing I love to tell students, by the way. You cannot ruin a piece of writing, you can only make it necessary to do it again. You should see my students’ faces when I tell them this: You cannot fuck it up! You can only do it again. It ends up being very encouraging.

I think that’s why I cherish these lines so much, especially when the way ahead is hard. I often say them to myself, just for encouragement, because they make me feel happily in the company of Shakespeare. Not as a poet or a writer, but as someone who has been enlarged and whose existence has been enhanced by the great writing he brought forth. You are not different in kind than the bard when you sit down to write, you are partaking of that miracle. That's something to celebrate.