Colette on Writing, the Blissful Obsessive-Compulsiveness of Creative Work, and Withstanding Naysayers
By Maria Popova
“In rare moments of deep play, we can lay aside our sense of self, shed time’s continuum, ignore pain, and sit quietly in the absolute present,” Diane Ackerman wrote in her magnificent inquiry into the human impulse for deep play. This transcendent state, closely related to what psychologists call flow and yet not entirely the same, is fondly familiar to all who endeavor in the creative life and have devoted themselves to the type of work that calls to mind psychotherapist Janna Malamud Smith’s poetic term, “an absorbing errand.”
In fact, much of what we celebrate as genius has a certain obsessive-compulsive quality, nowhere more discernible than in the lives of writers, who possess the rare gift of being able to articulate these forces of creative compulsion with electrifying clarity.
That’s what the great French writer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (January 28, 1873–August 3, 1954), better known as the commanding Colette, does in the posthumously published, out-of-print treasure Earthly Paradise: An Autobiography of Colette Drawn from Her Lifetime Writings (public library).
In her early thirties, shortly after separating from her first husband and a good decade before her literary career took off, Colette felt like “a woman of letters who has turned out badly.” Dejected, she denied herself “the pleasure, the luxury of writing.” And yet what she stifled outwardly remained fully ablaze inside.
She captures that inner fire in a passage both beautiful and bittersweet, for it speaks not only to the eternal psychological machinery of composition but to the long-endangered, if not almost entirely extinct, creaturely joy of writing by hand:
To write, to be able to write, what does it mean? It means spending long hours dreaming before a white page, scribbling unconsciously, letting your pen play around a blot of ink and nibble at a half-formed word, scratching it, making it bristle with darts, and adorning it with antennae and paws until it loses all resemblance to a legible word and turns into a fantastic insect or a fluttering creature half butterfly, half fairy.
To write is to sit and stare, hypnotized, at the reflection of the window in the silver inkstand, to feel the divine fever mounting to one’s cheeks and forehead while the hand that writes grows blissfully numb upon the paper. It also means idle hours curled up in the hollow of the divan, and then the orgy of inspiration from which one emerges stupefied and aching all over, but already recompensed and laden with treasures that one unloads slowly on to the virgin page in the little round pool of light under the lamp.
To write is to pour one’s innermost self passionately upon the tempting paper, at such frantic speed that sometimes one’s hand struggles and rebels, overdriven by the impatient god who guides it — and to find, next day, in place of the golden bough that boomed miraculously in that dazzling hour, a withered bramble and a stunted flower.
Using “idleness” in the Kierkegaardian sense, Colette adds:
To write is the joy and the torment of the idle.
Over the decade that followed, Colette surrendered to that irrepressible impulse. By the end of the 1920s, she was regularly celebrated as France’s greatest living female writer. A queer woman amid the conservative and bigoted culture of the early twentieth century, she tirelessly championed women’s sexual liberation through her art. At the age of 75, she was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. (She lost to T.S. Eliot. By that point, only five women had received the prestigious accolade since its inception half a century earlier.)
In the final years of her life, looking back from the fortunate platform of a great longevity and a thriving literary career, Colette addresses one of the most perennial struggles that bedevil the creative life — the question of how to withstand naysayers:
I grow less and less afraid of the presence of skeptics and of their opinions. Little by little, I am escaping from their grasp, on the understanding that they provide me with food for my ohs! and ahs!, which don’t make a great noise but come from a long way down, and on condition also that they furnish me with my daily subject of amazement. A lack of money, if it be relative, and a lack of comfort can be endured if one is sustained by pride. But not the need to be astounded. Astound me, try your hardest. These last flashes of astonishment are what I cannot do without.
With an admiring eye to her compatriot George Sand — a writer whose formidable talent inspired Dostoyevsky to write a most effusive eulogy upon learning of her death — Colette marvels:
It has taken me a great deal of time to scratch out forty or so books. So many hours that could have been used for travel, for idle strolls, for reading, even for indulging a feminine and healthy coquetry. How the devil did George Sand manage? Robust laborer of letters that she was, she was able to finish off one novel and begin another within the hour. She never lost either a lover or a puff of her hookah by it… and I am completely staggered when I think of it. Pell-mell, and with ferocious energy she piled up her work, her passing griefs, her limited felicities.
And yet Colette herself was no idler — even through her final years, she remained animated by the same creative restlessness, the same uncontainable compulsion to write, that filled her youth. Shortly before her death at the age of eighty-one, she writes:
My goal has not been reached; but I am practicing. I don’t yet know when I shall succeed in learning not to write; the obsession, the obligation are half a century old. My right little finger is slightly bent; that is because the weight of my hand always rested on it as I wrote, like a kangaroo leaning back on its tail. There is a tired spirit deep inside of me that still continues its gourmet’s quest for a better word, and then for a better one still.
Complement this particular portion of the thoroughly inspired and inspiring Earthly Paradise with this excellent advice on how to handle criticism from some of the greatest writers of the past century and this growing library of great writers’ advice on the craft, including wisdom from Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Susan Sontag, W.H. Auden, James Baldwin, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather, and other beloved authors.
Published August 15, 2016