In The Night Manager, Madame Latulipe asks Jonathan if he is in love. “Not that I am aware, madame,” he replies.
“You are unhappy? You are lonely?”
“I am blissfully content.”
“But to be content is not enough! You must abandon yourself. You must risk everything every day. You must be ecstatic.”
John Le Carré has Jonathan reply that “his ecstasy was in his work”. Since he is a cook, perhaps she can believe this. A cook is a kind of artist after all.
Meanwhile, Henry Miller sings and shouts and makes conversation as he types. According to Robert Ferguson he is “playing at being a writer”. He’s not carefully considering “artistic problems” in the way that Joyce, Beckett, or Nabokov did: he just goes for it, hammering at the machine. It’s when others can see him here, glass of wine beside him, putting his deep thoughts on the page, that he feels like he’s a writer. He is “enjoying the paraphernalia of the role,” putting on a show for those who watch him create. Is this not a man in a state of abandon? In a state of ecstasy?
I find this notion of playing at being a writer fascinating. Don’t all writers need to do this to some extent? Abandon themselves to the task and just start to put those incomplete thoughts on the page, and see what comes of them? Or is it just that I can relate more to the Miller-type than to the more serious kinds of writer? If I tell myself: This is work, I need to get this done then nothing comes at all. Whereas when I just sit down and bash the keys at least I’ll have something down on the page, which I can work into something better later on. I can’t remember who taught me that writer’s block does not exist, and I don’t know whether that’s strictly true, but as soon as I stopped believing in it I found myself able to write every day.
Of course, not everything that comes from bashing the keys is going to be very good, and that’s why it’s not serious work. Half the time you’re not producing anything worthwhile, just enjoying the process. This seems to be one of the ways we’re to understand “seriousness”: in opposition to “fun”. Something is serious when it’s more than just fun, when it has some definite purpose beyond that.
But according to that definition, playing at being a writer would be serious too. Because it’s not just about having fun, it’s also about hoping that something worthwhile will come of the work beyond that. Writing is “serious play”, one might say, because it has the lightness of play mixed with the purpose of serious work. One plays in the hope that, eventually, one might succeed in producing a completed piece of work.
“You must risk everything every day. You must be ecstatic.” This is the ecstasy of play. You roll the dice: perhaps nothing will come of this play. Perhaps the day will be wasted. But what’s the alternative? Preparing and preparing and never getting down to the business of writing. Of course, one day you’ll be sure everything is in place, ready to begin, and once you finally get down to writing it will be marvellous. But when will that be?
(I’ve been reading The Night Manager by John Le Carré and Henry Miller: A Life by Robert Ferguson.)