How do you create a masterpiece? With a lot of graft and heartache, according to the crime fiction master
Monday 9 February 2009
Craft versus creativity, painstaking attention to technique versus the wild heat of inspiration; an old theme, but an important one, alluded to (by anytimefrances) in a recent thread here on this blog. I've been reflecting on this question while reading a selection of Raymond Chandler's letters, edited by Dorothy Gardiner and Kathrine Sorley Walker. It's a window on a lost world - the Anglo-American literary life of the 1940s and 50s - but also, in some of Chandler's asides, rather contemporary.
As you might expect, Chandler has plenty of bracing things to say about "the craft of writing". If ever a man devoted himself to his craft – detective fiction is all about "craft" – while somehow managing to sustain an open line to his hard-bitten unconscious, it was Chandler.
His down-to-earth practicality about writing probably started with money. As in "not having any". He wrote for the "slicks" (The Black Mask etc) because he knew he would get paid for it and because, as he puts it, this was "a good way to learn to write fiction".
Chandler was a born writer, and a great one, but he found it hard. "What do I do with myself from day to day?" he wrote, in answer to a fan. "I write when I can and don't write when I can't ... " And again, to his publisher Hamish Hamilton: "The actual writing is what you live for. The rest is something you have to get through in order to arrive at the point."
Somewhere else, speaking of narrative technique, he writes: "A good story cannot be devised; it has to be distilled. I always regard the first draft as raw material. What seems to be alive in it is what belongs in the story."
So, no plot outlines for Chandler. He just goes at it, letting character and situation take him where they will. Famously, he said somewhere that when in doubt you could always bring a man through the door with a gun in his hand. Those are the words of a man writing for The Black Mask, but Chandler's letters have a hardboiled sweetness that also tells us he was an artist at heart.
Reading between the lines, it's clear that he found writing physically draining. "When a book reaches a certain intensity of artistic performance it becomes literature," he writes. "That intensity may be a matter of style, situation, character, emotional tone or half a dozen other things. It may also be a perfection of control over the movement of a story similar to the control a great pitcher has over the ball."
Chandler was a great pitcher. Like any sportsman at the top of his game, he did it his way, and made it seem effortless. Of course, his style was hard-won, and it mattered to him deeply. As he put it to the magazine editor who rashly interfered with his prose: "I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks. When I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split …"
What am I saying ? You should pay attention to craft, but you can't teach it (whatever the writing schools tell us), and you certainly can't give advice when it comes to words on the page. What you can pass on is a love of reading, and the shining example of a really good book (novel, memoir, or collection of poems).
Sometimes, I think that to have written one good poem might be enough for one lifetime. There are too many words on the loose in the world, and if "craft" is another way of saying that we want to bring the chaos of that exuberant marketplace into some kind of temporary harmony then – yes – I'm for craft every time.