Writers on Writing: Susan Sontag

sontagSusan Sontag would have been something of a dream subject for our study. Luckily, her diaries record her fascinating and intimate reflections upon the origins of literary creativity and the writing life. Here, Jennifer Hodgson explores just a few of her insights.

Susan Sontag was one of the leading intellectuals of the twentieth century, but is perhaps better known for her celebrated essays than for her fiction writing, which includes the novels The Benefactor (1963), Death Kit (1967), the best-selling The Volcano Lover (1992) and In America (2000).

Her diaries, however, reveal that Sontag’s abiding literary ambitions eclipsed her myriad achievements in criticism. ‘[B]eing a novelist’ was her ambition ‘even when she was writing her best essays’ notes her son, David Rieff, in his preface to the second volume, published by Penguin under the name As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh (2012).

In Sontag’s “The Art of Fiction” interview with The Paris Review in 1995 she comments that ‘fiction is freedom’ as opposed to the ‘constrained form’ of the essay:

Freedom to tell stories and freedom to be discursive, too. But essayistic discursiveness, in the context of fiction, has an entirely different meaning. It is always voiced.

Perhaps Sontag’s abiding attraction to prose narrative was something to do with the opportunity it offered her to temporarily cast off her well-honed critical voice and adopt the voices of others. ‘Imagination,’ she writes in the diaries, is to do with ‘having many voices in one’s head. The freedom for that.’

As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh is a fascinating document of the swirl and eddy of Sontag’s thought, containing within it the ad hoc aphorisms, aides-memoires and reading notes that were later to coalesce into era-defining essays such as “Notes on Camp” (1964), “On Style” (1965) and “The Pornographic Imagination” (1967). And, as we might expect, her insights about the act of literary creation are vital too.

For Sontag, as for many of the writers who took part in our study, the experience of writing is an elusive one which troubles ordinary conceptions about individual autonomy and agency. Of the writing process she comments:

I’m the vehicle, the medium, the instrument of some force beyond myself.

I experience the writing as given to me – sometimes almost as dictated. I let it come, try not to interfere with it. I respect it, because it’s me and yet more that me. It’s personal and transpersonal, both.

She also reflects upon the quality of this unusual experience. Echoing some of the writers we’ve spoken to, she locates the origins of her creative writing with what she calls a “tone” which, during the writing process, begins to frame other aspects of her experience:

I’m not looking for a plot – I’m looking for a “tone”, a “color”, and the rest will follow… I know I “have” a story when the form (tone) comes, and everything seems relevant to it.

However, whilst almost all of the writers we interviewed reported overwhelmingly positive responses to this aspect of the creative process, Sontag is more ambivalent. The quote below reveals that she was by no means an altogether willing servant of her muse. She insists that that origins of her creative energies lie not with inspiration – as traditional conceptions of creativity would have it – but with what she calls “visitation”. The distinction is an interesting one. Both connote a kind of influence that seems to be received from an external source. But inspiration, of course, tends to describe a divine force that is willingly assimilated, whereas the term Sontag chooses, “visitation”, means something rather different – more officious, less benign. In the quote, she figures herself as a kind of dutiful worker busied at the production line of creativity:

Four days a year perhaps I have “visits” – things come. Visitations rather than inspirations. I live the rest of the year on that – executing the orders & sketches I’ve taken down… I turn myself into a commodity. The typewriter is my assembly-line. But what else could I do?

Although, like many of the writers in our study, Sontag conceives of creativity as having an external origin, this doesn’t make her role as a writer easy. There’s no sense here of writerly endeavour as a kind of effortless channelling. She comments memorably upon the difficulties associated with the business of encasing thoughts in words and writing them down:

Writing is a little door. Some fantasies, like big pieces of furniture, won’t come through.

Elsewhere she notes of a bad day at the writing desk:

Two good days of work on the story, much material, vivid associations, crowds of details. But the writing doesn’t pour. It’s too laborious, too constructed.

As is so often the case with the private writing that we address to ourselves, at times Sontag’s diaries are self-admonishing. They contain several examples of the rules that writers are apt to impose on themselves in the attempt to discipline a pursuit that is difficult and ephemeral in equal measure:

I will get up every morning no later than eight.
(I can break this rule once a week.)
I will have lunch only with Roger [Straus].
(”No, I don’t go out for lunch.” Can break this rule once every two weeks.)
I will write in the Notebook every day.
(Model: Lichtenberg’s Waste Books.)
I will tell people not to call in the morning or not answer the phone.
I will try to confine my reading to the evening.
(I read too much – as an escape from writing.)

Quotations from Susan Sontag, As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh: Diaries 1964-1980, ed. David Rieff (London: Penguin, 2012)

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