That Profound Secret and Mystery: The Artist and Too Much Information

"The good parts of a book may be only something a writer is lucky enough to overhear or it may be the wreck of his whole damn life and one is as good as the other."

When people ask about my writing I tend to mumble a bit, drop my eyes, and say something banal. Writing grows best in silence, as the artist does.

"A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other."

The art of making great conversation is rarely mastered—I, frankly, am lousy at it unless it's by way of email, where I can write—but most people I know manage it reasonably well. People with at least a decent grasp of it will ask about things they know to be part of my life, which means that I do get questioned regularly about my writing.

Responding, as Masha points out, can be difficult. Most of the time I make some generalized comments about what I'm currently working on, follow it with some restatement of the fact that it can take as long to write a book and get published as it does to grow from infancy to adulthood, and change the subject. It doesn't bother me that people ask; I appreciate it, and the consideration for me that it signifies, but my replies have to be controlled. The specifics are uninteresting at best.

Says Masha:
"[T]alking about art often kills it, which is why I am rarely open about particular projects until they're nearing the close, because I hate talking specifics when in comes to writing, and unless I'm directly involved in the editing process, I don't really like hearing specifics - it's like hearing the details of a birth over the phone, or reading them on Facebook. I like speaking of generalities, not specifics."
Learning to write fiction well requires learning to think artistically about conversation, which certainly means some difficulties in ordinary life. Masha refers to the awkward experience of receiving details on the pre-birthing state of some Facebook friend's cervix, when you probably haven't seen her face in six years. Worse yet is listening to someone talk, with gleeful vulgarity, about his (or her, but usually his) physical attraction to whomever it is that he sleeps with. That's excruciating. Then there's politics, about which nearly everyone thinks they're better informed than they actually are, and a few words usually make the bias—and the ignorance of the opposite bias—horribly obvious.

An Austenian comedy of manners could be really appropriate right about now.
"Oh!" cried Elizabeth, "I don't wish to get on Facebook to-day."

"Why not?" said Bingley. "Do you not keep up with your friends?"

"My friends, yes. The people with whom I am intimate, and am comfortable being so. But Mrs. Phillips had a visit from the apothecary, owing to a recent ailment, and like as not will be offering a tour beneath her gown. Wickham will certainly have put forward either an insufferable meme or a picture of some young lady in an unladylike attitude, and Mr. Collins will post twenty links in the space of four minutes, all of them proving him to be as priggish nowadays as ever he was. I had much rather respect my acquaintances from the distance at which circumstance has placed us than despise them familiarly."

"But all of those acquaintances are your relations."

"Worse and worse! Mere acquaintances may be fairly laught at. One cannot laugh at the follies of one's own, and should therefore know as little of them as possible."

"Did you not unsubscribe from Wickham, at least?" said Bingley. "I thought you had."

"Yes, several times; but Facebook has re-fashioned itself again, and now I am forced to see everything he writes."

"Odd! Jane has not complained of it."

"Of course not. She is the sweetest creature in the world. I make no such pretensions."
Not that all of our problems are due to Facebook, of course; it's just easy to mock. Though I shouldn't, as many times as I check it in a day. Anyhow, lament it as we may, the vulgar—etymologically bound to the common—is inescapably part of life.

But the artist has a responsibility above the common to avoid blathering about his own work (says the blogging novelist...) The mere fact that his word will nearly always be taken as relevant, if not gospel, by those receiving the art should be enough to make him watch his tongue. Details can be dangerous, as any Harry Potter fan who lived through the week in which J.K. Rowling revealed both her intentional use of Christian imagery and Dumbledore's same-sex attraction knows. Details can also be inordinately boring. Mostly, what they do is detract from the innate wonder and mystery of the work of art itself.

But now I've made myself something of a hypocrite. I have a blog in which I talk quite a lot about the artistic process. Talking about art, especially with other artists (as Masha pointed out two weeks ago) is part of learning and practicing the craft. At least, it's part of the fun. I admit that I've had to learn caution, though. There's always danger, and Masha is right to warn us to be careful of specifics. I couldn't agree more.


  1. The little Elizabeth/Bingley Facebook vignette is hysterical and spot on, and filled with creativity. :) Definitely shows how well you're able to inhabit Austen's characters, even for a few short lines ;)

    1. Haha, thanks! That's such an impossible linguistic mashup that it was difficult to write and risky to publish, but I had so much fun with it that I couldn't help myself. ;)

  2. HAHAHAHA!!!!!!!!!!!! Oh, the Austen bit had me rolling! You ought to publish that as its own post - it would probably be viral in about ten minutes. Please, please, please? I really want to know someone famous. You know, so I can brag about it on Facebook.


    1. Maria, LOL. The ultimate irony would be just copying and pasting it into Facebook itself. Of course, FB doesn't do italics, which spoils the effect a little. :P

      Are you serious about wanting it in its own post?

    2. Absolutely I'm serious!!! Not that you're beholden to any whim of mine, but I'm pretty sure it would go viral.

    3. Not that the rest of the post wasn't worth reading - but most Facebookers are looking for more instantaneous gratification.

  3. I loved the Austen bit!

    And I thought the part on how viewing conversation artistically causes trouble in life was so true! As is the desire to enjoy and preserve a sense of mystery in life.

    I can only imagine how frustrating it must have been to be a Christian fan when Rowling made those statements! Especially if some family members were having trouble with the books already! I'd actually always seen Dumbledore as gay anyway, so it wasn't a surprise, but I do hate it when author's feel the need to reveal ALL the details! Mystery, and privacy are important for characters too, we know so much about them, they deserve hidden aspects in their lives just as we do. At least, that's how I see it. I felt kind of like Rowling betrayed Dumbledore, like a priest sharing confessions..

    1. Thanks, Masha! I figured you'd sympathize with the part about viewing conversation artistically. :)

      I've never met anyone else, online or otherwise, who caught on to Dumbledore's being gay before Rowling actually said it--so props for that! I can see certain suggestions of it looking back, mostly in the flamboyance. The fact itself doesn't bother me, but the fandom hoo-hah did; I quit listening to at least one well-known Potter podcast over it, and had a rather painful debate with one of fandom's biggest names over whether people who held certain standards of sexual morality ought to be treated as Death Eaters. And did I ever get tired of Christians using that as one more reason to call the books evil and dangerous.

      Apparently I'm still not over it. :P

      But I do agree with you about mystery and privacy being important for characters. Even with my own, whom I know and love deeply--there are places I feel obligated to respect their own secrets, not just in writing the book, but in my mind.

  4. It wasn't so much the flamboyance as it was..um..I was trying to imagine him in love, and I couldn't really see him in a relationship with a woman, he had a sense about him of being gay..which, I mean, I guess I have to give Rowling credit for writing a subtly gay character who in no way "acts gay".

    Your debate sounds SO PAINFUL! wow. And of all the reasons to reject the books, a non-practicing homosexual is not one of them, and it really makes Christians look bad..Another frustration in the love the sinner hate the sin discussion. :( I don't blame you for not being over it..what a nightmare.

    Non-artistic, prying conversations are becoming the bane of my existence. :0 It's one of my major resentments against the Catholic, NFPing crowd, and it seems to be getting worse everyday. Not that I see people everyday..but I imagine them being worse, and then I do see them again and am proven right.

    1. Yes, nightmare is definitely the right word. :) Ah well, the debate is over now--though the attitude's not, I stay far away from that part of fandom--and most of the time, I've just learned not to talk about Harry Potter around some people.

      Haha, I know what you mean about the NFP crowd. Totally A-okay with talking about things that make my ears burn inside and out. It's not usually too big of a problem in my everyday life, as the only people really likely to get into that around me are family members (at least it's not random people in church!) But I won't even get into the online stuff. If I did, I'd have to create a false identity out of pure shame.


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