I recently read Dinty W. Moore’s The Mindful Writer. Like many books and articles on the writing life, it encourages an open mind and a peaceful coexistence with the world, in order to allow the writer’s mind to flourish. It offers advice on writing from several dozen well-known artists, and follows each with Moore’s reaction. Writing on a quote from Raymond Carver, for example, who suggests writers look to their own lives for material, Moore says, “So how do you discover the significant moments in your own everyday life? You sit. You listen.” It’s a sentiment that’s echoed throughout the book, and the literary universe.
Last year, I read an old Paris Review interview with the writer William H. Gass, a noted and respected American author. In that session he famously said, “I write because I hate. A lot. Hard. And if someone asks me the inevitable next dumb question, ‘Why do you write the way you do?’ I must answer that I wish to make my hatred acceptable because my hatred is much of me, if not the best part. Writing is a way of making the writer acceptable to the world—every cheap, dumb, nasty thought, every despicable desire, every noble sentiment, every expensive taste. There isn’t very much satisfaction in getting the world to accept and praise you for things that the world is prepared to praise. The world is prepared to praise only shit. One wants to make sure that the complete self, with all its qualities, is not just accepted but approved…not just approved—whoopeed.”
As writers we know there is rarely a single, unarguable truth; the world we describe in our work is filled with paradox. But how to reconcile such distanced poles? Is one simply wrong and the other right? Or is there a way in which we can embrace both, and use them to better our work and ourselves?
I’ll admit up front that Gass is one of my favorite writers. His short story “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” is a testament to American despair, as emblematic of our frustrations now as when it was first published in 1968. It is a story fired by existential hate—at the entirety and absurdity of the world—and is peppered with stunning vulgarities such as when he invokes a B-52 like ability to obliterate all that he despises: “I want to rise so high that when I shit I won’t miss anybody.”
And yet the simple truths of Moore’s Buddhist philosophy, drawn in part from the words of well-known writers and artists, also resonate, especially with writers who realize that they must live in the world, but also apart from it if they are to write effectively.
Here, I think, is where we can build the bridge.
Hate, for Gass, is what he cannot stand about the world. His hate, please note, is not mere angst. It’s not a vague feeling of unease or confusion that mutes much of fiction today. It’s also not hate in the traditional sense—it’s not directed against any superficial quality of a person, but against those values that implore us to believe that superficial qualities matter. It’s about the injustices he sees, coupled with a passionate desire not just to set them right, but to annihilate them. Is it wrong to approach writing this way? Can a writer understand, show compassion, and still hate?
This is where the quotations and advice in Moore’s book and others like it help balance the unabashed hate, encourage the writer to step back from an obsession with the emotion itself, and help her channel it into something more useful and artistic. It’s a melding, an awareness, a way of maintaining one’s passion without succumbing to it that invites the reader to be involved as well, to consider the wrongs addressed and decide whether to confront them in life. When done well, it helps writers create the stories that one remembers far longer than most.
When you write, write your passion, and write your love, yes, but don’t deny your hate. Don’t drown it in a sea of tolerance, but acknowledge it. Temper it with knowledge and use it as a baseline from which you can explore. Learn what you hate and why. And then write your hate alongside your love. You can love the world while still refusing to accept it as it wants to be accepted. Have the courage to call it out for its faults and you might just love it more.
BTW, we have a story like that in our next issue called “Moxie,” by Alex Poppe. It encompasses a lot of hate. We are more than proud to have it in our pages. (The issue will be out August 1.)