In certain circles, you'll hear writing described as a magical process. The writer sits at a desk and transcribes thought-stars directly from the mouth of the muse. Another school of thought compares writing to wrestling. In this formulation, the writer isn't some passive vessel but rather a champion fighter who types out a sentence and then puts it in a choke hold until it sings.
Essayist, memoirist, and poet Sarah Manguso thinks both of those constructions are inaccurate and borderline contemptible. Thinking that way, she argues, can lead to bad writing and possibly even dumb behavior. Manguso has her own metaphor for thinking about the act, one she's developed over the course of seven books, and she'll share it during her Word Works lecture at Hugo House on October 3.
When I call Manguso to talk about her talk, "A Shared Authority: The Writer and the Writing," she's moderately irritated about a popular quotation attributed to the sports writer Red Smith. When an interviewer asked him if he thought writing was hard, he said, "Why, no. You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed."
"I find that really infantile," Manguso says. "It's just this whole masculine idea that you sustain injury, and then you wrest control over the entity that injured you—which is the work—and then you take revenge by controlling it. It's antithetical to the way art seems effectively to happen, which in my opinion has to do with a dynamic relationship between the art maker and the art."
Manguso uses the language of love to describe the way art seems effectively to happen. She begins her lecture by making a distinction between desire and love, and she argues that your writing might be better—or it might go more smoothly—if your process looks more like love, which she calls "a suitable example of a shared authority."
All writers struggle in their own way with the question of when to tighten the screws and when to loosen them up a bit, but Manguso says the tension for her most often lies in the difference between the shape of the piece in her head and the shape the piece is taking on the page. She has a strong desire to produce the thing in her brain, but that very desire can stymie production.
"As soon as I've over-controlled what I think a work should look like, it always breaks down," she says. "But if I reduce my control over the work to something that better resembles love than a directed desire... as soon as I let the work determine its form, then work starts going better."
Manguso presents the writing process as an ongoing negotiation between the writer and the word, where the writer learns when she should assert herself and when it's best to yield. More than just a useful metaphor that rescues writers from the rhetoric of war and ancient Greek magic, Manguso sees her construction as a kind of ethic. "It's not just the correct relation between the artist and the art," she says, "but the correct ethical relationship between a person and another person, or a person and the community."