V. S. Naipaul on Diversion and Inspiration

In “The Author’s Note”, a preface of sorts to The Return of Eva Peron with The Killings in Trinidad (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1980), V. S. Naipaul writes,

These pieces…were written between 1972 and 1975. They bridged a creative gap: from the end of 1970 to the end of 1973 no novel offered itself to me. That perhaps explains the intensity of some of the pieces and their obsessional nature….I can claim no further unity for the pieces; though it should be said that, out of these journeys and writings, novels did in the end come to me.

This little passage contains, within it, several interesting observations on the writing process.

First, Naipaul notes that for a period of three years no ideas for a novel ‘came’ to him (or if they did, they were not fecund enough to be sustained for too long.) By phrasing his description of this state as one in which “no novel offered itself to me” Naipaul reiterates the quasi-mystical notion of a written work as presenting itself to its writer as an offering, one now to be taken on and brought forth. Here I am; make of me what you will. The writer appears as a conduit for the passage–into the reader’s world–of a written work. Naipaul’s further remarks make clear that while this initial stage of writing might seem otherworldly, what follows is most decidedly grounded in the concrete–in the very substantial acts of writing itself.

Second, even though no idea for a novel-length project came to fruition, the writer still has his writerly energies within and about him; they seek expression in the only way he knows how. So the writer writes; in this case, essays and reportage. The writer must write; something, anything. If not fiction, then something else. The novelist, thwarted, now seeks release in essays, which now bear the marks of having functioned as receptacles for his charged outpourings. Naipaul thus points us toward the notion of the writer as driven by energies that need discharging. (Failure to do so–in the right way, or at all–might account for some of the misery that writers seem to constantly experience.)

Third, the process of writing, the work of putting words to paper (or screen), now makes possible that which previously was not: the bringing forth of a novel. As the late Roger Ebert once noted, ‘The muse only visits while you work.” Here too, Naipaul confirms for us the wisdom of that observation. If inspiration for a novel is not forthcoming, then perhaps it might be facilitated by the writer’s best trick: writing. The very act of writing is the spur which brings forth the hitherto missing spark.

We may thus extract advice for the writer: You will often find yourself not able to write; inspiration will be felt lacking; at those moments commit to writing something, anything, even if not what you would have originally wanted to write; out of this seeming diversion, you might yet find a way back to the path you had originally wanted to set out on.

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