Friday, January 27, 2012

Writing is Wonderful


Reading again the Paris Review interview with John Cheever, first published in the Fall 1976 issue, what a relief to find oneself in his company again, saying so much about writing - and, by extension, living - that is so replenishing. For instance, he quickly dispels the notion, popularized by mostly bad writers, that writing is a torment.

"When I write a story that I really like, it's ... why, wonderful. That's what I can do, and I love it while I'm doing it. I can feel that it's good ... The sense is of one's total usefulness. We all have a power of control, it's part of our lives: we have it in love, in work that we love doing. It's a sense of ecstasy, as simple as that. The sense is that 'this is my usefulness, and I can do it all the way through.' It always leaves you feeling great. In short, you've made sense of your life."

His advice to his readers, and to other writers, is as free from cant as anyone could want. He calls writing "our most intimate and acute means of communication." When asked his feelings about "truth" and "reality", he replies that

"For one thing the words “truth” and “reality” have no meaning at all unless they are fixed in a comprehensible frame of reference. There are no stubborn truths ... What I’ve always wanted of verisimilitude is probability, which is very much the way I live.

When he finishes writing a book, he says, "there is some dislodgment of the imagination. I wouldn’t say derangement. But finishing a novel, assuming it’s something you want to do and that you take very seriously, is invariably something of a psychological shock."

Pursuing this admission, the interviewer asks "How long does it take the psychological shock to wear off? Is there any treatment?"

"I don’t quite know what you mean by treatment. To diminish shock I throw high dice, get sauced, go to Egypt, scythe a field, screw. Dive into a cold pool."

He mentions how important memory is for a writer a few times: "... any estimable exercise of the imagination draws upon such a complex richness of memory that it truly enjoys the expansiveness—the surprising turns, the response to light and darkness—of any living thing."

So many of the interviewers questions seem like the standard questions asked of any writer, like "Do you feel drawn to experiment in fiction." But Cheever takes them in his stride:

"Fiction is experimentation; when it ceases to be that, it ceases to be fiction. One never puts down a sentence without the feeling that it has never been put down before in such a way, and that perhaps even the substance of the sentence has never been felt. Every sentence is an innovation."

Cheever spoke about his affection for Scott Fitzgerald, "it is such a sad story." But he could as easily have been speaking of himself ("Everyone keeps saying that about my stories, 'Oh, they're so sad.'"):

"All the estimates of him bring in his descriptions of the '29 crash, the excessive prosperity, the clothes, the music, and by doing so, his work is described as being heavily dated . . . sort of period pieces. This all greatly diminishes Fitzgerald at his best. One always knows reading Fitzgerald what time it is, precisely where you are, the kind of country. No writer has ever been so true in placing the scene. But I feel that this isn't pseudohistory, but his sense of being alive. All great men are scrupulously true to their times."

Then, in response to a silly quote about novelists by William Golding, Cheever expands on his belief that writing is a more mysteriously psychic experience than we may think:

"Cocteau said that writing is a force of memory that is not understood. I agree with this. Raymond Chandler described it as a direct line to the subconscious. The books that you really love give the sense, when you first open them, of having been there. It is a creation, almost like a chamber in the memory. Places that one has never been to, things that one has never seen or heard, but their fitness is so sound that you’ve been there somehow."

Writing is "a question of making sense of ones experience ... Fiction is meant to illuminate, to explode, to refresh ... Acuteness of feeling and velocity have always seemed to me terribly important ... The proper function of writing is to enlarge people. To give them their risk, if possible to give them their divinity."

In his 1991 review of Cheever's Journals, John Updike wrote of his "memories of the sprightly, debonair, gracious man, often seen on the arm of his pretty, witty wife."

I saw his interview with Dick Cavett in 1981, just a few months before his death. Cavett wrote in a recent New York Times Opinionater column of his last meeting with Cheever, outside a "40-room mansion on Gramercy Park" where the National Arts Club had invited them to speak:

"Out front afterwards, on the dark sidewalk as people were leaving, I thanked and said goodbye to John for the last time. He started away and then came back, reached inside his jacket, and handed me his typed copy of the wonderful and witty remarks he had just made about me. As I recall, I tucked them inside my blazer pocket, making a mental note to take good care of that sheet of paper. A cleaner may have been the last to see it."

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