RESTING ACTORS AND THE HYDRAULIC THEORY OF COMPOSITION
by Janice Law
The British have a charming term for out of work actors: they are said to be “resting.” What a nice thought, and one that is apt for writers as well.
Certainly there are writers who never turn from the oar—what the nineteenth century called “the great galley slaves of literature” like Balzac, Sand, Hugo, and Dickens. They seemed never troubled by writer’s block or existential angst, nor gave excuses to push away from the desk. The modern day has seen some prodigies, too. The genre writers, Asimov, Simenon, Steele, King, and Cartland come immediately to mind, but so does Joyce Carol Oates, whose production is legendary, not to mention various best sellers who have recreated the medieval workshop and so enhanced their productivity.
On the other hand, both then and now, there are the one shot wonders. Sometimes they are known for only one book, although they have written others. Some are like Ralph Ellison, who, despite a long and distinguished career, managed to say everything in one terrific novel and never completed another, although a second has been mined from his papers. Then there are other, even less fortunate souls, who suffer longer or shorter periods of crippling writer’s block.
I can’t speak to that, having escaped the affliction, but I do not always produce a steady stream of work. The reason, in my case and I suspect in others, comes down to what I think of as the hydraulic theory of composition. While writer’s block suggests some physical (or psychological) impediment, the hydraulic theory, besides its pleasantly scientific nomenclature, reflects a more positive attitude.
The mind, though active, is rarely an ever flowing fountain. Ideas need to be replenished, and the mind needs to rest while new ideas and sensations and all the neuron activity that we call inspiration gets refreshed.
I think this is why one often feels an idea before it takes clear shape. It’s as if there is a story out there (or more properly “in there”) but it’s not ready yet. It’s resting, in a word, building up the psychic pressure, gathering its forces and bringing them together. Note I say “it,” rather than “me,” for I am sure I’m not the only writer to find the process of generating ideas almost completely mysterious.
Certainly, it is sometimes possible to point to a particular incident, image, or piece of information that gladdened the heart and summoned the Muse. A visit many years ago to the ruined Roman amphitheater at Trier, Germany, with its piles of rubble above and well preserved, if flooded, substructure, immediately suggested a site for homicide.
But the actual novel only started when I had a first sentence: “On Friday, Harry invited the crazy man for dinner.” Why was that essential? I haven’t a clue, but for many years if I had a crime and a first sentence I was good to go. They were the signal that the fountain was ready to turn on.
The hydraulic theory also explains why if one has many distractions—or two arts—the pressure of inspiration drops. When I am painting a great deal, I do less writing. When I have a story in hand, or even more if I am writing a novel, I get fewer ideas for paintings.
I don’t mean that I have less time or energy; that’s as may be, but I have absolutely fewer ideas, fewer times when I look at something and it coalesces into a picture and says “paint me.” And if the Muse is kindly sending images my way, I find that the writing slows down. Maybe I scribble ideas in my notebook, but I don’t get characters whispering in my ear. I perhaps go back through my earlier notes, but nothing wants to develop: I’m depleting whatever makes for narratives elsewhere, using them up with paint on board.
The mysteriousness of the whole process leads to anxiety. Suppose the fountain stops altogether. Suppose next time there is no picture, no story, no idea. Suppose the Muse in a huff has departed for another collection of little gray cells. What then?
Though there are all manner of folks eager to enhance one’s creativity with everything from weird pills to odd rituals, I suspect that one can do no better than continue to court the Muse. One works, one hopes. One sketches, in paint or in prose. One learns patience. Perhaps the Muse is only resting. Perhaps one day soon, she will smile and turn on her mysterious fountain. Perhaps.