About ten years ago I wrote a novel titled Hyrax and Elephant. It was diligently written over a twelve-week period after I was terribly inspired by a Goethe book (The Sorrows of Young Werther) and a series of interactions with an unstable younger woman. I admit the book pretty much sucks, but I look back on it and remember a wonderful time in my life when I was dedicated to its creation. Every morning I sat in the same place at Butch and Nellie’s, an artsy Sacramento café and typed loudly while drinking gallons of coffee. I remember facing the big front window so I could watch leaves fall as characters invented their histories on my ancient laptop. It was cool, I felt purposeful, and yet I had no idea what I was doing. When I was done I gave a copy of the manuscript to a literary pal of mine, asking for his two cents. He never gave me any feedback which, I suppose, says everything.
The piece is mega-omniscient and uses interesting words that I dredged from a dictionary. Each night I’d I’d thumb through some random pages and make a list with definitions. The next day I’d braid them into sentences that likely lost a lot with their additions. I remember ‘willy-nilly,’ ‘approbative’ and ‘joie de vivre’ being on that list – three of the many rarely-used words I included within its 136 pages. I thought a stronger vocabulary made me look smart, and boy did I badly wanted to look smart. Isn’t that what all writers want to do? Look smarter than they are? Well, that’s how a lot feel, anyhow.
For some reason I still have a hard copy of Hyrax. Honestly, I’m afraid to look at it but also curious to see how I’d read it after learning some things about writing and about myself and life. I think it well-represents a time when I was in desperate need of something – validation maybe, confidence for sure. I enjoyed saying, “I’m writing a novel, you know!” Since I’d nearly always get an, “Ooohh, how impressive!” I’d like to think that I’ve come a long way since then. Sure, a little attention is still a good thing but back then it was a driving force for a feller who thought his fuel tank was external. To say my awareness has since shifted would be an understatement. That I can say with certainty.
I just finished reading an interview with Jorge Luis Borges in the Paris Review. Per usual, the conversation kicks freaking ass. And what stands out in my mind is Borges’ expressed frustration with writers whose work doesn’t reflect a genuine part of them somehow. He admits to finding great joy in some novels only to be let down after having getting acquainted with the author. Seems he felt that part of his fascination with a piece of writing is the prospect of honest provenance. A person who somehow exposed their soul on paper, even if it was merely a shadow (of a shadow) of it. Borges said that some of this favorite writers aren’t good writers at all – but they were good at being true to themselves in their writing. They had opinions, they had feeling, they exposed their vulnerabilities – things like that were more important to Borges than sentence structure, or so it seems.
I’ve learned a lot this semester, and as I wrap it up next week I will continue to meditate on this idea of honest writing. Art is not something we should be trying to do, it’s something we are, something that just happens. They more we try to make effortful art, the higher the chances for it to lose its edge. Art, as a word, implies the creation of something, and yet it’s far more than that. I’m beginning to understand that art is anything that is done honestly and passionately. And this is why I’m off to go read Hyrax and Elephant again – so I can get to know myself just a little bit better. Even if it’s a self I’m not too proud of.
Believe it or not, the Hyrax is the closest living relative of the Elephant. Similar features include toenails, tusks, high brain functions and bone structure. The Manatee is also part of their family tree. Evolution is cool.
See the resemblance?