Thanks to a recent book sale at the local public library, I acquired a copy of Feasting the Heart: Fifty-two Commentaries for the Air by Reynolds Price (2000, Scribner). These are short essays on a wide variety of subjects, written by Price for presentation on National Public Radio. Over time, I may end up posting more of them, because they are wonderful. For now, here’s two good-sized chunks from one about writing: “The Ghost-writer in the Cellar.”
The novelist Graham Greene said that, if he reached an impasse in writing a story, he’d read the troublesome passage just before bed. Then he’d rise in the morning to find that, almost invariably, “the ghost-writer in the cellar” had solved the problem while he slept. Most writers I know have similar strategies for passive reliance on their mind’s dark compartments. So do most people whose work flows primarily from their minds—physicists and mathematicians, architects and choreographers, even (I’m sure) great fireworks artists and the CIA’s most uncanny code-busters.
Yet the vast resource of our unconscious mind and the techniques for tapping its wellsprings are almost never taught to students in any discipline known to me. In my own case—in the early 1960, as a fiction writer ten years after college—I was still stumbling in the thickets of puzzlement: why could I write fluently on certain days, then go appallingly dry for weeks?
For a start, not one of my excellent teachers had so much as mentioned the urgency of learning two things:
—first, that creative thought… is conceived in the human mind below the level of our awareness and,
—second, that the mind resides in an organ called the brain, which is (like all our organs) a piece of meat with its own rules and needs of nutrition and rest, stimulus and respect.
I was well into my thirties before I began to understand that my unconscious mind would—to an amazing extent—compose and deliver my novels, poems, plays, and essays if I bothered to give it sane amounts of good food and sleep, sane chemical and emotional nourishment, and then made myself available—six mornings a week—at a quiet desk with the phone turned off and all distractions, short of falling meteors, cancelled for the hours it took me to transcribe my mind’s ongoing work. It has hardly failed me since, though I grant that a reader who dislikes my work may feel I take dictation from a fool.
Price goes on to say that when he is between periods of productive writing, he lives a quiet life of rest—something that the more industrious might disparage as hanging out, or slacking off.
I’d accept those descriptions, though I might amend them to hanging around. My bet, my risk, is that what I’m doing is quietly hanging my resting body round a deep spring-fed lake that, since it has proved so trusty in the past, may now be renewing itself beyond my reach. The main hope of course is that soon I’ll catch sight of some craft rising, breaking the surface with its own strange fittings and a crew of imagined hands as real as my friends and enemies—a craft I can manage to board and steer.
Maybe that’s what I’m doing—subconsciously—when I hang out at the family pond. It’s a good place to slack off and wait for a ghost-ship to rise. And perhaps the reason why I’m stumbling in the thickets of puzzlement instead of boarding these ghost-ships is because I’m not getting enough good, restorative sleep to clear out all the accumulated brain-gunk. Will try to get a solid 9 hours tonight and see what happens….