As you may remember, I’m reading Mario Vargas Llosa’s Letters to a Young Novelist. In it, he has an image of the literary vocation that I think is both brilliant and profoundly disturbing. Here it is:
“Your decision to claim your literary leanings as your destiny must lead you into servitude, into nothing less than slavery. To put it graphically, you’ve just done what some nineteenth-century ladies, concerned about their weight and determined to recover their splendid silhouettes, were reputed to do: you’ve swallowed a tapeworm. Have you ever come across anyone who sheltered that terrible parasite in his gut? I have, and I assure you those ladies were heroines, martyrs to beauty. In the early sixties in Paris, a great friend of mine, José María, a young Spanish painter and filmmaker, was invaded by such a creature. Once the tapeworm establishes itself inside an organism, it merges with it, feeds off it, grows and is nourished at its expense; the worm is very difficult to expel from the body it thrives on and effectively colonizes. José María kept getting thinner, even though he was constantly forced to eat and drink (milk, especially) to satisfy the gnawing of the creature housed inside him, since if he didn’t, his suffering would become intolerable. But everything he ate and drank was for the tapeworm’s benefit, not his. One day, when we were talking in a little Montparnasse bistro, he surprised me with the following confession: ‘We do so many things together. We go to theaters, exhibitions, bookstores, we spend hours and hours discussing politics, books, films, friends. And you think I do these things for the same reason you do, because I enjoy them. But you’re wrong. I do them all for it, for the tapeworm. That’s how it seems to me: that my whole life is lived no longer for my sake but for the sake of what I carry inside me, of which I am now no more than a servant.’
“Ever since then, I’ve liked to compare the lot of the writer to that of my friend José María when he had the tapeworm inside him. The literary vocation is not a hobby, a sport, a pleasant leisure-time activity. It is an all-encompassing, all excluding occupation, an urgent priority, a freely chosen servitude that turns its victims (its lucky victims) into slaves. Like José María’s tapeworm, literature becomes a permanent preoccupation, something that takes up your entire existence, that overflows the hours you devote to writing and seeps into everything else you do, because the literary vocation feeds off the life of the writer just as the tapeworm feeds off the bodies it invades. As Flaubert says: ‘Writing is just another way of living.’ In other words, those who make this enchanting and engrossing vocation their own don’t write to live but live to write.”
That’s brilliant, right? Because you’re not going to forget it, are you? The imagine is so disturbing, and yet so interesting, that I find myself coming back to it again and again. I think, is literature that way for me? Or is it that way only for people who win Nobel prizes, like Llosa? Maybe that’s what literature needs to become for you, to win a Nobel prize?
And yet I think there is a fundamental truth to the image. Once, when I was pregnant with Ophelia, I was given a thyroid medication that it turned out I didn’t actually need. It made me very sick. I stumbled to the bathroom to throw up, then lay on the bathroom floor for hours, with the room spinning around me. I couldn’t stand up. It took me a week of lying in a dark room, eating saltines and sliced turkey, to recover. But I remember that, even as I was lying there, feeling sicker than I had ever felt in my life, part of me was filing the experience away. Observing it, saving it for later. And I used it recently in a scene where a character overdoses on her medication. There’s a certain mercilessness about being a writer. You use yourself mercilessly, the people around you mercilessly. And that means you can’t harbor many illusions about them. You have to be able to see them as they are. If you have social skills, you never let them know and hope they don’t see themselves in your characters. And you can’t have many illusions about yourself either. You have to ask yourself questions like, “Under what circumstances would I commit a murder, and how?” And you have to answer honestly.
Likewise, when you visit a city, you think of what stories you could set there. When you eat a particular food, you mentally record how it tastes, so that later a character can eat the same food and remark on it. It’s an only partly-conscious process that goes on all the time. Being a writer means living with this split consciousness. Every day of your life.
The tapeworm is a parasite, and parasitism is one type of symbiosis. But there are also two other types: commensalism and mutualism. Symbiosis is when two organisms live in close association with one another. Parasitism is when one organism benefits from that relationship but harms the other. Commensalism is when one organism benefits and does not affect the other. Mutualism is when both organisms benefit. In the end, brilliant as it is, I don’t think Llosa’s tapeworm analogy fits. I think the symbiotic relationship between literature and the writer is mutualism, not parasitism. We are not harmed by writing, any more than the dancer is harmed by dance. Rather, we are made in such a way that writing helps us, allows us to process a world that, to the sort of person who becomes a writer, might be overwhelming, unbearable. Writing provides a refuge. At least, that’s what I feel when I sit down to write. I suspect a musician feels that when sitting down to play, a painter feels that when starting to paint, a dancer feels that when getting into position.
I realize that what I’ve written above contains an unstated assumption, that the artist is somehow different from a lawyer, for example. Or an accountant. A lawyer is not necessarily someone who needs the law to live in the world, or understands the world through it. (I’ve known enough lawyers to be fairly confident of that.) But an artist is someone who needs his or her art. For whom it’s a necessity, the way food is. For whom it functions as a way of understanding, of dealing with, the world around.
I have to think more about this topic, because I can see, from what I’ve written above, that my ideas are not well-developed. But what I’m trying to do is provide an alternative to Llosa’s image of the tapeworm while acknowledging that what he describes is, very much, true for me. That I do find myself living for the writing. But also, the writing is a way of living, as Flaubert says. It provides me with a way of functioning in the world, which is something the tapeworm does not do. An orchid living on a tree is an example of commensalism. Ants living on an accacia are examples of mutualism. The ants make a small hole in the accacia, and the accacia provides them with sugar. But at the same time, the ants protect the accacia. They attack anyone who tries to damage it. I think my relationship with literature is much more like that. It’s not as arresting an image, the writer as ant and literature as the accacia. But I rather like it.