I did construct a new theory of creativity. Its truth seemed borne out by the experience of writing Horse Heaven. Rather than planning and working out in advance, as I had done with most of my earlier novels, I willingly entered a zone of randomness. I sat down at the computer every morning, focused on what I had written the day before, and waited for inspiration. If it didn't seem to be precisely what I had expected, I went with it anyway. My pleasure in the process and the product was a revelation. I didn't need to plan! I didn't need to work something out! I could just put myself into the properly receptive state of mind and be given the words, the stories, the adventures! My joke was that my retired racehorse, Mr. T., was dictating from out in the barn; he was my muse—my inspiration, my expert, and my voice from beyond.
A theory of creativity is actually just a metaphor. A pool of ideas, a well of memories, a voice. The word "inspiration" is a metaphor for creativity—a nice one, the ingoing of breath and spirit, breath and spirit both being ubiquitous, available with only the most minimal involuntary exertion, as natural as life itself. Some writers wrestle with their muses, wrest stories from them. Others imagine their brains working, hydraulic pumps or clockworks or computers. A metaphor is a way of capturing a feeling in words, and creating is a feeling. I have sometimes imagined it literally as a feeling of the brain exerting itself as a muscle does. But all metaphors of creativity are both descriptive and prescriptive. A pool of ideas may run dry, a muse may desert, the mechanical brain may cease to work. Mr. T. died. Dickens was exhausted and frightened by his diminishing inventiveness. My own metaphor bothered me. Was I not receptive enough anymore? Worse, was what I was receiving not worth receiving?
Time to face my real fear—that my book wasn't much good. I once heard Michael Chabon say that the idea for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay came to him suddenly and all at once; all he had to do was write it out. That had been my experience with several novels, and I had confidently stated more than a few times that the execution of a good novel was inherent in the idea from the first. But that was when I was certain all my ideas were good. It may come as a surprise to those who don't care for my work that I'd hardly ever doubted the significance of any idea I'd had, and I'd had very few ideas. I'd written twelve finished works. I'd had fourteen ideas. The structure of all of my completed novels was fairly apparent to me from the beginning, and I had written with an increasing energy and sense of direction as I went through the rough draft. My commitment, but also my sense of what I was doing, never really faltered—inventiveness was for elaborating or vivifying the original conception, not for conception itself. The different forms I used supplied what you might call craft interest. I would try a tragedy, or an epic, or a comedy. The rules for each were different, and so the technician inside me would have something to figure out. The inner citizen would take up social or cultural issues. The inner artist would focus upon more elusive elements of beauty, rightness, truthfulness, newness. Each novel was an experiment in a particular form, sometimes a conscious contrast to the form I had tried last. I suppose I would say that the inventiveness and variety of literature itself produced a strong response in me; each novel was my answer to a particular literary proposition, a particular method of telling a story.
I was not immune to criticism, but I saw many negative reviews as reader dissatisfaction with the parameters of a particular form. For example, comic novels often offend as many people as they please because each reader's capacity for tolerating irreverence is different; what seems tame to one reader seems right to another, what seems corrosive to one reader seems hilarious to another. Novels with a large canvas sometimes fail to provide an intense emotional experience; novels with a narrow focus can seem claustrophobic. Many reviewers and readers loved Horse Heaven, but others found it too confusing and were unable to get involved. And then, there were all the happy endings. I love happy endings and consider them a philosophical and aesthetic challenge, but they are disappointing and untrue to some people. Entropy or loss is more satisfying. That seemed to be the lesson of A Thousand Acres. Over the years, countless readers have come up to me and declared how much they love A Thousand Acres. I've always wanted to say, "Oh, you're kidding." I find that novel interesting, moving, and challenging, but I don't find it lovable, or even very relate-to-able. I sometimes suspected that to love it is to reveal something unfortunate about oneself. But that isn't actually true. What many readers are responding to, I think, are focus and intensity. The novel has an unrelenting quality to it that is inherently involving and comes from the form of tragedy itself. Though I loved Horse Heaven, not everyone else did, so I took some of the negative responses to it as permission to write Good Faith, a smaller and more single-minded novel that made use of a story I thought was both interesting and important. I wrote up my proposal, sent it in, got my advance, and began.
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Excerpted from Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel by Jane Smiley Copyright © 2005 by Jane Smiley. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.