The Ancestral Elephant
The dress code for bookshops, and other ways of annoying Brian Sewell

The maker's mind

Is it just the human condition, or is it the particular fate of novelists to live with contradictions? In Being a snow leopard I explored the creative potential in having a foot in each camp, but now I'm talking about things that actually preclude each other. For example, in our writing we explore human interactions in all their multiplicity and complexity, but almost all of us need to be alone to do that work. We read and research and plan, but must be prepared to abandon it all if the story or the characters - those strange, seemingly pre-existing entities - seem to demand it. We write books that are carefully, so carefully, constructed to work all of a piece, but we make them too long to be read all of a piece, in one sitting. We may devote our working life and our hearts and minds to a novel for months and years, knowing that perhaps no publisher will buy it. And then we spent years promoting, selling and talking about a novel that is, in a way, gone. Not dead, but past. The real, burning fire in our minds by then is about something else entirely...

Why? I've said before that some of what drives most writers is neither balanced nor healthy, and I claim no greater sanity than any other of us. But I don't think creativity is as simple as a Freudian desire to dishcharge repressions and reach the drowsy dullness of a satiated infant. Nor, though this is closer to what's going on, is it summed up in the Jungian idea that everything in the world is a one-off manifestation of whatever inner force it is that makes everything grow and change, and writers are just tapping into that. A dozen more of the great explanations for humanity's humanness probably have something to say to us, but I doubt any of them will really explain what's happening when we write.

Maybe it's a mystery. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to get nearer to the heart of it. Indeed, the book I most want to get my hands on at the moment is by what Americans call a mystery writer: one of the greats of detective fiction, Dorothy L. Sayers. Among much else, including the first radio play of the life of Christ in the vernacular, she wrote a book called The Mind of the Maker, about how it is that in creation humans come closest to God. I don't subscribe to her High Anglican views - I only sometimes subscribe to religious views of any kind - and I don't want that book because she's up there as a philosopher with Schopenhauer and Nietzsche: she isn't. But as a really excellent creative writer, with a tough intellectual training (and if you don't believe me on either front, read Gaudy Night) she's better placed than most of us to work out why we do what we do.

And it's not just for believers in God. In the end the place that our words and our characters and our stories come from is a mystery, God-given or neuron-driven. Even if you know that the trigger was Great-Aunt Mary, or the source was that strange thing that happened on the way to the airport, why that story came out how it did, when it did, and speaks to other humans, no one will ever, quite, understand.

Christmas is upon us, and whatever I do or don't believe this year I find it hard not to let the music and the words turn my thoughts to things more enduring, though less easy to pin down, than publishing contracts and PhD regulations. I shan't have much Internet access for the next few days, so things may be a bit quiet here, and comments may not get posted for a while. By way of wishing you all a Happy Christmas, this summary of Sayers' idea, from the Amazon review of The Mind of the Maker, seems to me to sum it all up:

The artist stands for the true worker... who, while requiring payment for his work, as an artist "retains so much of the image of God that he [like God] is in love with his creation for its own sake".'