Garret Keizer is the author of eight books, the most recent of which is Getting Schooled (Metropolitan, 2014). A contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine, he has also written for Agni, Lapham’s Quarterly, New York Times, and Virginia Quarterly Review. An excerpt from his essay “Hokusai’s Octopus” can be found here. The full story appears in the May/June 2015 issue of the Kenyon Review.
What was your original impetus for writing “Hokusai’s Octopus: A Romp at the Edge of the Deep”? Did you begin with the insight about the painting described at the start of the essay? With the discovery of a concrete linkage between disparate texts? With the larger impulse to write about the sea?
I have always felt a powerful attraction to the sea even though I live in a state with no coastline and am a landlubber to the marrow of my bones. I’d as soon have my teeth drilled as go on a cruise. I’m of one mind with Dr. Johnson when he says that being on a ship is like being in a jail with the possibility of being drowned. But sitting by the shore and watching the waves break on the rocks—I can do that happily for hours at a time.
Two long-time supporters of my work suggested that I attempt an essay on my fascination with the sea. I can’t say that Hokusai’s painting was my inspiration or that my essay grew out of a meditation on that image. It was among the images that came to mind when I began to “assay” my subject, and I thought it might be a good image with which to start. At the least, I was pretty sure I’d have my reader’s full attention.
How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?
Well, I hope my writing has changed by getting better. If it has, then it has also gotten clearer and more graceful, though not necessarily more neatly resolved. I used to work more deliberately at resolving contradictions in my work. Now I tend to see contradictions as evidence that I’ve gotten close to saying something true. When we’re honest, we’re conflicted.
No doubt my writing has changed, and possibly improved, from what it was when I first started simply because I’ve lived longer. I’ve met more people, suffered more afflictions, enjoyed more of the world. There are things you know at sixty that you couldn’t have known, experientially at least, at twenty-five. That’s not to say there aren’t twenty-five-year-old writers with more insight than I’ll possess even if I live to 100. But you have to live for half a century at least before you can give that kind of precocity its proper acknowledgment and respect.
In terms of process, I allow myself more time to write freely than I used to. I’m not as obsessed with finding my structure before I’ve found all of my material. Since I did not always make my living by writing, another change in my process has to do with constancy. There are always going to be good writing days and bad writing days, but if a working writer hopes to have regular eating days, then just about every day has to be a writing day.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
This is a difficult question for me in that virtually no aspect of my life is non-writing-related. I might go so far as to argue that the more “non-writing related” an experience might seem, the more likely it is to inform my writing. In other words, the farther the experience is from the superficialities of my identity as “a writer” and my business as a self-supporting writer, the more central it is to the passions that drive my writing forward. In the strictest sense, my forty-year marriage is “non-writing related,” yet the best of what I’ve written has been influenced, directly or indirectly but always profoundly, by my wife’s presence in my life.
Taking your question on its own terms, I’d say that outdoor physical work seems to be a powerful influence on the way I write. Having my hands on an axe tends to generate more ideas than having my fingers poised above a keyboard. In terms of subject matter, living in a region of entrenched poverty has been a powerful influence as well. I can’t travel far from my doorstep without being reminded that a number of my neighbors have a much harder time making ends meet than I do. I can’t easily be lulled into believing that American plutocracy is the best of all possible worlds.
What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given?
At the risk of being ostentatiously contrarian, I’ll say that the worst piece of writing advice I’ve ever received or given is “show, don’t tell.” As if there’s a sharp distinction between showing and telling, as if the image always trumps the aphorism, as if the poems of Hilda Doolittle are finer achievements than the hymns of Hildegard of Bingen. (They’re both lovely, of course.) “Say it, no ideas but in things” is an idea more than the depiction of a thing, a distinction it shares with some of the finest lines William Carlos Williams ever wrote. Dr. Johnson again: “Clear your mind of cant,” and “show, don’t tell” is cant.
It’s not that I don’t see the virtues of the maxim, especially in a genre like fiction. At the same time, one can fault passages in Thomas Hardy and Philip Roth, two of my favorite novelists, for telling what might more felicitously have been shown. But when a writer is as engaged as they are with the madding crowd or the human stain, he or she is beyond that kind of fastidiousness. If I’m in a burning building, I don’t want you to show me the fire; I want you tell me how to get to the fire escape. And you can show it to me too, if there’s time, and help me down the steps. Do everything in your power to get me out alive.
As for the best advice I’ve ever received, I’d have to say it was shown to me rather than told: read often, read widely, and reflect on what you read. The conversations of the most accomplished writers I’ve known are full of enthusiasm for the books they’ve read or are reading. The books they’re pushing you to read are almost never their own. Anyone who talks more about what they’re writing than what they’re reading is probably not a very good writer. And they’re probably no more than a breath away from offering to show you the proof.
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
OK, here’s a writing maxim I can live with: “Do, don’t tell.”