The Literary Vocation

As I’ve probably mentioned, I’m reading Mario Vargas Llosa’s Letters to a Young Novelist. As I read it, I’ll excerpt passages that I think are important and comment on them. Yesterday I mentioned how helpful I think it is to consider what other writers have said about writing. And Llosa is one smart, interesting writer.

Here’s what he says about the vocation of writing:

“The defining characteristic of the literary vocation may be that those who possess it experience the exercise of their craft as its own best reward, much superior to anything they might gain from the fruit of their labors. That is one thing I am sure of amid my many uncertainties regarding the literary vocation: deep inside, a writer feels that writing is the best thing that ever happened to him, or could ever happen to him, because as far as he is concerned, writing is the best possible way of life, never mind the social, political, or financial rewards of what he might achieve through it.

“Vocation seems to me the inevitable starting point for our talk about what is exciting and troubling you: namely, how to become a writer. It’s a mysterious business, of course, veiled in doubt and subjectivity. But that doesn’t stop us from trying to explain it rationally, rejecting the religious fervor and pride of the self-important myths the romantics spun around it, according to which the writer was the chosen one of the gods, a being singled out by a transcendent super-human entity to write divine words that, once breathed, would effect the sublimation of the human soul and allow the writer, thanks to his brush with Beauty (capitalized, of course), to achieve immortality.

“Today nobody talks that way about literary or artistic vocation, but even though the definition offered in our times is less grandiose, less steeped in fatefulness, it is still fairly elusive: a predisposition of murky origin that causes certain men and women to dedicate their lives to an activity that one day they feel called, almost obliged, to pursue, because they sense that only in pursuing this vocation – writing stories, for example – will they feel complete, at peace with themselves, able to give the best of themselves without the nagging fear that they are wasting their lives.”

Writers are in the business of taking personal experiences and making them universal – we are all Madame Bovary. And of course that’s what Llosa is doing here. I have no doubt that this is how he experiences his vocation. I have to admit that it’s also an accurate description of how I experience mine. This, for example: “deep inside, a writer feels that writing is the best thing that ever happened to him, or could ever happen to him, because as far as he is concerned, writing is the best possible way of life.” This is how I have always felt. I still remember hiding Edith Wharton novels in my desk at the law firm, reading them at lunch. But I knew then, had known for a long time, that I was not a reader but a writer, a producer of such things. That I was reading not simply for pleasure but to learn how it was done. And I can’t think of anything I would rather do with my life than write stories.

And I like this definition of the literary vocation: “a predisposition of murky origin that causes certain men and women to dedicate their lives to an activity that one day they feel called, almost obliged, to pursue, because they sense that only in pursuing this vocation – writing stories, for example – will they feel complete, at peace with themselves, able to give the best of themselves without the nagging fear that they are wasting their lives.” Again, that’s how I experience my own writing. There was a period of about three years when I wasn’t working at it, wasn’t growing as a writer. There were reasons – life got in the way, supporting a family, raising a child. But I was not at peace with myself. I felt as though I was wasting my life. I was convinced that I had a purpose in life, and I was not fulfilling it. It was one of the darkest period of my life. (I find that the dark periods of my life, the walks through the shadowlands, are all periods like that: when I feel as though I’m not fulfilling some purpose the universe has for me. Which would sound grandiose if it weren’t so impossibly painful, to feel as though you’re not doing what you ought to be.)

We’re not supposed to be highfalutin’ about literature nowadays, at least not those of us in what is called genre fiction. (Remind me to explain why fantasy has never been, and will never be, a genre of fiction.) Nick Mamatas discusses this issue in a blog post called Against Craft, which went up yesterday on Booklife. We are supposed to be craftsmen, not artists. Writing to word counts and anthology themes and publication deadlines, writing tie-in novels if we need to. Now, I like the idea of writing as craft, and I believe thinking of it that way expresses something deep about writing: that it can be taught, that there are techniques good writers know. But why can’t it be both – craft and art?

I find it refreshing that Llosa still dares, despite his own discomfort with the Romantic glorification of the artist, to think of writing as a call – like the call some people hear to a life of religious contemplation or service. And I would say that there is a spiritual, if not specifically religious, component to writing – it’s a call to a particular craft in the service of something larger than ourselves, even though as individual writers we may not know what that is. And perhaps it’s better for us not to know. It’s better for us simply to do our work, learn our craft, create the things we are called to create. Which will hopefully have artistic integrity and validity.

But when I write, I feel a connection to something larger than myself – to something beyond me, that connects me to I don’t quite know what. The rest of the universe? The literary tradition? Or perhaps just to a part of myself that I don’t usually access. Something, at any rate.

I sometimes wonder if other writers feel that – any of it, or if it’s just me. But it can’t be just me, because Llosa seems to feel it too. At least, something like it.

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5 Responses to The Literary Vocation

  1. Tim Pratt says:

    The art/craft divide (if there even is a divide; there doesn’t have to be) is something I think about a lot. Writing has always been my greatest pleasure — the joy of pure invention is like flying, and the pleasure of doing revision is like solving a fiendishly difficult crossword puzzle — and I’ve managed to find a lot to like even in the tie-in work I’ve been doing. (Partly out of financial necessity. Having my wife laid off for half a year, plus kid medical bills, put us in a hole we’re still climbing out of.)

    Writing sword-and-sorcery roleplaying game books is fun, and doing pastiches/subversions/parodies is an interesting challenge, but I do look forward to sitting back and just writing for myself again, without any strictures beyond the necessity to please myself, and with no particular deadline. Despite having to write three books last year, I wrote a fourth one just for my own enjoyment, because I needed something that was entirely *mine*.

  2. Tim, I like the image of doing a crossword puzzle while flying. That does actually convey what it feels like, being completely engaged in something complex and at the same time feeling completely free.

    And see, you’re the type of person that, after writing three books for “work,” writes another one for “enjoyment.” Sort of the way I come home and relax by writing blog posts or even working on stories. If I could take a vacation, I would use it to write.

    I do hope you get to write more of your own stories soon . . .

  3. Jeff P says:

    I sound like a broken record, but thank you, Dora, for another wonderful post.

  4. Flavia says:

    “But when I write, I feel a connection to something larger than myself – to something beyond me, that connects me to I don’t quite know what. The rest of the universe? The literary tradition? Or perhaps just to a part of myself that I don’t usually access. Something, at any rate.”

    This paragraph..I feel EXACTLY the same 🙂 Thank you for writing it

  5. So glad you all like it and that it makes sense to you in terms of your own experiences! 🙂

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