Thursday, December 20, 2007

The dreaded occasion of reading over the work

In the latest issue of the NYRB (subscribers only), Colm Toibin had a rather lovely piece about Tennessee Williams
The entries we have begin when Williams was twenty-five and living with his family, struggling under considerable pressures to find a voice as a poet, short-story writer, and playwright. These pressures might explain the tone of self-obsession, self-pity, and despair. The entries seem to have been written at night and he himself became alert to their morbid self-indulgence, quoting Nietzsche: "Do not let the evening be judge of the day." While he was trying to impress everyone in his creative work, in these pages he wished to impress no one and thus could be brutally honest about his own failings. It is interesting that when he found success and fame the tone did not change much, even when he had many lovers, enough money to travel, and many friends and admirers. He still, when he came to write in his notebooks, felt at times sorry for himself but at other times something more interesting and convincing, a huge unease about being in the world at all, which nothing, no matter how thrilling, could lift or cure.

There is never a moment in his Notebooks when he congratulates himself on mastering the structure of a new play or creating a new and memorable character or on that precise day writing a speech that worked wonders. Only a few times did he write about technical problems. (His observation that "the tragedy of a poet writing drama is that when he writes well—from the dramaturgic technical pt. of view he is often writing badly" stands out in this book.) He did not note down ideas as they came to him, as Henry James did, so we do not see in these pages the growth of his most important plays from a single entry. Instead, Williams noted what he was creating as a burden or a dull fact, including scenes he was rewriting or demands from directors and producers. Often, on rereading work in progress, he noted its badness. Precisely how his creative process operated he kept to himself. Instead, he wrote about who had irritated him or pleased him during the day, or how nervous he felt, how many pills he took or how much alcohol he consumed, or how many lengths of the pool he swam. He noted his fears and dreams.

It is strange how out of all of this mostly inchoate and random writing, a sense of a personal vision emerges that would make its way into the very core of Williams's main characters and scenes. These entries capture an authentic voice, an artist alone and deeply fearful and unusually selfish. Many of his most whining entries were written on the very days when he was producing his most glittering work. His whining was not a game or done for effect; it seems, indeed, a rare example of whining both sincere and heartfelt. Even when he was at his most successful, he could, for example, write: "Today the dreaded occasion of reading over the work and the (almost but never quite) expected fit of revulsion." Tennessee Williams meant business when he whined. And thus somehow he managed to connect his own dark and obsessive complaints about his works and days, his own dread of life, to his characters and their fate. These notebooks, precisely because they were not intention-ally created as raw material for work, now seem to be the rock on which his creations, sparkling and vivid versions of himself, were built.
Cautionary, eh?!?

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