Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Solitary Pursuits

"At that moment the equation became clear to him: the act of writing as an act of memory. For the fact of the matter is, other than the poems themselves, he has not forgotten any of it (Auster 141)."

Forgive me if this essay is heavily tinted with autobiographical asides. One of the reasons I moved to the Seattle area this year was to focus on writing, to make up for the lack of attention that I had been paying. Naturally, I was homesick, which I dealt with by sending long e-mails to friends, happily detailing my newfound focus on writing, coupled with the fascination of exploring a new city, one that I had never even visited before. A friend of mine recommended Paul Auster's The Invention of Solitude, saying that I would relate to the look at the solitary nature of writing and creativity. After recently finishing the book (a few months after this recommendation), I was immediately reminded of a conversation with another friend of mine, one who found it curious (read: odd) that I enjoyed reading books about writing. I'm amazed at how right these two friends were, both the first one with his accurate recommendation, and the second one with her affirming question. I'll gladly be considered odd.

The Invention of Solitude is composed of two volumes in one. The first half ("Portrait Of An Invisible Man") consists of Auster writing about his father, a man of complex emotions, both infuriating and gently touching, and a man who dealt with a family tragedy which accounted for his makeup (an event that Auster found out about purely by chance). At first, I found this first half extremely compelling and well written, but I was anxiously awaiting the second half of the book for his insights on writing. However, he provided some passages that hit me in the stomach, passages undoubtedly relatable to young male writers and their relationships with their fathers. This is not at all a slight towards female writers, but one of the unspoken themes of this book is abstract masculinity.

"His most common description of me was that I had 'my head in the clouds,' or else that I 'did not have my feet on the ground.' Either way, I must not have seemed very substantial to him, as if I were somehow a vapor or a person not wholly of this world. In his eyes, you became part of the world by working. By definition, work was something that brought in the money. If it did not bring in money, it was not work. Writing, therefore, was not work, especially the writing of poetry. At best it was a hobby, a pleasant way to pass the time in between the things that really mattered. My father thought that I was squandering my gifts, refusing to grow up (61)."

To an extent, these words describe my relationship with my own father. I love him immensely, and he has always supported me, but while I was in college, he kept hinting that I should study business instead of writing. His feelings were totally well-intentioned, that after college I needed something to fall back on. Even to this day, I sometimes feel like I'm still trying to prove that I'm not merely engaging in a hobby, but working on what I really want to do.

The second half of the book is entitled "The Book Of Memory," a collection of fictionalized autobiographical memories, mixed together with personal examples of the solitary writer. This idea can easily be open to outside stereotypes: a disaffected young male, sitting alone in squalor, attempting to create art. While that might describe "A." (Auster's fictionalized version of himself), it's not at all a caricature, but rather personal history and honesty. "Memory is a room, as a body, as a skull, as a skull that encloses the room in which a body sits. As in the image: 'a man sat alone in his room' (86)." As brief as this quote is, this is the core of Auster's beginnings and growth as a writer, an idea that is truly universal among artists. Despite the revolving door of acceptance, publication, gallery shows, feedback, critiques, networks, and sharing of creative endeavors, virtually all art begins with a man or a woman alone in a room, engaging in creation. Even after the art has been exposed to the outside world, it will come back around to solitude:

"Every book is an image of solitude. It is a tangible object that one can pick up, put down, open and close, and its words represent many months, if not years, of one man's solitude, so that with each word one reads in a book one might say to himself that he is confronting a particle of that solitude (135)."

The quoted passage that opened this essay is crucial to the book, appropriately buried towards the end. While this might seem like an obvious idea, sometimes it is easy to forget that virtually all writing is affected by memories and experiences. This is not to say that all writing has to be autobiographical, nor am I falling on what I've always found to be a horrible piece of advice for beginning writers: "Write what you know." However, memories shape everything that we do. A given piece of writing may have no resemblance or bearing on the author's life, but his or her memories have shaped who they are and how they've come to creating what they have done.

To close, and for the final autobiographical allusion to myself, Auster has a phenomenal description of writers, yet another one that made me nod in agreement. This might have been more appropriate to write about a few months ago, when I first moved to Seattle, but I still sometimes see myself as a singular entity, both where I live and how I see myself as a writer:

"He has spent the greater part of his adult life walking through cities, many of them foreign. He has spent the greater part of his adult life hunched over a small rectangle of wood, concentrating on an even smaller rectangle of white paper. He has spent the greater part of his adult life standing up and sitting down and pacing back and forth. These are the limits of the known world. He listens. When he hears something, he begins to listen again. Then he waits. He watches and waits. And when he begins to see something, he watches and waits again. These are the limits of the known world (96)."

Work Cited:

Auster, Paul. The Invention of Solitude. Copyright 1982 by Paul Auster.

6 comments:

Culture Snob said...

I don't know how familiar you are with Auster generally, but his primary method is to rip a character apart to see what he's made of. (Has Auster written any female protagonists?)

I hadn't thought of "Portrait of an Invisible Man" as context -- as potentially the/a source of his obsession with identity -- until your essay, but it makes sense. (I recognize that this was not your point, but you've helped clarify something for me.)

And while The Invention of Solitude deals directly with creation, almost every Auster work features as a central theme isolation/disconnection. And The Music of Chance and Leviathan also concern themselves with creation/construction.

Jamie said...

I hate to admit this, but this is my first introduction to Auster.

I'm glad I inadvertently helped you realize a point. I'll keep this in mind the next time I read it, but I didn't read "Portrait Of An Invisible Man" as a source of obsession. Yes, there's a definite theme of identity, but I found it more matter-of-fact than obsessive.

Culture Snob said...

It might not be apparent from the one work, but if you delve into Auster at all -- I'd recommend starting with The New York Trilogy -- you'll see identity as really his only subject.

And because you're a movie person, too, there's no harm in Smoke (which he wrote) or The Music of Chance (which was adapted quite well from his novel).

To be clear, your essay helped me recognize that perhaps the mystery of who his father was informs the obsession with identity.

Culture Snob said...

You might also be interested in "Why Write?" from The New Yorker. You need to be a subscriber to read the full article, but I could hook you up with a copy.

Jamie said...

Thanks! And talk about perfect timing: I just started a subscription about two weeks ago.

Joshua said...

I'm going to second the Smoke recommendation. That film is one of my favorites, as well as the only film which constitutes a Christmas institution in my household.