August 11, 2006KR BlogWriting

Nothing New Under the Sun

Literary fraud: often ill-advised but always fascinating. I’m not familiar with science fiction as a rule (although I hear the sci-fi writers are very nice folks) but this article over at Salon intrigued me. Alice Sheldon, who wrote under the pen name James Tiptree, Jr., “even participated as one of the few men (the other being gay writer Samuel Delany) in a symposium on women in science fiction published in a professional journal.” The review made me very curious about the book, but the part I found most engaging was near the end of the write-up:

Sheldon’s struggles remind me of a famous conversation between the minor British writer Stephen Spender and the great poet T.S. Eliot. The young Spender told Eliot that he had always wanted to be a poet. Eliot’s reply was that he’d never understood this thing of wanting “to be a poet”; all he understood was having some poems you wanted to write. When what you really want is to write some poems, you don’t let the ultimately ancillary issues of how a poet should live or whether you’re an exceptional talent get in the way. Often, the difference between a minor writer and a great poet is a matter of insufficient — or, rather, misplaced — commitment.

With Sheldon, the nagging problem of her identity, who she wanted to be — a genius, an artist, a scientist, a writer — kept interfering with the things she wanted to do. By creating the persona of James Tiptree Jr., she was temporarily able to finesse the block. In time, though, the puzzle of identity intruded again, as this new imaginary self sucked up more and more of her time and energy. (Ellison, complaining that Tiptree wasn’t producing a promised novel, insisted that all that letter writing was the cause.) If she’d managed to solve her identity dilemma, she might have, as Phillips suggests, figured out how to write about a girl growing up into a “whole woman.” On the other hand, if she had cared more deeply, obsessively and passionately about any one of the half-dozen types of work she tried in her life, she might have looked up from it one day to find that the whole woman had arrived unbidden.

I think something very important was said in those two paragraphs, something that most writers have a hard time keeping in mind. I know it’s been said before and said better, but the fact of the matter is that writing is like plumbing. A writer is trying to create a conduit for her readers to pass easily down, losing as few as possible in the process. She has to make sure all the bits fit together snugly, and if something doesn’t work, she needs to unscrew it and take a good look–maybe re-doing much of the other plumbing in the process. Writing is not about being a writer; it’s about doing it. It’s a shame people so often forget that literature has more in common with construction–with building–than a divine mandate. Perhaps this is because construction isn’t as romantic as a divine mandate. But I suspect romance is overrated.