Last Wednesday evening, Victoria artist and writer Robert Amos spoke to members of the Victoria Writers’ Society about his joyful obsession with Finnegan’s Wake, James Joyce’s mystifying novel which has flummoxed countless readers and spawned innumerable academic dissertations. An eloquent speaker, Mr. Amos described the beginnings of his preoccupation with Joyce’s novel and how it eventually flowered into a wealth of creative works, including a handwritten short-line transcription of Finnegan’s Wake, calligraphic quotations from it on painted paper, and wonderful calligraphy scrolls in the tradition of that art as practiced in Asia.
Robert Amos has also recorded himself reading Finnegan’s Wake in its entirety — twice. He emphasized that the work was really an enormously long poem, rooted in the oral tradition, and therefore best comprehended by listening rather than reading from a text. He recommended that writers try moving their words from one creative medium to another — from printed text to calligraphy, or to music. This deepens one’s appreciation of them and transforms them into new works.
Listening to Mr. Amos reading from Finnegan’s Wake and describing its incredible complexity, I kept thinking that if Joyce were a new author in the present day, he would have the devil of a time finding a publisher willing to take a chance on this work. I expressed this opinion during the question period following the talk, and no one disagreed.
So what did I take away from this informative and entertaining talk? Reinforcement for my belief that writers would do well to resist the compulsion to distort or truncate their works solely for the purpose of making them fit a formula or a set of rules propounded on behalf of the legendary tired, overworked editor who needs to get through the slush pile before night falls on the wicked.
I’m not advocating sloppy writing here. Prose must be honed, sharpened and polished like the best of Damocles’ swords. And if one wants to be published by a “real” publisher, it goes without saying that one must play by the rules set out for the willing and submissive author. But for those whose works don’t seem to fit any mold, there are other avenues now. It is no longer a choice between The Rules Writers Must Obey and the pile of manuscripts slowly turning into cellulose fragments in the fabled bottom drawer. Now there is self-publishing on the internet, including Smashwords, that great salon des refuses in the electronic ether. Making this project happen seems to be the obsession of its founder, Mark Coker, a tireless advocate for electronic self-publishing.
Obsession — that’s the other thing I was reminded of by Robert Amos — creative obsession, not the pathological kind (although who knows where one becomes the other). In my experience, almost any worthwhile creative work is fueled by some sort of irrational compulsion. Writing that is compelled in this way is far easier than that which is done under external pressures such as deadlines or obligations. Note that I don’t say that such writing is better, only that it flows more easily. At some point the writer has to go back and revise, again and again. But writing a first draft in a state of happy obsession produces raw material for revision far more readily than anything else. It’s the opposite of writer’s block — one can’t wait to get back to it, stealing time from work to scribble down snatches of dialogue, losing track of conversations while visualizing a new scene. Aside from anything else, this state is a deeply joyous one. It is, however, difficult to share with others. The experience of creative obsession is most often solitary. The thing to be shared, eventually, is the finished work, and in this I’ve always thought that visual artists and artisans have an advantage over us writers. It is far easier to ask someone to admire a painting or hand-knitted sweater than a 100,000 word novel. “Wow, that sure is a big pile of paper!” isn’t quite the reaction you want.