Magic Hours: Tom Bissell on the Secrets of Creators and Creation
By Maria Popova
Creativity is a peculiar beast. Its nebulous nature and elusive allure don’t stop us from going after it with stubborn precision, tracing its history, dissecting its neuroscience, flowcharting our way to it and itemizing it into a 5-point plan, all in the hope that, if only we understood its inner workings enough and engineered the right conditions, it would bestow its gifts upon us.
But, as any creator would attest, there are factors at play well outside our control.
From McSweeney’s and Tom Bissell, one of the finest essayists writing today, comes Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation — a collection of fourteen essays originally published in arbiters of literary culture such as The New Yorker, Believer, and Harper’s Magazine, spanning a decade of Bissell’s best writing and dissecting the creative process through such diverse subjects as Werner Herzog’s films, video game voiceovers, Iraq war documentaries, sitcoms, and David Foster Wallace.
In the first essay, entitled “Unflowered Aloes” and originally published in the Boston Review in 2000, a 25-year-old Bissell takes apart the myth that literature is destiny and demonstrates, through the works of Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, and William Faulkner that luck — or what the Jewish call Schlimazeltov — might be the most valuable bargaining chip in whether a creative work survives and goes on to become a cultural icon.
Take Melville’s Moby-Dick, for instance. The first true American novel was a literary flop when it was first published in 1851, sliding out of print some 36 years with a scant total of 3,180 copies sold and sending Melville into a depression from which he never quite recovered. When Oxford University Press attempted to resuscitate the novel in 1907, they asked Joseph Conrad to write the introduction, but he dismissed it as “a rather strained rhapsody with whaling for its subject and not a single sincere line in the 3 volumes of it.” Then, one day in 1916, the influential critic Carl Van Doren stumbled upon a dusty copy of Moby-Dick in a used bookstore and was inspired to write an essay about it, calling Melville’s work “one of the greatest sea romances in the whole literature of the world.” D. H. Lawrence happened to read the essay and, through a few more clicks of the Rube Goldberg serendipity machine at play, it made its way, extolled, into E. M. Foster’s Aspects of the Novel in 1927. Thus, Bissell reminds us, “Melville’s greatest work, as we today know it, was born 76 years after its initial publication.”
Emily Dickinson and William Faulkner suffered a similar fate, their works mere seashells washed ashore the island of literary recognition by the capricious currents of the vast and all-engulfing ocean of chance. Bissell concludes the essay, which is titled after a plant that may live as long as 100 years and might never flower at all, with an observation that could be very glib or very optimistic, depending on how you look at it:
What faith, then, can the poet or novelist place in his or her work’s survival? Is literary destiny simply yet another god that failed? Although I know what I now believe, I hope I am wrong. Nevertheless, I cannot help but imagine that literature is an airplane, and we are passengers on it. One might assume that behind the flimsy accordion door sit pilots of skill and accomplishment. But the cockpit is empty. It was always been empty. The controls are abandoned. They have always been abandoned. One needs only to touch them to know how mutable our course.
But in this discomfiting awareness lies perhaps the self-selective secret of literature’s creators. In another essay, “Grief and the Outsider” (2003), Bissell observes:
Literature is always written by outsiders… by a person inclined not towards connecting with those around him or her but retreating into a world of nerdily private dream… To write is to fail, more or less, constantly.
This, then, begs the question — a question Bissell asks, and answers, in “Writing about Writing about Writing” (Believer, 2004):
Can writing be taught?… Of course writing can be taught… All human activity is taught. The only thing any human being is born to do is survive, and even in this we all need several years of initial guidance.
Harder to judge is the possibility of teaching a beginning writer how to be receptive to the very real emotional demands of creating literature. To write serious work is to reflexively grasp abstruse matters such as moral gravity, spiritual generosity, and the ability to know when one is boring the reader senseless, all of which are founded upon a distinct type of aptitude that has little apparent relation to more measurable forms of intelligence. Plenty of incredibly smart people cannot write to save their lives. Obviously, writerly intelligence is closely moored to the mature notion of intellect (unlike math or music, the adolescent prodigy is virtually unknown to literature) because writing is based on a gradual development of psychological perception, which takes time and experience. Writing can be taught, then, yes—but only to those who are teachable.
The essay goes on to discuss — to critique, to revere, to ponder, but mostly to critique — such classic writings about writing as Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Stephen King’s On Writing, and even Snoopy’s Guide to the Writing Life, distilling them into astute observation of what we intuitively know to be true but rarely dare let ourselves believe:
Writers who fail are not pathetic; they are people who have attempted to do something incredibly difficult and found they cannot. Human longing exists in every person, along every frequency of accomplishment. It is the delusions endemic to bad writers and bad writing that need to be destroyed. Here are a few: Writing well will get you girls, or boys, or both. Writing well will make you happy. Fame and wealth are good writing’s expected rewards. Writing for a living is somehow nobler than what most people do. What needs to be reinforced is the idea that good writing — solid, honest, entertaining, beautiful good writing — is simultaneously the reward, the challenge, and the goal.
The most heartening insight in Magic Hours, however, comes at the very beginning. As if to immunize the reader with an antidote to some of the grimmer observations that follow, Bissell offers in the author’s note preceding the essays:
To create anything — whether a short story or a magazine profile or a film or a sitcom — is to believe, if only momentarily, you are capable of magic. These essays are about that magic — which is sometimes perilous, sometimes infectious, sometimes fragile, sometimes failed, sometimes infuriating, sometimes triumphant, and sometimes tragic. I went up there. I wrote. I tried to see.
In creation — as in love — it seems timing is if not everything, then at least very much indeed. Yet without integrity and dedication even the most impeccable of timing would be devoid of magic.
Published April 13, 2012