from the desk of Marlon James

The author posted this note on FaceBook and it instantaneously illuminated for me a sensation I hadn’t been able to completely define.

So I’m on a panel last night and somebody asks, how does one write when overcome with emotion, mostly grief I’m assuming. How does one get words to paper when going through such upheaval? I was so mystified by the question that I didn’t answer for fear that I would become the night’s asshole. But I’m still mystified by it, because I don’t bring my present emotional state into my writing. Had I done that I would never have made it through my first novel, which was written under near suicidal distress. If anything, writing was the one place I didn’t have to be myself.

I say this to my students, who feel they need to be in some calm emotional space to create: Listen, I’m sure you think you’re going through a rough time, and that roughness is real. But I’m going to guess that you’re probably not having as rough a time as Virginnia Woolf did, and lady still got tons of shit done. My point, is I could never imagine my emotions, my situation daring to have a say in how I work. That I become some kind of journalist, and how bad or good my day goes, has no effect on how I cover a childbirth or a car crash. The art couldn’t care less how I feel. Guernica couldnt give a shit if Picasso was in his happy place, because well Guernica doesn’t have thoughts, it’s a piece of art that needs to be created and that creation will not be denied, or even delayed by how Picasso feels.

My novel couldn’t give a shit if I hate the world and want to die. Art doesn’t give a shit. Least of all for pop psychology. The problem with it is that we start to look for emotional biography, that superficial way of looking at art as just a window into the artist. Look at this another way. Last night I was with some people who were convinced, beyond a shadow of a doubt that Elena Ferrante’s work was autobiographical. It just had to be, because that’s the only way they can view the creation of art. So I asked if they thought she just wasn’t capable of talent and imagination, and suddenly they were the ones mystified by a question. They glanced at me with this “you poor thing,” look, before doing that silly half dismissal, ‘well sure talent has something to do with it, but….”

Of course if you’re woman you get this bullshit all the time, that not only is all your art experiential, that by mapping your art to your emotional space, I’m actually giving you some kind of compliment. And it’s not just books. A couple years ago, Pitchfork wrote this tedious article on Janelle Monae where the journalist just couldn’t get past the fact that Monae hast bared her soul yet. To this guy, she was making inferior art, something that nobody has ever said about Bowie. This is not to say that semi-autobigrapical fiction is bad. But even in such cases and indeed even in nonfiction, writer has to turn into character, “I” has to turn into “eye,” distance has to give way to perspective, Narrative self had to go neck and neck with Reflective self (if not a head higher). And how you feel personally, even when writing about yourself, doesn’t count for shit.

for further reading:

to fail or not to fail, what is your response

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