By Mark Huntsman
I can’t believe that you’d really think there was more to say than, To be a writer one learns to live like one. This I said repeatedly and with variations. The craft one learns oneself. The main business is to find the most appropriate and most stimulating equilibrium. —Saul Bellow, in a letter to Arno Karlen, 1961
But the solipsism gets us all. —Same letter
This year my birthday fell on a Sunday, which meant I got to be out on a Saturday, wait for the clock to touch midnight, and raise glasses with a group of friends. Well, friend, as it turned out. My lovely wife had to work, and my friends tend to have things going on the weekend, and I tend not to plan ahead; my buddy Dalton was the only one who could break free and meet me downtown for The Big Lebowski Trivia night, a movie he’d seen exactly once.
Dalton did an admirable job as cheerleader, and we finished two measly points behind the winning team. We toasted our moral victory, and then Dalton proposed another toast to Huntsman’s thirty-fifth birthday (slogan: Hope Springs Lessternal), and then he handed me a copy of the New Yorker from April 26th, folded open to Among Writers: From a career’s correspondence about the nature of the novel, by Saul Bellow.
The letters date from 1942 to 2004, but before they begin, the tone is set by a full-page black & white portrait of Bellow, chin resting on arms folded over the back of a chair, wiry hair short, inky eyes letting you know that a) he sees exactly where you are, and b) he’s roughly ten jillion steps beyond that. The caption: “Novelists (poets, too) have so long taken it for granted,” he wrote, “that they were doing all right. What a pathetic error! What overconfidence!”
Bellow, according to everyone, was a writer. That he was. Herzog has affected me as deeply as anything I’ve read in the last five years, yet I expect I’m about a tenth of the way into the process of absorbing it.
Reading Saul Bellow’s letters is fun. It is also exhausting, with his every third thought capable of remodeling your perspective. My perspective. Today, on the eve of my second anniversary of graduating from SPU’s MFA program (two years that have seen me complete exactly 1.4 drafts of my novel manuscript (the first draft of which was my thesis), I sit here, excited to write about Bellow, but trepidatious about trying to unpack the methodological subtext in his letters. The dude has a tendency to speak in aphorisms—compact, fully formed, the-craft-one-learns-oneselfisms—to which I have not a lot to add.
Do you want to know the truths I have learned for certain about novel writing? Well, okay, if you want to see my list so bad, I’ll show it to you.
That’s it. I’ve written about 900 pages of a 300-page novel, and from that unending process I have gleaned precisely two words of (mere observation disguised as) wisdom. I recently did a fun-but-complicated third draft of a party scene early in my story—the kind of party where the narrator doesn’t know anybody and is out of place and things go awry. The new draft included a few new minor characters to fill out the party, a long list of things that go through the narrator’s head while he hides in a closet, a neato meta trick where the narrator has since had a conversation with someone who was at the party, bits of which are conveyed via footnote, the first appearance of what turns out to be a major character, and so on.
A few more scenes get revised. I get distracted and stop writing for a couple weeks. When I come back to it, I realize there’s a new short scene that needs to happen before the party, and when that’s done, I read the latest party scene again and find that it’s tortuous and ugly and I hate myself. WTF?
Mistakes abound, that’s WTF. Took me some vacation days and a week of work to replace the third draft of the party scene with a fourth that I will not reread until I’m finished with this draft of the book, because if I don’t set strong boundaries with the pages I write, they just take and take and take.
The main business is to find the most appropriate and most stimulating equilibrium.
Okay, if that’s what I should be after, that’s what I’ll look for. A most appropriate equilibrium (MAE) sounds muted, inert. A most stimulating equilibrium (MSE), meanwhile, sounds fun, if paradoxical.
Bellow says go for both at once, and at first he seems to be recommending that you hedge your bets. But when I stopped trying to make theoretical sense of it and thought in terms of just my own writing self, it lined up more cleanly. In the current interpretation, my MAE is the stuff of routine—the times of day and spots and music and beverages that are essential to finding and keeping my rhythm. I try and not infrequently fail at finding that point of balance, but I’ve been there, know what it’s like, know how to find it again.
If only my MSE were remotely so locatable—if only I could achieve it by writing from inside a bouncy castle or someplace—but, alas, it all happens upstairs. I say alas because…well, because the process of editing your own fiction is appallingly relative (the solipsism gets us all).
As I narrow the field in my search for the MSE, I’m coming to think that how I react to myself is a huge part of the equation, and so I’m trying to speed up my rate of adaptation, get faster at seeing my mistakes, even anticipate them. Sometimes this is straightforward enough, as in an earlier draft of my first fifty pages, when glancing was just everywhere—the narrator glanced around effectively dozens of times—and in the course of fixing the glancing, I found a wider overreliance on eyes. So I changed it, and in so doing, I changed the way I instinctively write nonverbal communication.
Other times, a mistake slays you coming and going; you’d hold a wake for the lost time and lost pages if you weren’t busy being depressed about the swelling promise of time lost to fixing it.
In either case, the job is to adapt, and to get better at adapting as you go along. Even in the writing of this post, the initial thread I wanted to follow from Bellow’s letters turned out to require wildly more understanding than I have on me, and now here we are. If you make art, and you’ve found your MAE, or your MSE—or, even better, that meta-equilibrium that is the combination of the two—I’d love to hear about it in the comments.
Mark Huntsman got his MFA in Fiction from Seattle Pacific University in 2008, and is a writer who runs the blog for EarnMyDegree. He loves dogs and likes kids but has neither, which perhaps has something to do with why he and his lovely wife named their Roomba (Studs Terkel) after watching him roll around for all of 2 minutes.