Francine du Plessix Gray

I Write for Revenge against Reality

    A nightmare recurs since childhood:
    Facing a friend, I struggle for words and emit no sound. I have an urgent message to share but am struck dumb, my jaw is clamped shut as in a metal vise, I gasp for breath and cannot set my tongue free. At the dream's end my friend has fled and I am locked into the solitude of silence.
    The severe stutter I had as a child, my father's impatience and swiftness of tongue, his constant interruption of me when I tried to speak?
    Or perhaps another incident which also has to do with the threat of the Father and the general quirkiness of my French education: One day when I was nine I was assigned my first free composition. From infancy I had been tutored at home in Paris by a tyrannical governess, the two of us traveling once a week to a correspondence school whose Gallically rigid assignments (memorization of Asian capitals and Latin verbs, codifying of sentence parts) were hardly conducive to a fertile imagination. "Write a Story About Anything You Wish," Central Bureau suddenly ordered. Filled with excite-ment and terror by this freedom, I began as a severe minimalist:
    "The little girl was forbidden by her parents to walk alone to the lake at the other end of the long lawn. But she wished to visit a luminous green-eyed frog who would offer her the key to freedom. One day she disobeyed her parents and walked to the lake and immediately drowned." (The End)
    "Pathetic dribble!" the Father stormed on his daily visit to my study room. "You dare call that a story! What will become of you if you can't ever finish anything!"
    It was a warm May evening of 1939, the year before he died in the Resistance. The love of my life (my father was himself an occasional scribbler) was warning me that I should never write again. I still remember the hours I spent honing those meager sentences, the square white china inkwell into which I squeezed the rubber filler of a Waterman pen, the awkwardness of ink-stained fingers as I struggled to shape my letters (I was born left-handed and had been forced to use my right), the tears, the sense that my writing was doomed to be sloppy, abortive, good for naught.
    So it may have begun, the central torment of my life, my simultaneous need to commit fantasies to paper and the terror that accompanies that need, the leaden slowness of the words' arrival, my struggle with the clamped metal jaws of mouth and mind. An affliction deepened by that infatuation with the written word that possesses most solitary children. For books had been the only companions of my childhood prison, particularly such stirring tales of naval adventure as Captains Courageous
or Two Years Before the Mast, which fueled dreams of running away to sea and never being seen again.
    Then came the war, the flight to America, the need to learn a new language. English was learned as a means of survival and became a lover to be seduced and conquered as swiftly as possible, to be caressed and rolled on the tongue in a continuous ecstasy of union. English words, from the time I was 11 on, were my medium of joy and liberation. I fondled them by memorizing twenty lines of Blake when ten had been assigned; I wooed them so assiduously that I won the Lower School Spelling Bee within 10 months of having come to the the United States. (I was the only foreign scholarship student at the Spence School; shortly after the contest a delegation of Spence parents descended on my mother, who was supporting us by designing hats at Henri Bendel's, to verify that we were true emigres and not usurpers from Brooklyn.)
    I continued to court my new tongue by struggling for A's in English, by being elected editor of the school paper, which a predecessor had artfully named Il Spenceroso. Omens of a "literary gift" continued to accrete—a prize in Bryn Mawr's Freshman Essay Contest, the Creative Writing Award at Barnard for three stories of a strictly autobiographical nature. Such por-tents brought no security. I fled from myself by being a compulsive talker, a bureaucrat, polemicist, hack journalist. I had taken no more than two courses in literature beyond Freshman English, thinking I was smartass enough to learn it for myself. One of the other courses had been a creative writing class that earned me a C—for first-person fictions about situa-tions I knew nothing about—I seemed always to be a middle-aged alcoholic actor seeking salvation in a Bowery church. After that fiasco I had sought refuge in rigor and formalism—physics, philosophy, medieval history. There was a curious furtiveness about the way I continued to carry on my love affair with literature. I copied entire paragraphs from Henry James or T. S. Eliot into private notebooks out of sheer delectation in the texture of their prose. In a stretch of a few solitary vacation weeks I would memorize two hundred lines of Marvell for the pleasure of speaking them to myself during nights of insomnia. Why all this reluctance and covertness?
    "You're writing pure junk," Charles Olson had stormed at me during a summer workshop at Black Mountain when I'd handed him my prize-winning college stories. "If you want to be a writer keep it to a journal." The giant walrus rising from his chair, 6 feet 7 inches of him towering. ". . . AND ABOVE ALL DON'T TRY TO PUBLISH ANYTHING FOR TEN YEARS!" Another paternal figure had censored me into silence, per-haps this time for the best.
    I followed Big Charles's advice. I kept my journal in New Orleans where I dallied as if I had 10 lives to squander, drinking half a bottle of gin a night as I followed a jazz clarinetist on the rounds of Bourbon Street. I remained faithful to my secret vice in the dawns of New York when I worked the night shift at United Press, writing World in Briefs about Elks' Meetings and watermelon-eating contests in Alabama. I remained loyal to my journal through a myriad of failed aspirations while flirting with the thought of entering Harvard's Department of Architecture, of going to Union Theological Seminary for a degree in divinity. I persevered with it when I moved to Paris to earn my living as a fashion reporter, dallying with a succession of consummate narcissists to whom I eventually gave their literary due. I continued to write it when I fulfilled one of my life's earliest dreams and spent five years as a painter of meticulously naturalistic land-scapes and still lifes.
    By then I was married and had two children. And since I lived in deep country and in relative solitude, encompassed by domestic duties, the journal became increasingly voluminous, angry, introspective. The nomad,denied flight and forced to turn inward, was beginning to ex-plode. One day when I was thirty-three, after I'd cooked and smiled for a bevy of weekend guests whom I never wished to see again,



I felt an immense void, great powerlessness, the deepest loneliness I'd ever known. I wept for some hours, took out a notebook, started rewriting one of the three stories that had won me my Barnard prize. It was the one about my governess. It was published a short time later in The New Yorker, one year past the deadline Charles Olson had set me. It was to become, 12 years and two books of nonfiction later, the first chapter of Lovers and Tyrants. The process of finishing that book was as complex and lengthy as it was painful. It entailed a solid and delicate psychoanalysis which forced me to accept my father's death. Epiphany achieved, I was able to write the novel's three last chapters—my first genuine attempt at fiction—in a mere six months. I may have had to bury my father to set my tongue free.
    And yet what kind of writer have I become, six years and two novels later? Few scribblers I know have struggled so hard for so little. I am too many things I do not wish to be—a Jane of all trades shuttling back and forth between scant fiction, voluminous reporting, innumerable and un-memorable literary essays. I feel honored but yet undeserving of the appel-lation "novelist." I am merely a draftsperson, a cabinetmaker of texts and occasionally, I hope, a witness to our times. My terror of fictional invention has denied me that activity which from childhood on has been the most furtively longed for, which has proved to be (when I finally began to tackle it) the most deeply satisfying.
    Might I remain brainwashed, along with many of my generation, by the notion that fiction is the noblest, the most "creative" of all genres of prose? No avocation has better clarified that issue or my identity as a writer than the business of teaching. I stress to young colleagues that some of the greatest masterpieces of our time have been works of non-fiction or hybrid forms which defy classification—James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
, Edmund Wilson's criticism, Peter Handke's A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, all of Roland Barthes's work. I urge them to shake loose from the peculiarly American fixation on novel-writing. I tell them that the obsession to write The Great American Novel might have done more harm to generations of Americans than all the marijuana in Mexico. The syllabus for the course I taught at Yale last fall sums it all up:
    THE WRITING OF THE TEXT: This is a seminar in the reading and writing of literature which I hope can remain untainted by the word "creative." It is dedicated to the premise that a distinction between "fiction" and "nonfiction" is potentially harmful to many aspiring writers who will progress more fruitfully if they are encouraged to think of their writing as pure "text" without worrying about what "form" or "genre" it will fall into.
    Reading Assignments: F. Scott Fitzgerald's Crack-Up
, Max Frisch's Sketchbooks, Flaubert's Dictionary of Accepted Ideas, Elizabeth Hardwick's Sleepless Nights, Boris Pasternak's Safe Conduct, William Gass's On Being Blue, Maureen Howard's Facts of Life.
The first thing we must do when we set out to write, I also tell my classes, is to shed all narcissism. My own decades of fear came from my anxiety that my early drafts were ugly, sloppy, not promising enough. We must persevere and scrawl atrocities; persevere dreadful draft after dreadful draft in an unhindered stream of consciousness, persevere, if need be, in Breton's technique of automatic writing, of mindless trance. And within that morass of words there may be an ironic turn of phrase, a dislocation that gives us a key to the voice, the tone, the structure we're struggling to find. I am a witness to the lateness of my own vocation, the hesitation and terrors that still haunt all my beginnings, the painful slowness with which I proceed through a minimum of four drafts in both fiction and nonfiction.

    Why do I go on writing, seeing the continuing anguish of the act, the dissatisfaction I feel toward most results?
    Flannery O'Connor said it best: "I write because I don't know what I think until I read what I say."

    I write out of a desire for revenge against reality, to destroy forever the stuttering powerless child I once was, to gain the love and attention that silenced child never had, to allay the dissatisfaction I still have with myself, to be something other than what I am. I write out of hate, out of a desire for revenge against all the men who have oppressed and humiliated me.
    I also write out of love and gratitude for a mother and stepfather who made me feel worthy by hoarding every scrap of correspondence I ever sent them; love and gratitude for a husband of exquisite severity who still edits every final draft that leaves my typewriter. I write out of an infantile dread of ever disappointing them again.
    I write because in the act of creation there comes that mysterious, abundant sense of being both parent and child; I am giving birth to an Other and simultaneously being reborn as child in the playground of creation.
    I write on while continuing to despair that I can't ever achieve the inventiveness, irreverence, complexity of my favorite contemporary au-thors—Milan Kundera, Italo Calvino, Gunter Grass, Salman Rushdie, to name only the foreign ones. They are certain enough of their readers' love (or indifferent enough to it, since the great Indifferents are the great Seducers) to indulge in that shrewd teasing and misguiding of the reader, that ironic obliqueness which is the marrow of the best modern-ist work. It is not only my lesser gift that is at fault. Behind my impul-sive cataloguing, my Slavic unleashing of emotion, my Quaker earnestness to inform my readers guilelessly of all I know, there still lurks the lonely, stuttering child too terrified of losing the reader's love to take the necessary risks.
    Yet, I remain sustained by a definition of faith once offered me by Ivan Illich: "Faith is a readiness for the Surprise." I write because I have faith in the possibility that I can eventually surprise myself. I am still occasionally plagued by that recurring nightmare of my jaw being clamped shut, my mouth frozen in silence. But I wake up from it with less dread, with the hope that some day my tongue will loosen and emit a surprising new sound which even I, at first, shall not be able to understand.

    (Taken from McQuade, Donald, and Robert Atwan, eds.  The Writer's Presence:  A Pool of Essays.  Boston:
Bedford, 1994.)