In the Company of Writers
Patricia Highsmith avoided the company of other writers; she felt there was little chance of hearing a good, usable anecdote. Writers, she said, are generally careful to guard any good material for their own use.
Highsmith, a maverick novelist who wrote suspenseful books that were as richly layered as any of her more literary contemporaries, astutely recognized a conundrum that threatens any serious writer contemplating their own – as opposed to researched – material: to be able to leave the familiar world of self-preoccupation to attain the necessary degree of objectivity to write convincingly. This means, of course, being able to imagine what the world might look like from a point of view very different from one’s own; this, after all, is the defining act of what we call “imagination.”
“Self-preoccupation” may sound snarky and judgmental, but actually it is a necessary state of writerly being. After all, what would drive someone to spend years composing a book of a modest length that for many more prolific, popular writers might take months? Surely contentment, satisfaction, happiness would deter such a single-minded effort that might delay its creator from getting any gratification from seeing it out in the world. Serious writers write, not about how blissful their lives are, but rather out of some kind of pain or as the result of what they believe to be their own (or someone close to them) unjust placement in the world.
To write well one has to achieve a degree of objectivity, particularly if one is writing autobiographically. To write well means sounding the depth of one’s emotions, but then rising from that depth high enough to get an overview. Highsmith well knew that the extraordinary sensitivity that writers need to fuel their work can be easily turned in the wrong direction so that they falsely believe their own state of mind reflects the larger world. And this is why we’ve heard many stories about writers creating great laudable works of literature that, one would imagine, had once granted them tremendous satisfaction, then embarking on a path of self-destruction. There are many names that come to mind: suffice to say that the majority of American born Nobel-prize winners were incurable alcoholics.
Highsmith probably came to feel the way she did as the result of meeting too many other writers whose understandable inner struggling made them less than companionable. She knew that whether they were holding court or keeping to themselves, they were studiously avoiding speaking about subjects and stories about which non-writers would be a lot more easily forthcoming.