Cover detail from Demons by Dostoyevsky
“There are moments, and it is only a matter of five or six seconds, when you feel the presence of the eternal harmony … a terrible thing is the frightful clearness with which it manifests itself and the rapture with which it fills you. If this state were to last more than five seconds, the soul could not endure it and would have to disappear. During these five seconds I live a whole human existence, and for that I would give my whole life and not think that I was paying too dearly.”
—Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Demons
This passage from Dostoyevsky is taped to the wall above my desk. I’ve always been fascinated by the unstable line between inspiration and madness, and how authors over the centuries have tried to explain the art of writing—its holy and demonic pull, but to my mind, none expresses the mixture of rapture and terrible clarity, the loss of time, control, and the unendurable obliteration of self as intently and precisely as Dostoyevsky does here.
Writing is sacred to me. It is, at times perhaps, a rapture, but not an easy one. I sometimes will question a writer who says, “I love what I do,” because “love” is not exactly the word I would use. Writing is what I know how to do, but it’s also a necessity. To me, there is not much more than the thrill of a well-told story. That’s how I make sense of my world.
It was a day thirty years ago—during tenth-grade English—when my passion for stories became hitched to a more particular ambition. It was winter, through the windows we could see snow falling outside, and our teacher, Mr. Rossiter, was talking about a poem by T.S. Eliot. I don’t remember which poem it was. I don’t remember exactly what he said about it. But I will never forget the look on his face, how his eyes lit up as he spoke about that poem with such fire that I understood that reading that poem had changed him.
I remember thinking to myself: I want to write something that makes someone feel that.
I thought it was a simple thing to want. At fifteen, I didn’t understand that to dedicate my life to working to evoke that kind of visceral response in a reader came at a certain price. And by price, I don’t mean the challenges you might expect: the long years of rejection, near-misses, or the sudden (if you are “lucky”), mind-bending success—an agent, a book deal, exposure, all that. By price, I don’t mean the number of pages written and trashed, or the hours of ordinary life with family or friends that you give up to hang out with people who do not exist. I don’t mean the unexpected grief that can sometimes come with letting a book go out into the world, or the consequent challenge of learning to discern the difference between the demands placed on “you the author” and the needs of “you the writer.”
And by price, I don’t even mean the challenges of learning to navigate the high-paced roller-coaster ride that modern publishing can be, and how authors now are expected to spend a lot of time engaged in self-promotion and on social media, which can be important, even necessary, but which can also be diametrically opposed to the slow, deep, quiet time that good creative work requires.It is a challenge to find your balance with this and to continue to make room for solitude even after you have published—to make space to let the writing mind dream.
The cost I am talking about has more to do with rejecting the myth of control and letting the fire and voice of a story rise up and become the driving force of a piece, to let it assume the full range of intensity and life it was intended for. In a 2012 interview with the Guardian, novelist Siri Hustvedt was asked about the greatest myth of writing a book and she spoke of just this: “There’s a myth of control. Writers are in control of editing processes—making a sentence better, cutting a paragraph. But the initial outpouring has very little to do with conscious control or manipulation.” It’s a thought that aligns with French writer André Gide’s claim that “Only those things are beautiful which are inspired by madness and written by reason.”
What is the cost to be inspired by madness? To be willing and ready to lose yourself to that rapture and terrible clarity that Dostoyevsky describes?
My own novels start as tiny glimmers—of character, story, scene. I don’t have an arc or structure mapped out. I have tiny hot pieces kicking around in me, and I feel them, not with the mind, but with the body. They have a certain feverish intensity, a certain dreamlike immediacy. They feel alive. And the challenge for me in that early stage of a novel is to stay open to that life, to lean into that feeling of raw, at times untenable emotion that can’t quite be circumnavigated by the daylight mind. It’s a human impulse, in writing and in life, to avert the eyes—to look or move away from what feels too intense or excessive, to pin it down into logical terms.
But the work of a writer is often to open to that intensity, that burn and chaos of feeling; to allow yourself to be driven by possibilities you have not yet uncovered, a revelation you do not yet know, or to let a character you have fallen for turn into someone else on the page. Because it can be those moments—in fact it is those unexpected moments—when something you think you are so sure of twists and becomes something else that infuses real life into a story.
That state of openness for me is not a moment. It’s not entirely temporal, but it is a state I cultivate and protect. When a story really burns in me that way, it doesn’t matter if I am at my desk, running with the dog, or driving to school to pick up my boys. It does not matter if I am out for dinner or in a conversation. It’s like a second skin layered over everything else. It might be silenced for a moment, or be turned to a lower volume. I might get wrenched out of a passage or a line I am in the midst of crafting, and that line might be lost, but I have a certain faith that if a phrase or even a paragraph gets scattered like that, it will return if it’s meant to. The line might be gone, but the state isn’t. And to me, what matters is that commitment to staying open to a story. There’s a violence to it, like a drug or a love affair. When a story has me that way, it is always falling through me, pushing up in me. That is the state I am in, and I can answer the phone or the doorbell, or not; I can respond to an email, or not; I can drive to school to pick up my boys, fix dinner, go to baseball, come home, take the dog for a walk, and at the end of those instances of ordinary life, that story will still be there waiting for me to write into it and write it down. When I am in that place of free-fall through a story, which can last for several weeks, the most significant change, I notice, is that I don’t really sleep. It keeps me up late after the rest of the house is in bed; it snaps me awake at 3 a.m.
It is not always pleasant, that burn for a story and the work of staying open. It can be a rush, a fall-off-the-cliff kind of feeling, but more often, it brings me to the edge of a very human kind of heartbreak, an intense despair I do not want to linger with too long. Sometimes it’s like grit in the eye or a splinter—the way an element of a story or a character’s flaw needles at you. Sometimes it’s a dark kind of pressure inside, that you can’t get clear of until you sit with it, lean into it, let it change you, and in that process, work it through to the page.
And then it is there, in lined notebooks or a docx file, a draft of 100 or 300 pages. At that point, the controlled work of the reasonable mind cuts in, to make order of that madness, to work that lake of raw emotion into a more singular form. “Kill your darlings.” Cut the chaff. Revisit. Re-envision. Rework. Hone the “initial outpouring” into the shape of a story with plot, pace, structure, and a sharp sense of narrative drive.
I love the transformative work of revision. I love being able to live for months on that cool, saner edge of the mind. For me, revision is deeply creative work. It’s methodical, ruthless work, and I love that. But it’s not what drives me. It’s not the aspect of the art I lose my mind to. It’s not what I crave to get back to once I have finished a book and sent it off. What I want back then is the untenable nature of being, that intensity of feeling so much, too much.
A good friend of mine recently published her first novel. She is a brilliant writer, and as the reviews began to roll in, I watched her spirits soar. There were raves in Booklist and the Boston Globe, then a profoundly scathing review elsewhere. She called me in tears. “I don’t know what to do with this feeling,” she said. “I wasn’t ready—this crazy awful feeling, this doubt.”
I gave her some advice my editor gave me once, years ago, when my first novel hit the world, and I couldn’t quite get my bearings: “Just write.”
I told my friend, the young writer, this:
It may not seem so now, but this is a gift: to get the praise and the mixed reviews, to learn how to field and deflect them both and buckle yourself into the fact that this is just how it is going to be from now on. None of that opinion—the good and the bad flying around out there—really has much to do with what you, as a writer, are called to do.
Reviews will come. There will be a whole landscape of them, and at the end of the day, all that really matters is that there was a story you loved once, that burned in you enough that you took a few years of your life and wrote it down. What matters is that there is a new story prickling around in you now, snapping you awake at 3 a.m. It is a kind of possession, that madness, that outpouring, that loss of control, but a willing and logical one inexorably driven by a need to create a work with life and meaning, that will in some future time move readers or change how they think in some slight, vital way or cause them to see—perhaps differently—the simple beauty of an ordinary moment underscored by an acute awareness of its transience. In other words, the cost is not simply the madness, the loss of your reasonable self for the sake of a paragraph or passage or the fate of a character who has nabbed your heart. The cost is not simply the possession, but the fierce, leveling need to be possessed.
Whether someone loves what you’ve done or not, someone else’s reaction to a book you’ve written has very little to do with what drove you to write it in the first place. It has very little to do with what will continue to drive you to wake up tomorrow, and the day after, to go to your desk, and pour yourself into the page.
Cut yourself open to the world, see and feel as much as you can bear and take that feeling and lean into it, kick it open, transform it. Live in that madness and get it onto the page. Learn your own voice, trust your own instincts, find that next story you are on fire to tell.
About the author: Winner of the Massachusetts Book Award for fiction, Dawn Tripp (@dawntrippwriter) is the author of the novels Moon Tide, The Season of Open Water, and Game of Secrets, a Boston Globe bestseller. Her essays have appeared in The Rumpus, Psychology Today, and on NPR. She can be reached through her website, on Twitter, and on Facebook.