Sage Words From Bolaño


Okay, a couple of weeks ago I promised some words of advice for writers from Roberto Bolaño. Okaay…maybe it isn’t exactly advice, but, well, you’ll see what I mean. Here ‘tis:

“Every minor work has a secret author and every secret author is, by definition, a writer of masterpieces. Who writes the minor work? A minor writer, or so it appears. The poor man’s wife can testify to that, she’s seen him sitting at the table, bent over the blank pages, restless in his chair, his pen racing over the paper. The evidence would seem to be incontrovertible. But what she’s seen is only the outside…
“Our good craftsman writes. He’s absorbed in what takes shape well or badly on the page. His wife, though he doesn’t know it, is watching him. It really is he who is writing. But if the wife had X-ray vision she would see that instead of being present at an exercise of literary creation, she’s witnessing a session of hypnosis. There’s nothing inside the man who sits there writing. Nothing of himself, I mean. How much better off the poor man would be if he devoted himself to reading. Reading is pleasure and happiness to be alive or sadness to be alive and above all it’s knowledge and questions. Writing, meanwhile, is almost always empty. There’s nothing in the guts of the man who sits there writing. Nothing. I mean to say, that his wife, at a given moment, might recognize. He writes like someone taking dictation. His novel or book of poems, decent, adequate, arises not from an exercise of style or will, as the poor unfortunate believes, but as the result of an exercise of concealment. There must be many books, many lovely pines, to shield from hungry eyes the book that really matters, the wretched cave of our misfortune, the magic flower of winter!
“Excuse the metaphors. Sometimes in my excitement, I wax romantic. But listen. Every work that isn’t a masterpiece is, in a sense, a part of a vast camouflage. You’ve been a soldier, I imagine, and you know what I mean. Every book that isn’t a masterpiece is cannon fodder, a slogging foot soldier, a piece to be sacrificed, since in multiple ways it mimics the design of the masterpiece…
“By now I knew it was pointless to write. Or that it was worth it only if one was prepared to write a masterpiece. Most writers are deluded or playing. Perhaps delusion and play are the same thing, two sides of the same coin. The truth is we never stop being children, terrible children covered in sores and knotty veins and tumors and age spots, but ultimately children, in other word we never stop clinging to life because we are life. One might also say: we’re theater, we’re music. By the same token, few are the writers who give up. We play at believing ourselves in the appraisal of our own works and in our perpetual misappraisal of the works of others. See you at the Nobel, writers say, as one might say: see you in hell.”

There’s gallows humor here, and also a cautionary tale of personal deceit, of slogging unnoticed through the craft of writing while others drink the cheap stuff, expel vain writing.
Writers: hang in there. Work. Never quit in your search for what Hemingway called “our one good sentence.”
Enjoy.

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