I don’t understand the process of imagination—though I know that I am very much at its mercy. I feel that these ideas are floating around in the air and they pick me to settle upon. The ideas come to me; I don’t produce them at will. They come to me in the course of a sort of controlled daydream, a directed reverie.”
I don’t have a philosophy of life, or a need to organize its progression. My books are not constructed to “say anything.” When I was at college, in every literary discussion there was always such an emphasis on “What does he say? What’s the message?” Even then I felt that very few authors had anything to say. What was important to me was “What does it do?”
I love the idea in the first passage of the “controlled daydream,” the “directed reverie.” This is what writing poetry is like, at least for me. Inspiration—of course. But inspiration is like falling in love. You realize, always with a shock, that you’ve fallen in love, and the immediate question—the answering of which will enrich and/or wreck your life for a period of time—is, “What now?” The answer, in the case of poetic inspiration, is the writing of the poem, which can be as vexed and rewarding as the pursuit of a lover. You leave your wife. You get drunk every night. You show up on a not necessarily welcoming doorstep at 3 a.m. Your plaintive love notes come back stamped “return to sender.” Or you flee with your lover to a Greek island and spend your days there teaching Business Writing to budding corporatists. Or maybe you make a life devoid of easy ironies, paradoxically committed and free, luminous—a continual pleasure. There are analogues for all these answers and more in the process of writing poems.
The second passage is appealing, but I distrust it. Not because Heller is wrong, but because he is speaking only for the writer. He’s right that writers have no business treating their own work as if they were ordinary readers, or worse, as if they were critics. “What does it mean?” and “What does it say?”—what does it matter? On the other hand, really good writing, in prose or poetry, has a lot to say; it is always, in fact, bursting with ideas. But nothing kills good novels—and good poems—faster than the author’s attempt to make the writing about the ideas. Does anyone gaze at Scarlett Johansson or Brad Pitt because they embody this or that idea about beauty? Same thing! I’m just sayin’….