Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for October 1st, 2017

A public animal

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The real problem of writing by dictation [is] I’m finding it extraordinarily difficult to sound like myself. It’s paralyzing to have to formulate each sentence out loud. It’s so public and official. How do you brood your way into a sentence that you have to spell out for someone else, perhaps literally spell half the words? What are those lines of Emily Dickinson’s—”How dreary to be somebody / How public like a frog?” I don’t particularly think of a frog as a public animal, but imagine being a poet with impaired vision and having to dictate those lines. You say, “How public like a frog,” and the secretary stops and says, “What was that you just said? ‘So public like a fog?'” And you say, “No, not fog. Frog.” “Oh,” her voice sinks. “Public like a—frog. F-r-o-g?”…I guess I could have tried to write one word on a page, ten words on a page. I always wanted to write by hand, the way Edith Wharton did, sitting in bed with stacks of paper and tossing the written pages onto the floor for a secretary to pick up and type while she went down to lunch with Henry James

It’s a serious and complicated matter. It’s hard enough to be the controlled person that I am—so much controlled, I mean, by logic and reason—without in addition having the free flow of feeling and idea impeded by the cold presence of another person. I once had an exchange with Robert Lowell—it was about the student uprisings at Columbia—and in it he called me a “housekeeping goddess of reason.” He had a point there…Who knows—at this stage of my life, perhaps if I were alone at my typewriter, my fingers would flit over the keys in some vagrant fashion and I would write all sorts of unexpected things, unreasonable things, things that defy logic…Dictating is the dullest possible occasion for the triumph of the superego.

Diana Trilling, in an interview with Stephen Koch

Written by nevalalee

October 1, 2017 at 7:30 am

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