This post was written by Eric Vargas.
Recently I was asked about my methodology of writing, what it was, how I developed it, and what was necessary in its development. After much thought I realized that there was no way to answer that without an entwining of life and art and thus to her I replied:
Study the classics. Milton, Melville, Malick, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Homer, Moore, Faulkner, Alighieri, McCarthy, Tolstoy, Bugalkov, Joyce, Cervantes, Nietzsche, Crane, Jung, Freud, Heidegger, Camus, Kubrick, Kurosawa, Montaigne, Yeates. There have been many masters through the ages and man has suffered long enough to produce a few colossi. To each there is a depth that taps the veins of the divine. Read their stories then read the criticisms. There are millennia worth of commentary, a testament to their inexhaustible nature. Through them, through study, through practice you will find what umbrellas the craft. The subtle techniques, the wisdom, all comes with the beauty of the opuses.
Do not abandon hope for peace and rest but do not be averse to violence. Every classic is rife with it whether it be against the body the mind the state the family the old the young the tradition the revolution. Homer recounts how Odysseus upon returning to Ithaca after twenty years slaughters the suitors of his wife and then hangs the women of the court who slandered the same by the neck and stabs them to death. The Iliad is plumbed with slaughter as would horrify even the acolytes de de Sade, though maybe not the Marquis himself.
Moby-Dick for all its awe and wonder details the gory business of a whale dressing. The Brothers Karamazov revolves around a parricide. Blood Meridian explores scalp hunting as a Hobbesian nightmare of bellum omnium contra omnes. Tolstoy tells the battles of Austerlitz and Borodino. Violence is intrinsic to the world. Know the world, also your fellow tenants, so you can say this I am against and this for.
Nevertheless the sun hides not Virginia’s Dismal Swamp, nor Rome’s accursed Campagna, nor wide Sahara, nor all the millions of miles of deserts and of griefs beneath the moon. The sun hides not the ocean, which is the dark side of this earth, and which is two thirds of this earth. So, therefore, that mortal man who hath more of joy than sorrow in him, that mortal man cannot be true- not true, or undeveloped. With books the same. The truest of all men was the Man of Sorrows, and the truest of all books is Solomon’s, and Ecclesiastes is the fine hammered steel of woe. “All is vanity.” ALL.
But even Solomon, he says, “the man that wandereth out of the way of understanding shall remain” (I.E., even while living) “in the congregation of the dead.” Give not thyself up, then, to fire, lest it invert thee, deaden thee; as for the time it did me. There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.
Read the Bible. Read the Tao. Understand the principles and values that underpin the civilization in which you are member and of which you are product. All are products of unions, do not be ashamed to say this is my father, this my mother. Jason Pierce composed Born, Never Asked. That is alas the truth of all.
Read what infuriates you. Read what you know is wrong until you can articulate exactly what is wrong and why it is wrong. If you cant prove it wrong understand then why it is right.
Dont be a messenger boy. Leave that to politicians and activists. Never try to mold a story around a message. If you have a message it will emerge of its own accord even if you cant understand it. Hayao Miyazaki recounted how he was once told:
Children have to see something incomprehensible, that they will understand later.
I recall two Indian children who watched Pinocchio and then My Neighbor Totoro and though they spoke not lick one of either English or Japanese they were but rapt because they understood the meaning. In the sphere of human interaction it is emotion upon which the all is predicated. However take care not to surrender to sentimentality, do not be maudlin.
Have heroes but do not be slavish. Perceive the conceits of legends. If at all possible listen to their voices. As in the eyes much can be discerned in speaking.
Forget methodology when writing, it should not be a concern for it will develop in its time according to its practice. Men are creatures of habit and the patterns will form. Do not blight your thoughts with overtheorizing. Writing of the Second World War Lee Sandlin says,
But then everything about the war was ad hoc and provisional. The British set up secret installations in country estates; Stalin had his supreme military headquarters in a commandeered Moscow subway station. Nobody cared about making the system logical, because everything only needed to happen once. Every battle was unrepeatable, every campaign was a special case. The people who were actually making the decisions in the war — for the most part, senior staff officers and civil service workers who hid behind anonymous doors and unsigned briefing papers — lurched from one improvisation to the next, with no sense of how much the limitless powers they were mustering were remaking the world.
Sometimes the only method of constancy is its inconstancy.
Be wary of plots. In trying to machine narrative the story is reduced to a vehicle, all its players parts. Such stories may be outwardly pretty and inwardly working but they are only veneers, circumspected by their epoch. They lack the pneumatic breath of life that bestows both timelessness and universality.
Rare is the man who transcends his world. Never forget that. A man has lived a thousand years in his country before ever he was born.
Read everything. Even if you dont finish it. If in your perusal of all of the Romantic canon you find only one scrap worth salvaging, salvage that scrap and move on. Maintain an aura of aloofness. Retain for yourself all rights in the process of creation. Resist defensiveness in the face of advice or criticism but dont be afraid to go your own way. Kipling rhymed this to his son,
If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you, if you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for the doubting too. Or being lied about dont deal in lies or being hated dont give way to hating and yet dont look too good nor talk too wise.
If your soul impedes your story expunge your soul of clemency. Learn to be a while soulless. But never lose your soul. Oft you must nurture malice towards the children of your mind whatever they may be. When Faulkner’s daughter pleaded that he quit drinking he quipped:
Nobody remembered Shakespeare’s children.
Hemingway shot himself in the head. Faulkner drank himself to death. Plath stuck her head in an oven and Socrates drank hemlock. If writers are killing themselves less these days than afore it’s because the subject matter is not worth killing themselves over. Tackle those subjects deadliest to yourself. The snake does not go away because you refuse to look at it but coils to strike at your heel. Do not adopt the life of a cynic, there is love in the world.
Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.
Fear not the vertigo of the highest themes or to dredge characters from dung. The story of the least of men is worth telling because all men are but faces of the same man.
They watched the fire which does contain within it something of men themselves inasmuch as they are less without it and are divided from their origins and are exiles. For each fire is all fires, and the first fire and the last ever to be.
Also Sprach Cormac McCarthy.
It has oft been said that man cannot find god because he will not look low enough. If the divine is not in the least it cannot be in the most.
John Donne proclaimed,
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.
Therefore never care the subject of your stories be they hideous or stupid. Nor spare them life, nor contrive their deserts. But if they should fall by their own hands let it be by their own hands without extenuation and if by the world’s hands let it be without condoning or condemning.
Never be afraid to take the objects of your wantonness or fantasy, no matter whom it offends, no matter how offensive. The truth derogates us all. Upon a wall in the CIA headquarters is engraved a line from Corinthians:
And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.
Ignorance is farthest from bliss. But this is no mandate to raise your characters out of ignorance. Remember always that it is not for them that you write. Never truck with those who turn blind eyes to their own faction’s lies. Theyll eat you in your quiet moments of apostasy.
Dont be offended, neither offend yourself. Speak truth to the best of your ability and knowledge. Never be ashamed to admit ignorance. All wisdom has been clawed out of nature. It is to be shared.
Proper writing is a ceaseless overcoming of the self. Those who forgo the trial are bogged down in the vapidity of the slapstick and the shock. Their sterility is contagious. There have been millions of those amateurs and like the poor we will always have them. Strive to be better. Pretension is the easiest charge of the weak but it is also a charge often true. If you are honest in your endeavors you may yet fail and you may yet be accused and the accusation may even be true but your conscience will be clean and there is no greater good than that. Admit your faults but do not wallow in them. If ever you want for villains examine yourself, there are a thousand reprobates nested in our hearts.
A book that does not contain its opposite is no book at all. Do not create caricatures. Do not save your heroes. If your villain is better let him triumph. For there are men who are triumphs of evil. Neither are there always heroes. Neither are there always villains.
Do everything. If you wish to digress a thousand pages do it. If you are inclined to muse then muse, honestly, or philosophize do so. Stand as you are and do not be too hasty in explaining yourself. Never be afraid of who you are, nor be ashamed of your convictions but abhor delusions. Sun Tzu wrote,
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
The Greeks simply said,
Never be contemptful of words. For every word there is a man who has died for it. There is a sacredness to words but there is none so sacred it should not be used or its use regulated. Do not allow yourself to be policed, apply your own censor sparingly. Be free in all your pronouncements whether vulgar or base whether eloquent or beautiful. Language may perish but the very act of speaking breathes life back into its bones.
Listen to music everyday. Listen to everything. Music is the rawest expression of the spirit. If you would know the soul of man hear what he hums.
Dont be afraid to drink nor to become drunk. Eat well. Be affectionate. Think often whether lofty or low. Rest the temple of your inhabitance but do not surrender to idleness, it is the most dishonorable form of suicide. Dont belittle yourself or exaggerate your abilities. Be fair in your dealings. In all things be honest and love the world.
Guest post by Eric Vargas who tenders his many thanks to Mladen. Vargas is the perpetual alcoholic who keeps track of the Tangential Menagerie.