Mental hygiene essays on writers and writing

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One of today's best young novelists, Ray Robertson is also one of its ablest critics . This is a collection of his most entertaining, insightful, controversial, and. Mental Hygiene: Essays on Writers and Writing by Ray Robertson () on *FREE* shipping on qualifying offers.

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What kind of research did you do for this book? What is your greatest accomplishment to date? What was the best advice you ever received as a writer?

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Best advice you can give a budding writer. For more on Ray, visit his webpage at Rayrobertson. Your email address will not be published. Any thoughts on this would be appreciated… Good work endures. What musicians do you most admire? What is your most prized possession? Making it to Avoid hard drugs and free jazz. Submit a Comment Cancel reply Your email address will not be published. Private things—newfound love, family disagreements and spiritual faith, to name a few—can quickly become banal or irritating when moved into the public arena.

No subject is too private for good fiction if it can be made beautiful and enlightening. That may be the rub right there. Making it beautiful is no small trick. The language of coition has been stolen, or rather, I think, it has been divvied up like chips in a poker game among pornography, consumerism and the medical profession. None of these players are concerned with aesthetics, so the linguistic chips have become unpretty by association.

My St. Nevertheless, the language is ours for the taking. Fiction writers have found elegant ways to describe life on other planets, or in a rabbit warren, or an elephant tribe, inventing the language they needed to navigate passages previously uncharted by our tongue. When it comes to the couplement of yoni, I think the real handicap is a cultural one. Sex is the ultimate animal necessity. The harder we try to deny it official status, the more it asserts itself in banal, embarrassing ways.

And so here we are, modern Americans with our heads soaked in frank sexual imagery and our feet planted in our Puritanical heritage, and any novelist with something to say about procreation or the lordotic posture has to negotiate that territory. In the quiet of our writing rooms we have to corral the beast and find a way to tell of its terror and beauty. We must own up to its gravity. We must warn our mothers before the book comes out. I know you know. In running the mind flies with the body; the mysterious efflorescence of language seems to pulse in the brain, in rhythm with our feet and the swinging of our arms.

There must be some analogue between running and dreaming. Possibly these fairy-tale feats of locomotion are atavistic remnants, the hallucinatory memory of a distant ancestor for whom the physical being, charged with adrenaline in emergency situations, was indistinguishable from the spiritual or intellectual. The structural problems I set for myself in writing, in a long, snarled, frustrating and sometimes despairing morning of work, for instance, I can usually unsnarl by running in the afternoon.

And the writing remains snarled in endless revisions. Writers and poets are famous for loving to be in motion. If not running, hiking; if not hiking, walking. No one has captured the romance of desolation, the ecstasy of near-madness, more forcibly than Dickens, so wrongly interpreted as a dispenser of popular, softhearted tales. But it may be surprising to learn that Henry James, whose prose style more resembles the fussy intricacies of crocheting than the fluidity of movement, also loved to walk for miles in London.

I, too, walked and ran for miles in London years ago. Much of it in Hyde Park. Regardless of weather. What a curious experience! But of course, as no one has yet remarked in this diverse and idiosyncratic series, Writers on Writing, writers are crazy.

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Each of us, we like to think, in her own inimitable way. Both running and writing are highly addictive activities; both are, for me, inextricably bound up with consciousness. For I had not yet mastered the trickier human form, as I was years from mastering human psychology. Through childhood I hiked, roamed, tirelessly explored the countryside: neighboring farms, a treasure trove of old barns, abandoned houses and forbidden properties of all kinds, some of them presumably dangerous, like cisterns and wells covered with loose boards. For this reason I believe that any form of art is a species of exploration and transgression.

Art by its nature is a transgressive act, and artists must accept being punished for it. The more original and unsettling their art, the more devastating the punishment. If writing involves punishment, at least for some of us, the act of running even in adulthood can evoke painful memories of having been, long ago, as children, chased by tormentors. Are there any adult women who have not been, in one way or another, sexually molested or threatened?

That adrenaline rush, like an injection to the heart!

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I attended a one-room country schoolhouse in which eight very disparate grades were taught by a single overworked woman. The teasing, pummeling, pinching, punching, mauling, kicking and verbal abuse that surrounded the relative sanctuary of the schoolhouse simply had to be endured, for in those days there were no protective laws against such mistreatment. This was a laissez-faire era in which a man might beat the daylights out of his wife and children, and the police would rarely intervene except in cases of serious injury or death.

I was one of those luckless children without older brothers or sisters to protect her against the systematic cruelty of older classmates, thus fair game. It must prevail through the species; it allows us insight into the experiences of others, a sense of what a more enduring panic, entrapment, suffering and despair must be truly like. Beyond the lines of printed words in my books are the settings in which the books were imagined and without which the books could not exist. Sometime in , for instance, running along the Delaware River south of Yardley, Pa. Stories come to us as wraiths requiring precise embodiments.

Again, I know: writers are crazy. The effort of memorable art is to evoke in the reader or spectator emotions appropriate to that effort. My method is one of continuous revision. While writing a long novel, every day I loop back to earlier sections to rewrite, in order to maintain a consistent, fluid voice.

When I write the final two or three chapters of a novel, I write them simultaneously with the rewriting of the opening, so that, ideally at least, the novel is like a river uniformly flowing, each passage concurrent with all the others. My most recent novel is 1, finished manuscript pages, which means many more typed-out pages, and how many miles of running, I dare not guess!

Dreams may be temporary flights into madness that, by some law of neurophysiology unclear to us, keep us from actual madness. So, too, the twin activities of running and writing keep the writer reasonably sane and with the hope, however illusory and temporary, of control. This was merely a summer job.

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One of the glories of postal employment in those days was that once carriers learned their routes, they could deliver the mail in far less than the five hours allotted. By longstanding agreement— explained to me in a most emphatic and furtive way by a colleague my first week—mail carriers who finished early did not return to the post office until the end of the day.

Since the public library was the only air-conditioned public building, even in that affluent suburban town, I spent my free time there. The literary god T. So for the next eight weeks I read the novel to end all novels for an hour and a half each afternoon at taxpayer expense. It seemed that no one else in this well-to-do, highly educated community wanted to read the greatest novel ever written, at least not in the leisure hours of summer. I thought inevitably of the philosophical riddle with which schoolchildren were routinely teased in those days: If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, is there sound?

Thus began the questions that plagued me for years. What did writers owe their audience? How easy were we supposed to make things for them? And what were we entitled to demand in return? It was obvious that every writer, at least those who sought to publish, craved an audience. But on what terms? The modernists, for example, did not aim to be read by everybody. But my view was more of an I-thou relationship: the artist offers a special vision that reframes experience in a way that, although intensely personal, reverberates deeply among us all.

Following college I spent several years at the Creative Writing Center at Stanford University, first as a fellow and later as a lecturer. The center was roiled by intense factional rivalries that echoed much of my own turmoil. My ideas were much closer to those of my teacher, Wallace Stegner, a realist writer in the tradition of James and Dreiser, which had stressed an exacting representation of our experience in the everyday world. I dug through these issues in my own work, spending my years at Stanford writing a novel about a rent strike in Chicago. Nonetheless, writing the book had opened me to a previously unrecognized passion for the law. I startled everyone, even myself, by abandoning my academic career in favor of law school, vowing all the same to live on as a writer.

But I still yearned to be a novelist, even as law school had confirmed my attraction to the life of a working lawyer and, especially, to criminal law. There I was astonished to find myself facing the same old questions about how to address an audience. Both involved the reconstruction of experience, usually through many voices, whether they were witnesses or characters.

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But there the paths deviated. In this arena the universal trumped; there were no prizes for being rarefied or ahead of the times. The trial lawyer who lost the audience also inevitably lost the case. Engaging the jury was indispensable, and again and again I received the same advice about how to do it: Tell them a good story. There were plenty of good stories told in the courtroom, vivid accounts of crimes witnessed or conspiracies joined.

The jury hung in primal fascination, waiting to find out what happened next. And so did I. Thus I suddenly saw my answer to the literary conundrum of expressing the unique for a universal audience: Tell them a good story. The practice of criminal law had set me to seething with potential themes: the fading gradations between ordinary fallibility and great evil; the mysterious passions that lead people to break the known rules; the mirage that the truth often becomes in the courtroom. The decision to succumb to plot and to the tenacious emotional grip I felt in contemplating crime led me naturally to the mystery whose power as a storytelling form persisted despite its long-term residence in the low-rent precincts of critical esteem.

Furthermore the supposedly timeworn conventions of genre writing seemed actually to offer an opportunity for innovation. Why not, for example, invert the traditional detective tale by having the investigator accused of the crime? My only goal had been finally to publish a novel. I have, frankly, learned to enjoy all the rewards of best-sellerdom, but none more than the flat-out, juvenile thrill of entering so many lives. I love my readers with an affection that is second only to what I feel for my family and friends, and I would be delighted to please them with every new book. But I am, all the same, desperate not to be captured by that audience.

Capitulating to established expectations means abandoning that obligation to lead and is likely to yield the larded stuff that too often oozes out of the Hollywood sausage grinder. The only true transcendence is achieved by the entire family of writers—of artists—who, together, manage to move us all.